Researching new ways to help ELL students

African American teacher helping female student find a book

As many of you know, “ELL”, which stands for “English Language Learners,” is the new term used in most schools for “ESL” (English as a Second Language) students. ELL students are the fastest-growing population of public school students in the U.S. There are currently 11 million ELL students in US public K-12 schools. It’s estimated that by the year 2025, one in four students will be classified as ELL.

Brain-RiversELL students on average show poorer academic performance than their non-ELL counterparts. This is not surprising given the extra challenge they face with understanding and communicating in English. Another telling statistic is that only about 27% of teachers who work with ELL students have received professional development related to the needs of ELL students specifically. Meaning that the majority of teachers with ELL students are unprepared to meet the needs of these learners.

We are particularly interested in whether there are ways to boost ELL students’ abilities to learn English that are separate from language-focused courses and techniques. To that end, we are currently running a research study where students are randomly assigned to receive working memory training or receive no extra training. Why would we focus on working memory (and what is working memory anyway, you ask) when what we’re interested in is language learning?

Let’s start with explaining what working memory is for those who are unfamiliar. Working memory is a cognitive system that allows you to temporarily store and manipulate information (typically for purposes such as solving problems). You use your working memory when you read (for comprehension), when you learn and when you reason. Working memory is similar in some ways to short term memory, which is your ability to hold onto pieces of information for short periods of time (think of trying to remember a phone number while you search for a piece of paper to write it down on, for example). But it’s also different than short-term memory because of the ability to do something with that information while temporarily storing it. Just as people have individual differences in the amount of information they can store in short term memory (usually between 5-7 chunks or items), people also have differences in the amount of information they can store and use in working memory.

So what is the relationship between working memory and language? Well, decades of research shows strong links between memory and language generally – but also specifically between working memory and language learning. Individuals’ working memory performance is related, for example, to second language learning (typically, the better your working memory, the better you are at learning new languages). What’s particularly interesting is that you can train your working memory to improve. Pearson’s Cogmed is a research-backed working memory training tool that has been shown to improve working memory capacity significantly – over 50 peer-reviewed research articles examine and discuss the program. If you’re interested here is a link.

What we’ve done in the Center for Learning Science & Technology is train ELL students’ working memory via Cogmed to assess whether the trained students will show greater English language gains after working memory training than students who received no training. (We measured English language performance using a very cool, new, interactive iPad based assessment called TELL). If we find that training students’ working memory also helps them improve their English language performance, then we could have a new and effective intervention for students. What’s most exciting is that we already know from decades of research that students who train with Cogmed show all sorts of other types of improvements including improved classroom behavior, ability to pay attention for longer periods and long-term improvements in reading and math. It’s quite possible that it may also help the fastest growing population of K-12 students learn English as well. Stay tuned for the results.


About the Author
Liane Wardlow

Liane Wardlow, Ph.D.

Liane Wardlow, a former Pearson research scientist, focused on designing and implementing research studies examining e-learning in on-ground and on-line K-20 classrooms. She also worked collaboratively across research centers on a multi-state research project measuring the use and effects of digital technology on teachers’ instructional practices and students’ learning outcomes. Prior to joining Pearson, Dr. Wardlow worked as a research scientist at the University of CA, San Diego in the Department of Psychology, and for the US Department of Education in the Institute for Education Sciences. Dr. Wardlow holds a master’s degree in Education from the University of Southern California and a doctorate in Experimental Psychology from the University of California, San Diego. Follow her on Twitter: @LianeWardlow