I thought it was a no-brainer that teachers of English-language learners should align their instruction and materials with their students’ culture, until I investigated what research is available to back this assumption for a Jan. 9 Education Week article.
I didn’t find any researchers who thought culture-based instruction is a bad idea, but I did talk with some who say the claims of its effectiveness are not YET backed up with empirical evidence from research studies. Those folks are arguing for more research that carefully looks at the impact of culture-based instruction on reading test scores and other student achievement outcomes.
I discovered that a review of research on ELLs, such as that of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education and published in 2006 by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, isn’t just gathering dust on the bookshelves of college professors.
Candace A. Harper, an associate professor of education at the University of Florida, Gainesville, said she used the National Literacy Panel’s review as a textbook for a graduate-level class for reading teachers preparing to teach English-language learners. She encouraged her students to critique the review, not just to accept all of its conclusions.
“The way that the targets for learning have been framed determines the kind of research that gets funded, tending to be toward discreet, easily measured gains, which are short-lived,” Ms. Harper told me in a telephone interview. “They aren’t examined over the long term. The strong associations between skills like phonemic awareness and success in reading and reading achievement hold through the elementary grades. We don’t know if they are long-term gains.”
Her message to her students is to know the research, but don’t consider it to be the be-all and end-all when it comes to teaching ELLs.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.