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Districts Cultivate Common Ground on English-Learner Curriculum

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 15, 2008 4 min read
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The federal No Child Left Behind Act has helped prompt some school districts to develop, for the first time, a well-articulated curriculum for English-language learners—and even to work together in tackling what can be a daunting task for local educators.

One notable example: two neighboring school districts in Rhode Island with a large number of ELLs who move back and forth between the communities.

Spurred by the efforts of a teacher-educator at Rhode Island College, in Providence, the Pawtucket and Central Falls, R.I., districts last summer came up with a curriculum for junior high and high school ELLs, who are divided into classes for four different English-proficiency levels.

Teaching with only a textbook and not a curriculum was a “train wreck,” said Kelly M. Healey, a teacher of English-as-a-second-language at Joseph Jenks Junior High School in Pawtucket, a district with 9,000 students.

“There wasn’t structure. There wasn’t fluidity,” she said. “I felt as though I was jumping from assignment to assignment, theme to theme.”

Under the guidance of Nancy L. Cloud, the Rhode Island College professor, Ms. Healey co-wrote the curriculum for students at the beginning level of English proficiency with a teacher from the Central Falls district, which has 3,300 students. Ms. Healey teaches Level I and Level II of ESL and says the curriculum brought both structure and accountability.

“It’s easier for me to identify my objectives,” she said. “As a teacher, if I know what I’m doing the next day or week, so does the student. He or she can see that progression.”

Patricia Morris, the Central Falls system’s ESL director, said the curriculum has helped ESL teachers focus more on the language-development needs of students.

“Teachers in general tend to think ‘content’ all the time, and sometimes lose sight of the fact that there are linguistic objectives we need to meet,” she said.

While the NCLB law doesn’t mention curriculum specifically, it has put a spotlight on whether schools are succeeding in educating English-learners by requiring them to include such students in regular state tests for accountability purposes after they’ve been in U.S. schools for one year. In addition, school districts must break out test scores for such students and assess them each year on their progress in learning English.

Unusual Effort

Kate Kinsella, a teacher-educator at San Francisco State University, said that while it is a good idea for districts to have a strong curriculum for English-learners, many still do not.

Joining Forces

Two Rhode Island school districts share efforts on English-language learners.
Pawtucket
9,000 students
978 English-language learners
Central Falls
3,300 students
727 English-language learners

Elements of the Common Curriculum
• Units include themes that aim to teach reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
• Curriculum is aligned with state English-language-development standards and content standards.
• Units contain student bookmarks that list books for extra reading.

Source: Education Week

“It shocked me beyond belief that [some] states are so loose in saying what you should use for ELLs,” Ms. Kinsella said. In many school districts, she said, the curriculum for ELLs is “a lot of activities and units put together in a binder.”

The force behind the collaborative project was Ms. Cloud, who was an adviser for the report “Double the Work: Challenges and Solutions to Acquiring Language and Academic Literacy for Adolescent English Language Learners,” published by the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education.

Ms. Cloud, who was paid as a consultant, provided the template for the Pawtucket and Central Falls teachers to ensure that teaching units addressed listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

The template also guided teachers in including linguistic objectives, skills such as scanning and paraphrasing, and literacy strategies. It directed them to align units both to state English-language-development standards and academic-content standards.

The teachers based units on High Point textbooks, published by National Geographic School Publishing in Carmel, Calif., which they had been using. The curriculum spells out which units should be taught in each of the four levels of English proficiency. It also spells out how test scores on an English-proficiency test determine which level of classes ELLs should be placed in.

Addressing Mobility

Educators in both districts say the common curriculum benefits ELLs who move from one district to the other.

“If a child has arrived from Pawtucket—and ESL—we know what he or she should have been doing,” Ms. Morris said. The districts also share students’ scores on an English-proficiency test used for placement, so students don’t have to be retested in their new district.

Julie A. Motta, the ESL director for the Pawtucket schools, said the new curriculum also helped the two districts gain flexibility from the state on high school graduation requirements.

For example, a state policy said ESL classes for Levels I and II could be counted only as foreign-language credits, not as English credits. Ms. Motta made the case that the policy would keep 27 of her district’s ELLs from graduating. In addition, she said, “I had to prove to them that we taught a curriculum aligned to standards.”

David V. Abbott, the deputy commissioner and general counsel for the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, agreed that the curriculum’s alignment to state standards helped him and others to recognize the policy needed clarification.

As a result, a new state guidance document set to be released by next school year will say that those classes can be counted for regular English credits if the curriculum for the classes is aligned to standards.

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as Districts Cultivate Common Ground on English-Lerner Curriculum

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