Big Districts Lack Strong ELL Materials, Survey Finds

By Lesli A. Maxwell — March 12, 2013 3 min read
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Teachers and administrators working with English-language learners in some of the nation’s largest school systems believe that much of the instructional material published for ELLs is of poor quality and needs a major upgrade if these students are to succeed in the common standards era.

In a new survey published by the Council of the Great City Schools, the majority of respondents reported that the materials they use to teach English-learners fall short of what’s needed to raise the performance of ELLs. When asked if the current materials available for ELLs reflect the rigor in the Common Core State Standards, 82 percent of respondents answered either “somewhat” or “not at all.” (The report was released at the Council’s annual legislative conference in Washington.)

The types of instructional materials respondents were asked about include basal readers, supplemental materials for ELLs that are bundled with basals, literacy intervention programs targeting ELLs, basal ESL programs, novels, dictionaries, and materials that teachers create on their own.

The survey reflects the responses of 284 teachers, principals, and central office personnel from 44 urban districts that are members of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based policy and advocacy organization that represents 67 of the nation’s urban school systems. The Council worked with consulting firm McKinsey and Company to do the survey. (A broader report on ELL demographics, staffing, and achievement in the council’s member districts has also been released...Stay tuned for a write-up on it.)

In its report on instructional materials, the council calls for a “stronger collaboration” between publishers and others involved in developing and reviewing instructional materials for ELLs. Gabriela Uro, the head of ELL policy and research for the Council, told me that the next step will be to develop specific criteria that publishers should meet in any new, common-core aligned materials they produce for English-learners. This would build on the Council’s strong stance last year that had more than 30 of its member districts pledging only to buy common-core instructional materials that meet criteria that were developed by some of the original writers of the new standards.

The report is part of the council’s larger effort to help its districts roll out the new standards. On the ELL front, the council has been working closely with language-acquisition scholar Lily Wong Fillmore on the importance of selecting complex texts and the types of strategies teachers can use to teach such rigorous materials to students at varying levels of English-language proficiency. (Gabriela and Lily presented on this same topic in an EdWeek webinar last December.)

The survey delves into the quality of instructional materials for ELLs in several ways. It found that 46 percent of respondents rely on recommendations of colleagues when selecting materials and that 37 percent choose materials based on their district’s requirements to do so. Responses also showed that the higher the grade level, the more likely teachers and administrators were to give low marks to the quality of materials. Respondents also judged materials for low-level English-learners to be of worse quality than for those at higher levels of proficiency.

These findings certainly reflect what I’ve heard in interviews and conversations with teachers, principals, advocates, and researchers. In a story I wrote last fall about a group of Albuquerque teachers who studied the common-core English/language arts standards and developed a model for English-learners, several of the seasoned educators said they were taken aback to discover that most of the material they’d used for years was far below grade-level.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.