Special Report

Quality Learning Materials Are Scarce for English-Language Learners

By Liana Loewus — May 11, 2016 | Corrected: May 12, 2016 10 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story misspelled Crystal Gonzales’ name.

Leer en español (read in Spanish)

Among the most pervasive and long-standing complaints from teachers of English-language learners is the dearth of high-quality instructional materials for addressing students’ language and academic needs.

Those concerns are particularly acute in middle and high school, when students have a wider range of abilities and less time to catch up. But with so many variables involved in educating English-language learners, the criticisms about existing curricula differ from one classroom to the next.

Some ELL teachers want phonics instruction embedded in readings for students at more basic levels of English learning, while others have all proficient readers and say the phonics can be a distraction. Some teachers want more supplemental materials in Spanish, while others don’t have any Spanish speakers in their rooms.

But among ELL experts, there’s at least some agreement: Materials for English-learners are often too simple and too disconnected from grade-level goals.

“The tendency in the past, and even at present, is to water the material down so the students can deal with it, or to give students material that is really meant for elementary school children, which insults their intelligence,” said Rebecca Blum-Martinez, a professor in bilingual education at the University of New Mexico.

Many say that instructional materials fail to build students’ background knowledge, which is crucial to increasing vocabulary and helping language-learners catch up with their native-English-speaking peers.

Since the advent of the Common Core State Standards—the learning expectations more than 40 states are now using—some notable efforts have been underway to improve literacy materials for English-learners, who, under the standards, are expected to be able to read and understand complex texts across all subjects.

But challenges remain, especially since many companies that develop and sell curricula are still simply adding potential modifications for ELLs to general materials, rather than developing the supports alongside the main academic content, experts say.

The Council of the Great City Schools, which represents 68 large urban districts, released in 2014 a framework for producing and identifying common-core-aligned materials that help English-learners. The document, written by ELL experts and practitioners, emphasizes that ELL materials need to be rigorous and provide strategies to teachers for supporting English-learners’ understanding of texts that meet the grade-level expectations.

“The challenges we saw [in looking at curricula] were primarily around the low level of rigor and incredibly extensive overuse of simplified text,” said Gabriela Uro, the director of ELL policy and research for the council.

“If you’re new to English, the chance that you’ll be able to take up a book and do independent reading when you’ve never done it before is slim to none. But that doesn’t mean when the teacher’s teaching, you can’t be on grade level.”

Teachers need to be able to use a variety of strategies and techniques to make texts and other learning materials accessible to students of many different language levels at once, said Lily Wong Fillmore, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in literacy and second-language learning. And those techniques should be flexible, since students learn language at varying rates. Resources like Newsela, the free website that takes daily news articles and rewrites them at five different reading levels, can be great for making content accessible for English-learners at a variety of levels, she said. Textbooks often don’t offer much room for growth.

EngageNY, a free online library of academic materials created in New York state and used by educators around the country, hired consultants to make resource guides on how to support English-learners while using the curricula. The guides include research-based strategies for providing supports to ELLs in individual lessons, such as how to build background knowledge while capitalizing on what students already know.

And the Helmsley Charitable Trust is gathering ELL experts and developers of open educational resources—free, openly licensed online materials—to discuss how those can better serve English-learners.

Focusing on open resources “enables us to have an iterative improvement cycle,” said Crystal Gonzales, a program officer of the trust’s education program who focuses on ELLs. “Unlike textbooks, [in which] you won’t see changes within six or seven years, [open educational resources] allow us to improve on this stuff as we move forward.”

ELLs Are Often Overlooked

Too often, instructional materials for English-learners have been treated as something extra, rather than as an integral part of any instructional program, said Fillmore of Berkeley.

“Publishers see the need to deal with English-learners only as a kind of a sidebar where you put in some extra activities that really don’t add up to anything and have very little to do with the actual curriculum materials they put together,” she said.

Farah Assiraj, who teaches at Boston International High School, a public school serving a diverse body of English-language learners, said she has struggled with the effects of that in the classroom.

“Publishing companies are very often focused on the core and general education, and ELL becomes a supplement,” she said. “There’s linked-in support, and you see handbooks that go along with [the curriculum], but they haven’t been intentional.”

That puts a lot of pressure on teachers to fill in the gaps, she said.

Much of this comes down to a major problem with how learning materials are designed—that ELL supports are added retroactively, said Diane August, the director of the Center for English-Language Learners at the American Institutes for Research, who was one of the EngageNY consultants.

“It’s really hard to go back after this stuff is developed and fix it,” she said. “You’ve got to conceptualize things from the beginning.”

Jay Diskey, the executive director of the Association of American Publishers’ school division, said after-the-fact additions of ELL supports are a valid concern, but that publishers overall are doing a much better job of considering English-learners’ needs during program design.

“We see this in all sorts of curriculum, that there can be—not always, but there can be—a difference from building from the ground up and altering materials.”

