Webinar – Double Jeopardy – The factors that keep English Language Learners from Reaching Their True Potential

English language learners often face more than one roadblock to their success –

Whether that’s lack of English language skills, the impacts of stress and poverty, or inconsistent attendance.

  • As an educator, how do you mitigate the effects of these external factors?
  • How is their brain wired to these circumstances and what can you do about it
  • Watch the webinar  to learn how to help English Language Learners make rapid growth in reading and language arts using the Build English Fast solution.
Transcription to the Webinar

Double Jeopardy – The Factors that Keep ELLs from Reaching Their True Potential 

So, again another warm welcome to everybody for joining us today. My name is Carrie and just a couple of things just before we get started, you will receive a link to the certificate of attendance, presentation slides and a recording by end of day tomorrow or Thursday, we will be sending out via email. Usually the title of that email is linked to our session title and that would be Double Jeopardy – The factors that keep ELLs from reaching their true potential. If you see an email come through your email box. Right now, you can take a look at the icons at the bottom of your screen. There is a green resource tab that has the presentation slides and a certificate of attendance right there. We also have a survey icon at the bottom of your screen and please share your thoughts with us about the webinar. At the very right-hand side, the bottom of your screen the little chain link and that’s actually a link to tomorrow’s webinar if you want to register.


In order to get us started today, I am going to introduce Dr. Martha Burns, she is the presenter of the webinar today. She is she is a Joint Appointment Professor at Northwestern University and has authored three books and over 100 journal articles on the neuroscience of language and communication. Dr. Burns’ expertise is in all areas related to the neuroscience of learning, such as language and reading in the brain, the bilingual brain, the language to literacy continuum, and the adolescent brain. Dr. Burns is also a Fellow of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and the Director of Neuroscience Education for Scientific Learning Corporation. Please help me welcome Dr. Martha Burns.


Thank you, Carrie, and welcome everyone. I am delighted to have you and welcome to the new school year. I am sure we are all excited to get going. We are going to just start with a little bit of data on the number of students now in the United States in public schools that are classified as English language learners. I don’t know if you have realized that 10% of the students now are classified as English language learners. That has increased by 14% over the past decade.


So, to get started and to help me understand you better, I would like to look at, let’s start with a poll that helps me to understand you and my listeners and what you’re concerned about. So, in this slide it goes:


What is your greatest area of concern regarding ELL achievement?

  • Are the students not moving quickly enough in English levels?
  • Are the students having basic interpersonal English, but are struggling with academic language.
  • Do you have more students (ELLs) coming into your school every year and you are not exactly sure how to help them?
  • All of the above

Click on one of those, and then press on the submit button, and we will be able to look at your responses. It says that for most of you its all of the above, about 60%, so that helps me. The other majority of you said, the students have interpersonal English language, but they are struggling to develop academic language.


So, let’s move on and look at Hispanic children in terms of the general imperative that we have. Out of all the English language learners, I am sure most of you are aware and these. It was research published by Garcia and Jensen in 2009. Hispanic children who speak English as their first language make up the largest proportion as ELL students in today’s schools and that is based on the last Census Bureau. So





  • Hispanics are the largest and fastest growing minority group in the United States
  • They’re disproportionately high numbers who live in poverty and that is really where this double Jeopardy comes in. These students are students who are struggling with 2 things. Obvious with academic language, learning in English, but also coming from the homes of poverty.
  • And as a group Hispanic child will struggle with poor educational achievement.


So often the students have a high proportion of unidentified learning disabilities as well. This is research that was published by IES, just a few years ago and it says:-


Standardized test scores alone cannot distinguish between learning disabilities and other factors.

  • Such as the students’ low level of proficiency in his or her first language
  • Limited prior schooling


So often times what happens is, these students are missed because in terms of identifying them correctly as either learning disabled or sometimes they are over identified as learning disabled.  Simply because it is so difficult to test them accurately.


Now let’s look again at the next poll and let me know based on your school district data or based on your experience. Which seems to be the case in your setting:

  • That English language learners are under-identified for special education services or
  • Over identified for special Ed services.


