High-Quality Materials for Multilingual Learners in Portland Public Schools

Across the country, states and districts see instructional materials as a lever to improve teaching and learning but multilingual learners remain an afterthought in these high-stakes decisions. This is an example of how one district, Portland Public Schools (PPS) in Oregon, was determined to change that;  they engaged in efforts to include multilingual learners in their curriculum adoption and implementation process.

This case study describes real decisions and scenarios that PPS educators faced in order to center the needs of multilingual learners in system-level decisions. Our intention in sharing this scenario is to help other districts see that it is possible to make equitable curriculum adoption decisions that support all students, especially multilingual learners.

“Our teachers need instructional materials that align and integrate ELP standards, instruction, and assessment; and provides guidance on how to scaffold core ELA content.” - Portland District Adoption Committee Member

Portland Public Schools (PPS) in Oregon developed an instructional framework that centers education equity with the goal of eliminating achievement gaps. One key element in this framework involves grade-level and standards-aligned curriculum and instruction. Hence, the district adopted high-quality instructional materials in English Language Arts (ELA) and has been excited to implement a new knowledge-building curriculum they believed would benefit all students. The district also wanted to ensure that ELA materials would truly provide multilingual learners the grade-level instruction needed to raise student achievement, increase redesignation rates for students receiving English Language Development (ELD) services, and support their growing newcomer population. As the district implemented its new materials, they wanted feedback from teachers about whether the materials worked for multilingual learners and what additional resources or scaffolding were required. There was a fear that some believed the materials were “too hard for language learners.”

Materials Adoption for ELD Programming

At the same time, the district was also trying to build a common language around Integrated ELD programming and why it is necessary for multilingual learner success. The district wanted teachers to understand the need for high-quality instructional materials in Integrated ELD. The district had varying Integrated and Designated ELD program models in elementary and secondary but a common goal was to ensure that all multilingual learners would have access to grade-level high-quality core instruction, with an understanding that newcomers and emergent level students required a curriculum more tailored to their needs. The K-12 ELD adoption committee convened to adopt high-quality instruction materials for their integrated ELD program. Over the past year, PPS allocated time and money to support their ELD adoption committee to research, evaluate, and field test new K-5 and 6-12 ELD curriculum vendors. They were specifically looking for a curriculum to serve multilingual learners at the emergent level of English proficiency and Newcomer/New Arrival students (students who receive ELD services and have been in the United States for less than 2 years). They also needed to review and evaluate core ELA Materials and make recommendations for Integrated ELD.

Portland’s ELD Adoption Committee and Process

The adoption committee began its collective work by looking at student achievement data in ELA for multilingual learners in comparison to all students at the 3rd, 8th, and 11th Grades in PPS. The data showed that most multilingual learners in PPS scored at Level 1 (out of 4) on the state ELA exam.

% of Students at Level 1 (out of 4) on the SBA State Achievement
Assessment for English Language Arts (2021-2022)

3rd Grade 8th Grade 11th Grade
All Students 27% 25% 37%
Multilingual Learners 67% 80% 68%

The adoption committee familiarized itself with the Oregon Department of Education’s (ODE) English Language Proficiency Adoption Criteria. The following five criteria serve as a baseline for all instructional material review in Oregon: 1) Equity, 2) Assessment; 3) Aligned to Standards; 4) Differentiation, accessibility,and learning supports; 5)  Research-based. ODE also provided English Language Proficiency Content & Pedagogy Criteria.

In their efforts to implement new materials in ELA, and adopt better materials for ELD, the district wanted to ensure that the adoption committee was familiar with how to evaluate materials specifically for multilingual learners. They wanted reassurance that the curriculum was strong for their multilingual learners specifically, so they needed an objective and evidence-based way to review the materials.  

The adoption committee worked with a facilitator from the English Learners Success Forum (ELSF) to use ELSF’s Benchmarks of Quality - a tool that outlines research-based effective design features for multilingual learners -  to review their existing ELA materials. ELSF provided examples and activities to support their understanding of each of the 5 criteria.

ELSF's Benchmarks of Quality
  1. Language & Content Integration
  2. Scaffolding Language & Learning
  3. Metacognition & Metalinguistic Awareness
  4. Asset & Strengths-based Learning
  5. Assessment of Content & Language

ELSF facilitated an in-depth orientation of the Benchmarks tools and rubric with the adoption committee. The participants practiced reviewing the materials using the examples, rubric, and discussion protocol provided by ELSF. The committee members prepared to do this on their own by spending time practicing and learning to use each indicator and looking for evidence. The participants reviewed specific examples and non-examples of the criteria. They discussed the indicators in the Benchmarks of Quality to calibrate their understanding of the criteria and apply it to their own materials.

After the training, the adoption committee’s charge was to evaluate 2 sets of materials used in K-5 for core ELA to consider for Integrated ELD. Committee members systematically conducted an analysis on their own using the ELSF Benchmarks for each grade level. They did these reviews over the course of a few meetings with asynchronous individual work time in between meetings. When they met, they shared their process of reviewing the materials, how they felt about the quality of the materials for their multilingual learners, and their findings about the materials and considerations for implementation. Their ultimate objective was for the committee to review their already adopted ELA curriculum materials and make recommendations for implementation and support for Integrated ELD.

“We need to ensure that our curriculum serves all of our multilingual students equitably, allowing for robust learning while ensuring that our students interact with the materials positively.” - PPS communications to families and adoption committee

Findings & Lessons Learned

Through their extensive review of the materials, the committee came to realize that the high-quality materials they adopted already contained many necessary components needed to support multilingual learners. The process illuminated the existing supports so that the teachers could see the existing strengths and come away feeling more confident in their materials. The district felt it was helpful to look closely at what aspects of materials are effective for multilingual learners, creating a mindset for teachers to incorporate language development into all content areas and to see all teachers as language teachers. Their review also surfaced what they needed to do in order to strengthen the materials and improve instruction for their specific multilingual learners.

It was not an easy task. For some participants who had less familiarity with language development, the level of intellectual challenge was high and some did feel overwhelmed with the depth of analysis required. After all, the committee wasn’t just looking for some sentence frames or glossaries. The process was also more challenging for those who had not yet been implementing the materials with regularity. The participants needed a baseline familiarity with the materials first and knowing what’s there in order to effectively evaluate the materials for multilingual learner supports.

The committee ultimately invested time paid for by the district to continue their evaluation and analysis of materials systematically after their initial orientation to the Benchmarks of Quality. They finalized their recommendations and guidelines to be shared with educators in the district. They developed new plans to continue professional development and coaching for teachers to support Integrated ELD with the adopted core ELA materials.

At PPS, education leaders realized the high stakes of the curriculum adoption process. To truly reach the equitable outcomes they hope for, PPS educators understand how critical it is to integrate MLL early in the curriculum process. The Benchmarks of Quality supported the PPS committee and educators in responding to the assets and needs of their district’s multilingual learners.

Christine Dahnke is a recent graduate of the Doctor of Educational Leadership program (Ed.L.D.) at Harvard. She is currently serving the students of Orange County Public Schools (Orlando, FL) as a Senior Director of Research, Accountability and Grants. Read her full bio.

Joanna Yip is ELSF's Director of State and District Engagements and oversees the development and implementation of programming and services for states and districts to advance a shared understanding of multilingual learner inclusion in curriculum adoption and implementation. Read her full bio.


Please get in touch with us.

Thank you! Your submission has been received! Check your email.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.