Learning First Alliance

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Supporting Language Acquisition in English Learners: An Interview with Dr. Mandy Stewart

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

We're over a decade into the 21st-century and schools across the country are working tirelessly to ensure students are prepared for whatever lies ahead. Rapid changes are afoot in demographic shifts and in the continuing development of new technology and social media platforms. These realities are presenting schools with new challenges and opportunities - sometimes in concert.

Dr. Mary Amanda "Mandy" Stewart has taught and researched English learners, and her recent research highlights how social media use and other out-of-school literacies are boosting language acquisition in this population. The winner of this year's PDK International Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award for her work on Latino/a immigrant students and literacy, her findings lead to several questions.

How can schools support the integration of social media in classrooms as an instructional support? How can homework assignments utilize social media? How can principals and districts support wider use of such platforms and other out-of-school literacies to support their English Language Learning population? 

We recently had an opportunity to talk with Dr. Stewart about her research and its implications. In an email interview, she provided advice and insights from her perspective as a researcher and practitioner, emphasizing the importance of expanding our definition of 21st-century learning to include bilingualism and biliteracy.

Public School Insights (PSI): Would you mind starting off with a little background on your research and the study? What led you to research this topic, and what questions were you interested in answering?

Stewart: I began my career teaching newcomer adolescents at the International Newcomer Academy, a public school for new immigrants in middle and high school in Fort Worth, Texas.  All of my 6th graders were in their first year in the U.S.  I saw the great resources my students from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East brought with them into the class, but also how the effects of NCLB in Texas pushed the students' linguistic and cultural resources out of the academic curriculum.  I feared that their linguistic and cultural resources would be ignored, devalued, and underutilized as they went to their home schools. 

During my doctoral studies, I became interested of the idea of "whose literacy counts?"  Through a pilot study with a 2nd-generation high school student of Mexican origin and reading about other studies of immigrant youth, it became apparent that immigrant students do possess valuable and sophisticated literacies they use out-of-school.  However, most schools do not recognize these resources.   Based on this body of research and my own experiences with immigrant youth, I developed the belief that they possess many skills and resources that could be leveraged for academic learning if we chose to do so.  Conversely, if we are unaware of their literacies, cultural resources, and out-of-school lives, then our teaching will not be effective. 

The questions I wanted to answer were:

  1. What are the forms and purposes of the out-of-school literacies of four Latina/o immigrant adolescents?
  2. How do these practices demonstrate these adolescents' linguistic, cultural, and social resources?

PSI: What are some factors associated with public schools – their structure or culture, for example - that tend to hinder ESL students?

Stewart: There is a wealth of research on second language acquisition that gives us strong guiding principles on how to best teach English learners (Els) in our schools. 

  1. Els need to continue to develop their first language. The strongest predictor of academic success in English is the number of years of formal education in the first language.1 
  2. Els need to experience learning that views their culture as a resource.2
  3. Els need to have authentic opportunities to use English that is appropriate to their level of English acquisition.3
  4. Els need to receive instruction that purposefully develops their academic language and content knowledge at the same time (sheltered instruction).  It takes a minimum of 5 years to develop academic language in a second language so every teacher needs to be trained to deliver instruction that will accomplish these two items.4 
  5. Els need culturally relevant curriculum and teaching that affirms their identities.5 
  6. Els need ample time in-school to engage in self-selected reading in order to develop language.6

However, schools sometimes rely on a one-size-fits-all model of curriculum and instruction.  What is actually going on in most U.S. classrooms of Els differs strikingly from the research-based best practices listed above.  Thick test preparation packets created for native English-speakers do not help ESL students learn English, develop literacy skills, or grow in their content knowledge.  In fact, I do not believe this is effective learning for any student, it's just particularly harmful to English learners.  Schools are too often concerned about passing tests rather than giving students authentic learning opportunities.  I suggest reading English Learners Left Behind: Standardized Testing as Language Policy (2008) by Kate Menken.  We must align our curriculum and instruction of English learners with best practices from research - not with standardized tests that usually employ a low-level of cognitively demanding tasks. 

Most schools, especially high schools, just value one language.  Students who speak, read, and write a language other than English need to have the opportunity to further develop that language alongside English.  All states should adopt the Seal of Biliteracy for the diplomas of bilingual students just as California and New York have. 

PSI: How did you conduct your research and what were some key findings from the study?

Stewart: After getting to know the four students in my study by volunteering in their ESL class, they agreed to share their stories of life and literacy with me.  I observed them at school and at work over one semester, interviewed them multiple times, and became their "friend" on Facebook.   