Click on the button there and then just click the submit button and we will take a look at that next slide. And it says most of you are finding under-identified. I would say that that is probably typical and about  2/3 say yes there are under-identified. But occasionally they are identified as learning disabled, when in fact, that isn’t the primary issue that we have.


We can almost call it the triple jeopardy for many of these students. They have the English language barrier, they come from homes of poverty and they are not perhaps getting the specialized services that they might need if they are in fact learning disabled.


Now let’s look at second language learning now and see how the brain utilizes two different languages. Second language learning affects the way the brain is organized for language which is actually a very good thing to have a second language, you probably know that. But it differs depending upon when the second language is learned. And also, there is this critical period of development that is going to require about the same length of time, whether a child is going to learn language early in life or if they are going to learn later. It takes a certain amount of time to be able to master a second language.


So, to get started Let’s look at the research of Dr. Joy Hirsch, she’s at Columbia university and several years ago, this is almost 20-year-old data now. She looked at adults who learned a second language after they were school age, so we call that after the critical period of learning a language because it is usually 6-7 years of age. So, after they enter school or before they entered school. We would call that during the critical period. You can on the left, you can see after the critical period, you see that they have two languages that are represented in this language area of the brain, we call Brocas area, that area of the brain you can see there is a red section and a yellow section and those two are clearly separated. What that means is that when a child is learning and when any of us is learning a second language after we enter school the two languages are stored separately and utilized separately. So, the individual is always going to translate from their native language into the second language and that takes time. And it’s also going to take time to carve out that region of the brain and build it up for the second language. Now on the right side you see what happens when someone is exposed to a second language before they enter school. In those cases, there are called true bilinguals because the whole language area overlaps most of its orange. Meaning that they don’t have to translate. They just have one big giant language that contains the set of phonemes of speech sound from one language, speech sound from the other language or the vocabulary of the two languages and they can go back and forth between the two, they can switch between the two very easily and think in both languages. Now for most of us our students are going to be learning the second language after they enter school. They might have been exposed to it on television and one of the things we know is that television doesn’t really built language skills very well.


The brain is wired for language and learning language is the way the whole left hemisphere starts to mature in all literate society. So at birth, we have equal potential to learn any language, am sure you all know that but by 5-6 months the brain it has already started to specialize for the language that the child is exposed to in the home. If both parents speak Spanish or both parents speak the same language that is the language that the brain is going to wire itself for.


Then what we start doing is creating maps in the brain, the human brain. Once it gets exposed to any language starts building a map. You can think of that, it’s almost like a piano keyboard where you have separate, each key of the keyboard has a different tone. On the map, you will see that again in a minute, this particular slide you can see this was research done by Mesgarani et al and published in the journal of science just a couple of years ago. What they did is they actually created using an electrode they could test for every single sound, every single speech sound of English and determine where on these parts of the brain. You see this red on the temporal lobe, that particular speech sound was being processed. What that means is then you have this brain that develops its capacity to perceive the sounds of the native language then, the brain is going to link those sounds to meaningful words and learn grammar and build up those capacities that we think of as a language. It is very horological.



These neural clusters, as I said they are like keys on a piano. There are very specific and you will have neurons that are “ba” neurons in “pa” neurons in “da” neurons in “ka”, just like in a piano when you touch a key it going to give you one note. And because of that, that then allows the brain to perceive speech easily and once a child can perceive speech easily and if you have all had the experience of learning a second language after you were in school, in my case it was French. You remember one of the hardest things to do would be to take a dictation to hear what the teacher is saying and actually perceive it and then write it down. Because it sounds a little muddy at first, so if you are able to tune the brain for the sounds of the language, and if you can really build up that map that makes speech perception easier and it makes learning by listening easier. Students are going to be much able to sit in a classroom to hear the teacher talk and be able to process the information. Once again if any of you have taken a foreign language you know, especially in high school, you know you want to see it. That is what you want to do, but young children can’t see it. So, we want to build up this capacity to perceive the sounds easily and rapidly and re-tune the brain.


