The last couple of years have been difficult. Our English Learners (ELs) still face many challenges, and our education systems have a lot of work to do, not only to continue managing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, but to create the type of educational environments where all students can truly thrive.
As we look to 2022 and beyond, however, we’ve been heartened to see significant progress and momentum like never before. Every year more and more content developers, district and school leaders, educators, and other stakeholders start paying attention to what it means to design a curriculum with linguistically diverse students in mind, a trend that we hope only grows stronger.
Building a strong foundation of awareness
Three years after the Math Language Routines, guidelines that promoted content and language development in math (written by us and our Stanford colleagues), were released, we’ve seen its proliferation across the field. Many publishers are incorporating the concepts and referencing this common document - a great first step towards building a shared understanding for how we can support ELs. Similar progress has been made on the English Language Arts (ELA) side as well. We have language routines, scaffolds, and strategies that are increasingly becoming more commonplace in the instructional materials provided to teachers. ELSF’s ELA and Math guidelines provide even more specific guidance for content developers.
Curriculum also illustrates a growing awareness of not just what we teach, but how we treat students in their learning. This is huge. Historically, learning has been treated as a passive activity, but increasingly the education community and curriculum developers recognize that cultivating student agency and supporting them in their learning empowerment is key to creating truly transformative and productive learning environments.
In many ways, the field has turned a corner, reaching a critical mass of awareness and support for the need to improve instructional materials and better support our culturally and linguistically diverse students.
Awareness is the first step. The real work is just getting started. Ensuring that the momentum and awareness translates to meaningful action in classrooms is perhaps more important.
On the ELA side, we know content developers are doing a better job at trying to build in the background knowledge that students need to meaningfully participate in activities around required texts. And, in math materials we’re seeing more and more open-ended prompts and curricula that call for group discussion to explore ideas, critique and defend solutions, and to develop connections among ideas.
This is huge progress. Now the question becomes—how are we preparing students to join these discussions and participate in a meaningful way?
Moving from Awareness to Action
Unfortunately, teachers still struggle to find the time in the curriculum to allow students to meaningfully interact with the content. In order to give students the ability to truly develop their language skills and concepts, in order to help them have agency in their education, and to push them to think critically and engage with the material – we need to ensure that adequate space is built into all instructional materials.
Additionally, the content added to support ELs can often still feel like an afterthought. There are references to inclusivity in the front matter of curriculum texts and care taken to include more discussion focused questions, but these supports can feel sporadic and often still miss key pieces of description or explanation needed to provide necessary context. Instead, let’s put a curriculum architecture in place that includes ELs at the beginning of the design process so that supports are intentionally embedded into the curriculum in order to develop language and content over time.
A big part of moving into the next phase of this work is helping content developers understand the ways in which an inclusive approach to incorporating the needs of ELs can, and must, carry through every single chapter, lesson plan, and activity in a cohesive manner that reflects intentional language development alongside content development over time.
It starts with thinking through how the curriculum is organized, ensuring that students are being provided with the background knowledge they need, and doing the work at the front end of each unit so that students are able to meaningfully engage with each activity.
We know this work is hard, but it’s ELSF’s bread and butter. We work every day with content developers to help them understand which pieces are missing, where additional context is necessary, and how the design of the materials can better meet linguistically diverse students’ needs. In a recent example, we worked with a content developer to understand that the language around proportions needed to be explained and developed just like the mathematical idea itself. Another time, we supported the development of an ELA activity where a required reading featured language around a bionic device, helping developers understand that this nomenclature and concept needed additional background knowledge building to ensure that linguistic and culturally diverse students are able to engage with the text without undue cognitive load.
These are the details that will get us where we need to be for the sake of our EL students.
We’re thrilled that so many curriculum materials include information on their philosophy and desire to support ELs and we're encouraged to see more engaging prompts and questions that are getting us closer to meeting the needs of these students. Our goal, at ELSF, is to help content developers go even further.
Looking forward, we’ll have several opportunities to demonstrate in more depth what it means to take this next step in the development of instructional materials.
For now, you can join us virtually—or in person—at the upcoming TESOL International Association conference on March 22 - 25, 2022 where we will be presenting a session on “Quality Instructional Materials: The Hallmark of an Equitable Education.”
We hope you’ll tune in and we look forward to continuing this conversation and working with more content developers and others in the field to create learning environments that truly support English Learners for academic success.