He pointed to California’s recent materials adoption as one example of progress. The state education department recently adopted a list of materials that combine the English/language arts and English-language-development standards. California is unique in that its criteria for curricula adoption requires that certain materials integrate both sets of standards.

Even so, August said the issue is hardly being addressed on a widespread scale. Many of the common-core-aligned materials publishers submitted for EngageNY came in with few or no supports for ELLs, which is why her team was hired to add them.

ELL Materials Are Too Childish

For ELLs, curricular materials must strike a careful balance between maintaining high expectations and ensuring that students can access, and understand, the content.

For middle and high school students, “you don’t want to start them out with ‘see Dick run, see Sally fall,’ stuff—that’s absolutely aggravating,” said Catherine E. Snow, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who specializes in language and literacy development in children. “At the same time, they can’t access the material they’re interested in.”

The Council of the Great City Schools’ framework for materials asserts that English-language learners “are capable of engaging in complex thinking, reading and comprehension of complex texts, and writing about complex material.” But too often, experts say, curricula err on the side of oversimplification.

“A lot of materials become dumbed-down baby books that don’t really engage their thinking,” said Assiraj. “They don’t take into consideration their experiences. I have kids who entered the country at 18 or 19 years old and can’t write at a 1st grade level. But one of them can fix any phone that breaks down. There’s this whole experiential learning that’s been pushed away and is not integrated into the curriculum.”

For example, a text might define the word “community” for English-learners—but that’s not a concept that’s foreign to most Spanish speakers.

Students “have the cognition,” said Uro of the Council of the Great City Schools. “What’s missing is being able to say what’s in their head.”

On the other hand, students may need culture-specific concepts explained.

A text on the Harlem Renaissance won’t mean anything until the reader understands the basics about who was living in Harlem in the 1920s and why it was such a ferment of creative activity, she said. But implementing the kind of teaching that experts recommend—using grade-level content and building background knowledge—isn’t always practical in the standalone ELL classroom.

Teaching Skills to English-Learners

Erika Schneider, who teaches high school English-language learners in Portland, Maine, said she used to try to keep up with what her students were learning in their general classes, but always felt like she was playing catch-up. Now, she looks for materials that teach students how to have analytical discussions and use academic language—skills they can transfer to any content area. For instance, they learn sentence frames like, “I agree with his opinion, but... .”

“I find I get more buy-in when they can walk away with skills they can use in any class,” she said. “When you look at the common core, it’s about what can you do rather than who was the main character in The Great Gatsby.”

Many practitioners and experts lament that materials only offer supports for struggling readers, not English-learners specifically.

“This is a very big problem because the materials for struggling readers generally utilize language structures and vocabulary that are very simple, short, and that a lot of times don’t provide the background knowledge that is needed when you’re learning a second language,” said the University of New Mexico’s Blum-Martinez.

Even some of the new instructional materials in California seem to cater more to struggling readers than English-learners, said Diana Fujimoto, the English-learner-services curriculum specialist for the Anaheim Union High School District.

“We’re seeing those similar pieces in current materials,” she said. “There needs to be an emphasis on oral-language development and building opportunities for kids to speak and use language,” which supports for struggling readers don’t usually provide.

Teachers Make Their Own Materials

As educators and administrators in districts will attest, teachers often end up making their own materials for English-learners.

“I spent so many years making materials, it’s crazy,” said Schneider. “I used to think, ‘I’m going to go get my Ph.D. in curriculum design because this is ridiculous.’”

Not only is the task incredibly time-consuming, but it also often results in individual lessons that don’t build on one another or stay true to a logical progression of skills.

“You have your best-trained teachers who are working tirelessly to create curricular units with thematic concepts that align to the standards,” said Assiraj of Boston International High."But in terms of cohesion, and being able to push students to the next level, there’s always this disconnect.”

According to Diskey, the issues on the ground with getting high-quality materials aren’t always a failure of the publishers—often it’s a money issue at the district level.

“It’s not so much that it’s not available from publishers, it’s just not available in the schools,” he said. “The school hasn’t made a purchase due to funding. We heard a lot of this during the recession.”

That’s certainly the case for Schneider, who teaches a diverse array of English-learners, many of whom are refugees.

“It’s so unbelievably expensive to buy a program and implement it with fidelity,” she said.

Her department is allotted only a couple thousand dollars a year to spend on materials for all five and a half of its teaching positions—money that goes toward supplies and field trips as well.

“You cannot buy curriculum with $2,000,” she said.

That’s why free online materials are promising, many say.

“Open educational resources allow us to improve on this stuff as we move forward,” said Gonzales of the Helmsley trust. “We have an opportunity to finally get it right for our kids. The field is shifting, experts are engaging.”

But for now, pulling free materials can be burdensome for teachers.

“Finding material that matches, it takes a lot of time,” Schneider said. “You have to do a lot of sifting to get good stuff.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2016 edition of Education Week as Quality Materials Are Hard to Find For Students Learning English


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