Teaching Opinion

Response: To Help ELLs, We Need to Understand ‘How Language Learning Works’

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 18, 2014 10 min read
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(This is the second post in a two-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here)

Wendi Pillars and Tagrid Sihly asked:

What are the greatest challenges to improving ELL student achievement, and how can we overcome them? What are the best strategies schools can use to close the achievement gap for students with disabilities and English Language Learners?

Four educators -- Karen Nemeth, Judie Haynes, David Deubelbeiss and Julie Goldman -- provide guest responses in Part One.

I also interviewed Karen and Judie for the weekly nine-minute podcast that accompanies each Classroom Q & A post. You can listen to it here.

Today, staff from Stanford’s “Understanding Language,” Mary Cappellini and Paul Boyd-Batstone share their thoughts. I’ve also included comments from readers.

Response From “Understanding Language":

This is an organizational response from Understanding Language. Understanding Language aims to heighten educator awareness of the critical role that language plays in the new Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards. The long-term goal of the initiative is to increase recognition that learning the language of each academic discipline is essential to learning content. For more information, please visit: ell.stanford.edu:

ELLs face numerous educational challenges, currently resulting in an achievement gap and a large number of long-term ELLs. Perhaps the greatest of these challenges is schools’ misunderstanding of how language learning works.

Schools have traditionally viewed language learning as teachers transmitting vocabulary and grammatical constructions to students, separately from teaching content subjects. ELLs’ interactions in English are primarily with the teacher, and/or structured such that students cannot truly exercise and strengthen their emerging English skills. ELLs must have ample opportunities to use English in authentic, peer-to-peer interaction--to hear and try out new language features, have peers respond to those usages, and adapt their own usages accordingly (Walqui & Van Lier, 2012).

The existing approach has left ELLs unprepared for the language demands of content classrooms, including the mastery of complex texts. It also leads to ELLs being taught ‘simplified’ content material, removing the opportunity for them to achieve on par with non-ELLs. ELLs above a basic level of proficiency should be provided with the same content material as their non-ELL peers, and supported with scaffolds that are removed strategically to build students’ autonomy.

Schools have also generally viewed students’ home languages and cultures as obstacles, not valuable resources. Students and teachers should be allowed to use ELLs’ home languages at useful times. Schools should use ELLs’ home cultures to bridge students’ prior knowledge to new knowledge, also building students’ self-esteem and motivation.

Within the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards, the academic discourse practices are inseparable from language practices that are demanded from these new Standards. For students to meet the new standards, we need to devote greater resources and attention at this intersection of language learning and content learning.

Drastic changes in teaching practices are needed, so system capacity is of great concern. So that the adoption of these innovative standards is a great boon to ELLs rather than another challenge, the available resources, such as Understanding Language‘s website and CCSSO’s (2012) ELPD Framework, can be leveraged to provide a deeper understanding of how to best accelerate ELLs’ academic achievement. Deliberate collaboration also needs to arise, particularly among English Language Development and content teachers, so they can work together to support both language and content needs for their ELLs.

Response From Mary Cappellini

Mary Cappellini is an educational consultant and author of the Stenhouse book Balancing Reading and Language Learning: A Resource for Teaching English Language Learners, K-5:

As more and more teachers across the country are receiving a larger influx of immigrants and English language learners into their classrooms, the requirements for more staff development in addressing the needs of these diverse students is staggering and a huge challenge for school districts.

More than 40 percent of all teachers in the country have ELLs in their classrooms--for some, almost their entire classroom--yet so many teachers have not been trained in basic English language development strategies.

Many teachers don’t acknowledge ELLs as their responsibility, instead claiming that a specialist or an ESL teacher should take them out of the class and teach them. Unfortunately, many ELLs across this country only receive an hour a day of ESL, if that, and then are back in the regular classroom without any focus on their individual language needs.

With the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, a schoolwide plan is necessary to address the needs of ELLs--one in which every teacher, not just the ESL teacher, is involved and shares the responsibility to improve the education of each and every ELL in his or her class. Also needed is a record of the progress of all ELLs in the school, with updates on their language development and their reading and writing development and how long they have been in the program. Too many of our ELLs have become long-term English language learners and are falling far behind their peers.

