English-Language Learners

Want to Support English-Learners? Prioritize SEL, New Study Finds

By Ileana Najarro — July 21, 2022 4 min read
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When students test out of an English-learner program, or are reclassified as proficient in English, they report a higher sense of self and a greater belief in their ability to complete challenging academic tasks, a new study finds.

Past research has examined how exiting students out of English-learner programs—and removing the label of English-learner—impacts students’ academic outcomes. Monica Lee, a senior research associate at the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, and her co-author James Soland of the University of Virginia, wanted to look at what reclassification means for social-emotional learning, or SEL, outcomes.

Their study suggests that SEL strategies for English-learners should be prioritized, not sidelined, in the discussion of how to support this growing population.

It’s an especially relevant insight as more evidence emerges of how virtual learning impacted the services these students received at the start of the pandemic.

“I know it’s tempting to focus with the English-learner population on what they’re missing. They need to catch up and become proficient in this language,” Lee said. “But I do think the social-emotional aspect of this is hugely important.”

How English-learner programs overall impact students’ sense of self

English-learner programs typically consist of extra support for students mastering the English language alongside academic subjects such as math and reading. Students in these programs accounted for 10 percent of public school enrollment or 5 million students in 2019, according to the latest federal data. Policies vary across states and within school districts for determining how students exit out of the extra services.

Lee’s study analyzed survey results from English-learner students in three large school districts in California in 2014-15. The surveys asked students about their SEL skills in growth mindset, academic self-efficacy, self-management, and social awareness. The study compared results for students who were still in English-learner programs with those who tested out the prior school year. In all, the study examined results from about 10,600 students.

The researchers found that multilingual students who tested out of the English-learner programs rated themselves significantly higher in academic self-efficacy upon reclassification than did students who remained in the programs. These reclassified students reported about eight percentage points higher on that measure than the average of all the multilingual students observed. There weren’t notable differences in the other measures.

While the study couldn’t explain how or why those students who were reclassified reported these higher levels, Lee suggests three possible reasons based on past research:

  • The label of English-learner might change the way students see themselves. It’s a label associated with something they cannot do, so removing it could have an impact.
  • English-learner programs often offer less-rigorous academic coursework. So when a student tests out of the program and gains access to more-challenging course work, it can impact their sense of self.
  • Because of the label, peers and teachers might have lower expectations of students in English-learner programs. Testing out can expose students to higher expectations, and in turn a higher sense of self.

The way an English-learner program is run can even impact students’ sense of self. For instance, some programs separate or pull out these students from mainstream classes, further stigmatizing them. But research shows that students need to be immersed in English and provided scaffolding and support at their level. Teachers, must continually monitor how they are improving and make adjustments as needed, said Megan Waugh, director of the department of English-language development for the Washoe County school district in Nevada.

The study also points to the need to address students’ social-emotional needs well before they test out of the English-learner label, Lee said.

What integrating SEL within English-learner programs looks like

Waugh and her colleague Trish Shaffer have been working on that goal for years.

For SEL strategies to work for English-learners and others, they need to be continually embedded within the school day. That means putting them at the forefront of the planning process for content and curriculum,Waugh said.

But Washoe County schools, where 14 percent of students are in English-learner programs, take it a step further. They make sure the SEL strategies educators use in their day-to-day work is also culturally responsive and relevant to the schools’ racially and ethnically diverse student body, said Shaffer, a multi-tiered system of supports and SEL coordinator for the district.

This helps address cultural nuances. While SEL strategies for English-learners don’t fundamentally differ from those for other students, some concepts such as self-efficacy or self-awareness don’t translate neatly to other cultures, Shaffer said.

For instance, many of the district’s English-learners are Latino, and Latino culture places a greater emphasis on collectivism over individualism. So practicing self-efficacy may look more like practicing collective efficacy, such as using “we” statements rather than “I” statements.

These kinds of investments pay off in increased student engagement and student ownership of their learning, Shaffer added.

For those educators looking to dive into SEL strategies that are culturally responsive, Shaffer recommends getting stakeholder buy-in; establishing why they’re doing this work; finding evidence-based strategies that can be integrated throughout the academic day; and modeling the strategies for educators.

Lee, the researcher, was an English-learner herself back in the day, so she understands the link between social-emotional skills and academic outcomes.

“Students should flourish in ways beyond what is measurable by test scores,” Lee said.


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