Early insights: What teachers say about materials for Multilingual learners

January 18, 2022

A productive, powerful, and transformative classroom experience that is responsive to multilingual learners is only possible when teachers are set up for success. High-quality instructional materials are an essential element of this effort. But without the perspectives and insights from teachers—the educators on the ground—we will never be able to truly understand what needs to be improved and how to do so.

That’s why San Diego State University (SDSU) and ELSF collaborated to conduct an interview study that elevates teachers’ voices in what is needed in instructional materials to support multilingual learners. We interviewed over 50 teachers with an average of 14 years of experience under their belt to hear directly from them about what’s working, what’s not, and what support they need to be able to provide the type of learning environment that every multilingual learner deserves.

Our team of researchers at SDSU conducted 21 focus groups and 19 follow-up interviews with teachers across the United States. We asked them a series of questions with the goal of better understanding how teachers working with multilingual learners use instructional materials, what theories or perspectives inform their work, and how teachers create opportunities for students to develop agency and autonomy in classroom interactions.

Across the board teachers report that their current instructional materials are not adequate in and of themselves in supporting multilingual learners. Every single teacher interviewed reported spending their own time supplementing the materials to better support their multilingual students. Teachers spend an average of 2-10 hours a week making their materials more culturally and linguistically responsive to their multilingual learners--with some individuals spending more than 10 hours per week finding and developing materials for their classes. When discussing their math curriculum one first grade teacher noted, “when you have kids who are coming in at various degrees of language and various stages of languages—I don't think [the] curriculum is really prepared for those stages. At least not in my own experience. I noticed I typically have to end up creating my own thing.”

Across nearly every interview, teachers repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of their materials and the majority of those interviewed reported that the materials could do a better job of integrating Math and Language Arts content learning goals with language development goals, as well as supporting multilingual learners at various stages of language development.

Most multilingual students who are classified as English Learners are from historically excluded and non-dominant communities. Importantly, many teachers highlighted the lack of cultural relevance of instructional materials. In particular, most teachers expressed that since content developers are unable to design materials for each unique context and add the relevant tools necessary to address every single classroom cultural context, the teachers will always feel the need to adjust and/or supplement curriculum materials to suit their particular student community. However, even acknowledging this inherent and intractable limitation, teachers felt instructional materials could certainly do a better job of providing clear guidance on the integration of content and language development.

This perspective highlights the necessity of continuing to work to improve the quality of instructional materials. With well-designed materials (e.g. materials with solid mathematics and ELA learning goals and pathways), it would be much easier for individual teachers to make materials culturally relevant, saving teachers valuable time that can be used tailoring their lessons to the unique perspectives, backgrounds, and needs of their students instead of building a foundational curriculum. One veteran teacher compared the effort educators take to tailor their instructional materials to the difference between purchasing a “turnkey” home or being forced to live in a fixer upper, saying “it's like going into a brand new turnkey home. All you have to do is furnish it. Instead of every year getting these ‘houses to flip’. By the time you're ready to flip it's a new school year and new students, and you know you can't use the same things.” (We thought this was a powerful metaphor and we now call it the HGTV phenomenon for curriculum!)

Another key area of our research focused on developing a better understanding of what theories or experiences inform teachers’ approaches to their work. In our interviews, we found that time and time again teachers elevated the importance of personal experience as a source of knowledge for them in the classroom. This personal experience included both lived experience as a multilingual learner as well as experience from years of teaching. We note that the former highlights the importance of recruiting, preparing, and placing diverse teachers. The latter meaning of personal experience speaks to the importance of teacher retention--all the more critical in this age of great resignation-- and the importance of having resources that work for all teachers, regardless of their personal experience, and all their students.

Regardless of how they developed their approach, we were heartened to see that many teachers had developed an asset-based way of thinking with regards to their multilingual students. They are regularly teaching based on anti-deficit principles and are continuing to incorporate more nuanced approaches to challenging inequity. For example, one first grade teacher who was an ESL student themself noted, “the first thing I do to approach any student is by trying to form a connection that's not just I’m the teacher you’re the student. I approach each student not making them feel singled out or not making them feel any different than anybody else but making them feel connected.”

As we continued analyzing the results of our research, clear opportunities for growth became apparent. First, the experience of teachers in the classroom sheds light on the need to improve the quality of the instructional materials so that all core materials address the unique assets and learning needs of multilingual learners. Teachers are asking for a strong connection between content and language development, as well as for more rigorous but scaffolded, grade-aligned content. They also want content that can be made culturally relevant and build on students’ assets. Connecting the dots between what teachers need, what they are asking for and the instructional materials we provide them is critical. Another way to do this is through increased professional development to help teachers better understand the ways in which the instructional materials can be utilized for their classrooms.

At the same time, we could all benefit from considering ways to develop materials that provide a solid structure along with greater freedom for teachers to tailor the materials to their own classroom’s needs and provide more clear direction to their multilingual students.

Lastly, we must continue learning directly from our teachers, those who spend day in and day out in classrooms around the country. Teachers have the most direct connection to the multilingual students at the heart of this work. Continuing to elevate their voices and diving deeper into the classroom experience can help us understand how decisions are made in the classroom and why. With this insight, we’ll be better positioned to develop truly effective instructional materials, frameworks, and other resources.

Editor’s note: These are early insights into research conducted by San Diego State University and ELSF. The full research results will be released early in 2022. Stay tuned for the complete findings.

Dr. William Zahner is an associate professor in the mathematics and statistics department at San Diego State University. Zahner’s research investigates how to design secondary mathematics classrooms to improve student learning, with a special focus on meeting the needs of English Learners in secondary mathematics classes. Prior to joining the faculty at SDSU, Zahner was an assistant professor in the School of Education at Boston University. Zahner earned his doctorate and master’s degrees at UC Santa Cruz, and his undergraduate degree in mathematics from Boston College.


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