In order to succeed, ELLs need a strong, balanced literacy program. Teachers need to plan and organize their classrooms with collaborative activities in which talk is an important part of the lesson, and scaffolding for their ELLs is imperative. Using a gradual release of responsibility--with a To-With-By model--ELLs can thrive and learn in this workshop-like setting.

Schools should help their regular classroom teachers understand the importance of expecting outcomes from their ELLs based on their language level as well as their reading level, which may not be the same. Language standards must be taught in the context of a rich and challenging curriculum that draws on the experiences, cultures, and languages of ELLs and exposes them to the same content and quality instruction that their peers receive. Within thematic units that focus on content area instruction, ELLs can develop their academic vocabulary while teachers scaffold for their language needs.

No longer can we ignore the language needs of our ELLs, nor can we plan the same instruction for every child. Individualized instruction is a must for the success of ALL of our students and to close the achievement gap for our ELLs. Hopefully schools will support their teachers in looking more closely at effective strategies to help their ELLs.

Response From Paul Boyd-Batstone

Dr. Paul Boyd-Batstone is Chair of the Department of Teacher Education at California State University, Long Beach. He has worked in public education for almost 30 years as a bilingual teacher, reading and language specialist, and professor of language arts and literacy. He has write five books in the field including his most recent book, Helping English language learners meet the Common Core: Assessment and instructional strategies:

These are two very big questions because they involve multiple factors including socio-economic status, schooling environment, family involvement, cultural differences, and cognitive processing issues on the part of the students; not to mention linguistic issues such as literacy in the primary language and access to quality materials in first and second languages.

Asking for strategies is not the starting point with closing the achievement gap. What we need to be asking for first of all is what systems support all students. When I use the term “systems,” I refer to coordinated efforts of the entire educational community. Schools where all students are supported begin with administrators who have been entrusted with adequate budgets, facilities, and resources to address a coherent vision for achievement. Teachers are supported with materials, tools, and time to plan and confer with each other and families about their students’ progress. Business communities open up sites for field trips, internships, and celebration of achievement. Families of all cultures and language populations have a place to network and learn how best to work with their children in a North American schooling community.

Let me share one example of a very cost effective approach one urban school employed. This school’s population was over 85% ELL, low income, and consequently, low achieving academically. But the principal had a vision to create a parent center. He received funding to hire support teachers to run the parent center. The teachers opened the center for drop in times before, during, and after school. Parents received classes from the community on family medical and dental resources, how to write a resume, and how to interview for a job. They also received classes in English, but in the context of using English to help their own children with their homework.

During the school day, the parent center functioned as a tutoring hub for the entire school. Classroom teachers could refer students to the center for help with their schoolwork. The teachers in the center would utilize the tutoring opportunities to show parents how to help their children. Even illiterate parents were taught to sit with a child as they read, and to ask simple questions like, “What does that word mean?” and “Where does the text say that?” Members of the surrounding business community provided coffee and snacks for parents. And parents were encouraged to organize themselves as boosters for the schools programs.

This kind of systemic model costs money in the form of teacher salaries, facilities, and materials; but it was an extremely cost effective support that engaged the entire school community for the benefit of the students. The net impact was a dramatic increase in academic achievement as measured by classroom performance as well as standardized test scores.

Students with special needs require systemic approaches, as well. More recently Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) has gain a lot of attention, but the body of research support is still very slight.

Responses From Readers

Justin Mann:

Often ELLs can be ahead of non-ELLs in a specific domain/subject. But due to the language barrier, these learners can struggle to show their skills, and are often reluctant to speak up.

Because ELLs can struggle to communicate, we can fall into the trap of making assumptions about their learning.

There are some fantastic resources available that we can use to support ELL. Tools that encourage students to give feedback, and break through the language barrier.

Robert Gordon:

Our school Hendrick Ranch in the Moreno Valley Unified School District has been involved in a promising innovative grant project called Project Moving Forward! Aims to give under resourced kids systematic vocabulary and accelerate achievement. Words matter in closing the gap.

Some readers used Twitter to make a comment. I’ve used Storify to collect them:

Thanks to Understanding Language, Mary, and to Paul for their contributions, as well as to readers for their comments!

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