The students - from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico – demonstrate out-of-school literacies mainly on Facebook, at work, and through their entertainment.  Through these spaces they demonstrate that they are emerging as multilingual, multiliterate, transnationals who make meaning in multimodal ways.  They are reading, writing, and speaking in both formal and informal registers of English and Spanish.  They cross virtual borders daily as they receive news and media from other countries.  They communicate on Facebook through text, music, and visuals in different languages.

The literacies in these spaces have unique and purposeful roles for the individuals and don't cross over into their in-school learning or assignments. In-school, the tests they must pass to graduate are monolingual, monoliterate, monocultural, and monomodal.  Unfortunately so are most of their assignments, curriculum, and instruction.  We should question what it means to be literate and educated in the 21st century.  These students could be a great national resource if we would value the skills they are developing and leverage these skills for academic learning. 

PSI: In thinking about your work as a classroom practitioner, was there a finding from the study that was particularly striking for you?

Stewart: The students are learning more English outside of school than in their full day of English-only classes.  Test preparation and traditional curriculum are not facilitating their English acquisition.  Nor are the mainstream classes they attend with no language support such as math, history, science, and health.  However, they are communicating in English at work and on Facebook for authentic purposes, and in the process they are further developing their English skills.  At school, though, they are scared to be wrong so they speak very little, if at all, in English.  They copy words from a textbook to answer questions because their own words would be "wrong." 

One 17-year-old student from Mexico even told me she does not learn very much English at school.  She just prepares for exams that are above her language level.  I asked her about learning English in her classes and this is what she said:  "El inglés, no. No más lo que tienes que hacer [en el examen.]" [English, no.  Just what you have to do (on the exam.)] Ironically, this student wanted to learn English so badly.  She told me she only wanted to post in English on Facebook and asked other people to post English messages to her as well.  She said she needed to learn English to be someone in the U.S. 

PSI: Are there any common misconceptions or stereotypes as relates to ESL youth that you encountered in your work, and what effects have they had?

Stewart: The adolescents I studied have sacrificed more than people realize to come to the U.S. and begin their lives here.  They desperately want to learn English, graduate from high school, go to college, and become professionals who give back to their communities.  They are working afterschool jobs up to 40 hours a week to support themselves and, in some cases, their families back home.  They are willing to do whatever it takes to become productive citizens of the U.S. They also really want to become friends with English-speaking students and get involved in their schools, but the school needs to facilitate those relationships.  Although they are "at-risk" at school and struggle with all of their assignments, they are rock stars in their afterschool jobs where their emerging bilingual skills are valued and used.

PSI: There is sometimes a tendency to dismiss the power of social media in a formal learning context. However, you found that ESL students essentially utilized these platforms as practice venues to develop their English language skills. What are the implications for classroom practice? And are there other programs or possibilities to create additional informal learning environments for ESL students?  

There are a growing number of studies that show that writing on the Internet is a low-anxiety, and therefore productive, place to practice a second language.7,8  Social networking is very powerful, and schools are remiss to not use it for educational purposes.  Students are already using it anyway!  In fact, it is the most economical way for immigrant students to stay connected to their home countries.  The students in this study would post messages to friends in Central America using their cell phones during class.  The world is at their fingertips - literally.  They receive news from other countries and develop relationships with others across multiple borders.  Schools could use this for academic learning.  We cannot ignore the learning potential that exists through social networks to develop multicultural and international perspectives and skills for all students.

If some social networking sites are blocked at your school, you could try Edmodo or any other platform where students can post and respond to other posts.

PSI: You also found that when ESL students have jobs to help support families back home, the work environment offers an opportunity to practice speaking English in an authentic way, perhaps even more so than in school. In what ways might assignments and academics be able to more closely mimic such opportunities?

Stewart: Ironically, the four students in my study rarely interacted with the 2,000 English-speakers around them who were in foreign language classes.  Most of the English-speaking students in high schools want or need to learn another language.  The ESL students need to improve their English skills.  They are each other's best teachers and we need to provide an environment that fosters those intercultural relationships.  Schools need to provide a space where all languages have equal power and students can work together to complete a service learning task, interview each other, or work on a project together using both languages.  Again, I think putting a Seal of Biliteracy on qualified students' diplomas shows all students the value of developing multiple languages. 

PSI: Classroom teachers face a multitude of competing demands on their limited time. How would you recommend they utilize your findings in their classrooms to engage ESL students in active learning? What types of professional development and supports do you think would be needed to help teachers integrate these strategies into their teaching practices?


