Research and Reflections, Tools and Resources

Quality Instructional Materials or Quality Professional Learning Opportunities for Teachers?

Support for educators serving English Learners

If you peeked into a South Carolina school classroom a decade ago, the cultural and linguistic demographics would look unlike anything you’d see today. While the state’s student population has always been predominantly English speaking and white, the English Learner (EL) student community grew by 236% between 2004 and 2014.

ELs comprise roughly 20-25% of the student community at the school in Greenville, South Carolina where Sarah Mitchell serves as an instructional leader. Even though Sarah is a well-trained educator who cares deeply about her students’ academic learning and overall well-being, she reports having little to no pre-service or in-service training on teaching diverse student communities. Because of this, she has struggled to engage her ELs and help them obtain the skills and knowledge necessary for realizing their academic potential. The school district provided some ESOL services for students, but assessment scores indicated that these services were insufficient in helping them perform as well as the native English speakers.

Sarah isn’t alone. Similar demographic shifts have occurred nationwide, and while these shifts represent an enrichment of perspectives and assets, they have also left many educators feeling underprepared to create equally powerful learning experiences for ELs that honor and build on their home language skills. Teachers today still scramble to find resources to help EL students learn rigorous academic content in a language they have yet to master. Like many teachers, Sarah doesn’t speak her students’ native languages, and she needs guidance on how she can leverage her students’ home languages to access grade-level content in English and maintain and celebrate their status as multilingual individuals. But her curriculum didn’t offer her any guidance on how to do this.

Sarah has always taken advantage of professional learning opportunities to help inform her instruction. She hoped that in-services and training would help her further tap into the assets and needs of her ELs since she needed to facilitate the development of disciplinary skills, content, AND language simultaneously. However, previous professional development sessions only offered piecemeal strategies for her to test in her educational practices. While Sarah has integrated whatever she could from those limited workshops and in-services, she feels like they failed to provide her with a coherent approach to designing content-rich, engaging lessons that provided her students with high levels of challenge and support.

Sarah and her colleagues spent far more than their allotted planning time searching the internet and creating their own materials in an attempt to address EL students’ needs. Of course, this increased teacher workloads significantly. Sarah was unsure that her practices reflected the most current understandings of how best to support ELs since district EL test scores still lagged behind other students.

Traditional teacher education programs offer educators training on planning and delivering generic, “high quality” disciplinary instruction in core content classrooms, which leaves ESOL teachers to attend to EL students’ language learning needs in siloed classroom environments. There is a dearth of teaching programs that address diverse learning needs in a comprehensive manner. Similarly, content area curricula rarely attend to the learning needs of students who are in the process of acquiring content knowledge and language simultaneously, nor do they address the educational needs of their instructors.

Good teaching is not just “good teaching” when it comes to improving outcomes for ELs, and neither is providing educators with professional learning experiences that offer them nothing more than a few cookie-cutter strategies. Learning experiences must be designed coherently and tailored to meet the needs of diverse classrooms, particularly for those students trying to access content through a language that they’re still mastering. In fact, research points to the vital role that high-quality learning materials play in teacher practice and student success.

In order to deepen and accelerate academic learning, ELs need well-scaffolded, rigorous curricula that is tailored to their specific learning needs and considers the language demands of tasks and the contingencies of language learning. At the same time, teachers need curricula responsive to a range of language proficiencies, academic and life experiences, and learning needs. It’s important for teachers to have access to core content materials that support them in developing the connections between language, analytical practices, and content-area knowledge for their students. Guidelines to help decision makers identify these materials can be found here.

Sarah’s school adopted high-quality ELA learning materials that were intentionally designed to build on the assets and needs of diverse student populations, and Sarah was hopeful that this could make a positive difference in the academic achievement of her ELs. The materials were based on a research-based framework for language development, including the trifecta of the following essential components:

  1. Rich, intellectually demanding content that provides both mirrors and windows for students’ lives and that they are eager to learn
  2. Strategies for teaching analytical practices that will help students unpack the content knowledge
  3. Embedded and contextualized language-learning opportunities that build academic language over time

In addition to these components, the materials included guidance on providing high-challenge learning experiences coupled with essential learning scaffolds contingent on the needs of the students based in the in-the-moment classroom interactions. The materials also provided guidance for supporting students’ development of metacognitive and metalinguistic skills so that they can navigate complex texts and language.

The content developers provided several days of training for Sarah and the ELA teacher team at her school on how to implement the curriculum successfully. The training also included extensive guidance on how to teach academic language while simultaneously teaching content area knowledge and skills. Sarah then collaborated with two of the ELA teachers at her site to engage in a year-long professional learning endeavor; language and literacy experts from the content development team offered personalized support for this project. That assistance allowed for a closer look at the rationale and intentionally structured approach to content instruction, including intentional thematic, analytical, linguistic links across the curriculum that help develop mastery of the language needed to be academically successful.

The collaboration sparked a fundamental shift in how Sarah approached her role as an instructional leader. She can now better assist teachers in seeing students’ learning of language, content knowledge, and skills as an apprenticeship process. Sarah has partnered with other teachers to learn to use formative assessment of students’ language and content understandings, and they’re working to design a coherent approach to setting and deliberately scaffolding students toward unit and year-end goals.

Today, EL students at Sarah’s school are thriving. Engagement, test scores, and literacy skills have increased steadily while students are being challenged to build on their assets and strengths. Sarah has seen students’ mastery of concepts, language, and analytical skills shoot up, and students are expanding their potential.

Content area learning can become effective for all learners—regardless of students’ language proficiency—by providing rigorous, content-area curricula. This curricula should be instructional for teachers and tie in intentional macro- and micro-level learning scaffolds, coupled with sustained professional learning opportunities that improve educator capacity to tap the assets of and meet the needs of ELs. We cannot afford to silo language and academic learning, foreclosing opportunities for ELs to access rich, grade-level academic content before they’ve mastered the language of instruction. Instead, we must move toward program models and curriculum in which educators learn to use instructional tools and strategies to support language learning without sacrificing academic rigor or content.

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About the Author: Renae Skarin is the Director of Curriculum Review Process where she leads EL experts in reviewing and providing feedback to curriculum developers on the strength of supports for ELs. Previously, she worked at Stanford, where she was a researcher, professional development facilitator, and curriculum developer, for projects specializing in issues of equity and accessibility for diverse learners. Renae has a strong background in second language teaching and teacher education. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in Educational Linguistics.