Special Report
English Learners

Essential Practices for Building Literacy in Older English-Learners

By Catherine Gewertz — January 04, 2022 9 min read
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Teaching literacy to older students who are still learning English is a topic that’s traditionally gotten less attention—in research, training, and professional development—than its counterpart for younger students.

But the stakes are high for the nation’s 1.9 million secondary English-learners: They’re building English-literacy skills just as the types of reading and writing they must do get tougher. And they have less time left in school than K-5 students; these years are crucial for building the English proficiency that will support their later work and education trajectories.

Experts caution that good literacy instruction must be built on what’s already known about best practice for adolescent literacy in general, and be grounded in teachers’ detailed understanding of their students, since the English-learner population is highly diverse: Some are immigrants, but most were born in the United States. Some have had years of formal education and others hardly any. They vary widely in English proficiency. But key guiding principles and practices have emerged from research, and from classrooms, for teaching adolescent English-learners.

Engagement is paramount

Teachers already know how crucial it is—and how challenging it can be—to get students engaged in their work. But engagement is even more important for adolescents, since they’re at a delicate crossroads: Exploring their identities and the social world around them, they’re more likely to feel their schoolwork is boring and irrelevant. And that’s happening just as the texts they must read are more complex.

“These are young adults. It can’t be just kids lined up in rows with teachers lecturing,” said Lydia Acosta Stephens, who oversees multilingual and multicultural instruction in the Los Angeles Unified school district. “There has to be conversation, dialogue, discussion.”

Combine the needs of adolescents with the challenge of learning English, and it becomes even more important to find ways to grab and hold students’ attention, experts say.

“Learning another language can be exhausting. Kids are doing double the work: content and language,” said Steven Weiss, a coach at Stanford University’s Center to Support Excellence in Teaching, which helps schools support their multilingual students. “If the cognitive load is that high, and you don’t make it enticing, they’ll check out.”

David Francis, a University of Houston professor who’s leading one of two federally funded teams that are researching instructional strategies for adolescent English-learners, said it’s crucial to choose topics that appeal to middle and high school students, such as relationships, health, climate change, and immigration.

Using an instructional approach that features a lot of small-group discussion also boosts the chances that students will be actively engaged while they build content knowledge and literacy skills, he said.

‘Charming’ and ‘enticing’ students

Aída Walqui, a senior research scientist at WestEd who’s leading the other federally funded research team, offers an example of a set of language arts lessons she and her colleagues developed to use with 8th grade Los Angeles students. They were built on the idea of “charming” students with a topic—and discussion techniques—that are highly relevant and engaging, she said. With strategically embedded supports, students will learn content while developing the full suite of literacy skills: reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

In a series of lessons that spans several weeks, students explore the history of murals, study the Mexican muralist movement, and focus deeply on a mural by famed painter Diego Rivera. They expand their focus to murals in their own neighborhoods and to street arts such as graffiti. Students discuss the pieces with partners or in small groups, considering questions such as how public art expresses people’s concerns.

Toward the end of the unit, teachers invite students to reflect on how their ideas about mural art changed during the unit study and why. Then they must write proposals for public-art projects and defend them in presentations to the class. Teachers support the process with explicit instruction on argumentation, including recurring phrases in English that help develop an argument.

That kind of approach blends key aims, Walqui said: It builds students’ conceptual understanding at the same time it develops their analytical processes and literacy skills. And it grounds the instruction in something adolescent English-learners can identify with, she said.

“Students have to recognize themselves in what they’re doing,” she said. “And then, based on those deep experiences, you invite them further into the unknown.”

Assure access to grade-level content and texts

Teachers can support the literacy development of all adolescent students—including English-learners—by infusing it into content-area instruction, experts say.

“There is no language without content,” Francis said. “They’re inseparable.”

Building background knowledge, too, is known to be pivotal to strong reading skills.

To build both the background knowledge and literacy skills they need, English-learners must have consistent access to grade-level content and texts, experts say. Teachers can use a range of strategies to do that, such as breaking down a text into essential ideas, Francis said.

Visual supports are particularly important to help English-learners understand what they’re reading, so experts suggest that teachers make use of illustrations, graphic organizers, and multimedia. Language supports, such as glossaries, can aid understanding as well.

