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High Quality Instructional Materials for English Learners

Posted by Sarah Ottow on

English language learners (ELLs), as a group, experience high incidents of underachievement largely due to what is referred to as an "opportunity gap"--the opportunity to be taught by well-prepared educators using high quality curriculum, language-rich pedagogy within a culturally and linguistically responsive school system.  While professional development and systemic leadership remain core levers for improving outcomes for ELLs, instructional materials are also a major piece of the puzzle.  Experts agree--materials in the market for English-learners can often be too simple or too disconnected from grade-level expectations. We need to ensure access to high quality instructional materials for ELLs to educators so that we are not unwittingly perpetuating the opportunity gap by leaving more students behind with sub-par instructional materials and pedagogy.

Designing and Sharing Our Own Materials

Many teachers of ELLs make their own materials with little oversight that don’t necessarily match the student’s grade level or the rigor required by state academic standards.  I see this a lot on my work training and coaching teachers.  Without a district curriculum map and often separate from core instruction, educators of ELLs can be isolated in what I call the "ESL silo", alone to figure out how to get their students up to level in both content and language.  Many educators are so busy "reinventing the wheel" when it comes to creating teaching materials and they may be--with the best of intentions!--creating the wrong kind of wheels for our students.  And this can occur not just with ELL specialists but for any educator working with ELL students.

When I first started teaching, I was charged with writing my own curriculum based on a handful of district-provided curricular resources.  I literally was given a book of state academic standards and told to teach my classroom full of varying needs.  I created many of the materials to do so.  Without my mentor and my colleague across the hall, I might have been way off base as far as teaching to the appropriate levels of complexity as required by the standards and with the appropriate differentiation needed by my students as varying language levels and backgrounds. Years later, as an ESL teacher, I was truly on my own and scrambled to connect the dots between classroom curriculum and language development needs, while also attempting to design viable programming (Push-in? Pull-out? Language Support Plans? Co-teaching?).  Yes, teaching can be very creative, and should be, but there is also a science to teaching that should rely on evidence-based practices so we don't waste our time or our students' time in providing equitable, high quality education.  

This is not to say that educator-created materials can't be high quality; many are.  For example, I've worked as a curriculum coordinator and instructional coach in the School District of Waukesha, WI where teachers collaborate to write rich, student-centered standards-based units of study.  I have also served an assessment advisor on Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's English as a Second Language Model Curriculum Units where teacher teams were trained to bridge the Understanding by Design model with tools from the WIDA Consortium for rigorous, meaningful instruction for beginner ELLs.  A school I support for Newcomer adolescents provides exemplary content-based ESL instruction that is written by their teachers and instructional leaders.  Furthermore, the professional learning Confianza promotes in our courses is all based around transparency of practice and providing collegial feedback in order to improve.  We know how important sharing is for teachers and how it can help improve our practice. We see the popularity of Pinterest, teacher-created sites and lesson plan sharing spaces.  These platforms show the need for and the power of teachers sharing with other teachers.  Thus, teachers sharing ideas and problems of practice is a good thing; teachers on their own without guidance of how to raise the bar for their ELLs is not. Teaching is complex and even more so without a roadmap of how to help our students succeed.  So what can we do about this?

Identifying Materials Correlated to ELD Standards: WIDA PRIME V2

Fortunately, the WIDA Consortium, a valued resource in supporting the education of language learners, offers a tool to assist publishers and educators in analyzing their materials for the presence of key components of the WIDA Standards Framework--PRIME V2--the Protocol for Review of Instructional Materials for ELLs.  The WIDA PRIME V2 correlation process identifies how the components of the WIDA 2012 Amplification of the English Language Development Standards, Kindergarten through Grade 12, and the Spanish Language Development (SLD) Standards, Kindergarten through Grade 12 are represented in instructional materials.These materials may include core and supplemental texts, websites and software, and other related materials.

As WIDA PRIME V2's Lead Trainer, I train publishers and correlators seeking to align instructional materials to WIDA's ELD Framework.  The latest version (PRIME V2) brings in the new college and career readiness standards as well as the central component of starting with students' strengths. Please note, however, that WIDA PRIME V2 is not an evaluative tool that judges the effectiveness of published materials, nor does WIDA endorse any particular product.  Rather, we use WIDA PRIME V2 as a protocol to check for key components that promote ELL achievement.

Building Capacity is Key

Even with the most high quality set of instructional materials, I urge educators to not "teach out of the box".  That is, we must know our students and teach responsively to their assets, their needs and their interests.  We also need to take responsibility for our professional development and deepen our capacity to serve our increasingly diverse student population.  Undoubtedly, educators everywhere are pressured to stay on track in terms of what to "cover" and "test" but I ask, Do children like learning?  Do they see themselves as learners?  As we develop and design high quality instructional materials for our schools, let's be sure keep students--and teachers--at the center of our work.  This article and Reading Diversity Tool from Teaching Tolerance can help deepen our thinking and action around making sure students see themselves in instructional materials.

-Sarah Ottow, Director and Lead Coach of Confianza: Educating for ELL Equity.

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