We have talked about how prevalent the Hispanic population is and so the ELO population. If you just do a comparison of English sounds to Spanish sounds, you will see they are a lot of English sounds that just don’t exist in Spanish. Like the “th” sound in the word “the” or the “z” in the word “zip” or the word “zh” in the word “pleasure”. Those sounds don’t even exist, so one of the things we want to do is make sure that the brain can process those sounds specifically. And then we have other sounds, English phonemes that are similar but a little bit different, so those of you who know Spanish know that the “r” tends to be “r” in Spanish as opposed to “r” that very, we call it the power little sound in the English language. And then some of our sounds overlap, So building up this ability to perceive all of the speech sound and to perceive them easily and to have the brain finally tuned, then its building the brain from the bottom up just like an infant would build the brain from the bottom up, to learn a language in the first place.


Now I mentioned that a bilingual brain, that being able to speak two languages is really quite good for the brain. That is because when people learn another language, when they may be able to use it in a fluent way and an easy way they develop cognitive advantages, that people who are monolingual do not have. One of those is that they improve their ability to multi-task because they are constantly going from one language to another. It improves their attention; they can often pay better attention for longer periods of time and it builds up something we call cognitive control. Which all of you would probably think of self-control. That ability to be focused and to learn on demand. And individuals who have shown, research has shown who have two languages, actually have that capacity to learn on demand and build up self-control in a way that is augmented by the second language learning.


One of the people who has really researched quite a bit is Judith Kroll, she is an expert on bilingualism, she is a director of the Center for language science at Penn State. One of the things she says is that Bilinguals, unlike me who is Monolingual can keep languages separate while keeping them both available and active in their minds at the same time, and that gets into that multi-tasking capacity that these students have.


We also know, I said earlier that children who have a second language are really also telling the brain, if you will, that language is very important. The brain devotes a lot more of its architecture of its geography to language and school is all about teachers talking and students listening, especially in the elementary grades but even when you get into secondary. So, the capacity to be a good learner depends on this capacity to have a well build language structure in the brain and bilingualism really helps that.


This is a study I wanted to share with you, because some people think, well my bilingual students or my ELO students have had exposure to English through television, the parents may speak of one language, but they watch TV, they see other children, sometimes other kinds of computer activities where they might be listening to English, but this is a study that was done, where you have this person teaching young children. You can see the little children on the left, they are just little kids, very young toddlers and the woman is teaching them directly with a book. And then the same woman has another group of students that she teaches language using a television monitor. But the students who have a live instruction with the real person speaking actually developed the piano keyboard if you will for that second language for students who were watching television did not. So, we know that TV doesn’t really provide a good language model for these students. You will be the one to provide the good language model.



What are some disadvantages that English language learners face?


In addition to the fact that they have this language barrier to learning that we want them to really work on, they also have parenting challenges, often because many of their parents are especially in homes of poverty are working non-conventional hours. They often work at businesses where they have night shifts. So, they may not even know what shift there are going to have from week to week. We also know that poverty itself affects the way the brain matures; it also affects the way attentional skills develop and processing skills development and language. We know from Hart Leslie research that children from homes of poverty have reduced levels of language exposure.


So that combination of poverty and the differences in the parenting ability of these parents who are working two jobs sometimes or the conventional hours can interfere with the development of the skills which are so important for school.


This is research of Kimberly Noble research. She actually had two studies, one that she did in 2005, you can see the date on the right with a big circle around some of the cognitive functions that we see are not maturing as quickly in children of poverty like attentional skills and language skills. There is also the article I talked about of parents working nonstandard hours and those effects.