  1. Students need to have access to literature that is culturally relevant, age appropriate, and accessible to them at their current level of English acquisition.  There is no point in placing The Crucible or other traditional literature in the hands of a student at the Beginning or Intermediate levels of English acquisition, especially without the proper language support.  I recently presented with colleagues at the national Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages convention on strategies and literature for adolescent Els at the Beginning, Intermediate, and Advanced levels of English acquisition.  There is a wealth of literature that would be appropriate for these students with the appropriate strategies in place.  Click here to see some of the literature recommended.
  2. Use online writing for ESL students to develop relationships and practice their English with other students in the school.  This could be part of a language and cultural exchange where the English-speaking student can also practice the first language of the ESL student.
  3. Allow students to develop their literacy skills by researching topics that are of interest to them.  These students were very interested in Latin American music, the college and university system in the U.S., and immigration. If they are truly interested in the topic, they will probably learn more language.
  4. It is very important that you learn from what other innovative educators are already doing.  Join a professional organization such as TESOL or the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) to learn some specific strategies other teachers are using with their English learners.
  5. Most importantly, get to know your students as human beings and not test scores!  Show them that you value them and recognize their multiple literacies in your classroom.  Honor their bilingualism and cultural resources.

PSI: What should principals and district-level administrators consider when it comes to broader system changes and increasing support for ESL students in a more formalized way?

Stewart: Testing is not teaching, especially when we are talking about English learners.  Use curriculum that values their cultures.  Allow teachers to research instructional strategies that will develop their language and content knowledge.  Provide opportunities for them to attend conferences where they can learn about new ways to effectively teach English, content, and develop students' first languages.  There are many more effective ways to get their test scores up rather than teaching to the test.  Teachers need professional autonomy to teach and the resources provided by their schools to continue learning. 

Invest in the development of students' first language in addition to English.  Students of all ages and of all language backgrounds can benefit from some form education that continually develops two languages in strong and well-implemented dual language programs.  English learners are also a resource for your other students.  I'm glad I have my son, who is a native English-speaker, in a bilingual kindergarten class in a public school.  He benefits from the other students in his class who are all native Spanish-speakers. He has an incredible teacher who is fully bilingual and biliterate and provides him with rich experiences to develop his second language.  We need to seek these teachers out, pay them appropriately, and give them opportunities for professional development.  

I expect for both of my children to become multilingual and multiliterate by ensuring that they are in bilingual classrooms and learning in culturally diverse environments.  The many ESL students in our country are the best resource for giving all students the opportunity to be competitive in our global society by developing their linguistic repertoire.

PSI: As you know, currently policymakers place a heavy emphasis on testing, evaluation and student achievement data. How can the education community incorporate the findings of your study into how they talk about the importance of educating all students for the twenty-first century and advocate for changes in the education system?

Stewart: We must ask ourselves: Do we want a society full of monolingual, monoliterate, monocultural test-takers?  Or do we want a society of multilingual, multiliterate, multicultural critical thinkers who possess the linguistic and technological resources necessary for the 21st century? 

My life is richer from having known the four students from Mexico and Central America in my study.  I am truly a more educated person from all of my experiences with English learners.  As a parent, I am committed to raising my 5 and 2-year-old to be educated for the 21st century.  I realize that the testing culture is an obstacle to do that, but I will advocate for my children and their rights to a quality education in our public school system.  I know there are excellent educators, such as my son's teacher, in our public schools.  We need to let them teach and give them all of the support they need.   

One practical way we can all affect policy is by going to www.sealofbiliteracy.org to write our legislators about valuing bilingualism in our states.  We also need to ensure that we vote for school board members and other elected officials who are forward thinking and value multiple linguistic and technological resources.  We should invest in all of our students and give them the skills they need for the future, not the past.


1Collier, V. P., & Thomas, W. P. (2009). Educating English learners for a transformed world. Albuquerque, NM: Dual Language Education of New Mexico/Fuente Press.

2González, N., Moll, L. C., & Amanti, C. (2005). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practice in households, communities, and classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

3Krashen, S. (1994). Bilingual education and second language acquisition theory. In C. F. Leyba (Ed.), Schooling language minority students: A theoretical framework (2nd ed., pp. 47-75). Los Angeles, CA: Evaluation, Dissemination and Assessment Center, School of Education, California State University, Los Angeles.

4Freeman, Y., Freeman, D., & Mercuri, S. (2003). Helping middle and high school age English language learners achieve academic success. NABE Journal of Research and Practice, 1(1).

5Cummins, J., Bismilla, V., Chow, P., Giampapa, F., Cohen, S., Leoni, L., et al. (2005). Affirming identity in multilingual classrooms. Educational Leadership, 63(1), 38-43.

6Krashen, S. (2012). Developing academic language.  Some hypotheses. Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, 7(2), 8-15.

7DePew, K. E. (2011). Social media at academia's periphery: Studying multilingual developmental writers' Facebook composing strategies. Reading Matrix: An International Online Journal, 11(1), 54-75.

8Lam, W. S. E. (2000). L2 literacy and the design of the self: A case study of a teenager writing on the internet. TESOL Quarterly, 34(3), 457-482.