No More Piecemeal: English Language Development Materials Are About Equity

Imagine trying to educate a classroom full of students without a comprehensive curriculum aligned to their needs.

Doing your best to pull together materials, during your “free” time, from whatever sources you can find. You worry this leads to a piecemeal approach to the lesson plans and that your students might not understand how all the content is connected.

Imagine how frustrating it would be to try and teach under these conditions - knowing the materials you’re using aren’t as effective for your students as they should be because the materials just aren’t there. And because there isn’t a clear standard for what those materials should even look like.

Unfortunately, for many teachers of English learners (ELs), this is their current reality. We know high-quality instructional materials can make a difference in student achievement and improve teacher practices. Instructional materials can be a lever for change. It is one of the missing pieces in effective policy and programming. This is no different when it comes to materials for English language development.

In all of the conversation about how to support ELs, Designated English Language Development (ELD) often gets lost. Every student designated as an English learner is entitled to services during which students can focus on learning the English Language - so they can access grade-level content, communicate with their peers and grapple with ideas in classes.

However, across the country there are many inconsistencies over the types of programming and instruction in this area that yield the best results. In many school districts, ELD programming is even overseen by the Department of Justice who conduct regular visits and provide feedback to help the district improve.

Currently, when districts attempt to adopt a designated ELD curriculum, the materials submitted often vary widely - from reading intervention materials, to materials focused solely on grammar rules taught in lockstep manner without connection to meaningful grade level content, to materials that are remedial focusing on texts and skills that don't meet grade level expectations. None of which are meeting the bar for what students need- supporting language development as interdependent with grade level content.

The policy around designated ELD programming and instruction isn’t clear and school administrators and teachers have been left trying to fill in the gaps.

This is more than simply a bureaucratic mistake that needs fixing, it has become a major equity issue for ELs.

Without a strong language development framework that translates into effective policy, research-backed programming, teacher professional learning, and high-quality instructional materials, millions of students across the country are not being set up for success.

Many teachers do not have any ELD curriculum materials at all and are forced to spend their own time searching for materials from whatever sources they can find or even creating them on their own. Even in schools where  a curriculum does exist, it’s often the result of these disconnected efforts - coming from teachers trying their best to fill the gap rather than the content publishers themselves.

Rather than building on a student's assets, many teachers may rely on low-level supplemental materials that lack engagement, relevance, and coherence. This results in lessons that teach “bits and pieces of language” that have nothing to do with the true language demands of the content objectives that students need to participate in content learning. Existing ELD materials also fail to help teachers get a good pulse on students’ language and literacy development, so teachers are not supported to use effective formative assessment practices to accelerate learning in ELD classrooms.

We can’t continue to accept a piecemeal approach to ELD instructional materials. It’s not serving our students and it’s not what school administrators and teachers want.

What they want are high quality materials for ELD learning. This means materials that work in unison with a student's core content instruction, that empowers teachers to truly support their students and that provides multilingual learners with the skills and tools they need to excel in school.

When ELD instruction is disconnected from core content learning both aspects of a student’s education will suffer. The two must work to build upon the other, so that a student makes meaningful progress in developing their language skills without falling behind in their core content objectives. To do that, ELD materials must build an understanding of how language works in connection to the related core content. Instructional materials should also encourage collaboration between ELD and core content educators. Learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum, teaching shouldn’t either.

Teachers are the best resources we have in the classroom. Their expertise and understanding of their students must be prioritized. High-quality ELD materials should build on their capacity, help build expertise and support their role as decision makers. This includes providing our educators with flexibility to meaningfully respond to their students’ needs.

And let’s not forget, to truly support our students, the materials themselves must actually be good. We need materials that are rigorous so they motivate students to engage in conversation and learn new ways of communicating. Materials that respect and validate students’ languages and cultures. And materials that provide an opportunity to reflect on how language works and discuss the process of language learning as well as the content of the lessons so students can have some agency over their learning.

The good news is that ELSF is committed to addressing this need. We’ve spent the last few months engaging with practitioners, researchers, and leaders in the EL field with the goal of gathering the data and research necessary to meet the needs of our students and teachers.

With all of this insight, we’ve been working on a new tool, created by experts in language development and experienced ELD practioners, that sets a bar for a vision of instructional ELD materials that accelerate  language acquisition and academic achievement for ELs.

Our next step is seeing how this tool will work in the real world - pressure testing with practitioners in the field and piloting the tool with content developers. Based on the data we learn from this process, we’ll make whatever tweaks are necessary and provide the tool to the public so that districts across the country and content developers have a clear, high-quality standard for ELD curriculum and instruction.

We can’t wait to keep you updated on our progress.

Rebecca Castellanos is the Director of Content Developer Engagements. In her role, she creates the systems, structures, and resources to partner with content developers in order to improve curriculum and instructional materials for multilingual learners. Before this role, Rebecca was the Multilingual Education Program Manager for bilingual instruction for Denver Public Schools. Rebecca began her career as a 4th grade bilingual teacher. She holds a B.A in Sociology from the University of Minnesota and an M.A. in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education from the University of Colorado, Denver. Rebecca currently resides in Denver with her husband and two kids.


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