The question has been for several years, why would poverty affect brain maturation? One of the areas that we have now discovered is that what poverty does is that it increases stress at a home. Then, if you add the idea that these families are sometimes under additional stress because of working a few jobs, maybe two jobs, and additional stress of fear of being deported perhaps in some cases. You see it starts complicating the effects of stress in the homes and in the family life of children who are English language learners. And what we know is when you have stress, all of us know this, we all have had an experiencing of having a stressful event of a career in our life and we forget and lock our keys in our car, we forget we walk out of the house without our wallet or a purse. We all know that when you are under stress, your cognitive abilities are kind of shortened out. You are not planning, and thinking or organizing the way you normally would. You are kind of operating on auto-pilot. You are just trying to get through the day. And so, stress it looks like it is one of the major factors that does affect children of poverty and does result in impairments in learning and memory. It can just be the stress itself that leads to this brain that isn’t maturing as quickly in the areas that are helpful for school. Like listening and memory and attention.


So, what are the implications for all of you that are listening.


  • English language competence and native language competence are very related. The better the language skills of your students in their native language the better the second language will be learned. Sometimes we have students that we opt for an immersion because we think that that’s how a baby learns a second language by being immersed in it. But that may frustrate a student whose native language skill are impaired.
  • We know that the evidence right now, for a middle school student or secondary students and even the older students in the elementary grade, learning a second language is done more effectively if the child has direct instructions. The direct instructions should include auditory training on the perceptual differences. They can hear the sounds and see them easily, because that is going to improve their ability to function in a classroom to listen on demand in a classroom. It should also include direct teaching of grammar. Because it is very hard once you are at school age to be able to figure out the grammar of the second language. That can be very confusing when you are in a classroom and the teacher uses something like a passive that may not be used in a native language or someone else. The teacher says, “The boy was hit by the girl”, the student maybe interpreting that in a way their language would be organized, grammatically, that the boy hit the girl, not the boy was hit by. So that can lead to confusion that can lead to frustrations for students. If they don’t have a good understanding of grammar.
  • The third implication, and I want you to think about, is that this idea of this English language learners are also from homes where parents work non-standard hours, where their homes of poverty, or undue stress. Those students are going to need cognitive interventions, you want to include interventions that improve attention, you want to include interventions that build memory skills for those students. Because that will then get them on par with the students that don’t have that if you will double jeopardy that we have been talking about.
  • Implication for Educators, the fourth consideration is that using two languages is a good thing. It is a good thing for the brain to go back and forth between two languages. We talked about Judith Kroll research. There is this other research that says that using Spanish at home and using English in the classroom or using an Asian language at home and using English in the classroom, it is actually a very good thing. So, we want the students to be able to use both languages, but we do want them obviously to focus on the English language when they are in their classrooms.


Now just one other point, that is important to keep in mind, in many states to exit your students out of ELL status to move them into not requiring ELL services any more or reclassifying them depends on a student scoring a proficiency threshold on what we call the “ACCESS exam.” That ACCESS exam then results if the student does well, results automatically reclassification as fully English proficient. Then they are no longer eligible for ELL services parse. So it is important to know that that exists and also there might be students who do fairly well on the test that you might not feel learning as well, with the English language you would like them to continue to have the ELL services or visa versa. We want to reach that proficiency but we want the students to be very good learners when that occurs.


That leads to the next question, which is how well is the English language development and/or RTI working for your English language learners?

  • Would you say that your system is working well, most of the students are doing well?
  • Things are going okay – but some are still not making progress and are not exciting
  • Or would you say, we need help! We are not seeing growth from our efforts with ELLs


Just click that on, cause that will help and then just press the submit button, and we will see where you are at now. Most of you feel like, yes, it is going ok. Two thirds of you do. But many are still making some limited progress.


I want to talk about ways you can get these students to move faster, and you can get them to reach proficiency more quickly. I know that is why you are here. So, let’s look at that.


What I want to introduce you to is the role of neuroscience technology. Understanding the brain, understanding how the brain builds itself for language and how it builds itself for improving cognitive functions as well, memory functions, attention functions, the ability to perceive speech sounds, the ability to sequence sounds. Neuroscientists have been studying that, those areas for twenty years. And what they have done is build technology that can supplement what you do in a classroom with these students. It can make your ELO initiative move faster and be more effective with your students. And we can get those students to move into our education process better. We like to think of this as three components. What technology can do to augment your excellence in English language interventions that you are using.


