Practical Steps to Supporting English Learners in ELA and Math Classrooms by Laura Austin, Carson City School District, & Crystal Gonzales, English Learners Success Forum

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Classrooms today are likely to have at least one English learner (EL) student. How do we ensure they are learning the same content as other students? How do we ensure that they are achieving to their full potential? This doesn’t get addressed with “just good teaching” but, instead, requires intentional actions and dedicated conviction to adapt curriculum, policies, and practices that move ELs toward college and career readiness.

Reflecting on our early teaching years, we sometimes think, “Wow, if we had known then what we know now.”  With only best intentions, educators often simplified, cut, and redesigned the ELA and math curricula presented to ELs until it was almost unrecognizable in comparison to that which their native English-speaking peers experienced. While it sounds outrageous, these reductive strategies were implemented to protect the perceived vulnerability of ELs from tasks that we thought were too difficult. Now we know this is a huge disservice to ELs, and we must maintain high expectations and must engage ELs in the same grade-level content as their non-EL peers.  

Thus, it is with great admiration and positivity that we regard the work currently being done in districts around the country to provide all educators – teachers, administrators, support staff –  with the support and instructional strategies to promote EL achievement in all areas of the curriculum. More than a mantra, it is increasingly becoming common knowledge among classroom teachers that “we are all teachers of ELs.”

Along with formal training opportunities, teachers are inundated with best practices via technology, social media, professional learning communities and, increasingly, a focus on curricular supports. District accountability for student learning is built in every step of the way with formative and summative assessments for which teachers are asked to demonstrate that ‘all’ students are achieving to high levels. So, what are the most essential instructional practices teachers can carry out to elevate expectations and raise the bar academically for ELs?

The English Learners Success Forum (ELSF), a new organization, was created to provide this support to educators by offering free resources and tools that illustrate strategies and practices that are one link in the chain in leading to extraordinary academic outcomes for ELs. We also work directly with curriculum developers, many of whose materials are used in districts across the country, to be more inclusive of English learner needs in their materials. Standards-aligned materials are a first step as we know how critical this is to student learning. But we also recognize that most of the materials that are in the hands of educators don’t offer insights into supportive practices and strategies that provide ELs access to grade-level content.

ELSF has worked over the last year with over 60 esteemed EL experts and educators to create a set of guidelines for integrating EL supports within English Language Arts and mathematics instructional materials. They were developed to guide teachers, curriculum coaches, and publishers of content in how to integrate high-impact EL practices in core content areas. The Guidelines for Improving English Language Arts Materials for English Learners and the Guidelines for Improving Math Materials for English Learners also contain concrete examples of what the EL practices look like within instructional materials. ELSF then tested these Guidelines with five widely-used ELA and mathematics curriculum developers. Examples of how to integrate EL supports into materials, annotated lessons from our curriculum developer partners, and our Guidelines are all available for free with new resources being developed every week.

So, what does this all mean for educators? We hope you will take a look at the teacher-centered indicators and strategies that are provided in our Guidelines. Below are five ways to get started today to ensure ELs in your classroom are getting what they need:

  1. Compare your instructional materials and instruction to what we know works. Our friends at UnboundEd consistently provide tools, training, and resources on ensuring materials and instruction are aligned to grade-level college- and career-ready standards. We don’t need to explain the importance of this. Attending to the linguistic and academic needs of ELs is just as critical. ELSF has identified key focus areas for language and content development, backed by what we know works. Think about the instructional materials you currently use and check out either this ELA or math tool to see how your lessons meet EL needs. In areas where they fall short, decide to take action. Collaboration is inspirational! If your school has a formal professional learning community structure, seek your administrator’s support in working as part of a grade-level team to integrate the ELSF focus areas into your curriculum and lessons. Informal collaboration works well, too!  Identifying a small group of like-minded peers will have a lasting impact on EL achievement.
  1. Get to know your ELs. Familiarize yourself with your students’ cultural backgrounds and English proficiency levels so that you can personalize your interactions with them from the beginning. Don’t be shy! If you speak even a few words of the native language – use them! I have a very involved parent in Carson City who still recalls that, as principal, my first conversation with her children was one phrase in their native language, “Welcome to your school!” She said that the children from that moment loved their new school and had a positive attitude toward learning in a new language. Be friendly, reach out by making conversation, smile, stop, look, listen – on a daily basis.  Reflect a strong sense of pride in and respect for the various cultures in your classroom. The more you reach out, the more your ELs will feel confident about developing their academic English in your classroom. The converse is I’ve had EL students express that they felt ‘invisible’ in the classroom. This is a loss on two fronts as an awesome teacher and an awesome student miss the opportunity to connect.
  2. Reflect on how your ELs are doing by taking this self-assessment. We may think we’re serving our EL students well based on our own definition of their “progression” (i.e. “they speak so much more English now,” or “they’ve gone up one reading level”). But we must look at how ELs are doing in relation to their non-EL peers – academically, socially, emotionally. When you take this self-assessment, answer honestly and make a plan to grow in at least one area where you felt your ELs aren’t where they should be. Knowing the capacities and the needs of your EL students can enable you to effectively guide them to success.
  1. Amplify, don’t simplify. To more easily analyze the language demands of the unit or lesson so that students are successful in negotiating content and ideas, check out this resource for Analyzing Content and Language Demands. Rather than simplifying content, consider ways to amplify language opportunities for ELs throughout a lesson. By communicating the language expectations for listening, speaking, reading and/or writing, you are giving them the opportunity to focus their efforts and plan for any assistance they may need. Your ELs may have some trepidation about functioning in English in one or more of these areas, but a strong language development framework will support you in helping students develop analytical practices, content knowledge, and language learning simultaneously. This focus on communication format will also be very helpful for native English speakers in your class!
  2. Promote learner agency. As stated earlier, ELs seek the same rigor and high expectations for achievement as their English-speaking peers. A strong motivator is a teacher guiding the EL student to reflect and set goals for his/her own learning. One method for doing this is to provide a self-assessment for students at important junctures and at the end of a learning unit. This metacognitive strategy is valuable for all students and has particular benefit for ELs. ELs as young as 1st grade are often very clear on where their understanding or capabilities in English break down (e.g. a student thinks, ‘I know what it is, but I don’t know how to say it in English’). The use of the self-assessment enables the EL student to check for their understanding against what you, as a teacher, expected students to gain from the unit. It’s a way for them to check that they didn’t miss a ‘big idea’ or objective. As needed, students can then set learning goals to gain mastery of information or skills that are currently challenging. This is useful information for you as you plan for instructional interventions. The self-assessment can serve as a valuable bridge between you and your EL students as it communicates your expectation that all students will achieve to high levels and, with your feedback and support, assures your EL students that you will be there to guide them all the way.


About the authors

Laura Austin

Laura Austin is Title III Director for the Carson City School District English Learner Program where her work focuses on the development and implementation of curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices that support EL academic achievement. Her passion for EL education includes the design of teacher-centered staff development that enables teachers of ELs to create an inclusive learning community and build an authentic home-school connection.  Her teaching experience includes K-12 EL teacher and classroom teacher in a bilingual (Spanish)/bicultural setting. She has served as Principal of a PreK – 5 Title I school. Laura received a B.A. in English from Mills College and holds an M.Ed. and Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from the University of Nevada Reno. She was born and raised in Los Angeles, California and lives in Minden, Nevada. Laura currently serves as an ELSF Reviewer.

Crystal Gonzales

Crystal Gonzales is the Executive Director of ELSF where she collaborates with national experts, organizations, educators and content developers to increase the supply of quality of K-12 instructional materials that meet the needs of the growing EL population. Previously, as a program officer at the Helmsley Charitable Trust, she collaborated with national K-12 organizations with a focus on teacher professional development, quality instructional materials, and advocacy for underserved communities. In this role, she worked with EL experts to elevate the needs of ELs among grantees and her grantmaking peers. Crystal began her career as a 4th-grade bilingual teacher in Houston ISD. She is currently a member of Education Leaders of Color, Latinos for Education, and is a Pahara NextGen fellow. Crystal holds a master’s in Social Service Administration from the University of Chicago and a B.A. from the University of New Mexico. She is a proud native New Mexican and currently resides in NYC.