Best Practices for Identifying the Needs of English Learners

The number of English Learners (EL) in U.S. schools has grown in recent years. As of 2014-2015, approximately 9% of public school students did not speak English as their first language (U.S. Department of Education, 2017). While various forms of assessment have become very common in K-12 schools,  students who are learning English require additional considerations.

Both U.S. federal and state laws provide additional services for students who are learning English. An important federal law that includes provisions for EL students is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). This Act was first passed in 1965 and has been amended many times since then. The most recent version is known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Title III of ESSA includes resources that schools can access through state-managed grants to support students who are learning English. 

Students whose first language is not English will benefit from frequent monitoring of both English and other skills. If English skills are not monitored, students who are learning English might erroneously be identified as having a disability.

This blog post will review best practices for working with English language learning students.

Formative and Summative Assessments 

Various forms of assessment have become very common in schools. Both formative and summative assessments are often used. Formative assessments include the universal screening of all students in the fall, winter, and spring. The purpose of such screening is to learn which students might need additional instruction in order to reach learning goals. Other assessments are summative and indicate what the student learned up to that point in time. Summative assessments include end-of-chapter tests as well as annual state-wide testing of students in selected grades. Summative assessments help teachers know whether students met specific learning goals. Although summative assessments are typically mandated, teachers are often more interested in formative data so that they can predict how students will perform well on those summative tests at the end of the year.

In order to assist EL students in becoming proficient in English as well as other skills, teachers must have appropriate data about student performance. FastBridge provides several assessments and reports that can pinpoint the strengths and needs of English learners. Although it may seem counter-intuitive to assess students who are EL with assessments that are written for native English speakers, it isn’t.

Evaluating for More than Just English Proficiency

Students who are learning English need to be evaluated regularly with English assessments in order to track their progress toward English proficiency. Specifically, students who are EL benefit from assessments that focus on basic English skills. For example, teachers are able to administer a reading fluency screening assessment in the fall, for example, and set fluency goals accordingly for their students who are EL. Indeed, research suggests that monitoring the reading fluency of EL students is an effective and important practice for documenting progress (Solari et al., 2014).

Screening students who are learning English for their current skill levels in September provides important information for tracking student progress in both English skills and content area learning. By having both English language and content area screening data, teachers who work with EL students are able to differentiate the effects of English acquisition on overall learning. In many cases, English learners will require more time to master content-area knowledge because they must learn the English vocabulary simultaneously with other skills. Eventually, most English learners will become proficient in English and dual assessments will not be needed.  Some EL students will continue to struggle and an in-depth evaluation of their learning needs will be required. An important goal in meeting the needs of EL students is to support both their English and content area skill development.

Using FAST Assessments for English Learners

FastBridge® offers a number of assessments that can be used with EL students:

  • The FAST earlyReading and CBMreading English assessments are effective tools for identifying all students’ progress in acquiring English reading skills.  
  • There are also Spanish versions of earlyReading and CBMreading and these can be used with students whose first language is Spanish to compare language skills.
  • The English and Spanish versions of earlyReading and CBMreading can be used for both universal screening and progress monitoring in order to track students’ language development.
  • A Spanish version of the aReading assessment is currently in development and will provide an additional screening tool for those who work with students whose first language is Spanish.

3 Key Tips for Effective Instruction for English Learners

While assessment plays an important role in supporting English learners, it is effective instruction and intervention that will improve their skills. Research about the types of instruction that work best for EL students includes several important findings:

  1. First, conducting an initial screening of EL students’ baseline skills is important.
  2. Second, EL students benefit from daily intensive reading instruction provided in small groups.  Notably, English learners benefit from the same types of direct and systematic reading instruction that native English students do and different instructional materials are not necessarily needed.
  3. Third, EL students need to learn both everyday colloquial English as well as academic English. Academic English includes the types of words and sentence structures needed for school assignments.

An excellent resource about supporting EL students is a practice guide published by the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences titled Effective Literacy and English Language Instruction for English Learners in the Elementary Grades (Gersten, Baker, Shanahan, Linan-Thompson, Collins, & Scarcella, 2007). This guide is free for download at the What Works Clearinghouse website.


U.S. schools have seen an increasing number of EL students in recent years. This trend is not likely to end and the diversity of languages that students will bring to schools will continue to grow. There are programs in place to support English learners and these include provisions for regular assessment to identify students’ language learning needs. Research about effective practices for EL students shows that universal screening followed by intensive small group reading instruction with regular progress monitoring is best practice.

To learn more about how FastBridge's assessments effectively to support EL student needs, visit



  • Gersten, R., Baker, S.K., Shanahan, T., Linan-Thompson, S., Collins, P., & Scarcella, R. (2007). Effective literacy and English language instruction for English learners in the elementary grades: A practice guide (NCEE 2007-4011). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from
  • Solari, E. J., Aceves, T. C., Higareda, I., RichardsTutor, C., Filippini, A. L., Gerber, M. M., & Leafstedt, J. (2014). Longitudinal prediction of 1st and 2nd grade English oral reading fluency in English language learners: Which early reading and language skills are better predictors? Psychology in the Schools, 51, 126-142. doi:10.1002/pits.21743
  • U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2017). The condition of education 2017 (2017-144), English Language Learners in Public Schools. Washington, DC: Author.

Uncategorized, Every Student Succeeds Act, English Learners, ELL, FAST Assessments, EL, English Language Learners

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Samantha Holland, FastBridge Training Affiliate

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