  • It’s just going to prepare the brain to hear the sounds better, so it is actually building the capacity to map the brain for the English language. The brain would be mapped just like an infant brain would, who had only heard English their whole life


  • Secondly, technology because a computer is sitting in front of a child and because it is a non-judgmental responder, the student can hear and respond, hear and respond and over and over again. In a way you cannot do in a classroom. Where you have to call on a child and get them to respond and call on another child. So technology allows you to increase the intensity of very specific kinds of activities like, let’s say you want to build grammar, and you can say “ show me the boy who is running”, “show me the boys are running”, “show me the girl is running”, “show me the girls are running”. You can build that over and over the students can hear that repetitively and respond very quickly. So, you can get a lot of practice in a very short period of time.


  • Finally, you can with technology, there is technology out there that has voice recognition software and speech recognition software. Reading assistant is an example, I will talk about that in a minute. Were the students can read aloud into the computer, the computer can correct, can recognize if they got it right, if they mispronounced a word or if they didn’t really read the word or read it correctly, the computer can correct them and provide guidance. So, you can have guided or reading on a computer now. So, you can build these 3 components of preparing the brain, practicing intensively and guiding or reading with technology in a way you do in a classroom but you just do in groups with much less intensity.


Just an example of that, this is one exercise, you can think of preparing the brain. Where the student is listening to words, that we call minimal pairs, they are almost identical. Like – sip, chip, zip and dip. So those words vary by only one sound. Again, the computer in an intensive way can say, show me “sip” now show me “zip”, now show me “chip” now show me “dip.” And the child is practicing over and over again and building up this piano keyboard of the maps in a way you just can’t do in a classroom situation as nearly as easily certainly.


Now what happens is then rapid and accurate language processing makes the learning easier. So, what happens is that the students are sitting in the classroom, they are learning on demand, they are able to spell more easily, they are reading more quickly and easily, they are writing and they are just progressing more quickly. All you are doing is supplementing on what doing. You are just taking all of your excellent programs and just augmenting them with half an hour on a computer every day.


That again as I said, a computer allows for intensity of practice and a computer can have guided and reading as well where the student using something like a program called reading assistant actually sees the words on a computer, reads them onto a computer. They can hear it read first and see it and read it aloud and have it corrected them or have it guide them, if they have a little bit of trouble.


So, what is the research. Show me the results.  Just so you know what the clearinghouse rated the Fast ForWord language program. Which is the computerized program that builds grammar skills, vocabulary and builds the capacity to perceive the speech sounds as the top effectiveness of all of the related interventions for improving English language. That involves very specific products. And we have data from school districts, where we have students who are all bilingual, English language learners compared to all students in general. This is from Arizona, with very high proportion of students who are English language learners. And you can see that the elementary, on the right hand side, you can see the elementary students K-5, the middle school students grade 6-8 and the high school students grade 9-13 all showed actual significant improvement in their English language skills as a result of just  in many cases of the master of this computerized intervention that were added to their general curriculum for the ELL students.


After this webinar, what I am going to have you do is request that you fill out the survey that helps us to understand if this was helpful to you and if there is anything else we can provide in the way of webinars that you would like or other information. When you get your survey, you are also going to receive an email with links to these slides. You can actually have them, you can use them yourself, talk about them, you can get the recording of the session and you will get a certificate of attendance that you can use for your professional education. You will also have an option to request more information to see how you can build English fast with your ELL students this year.




They have 15/16-year old’s who were in second and third grade from their home country, they came to the US and we placed them in 9th grade. Do we need to teach them grammar if they don’t if they don’t have the basics in their first language? What do we do with these students? I think it is a general question.




