States

State Guidance on English-Language Learners Lags

By Mary Ann Zehr — July 17, 2007 4 min read
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Despite a 5-year-old federal requirement that they create English-language proficiency standards for children who are new to the language, most states—including some with the largest numbers of English-language learners—have yet to give local school districts assistance in how to translate those standards into a curriculum.

The lack of detailed guidance and workshops on how to create a curriculum for English-language learners means that districts often are on their own in figuring out how to use the new standards in the classroom. And it has led to criticism in places such as California, where the state board of education expects schools to base instruction for such students on the state’s regular English-language arts standards.

A few states—notably Massachusetts and Florida—are producing or already have provided detailed, official guidance for the local educators on how to write a curriculum aligned with the English-language proficiency standards states must create under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Other states are not so far along, however. Illinois, New Mexico, and Texas require school districts to have a curriculum for English-language learners based on their state’s English-language-proficiency standards, but haven’t produced guides on how to do it.

Teachers Need Help

“How do teachers transfer those English-proficiency standards to lesson planning and a curriculum?” asked Tim Boals, the executive director of the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment consortium, a group of 15 states that produced English-language-proficiency standards and an English-proficiency test to comply with the NCLB. “I don’t think there has been enough of an effort on anyone’s part to help teachers do that.”

He said there’s a growing understanding that English-language learners need a curriculum that goes far beyond teaching pronunciation and grammar, as has been typical.

“They need an ESL curriculum that makes the content classes more comprehensible,” he said.

But the question of whether a curriculum must be aligned with a state’s English-language-proficiency standards has been controversial in California, which has 1.6 million ELLs, more than any other state.

California’s state board of education expects school districts to base the instruction of ELLs on the state’s regular English-language-arts standards, according to Thomas P. Adams, the executive director for curriculum frameworks and instructional resources for the California Department of Education.

But advocates for ELLs in California are unhappy with that policy, saying such students need stepping stones to the regular English-language-arts standards, which should be provided by instruction based on the state’s English-language-proficiency standards.

Detailed Documents

Massachusetts started two years ago to draft documents that would help school districts to write a curriculum for English-language learners, according to Kathryn L. Riley, the administrator of the office of language acquisition and academic achievement for the Massachusetts Department of Education. One document spells out a scope and sequence for the standards that takes into account students’ proficiency in English; another one provides “vignettes” of how educators might proceed to write a curriculum.

The department expects to release the guidance documents within the next few months. In addition, the department this month will sponsor a two-day workshop for selected teams of educators from districts on writing a curriculum for English-language learners.

Ms. Riley said Massachusetts education officials recognized the need to provide guidance in this area as they tried to support school districts in altering their instruction for English-language learners to comply with a state ballot initiative approved by voters in 2002 to curtail bilingual education.

“Most kids were not getting as much English-language instruction as we said in a formal guidance memo that we thought they needed,” she said.

In addition, she said, most Massachusetts school districts didn’t have a curriculum for English as a second language. It also seemed that many ESL teachers were underused.

“A lot of them ended up helping limited-English-proficient kids with their homework, but in terms of comprehensively teaching them about the English language, they weren’t doing it,” she said.

Curriculum Workshops

Sara R. Hamerla, the assistant director of programs for English-language learners in the Framingham, Mass., school district, said the state department of education has issued a memo saying how many hours of English-language development students need at different levels of proficiency. At the beginning level, for example, the department says they need two to three hours per day.

But Ms. Hamerla said she hasn’t yet seen the draft guidance documents. Her school district has received one of the grants offered by the department of education to attend the workshop on curriculum writing this month. About 1,100 of the district’s 8,000 students are ELLs.

Ms. Hamerla said her school district already has an ESL curriculum in grades K-12 that is aligned to the Massachusetts English-language-proficiency standards. At the elementary and middle school levels, the curriculum relies on an anthology series, and at the high school level, it uses trade books and novels, she said.

She said educators in her district already have been meeting to figure out how to make the state’s standards for English-language proficiency “operational” in the classroom, but appreciate the extra support coming from the state department of education.

A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2007 edition of Education Week as State Guidance on English-Language Learners Lags

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