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English-Language Learners Opinion

What I Learned From Teaching English-Language Learners for 30 Years

From the English-only movement to an asset-based approach to language
By Kim Hanley — April 07, 2022 5 min read
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When I started teaching in California’s public schools 30 years ago, it was the beginning of the so-called English-only movement. “Qualified teachers” for multilingual learners were chosen to teach if they had a good working knowledge of English. They were expected to focus on grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure. Students learning English were not allowed to speak in their primary language in the classroom.

As a new teacher, when a student in my class was learning English and struggling to complete grade-level work in this new language, I’d often provide texts that had been adapted and written at a lower difficulty level so they could feel a sense of accomplishment. I was unaware that through my choices I was potentially creating a longer road to English literacy and academic success.

So much has changed for English-language learners in the last three decades. Our classrooms are becoming increasingly linguistically diverse. We now know more about how to support diverse learners, and teachers have more resources. We have seen how high-quality curricula with scaffolds and formative assessments can contribute to helping all students build skills and reach their full potential. I’d love to share some lessons I’ve learned about the ways high-quality instructional materials in the hands of great teachers ensure all students can grow and thrive.

In the early days of my teaching career, we didn’t have the research to inform us about asset-based approaches to language that focus on the strengths English-language learners bring to the classroom. We know so much more now about how students learn, what supports students need to acquire new language skills, and the importance of providing grade-level content to all students. Research shows that students are more likely to receive consistent grade-level content and be able to meet associated standards if teachers are using high-quality instructional materials.

Some features of great materials include meaningful supports for multilingual learners, such as concept building through authentic language use and explicit instruction. These components offer teachers a launching pad from which to tailor a curriculum to a student’s specific needs.

Investing in high-quality curricula can also help save teachers hours and hours spent searching online for unvetted supplements. That time can then be redirected toward focusing on the individual needs of students and motivating them through meaningful engagement about their interests and lives.

EdReports.org, a nonprofit for which I am now an instructional-materials reviewer, is one great starting place to find reviews of comprehensive K–12 math, science, and English/language arts programs with details on how well materials support multilingual learners. Although your local needs will vary, below are four key components of quality to consider when assessing instructional materials:

1. Multiple access points. High-quality curricula should encourage multiple ways to access concepts and include activities that engage students in conversations with their peers. Linguistic scaffolds for multilingual learners also often work well. Visual examples and tools can encourage students to show what they know even as they are developing core language skills.

2. Strong foundations. Multilingual learners come to school with varied background knowledge, and it may not always be what materials we assume students bring to the table. High-quality materials should provide space for teachers and students to build background knowledge on important topics to support their understanding of texts and ability to absorb and retain information. By providing opportunities to build background knowledge, materials allow for all learners to be successful—not just those who have certain experiences. Guidance for teachers on how to access and validate varied background knowledge is also important.

Through the building of background knowledge, multilingual learners (and all learners really) can develop the necessary language to access more complex texts and tasks in a variety of content areas.

3. Meaningful engagement. Strong materials include opportunities for teachers to have meaningful interactions among students. For example, there are times when pairing students with other English-learners is appropriate, and other instances when having small groups with both native English speakers and multilingual learners can enrich student growth and understanding.

Curriculum-embedded formative assessments are key to ensuring students stay engaged while building language skills and accessing content. Assessments help teachers understand where students need support most and provide information that can lead to better decisions around how to support and engage individual students.

4. Multiple representations. It is not enough for materials to simply address academic standards and provide pathways to meeting those standards. The best curriculum will also engage student interests, honor where students come from, and leverage all assets they bring into the classroom.

Questions to consider when assessing materials include: Can students see themselves in the materials? But more than that, how are students represented in the content they are engaging with? Do they have opportunities to see their own experiences and cultures elevated in a meaningful way?

I have learned a lot in my years in the classroom. Now, working with hundreds of teachers who have multilingual learners in their classrooms, I make sure to highlight all the benefits of having a multilingual classroom. I begin with asset-based language and provide resources and suggestions for curriculum-specific professional learning that I know will set the teacher up for success.

And for me, success is the excitement in the eyes of a student when they’re able to show what they know on a grade-level assignment. Whether they do so in their home language or in English, the most important thing is to keep students engaged and motivated in the process of learning.

A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 2022 edition of Education Week as What I Learned From Teaching ELLs for 30 Years

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