What are Teachers asking from Content Developers to support English Learners in Remote Learning Environments?

May 20, 2020

Continuing the ELSF series of blogs to unpack the findings of a national survey, educators were asked: “What would you like to see from content developers to support EL distance learning? What messages or ideas would you like to convey to learning materials providers about resources, tools, or supports that would be helpful to support EL remote learning?”

We asked these questions in the first few weeks of school closures in March 2020, at a time when teachers and schools were faced with using curricula that were not likely designed for remote learning. In this blog, we identify the most pressing needs that teachers (40% respondents), school leaders and instructional coaches saw as features they need to support English learners. We provide content developers some additional suggestions based on the data. Figure 1 shows a summary of the themes mentioned in terms of percentages. After the summary, we provide some reflections and connections to research.

Figure 1. Themes of Survey Responses: What would you like to see from content developers to support EL distance learning?

Content Ideas: Teachers would like content that is flexible, that can be used in online formats as well as in paper formats. They also want curriculum that can build language development, that is available in other languages, or that can be translated easily. Several teachers described the challenge of working with learners who are not on grade-level and also learning English. On that same topic, others asked for support in helping increase student access to grade-level content. Teachers are asking for more support with scaffolds such as vocabulary, sentence frames, and visuals. These scaffolds should be built into the materials to allow teachers to customize them for students at different levels of English proficiency. They also want interactive learning experiences that target language functions and forms. (Functions and forms explained here.) In the current distance learning context, teachers are asking for more assignments that students could begin or complete independently, or with minimal assistance. Middle school and high school texts are needed, especially for those at early stages of language development. And lastly, they want curricular materials that address social emotional needs of English learners. Students need, “safe spaces for oral language engagement.”

Technology Concerns: By far, the most comment request was for an online learning platform that is easy for students to navigate and with language scaffolds that can be “switched” on and off as needed. Teachers mentioned text-to-speech, translators, digital books, all that can be accessed via a smartphone, or that have low-bandwidth options. This is especially critical for rural areas. Since collaboration is important, teachers need a workable solution for online peer interactions that is safe and district-approved. In the shorter term, teachers need to have basic step-by-step instructions and tutorials for how to get online and access the learning resources available. In addition to the technology features, teachers continued to raise the issue of social emotional learning as important to include.

Resources for Parents: Many of the responses acknowledged the key role of adults at home. Teachers asked for more information on how parents of English learners can help their children,“for parents who are trying to help, but just feel overwhelmed.” These resources should be in a language that the parents can understand. One teacher wrote, “Most of our parents can get lost within the instructions of most of the activities offered to their students.”

Teacher Development: A few teachers requested more professional development about how to support ELs, especially in a distance learning format. This is especially true for any new technology features that content developers add to their existing curricula.

Connections to research: Many of the responses from educators echoed what we know from research in language development and second-language acquisition. English learners need to have access to grade-level content, in a way that is understandable and relatable to them. Students need opportunities to interact with peers to build up ideas and challenge each other. They need to have explicit language supports to understand the specialized ways of talking in different disciplines. And students need to have social-emotional needs met.

Reflections: Reflecting on these responses, we want to build on a few points we think are worth noting:

We agree that English learners benefit from attention to vocabulary, sentence frames and the like, but these support only part of English and academic language development. We wish to emphasize the need for these kinds of supports in the context of the kinds of activities designed to support students in producing language for a purpose. English learners need consistent opportunities to work with the language of the disciplines, using their everyday talk as a bridge to academic ways of exploring ideas.  

Educators cited the need for curricular materials to support peer interaction. Peer interaction around meaningful content is at the heart of academic language development, and benefits all learners. But what is needed from content developers is remote-learning technology solutions that facilitate this process in a way that is central to the learning, and not just an optional feature that may never get used.

Educators cited social emotional-learning as an element that they want included in instructional materials. Psychological safety is crucial for language learners since part of learning a language is making mistakes. If English learners are fearful of ridicule or hostility in a classroom, they are not likely to take the risks in trying out new language forms, and thus their language development will be impeded. In the context of distance learning, there is a need to create an online community where all learners feel comfortable to use their language skills regardless of language proficiency. How can this aspect be meaningfully included in course content that is delivered online?

What can content developers glean from these responses?

If we had to give an elevator-pitch, a distilled version of these results, we could summarize as follows: To support English Language learners, teachers need high quality instructional curricula that include:

• Multi-lingual material, rich in grade-level content, and with built-in scaffolds

• Technology-based language supports that offers flexibility and clear plans for peer interaction

• Strategies for a stronger connection with families to work as partners in student learning

• Specific supports that acknowledge and address students’ social-emotional needs within the content

ELSF Resources for Content Developers:

A How-to Guide for Content Developers
Using Multilingual Resources to Support English Learners’ Remote Learning
Math Best Practices, Must Haves, and Pitfalls
ELA Best Practices, Must Haves, and Pitfalls

Jack currently serves as the Director of Research at youcubed at Stanford University, documenting the effectiveness of youcubed’s learning opportunities including Jo Boaler’s online courses in mathematical mindset and other youcubed research-based practices and materials. Prior to joining youcubed, Jack was the associate director for curriculum at the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE), where he led the math team in performance assessment development. As a scholar of teaching, Jack’s additional research interest is in the area of “language for mathematical purposes”, especially for English learners. Jack received his doctorate in mathematics education at Stanford GSE in 2009, co-advised by Jo Boaler and Linda Darling-Hammond. For the past 14 years, Jack has served as an instructor in the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP), Jack continues to consults across the country and internationally in China, Brazil, and Chile in the areas of math education and teacher learning.

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