That is a tough question because those students are obviously going to struggle, if they are placed in a higher grade than the language skills that they have. I would say Yes, you do need to teach them grammar, because most of what is going to go on in a classroom is going to going way over their head. I can only imagine what would happen to me, if I probably had a third-grade level of French, comprehension if someone put me in a seventh grade French class. Most of what would happen in that classroom, most of the reading materials that we would have and most of the content would be over my head. So those students you would want to teach them grammar, but you would also want to teach academic vocabulary. And again, you want to build their listening skills. I would defiantly want to put them on a program that builds up their language skills so that they can process their language that is going on around them, faster in a classroom.




What is meant by cognitive intervention?




Sometimes educators use cognitive a little different from what neuroscientist do. When neuroscientist use cognitive interventions, they are talking about improving very specific skills, like attention skills and memory skills, there is one specific kind of memory we call working memory, for example, which is the capacity to, if you think about it as a teacher instructing your student, it is the capacity to hear what the teacher says and hold that in mind for the rest of the class period. Or if you are reading a book to, or you are on page one, to hold the content, the characters, the scenery of page one in mind when you get to page seventy-five. Working memory means that you are holding the memory, and you are keeping it in mind, it is not a long-term memory and it is much longer than, when we might think of a short-term memory, working memory. That can be trained and a lot of people don’t realize that, they think some people are good at memory skills and some aren’t.  But actually, there is quite a bit of research, which shows you can train working memory skills. When you do that, students are able to sit in a classroom and remember what the teacher said and carry that information through the whole period and keep it in mind.  Then attentional skill, we all have students who are inattentive. Often students who have inattentiveness and some hyperactivity or placed on medication, but turns out we have a huge body of research from many different universities and from neuroscientists showing that you can train attention. You can actually improve a child’s ability to attend without medicating them. And then you also can train children to perceive speech sound. So, all of those that’s called processing. All of that would fall under what we call cognitive skills and neuroscience world. The teachers don’t teach directly. Teachers directly teach content. Teach how to read, teach how to math work, teach science, social studies. But building the capacity to learn is what you can train through cognitive skill interventions.




When an older student shows up with no literacy in their first language, would it be a good idea to find their native language level and work from there in their native language as they learn English?




Bilingual specialized have been struggling with that for a long time. And also, the speech language pathologist we have two. So, if we have a child who has say a language problem in their native language. Their native language is just not even age Level. They don’t have basic grammatical skills and vocabulary level is slow. Would it be better to teach them their first language and then build the second language on it? The problem with that is, from the same point of the human brain that makes sense. But from the same point of this student who is having to compete on our testing within our schools and being able to learn in a classroom, we don’t have the luxury of doing that. So, one of the things that we recognize in education, we want the parents to know the importance of their native language which we do want to identify the students with to have a learning disability in their native language. So that they can get extra help that they can need in their native language. But we also need this intensive approach to teaching English for them at the same time so that they can benefit from the classroom.




Can you give an example of an exercise that can be used in a classroom to train students to improve working memory? Talk a little bit about maybe Fast ForWord




We can talk about Fast ForWord. Fast ForWord is a neuroscience-based intervention that has, each of the units of Fast ForWord has several different programs. But each one of them bomber’s children with working memory tasks. But that is something you can do and then you don’t have to do it in a classroom. But just to give you an example of what you do in a classroom that builds working memory skills, is if you are teaching content in a certain area and then after you have finished, let’s say with a section for 10 minutes, you then ask every student in the class questions about what you have just said. “What did I say about, who discovered American and what did I say and what was the year”? And you go back and ask them questions about the content, that is actually exercising working memory. If any reading comprehension tasks are exercising the working memory if the child understands the language. They don’t understand the language what you are doing is frustrating them. Just so you all know, just the activities that you do that are working memory activities is again concentration, it’s a working memory activity. We have to keep all the cards that have been turned over in your head and remember where they were as you go through the task. But the nice thing is that we now have technology that does that. You don’t have to do those kinds of exercises in a classroom. You can actually utilize technology that does it for you.





A teacher who teaches 5 and 6-year old and she is wondering if that is too young to get to these kids who are ELL students?




The younger you start the better. The earlier you introduce a second language the better. It’s just as easier for the brain. The brain is more plastic at a younger age.