Paul Hernandez, a social studies teacher in Sanger Unified, a district in California’s Central Valley that has drawn notice for its work with English-learners, uses a graphic organizer called the Frayer model to help his 11th graders—a blend of native-English speakers and English-learners—explore the meanings of words they encounter.

He blends speaking, writing, and reading strategies to help students build their language muscles. In a recent unit on U.S. migration patterns of the 1920s, students read paragraphs aloud, highlighting important ideas and putting question marks next to unknown words or concepts. Those exercises help students participate in class and group discussion. And Hernandez finds that they help his native-English speakers, too, “especially in this year of lost learning, when everyone needs more support.”

Building access points to complex material

Diane August, a longtime researcher and adviser on English-learners, suggests a range of scaffolding strategies to help students access text and build literacy skills. Teachers could put students in pairs or groups, blending native speakers with those still learning English if possible, and they could read small chunks of text together. Each group could be assigned to gather information needed for a whole-class discussion. This kind of approach can help both English-learners and native speakers build literacy skills, August said.

August also suggests teaching a set of academic vocabulary words intensively over several days. In a science lesson being developed for the University of Houston-led grant, 7th graders explore how animals adapt to their surroundings. The lesson focuses on a chunk of informational text and provides the definition of “adapt” in English and Spanish, with picture cards to reinforce the ideas, including one of a lizard changing color to match a tree. It invites students to talk with a partner about how they’d adapt to cold weather and uses multiple modalities, including a video about a flamingo’s habitat, stopping at key points to dive deeper. Words like “optimal” and “predators” are explained in glossaries in the margins.

Teachers working on that lesson will use three levels of scaffolding: For students least proficient in English, they’ll supply “response frames,” or paragraphs in which students fill in specific words. For those with intermediate proficiency, teachers will offer only “sentence starters,” such as, “There are few predators because …” For those most proficient, and native-English speakers, teachers will pose questions without either of those supports.

Ground practice on detailed, individual knowledge of students

Experts advise teachers to make use of the rich data set available on their English-learners. Annual proficiency-test results, periodic screenings, and formative-assessment strategies all can yield important clues to what kinds of support students need. Many teachers don’t look at these data or even know which of their students are English-learners, August said.

Acosta Stephens of Los Angeles Unified urged teachers to immerse themselves in the language-proficiency data about their students and to spend time talking with them and jotting notes about their language skills. Viewing students’ native languages as an asset, too, is crucial.

“All these things can be used to determine not just where a student is weak but where they are strong,” Stephens said.

It’s a point echoed by many experts: Teachers must view students’ home languages as strengths rather than obstacles, and they must work to support those native languages even as they’re building skills in English. It’s important to understand students’ levels of literacy in their original languages, since those foundations are building blocks for learning a new language.

As a 2017 national report on English-learners points out, students already carry the “underlying neural architecture” of language, and many skills transfer as they learn English. Speakers of Romance languages, for instance, can draw on the many cognates—words with similar derivations and sounds—shared by their native and new languages.

Systemwide policies and concepts are needed for effective literacy instruction

To be successful, the teaching of literacy skills in English-learners needs a suite of its own supports: high-quality training and professional development to equip teachers with the right skills; a coherent, districtwide vision of the beliefs that undergird instruction; and what that instruction should look like, experts say.

“Too often, teachers are told to focus on the pieces,” said Weiss of Stanford. “It’s ‘focus on grammar!’ or ‘focus on vocabulary, oral language!’ It ends up being a Christmas tree approach to learning, with shiny baubles but no coherence. Teachers need real clarity at the district level: What should instruction look like for our ELLs? What do we mean by scaffolding? What do we mean by academic discourse? What does that look like in a classroom, and what implications does it have for curriculum?”

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic gives districts a unique chance to rebuild their approach to English-learners, Weiss said.

“Let’s not go back to normal,” he said. “Let’s rethink it, build a systematic approach to provide the supports ELLs need, and build on the assets they bring.”

Coverage of strategies for advancing the opportunities for students most in need, including those from low-income families and communities, is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 05, 2022 edition of Education Week as Essential Practices For Building Literacy In Older English-Learners


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