Margarita Calderón explains why developing a whole-school approach
to English learners’ academic achievement is key to Common Core implementation
Every school district in every state has or soon will have a significant contingent of English language learners (ELLs). As language-minority student populations grow, all schools need to be prepared to teach them. In the past, outcomes for ELLs were the responsibility of one or two ESL teachers in a school or the bilingual school down the road. However, as a consequence of the Common Core State Standards, individual state standards, Race to the Top, and other initiatives, all mainstream teachers and site administrators are now responsible for all students.
One trend in many schools has been the use of push-in and pull-out ESL approaches to provide “EL services.” Realistically, when ELLs are pulled out for language, they miss out on learning content and on socialization with mainstream students. When their ESL teachers push in, the ELLs feel singled out and frequently withdraw from any meaningful learning during that intervention time. The programs also create other problems for teachers when schools do not allow quality preparation time for mainstream and ESL/bilingual teachers to meet and plan their co-teaching. Team teaching efforts become disjointed and ineffective.
The problem with both approaches is that ELLs get very little quality instructional time, English language development practice, or mastery of content. This can also lead to a school being in noncompliance with federal regulations. Oral production is key for ELLs. Yet, they have become the silent generation. Teachers tell us that they are in their “silent period” — too shy, too embarrassed to speak. “In order to respect their silence, we do not hold them accountable for oral, reading, or writing production until they are ready.” By the time these students are in middle and high school, they are turned off to learning and don’t want to ask or respond to questions.
When we interviewed students across the country, we discovered that they had never received any type of explicit instruction on formulating questions, nor any discourse protocols for explaining math or science processes or historical events and implications. They had not been exposed to reading-comprehension-skills development or writing strategies for those processes either. They knew how to decode — they could read aloud fairly fluently — but could not comprehend what they were reading. Thus, the silent generation has gone through elementary and secondary schools, sitting quietly in the back of the room, barely passing from grade to grade.
Benefits for Schools
When ELL learning outcomes become the focus, professional learning deepens educators’ content knowledge, pedagogical facilitation, and understanding of how ELLs learn language, literacy, and content at the same time. Student outcomes are contingent on continuous professional learning. Students and teachers benefit when schools and school districts commit to educator performance standards that delineate the knowledge, skills, practices, and dispositions of highly effective educators of ELLs. In fact, the whole school benefits.
Challenging standards for students and high expectations also have a positive effect on changing educator practice and increasing student achievement (August et al, 2008). Continuous professional learning, in turn, supports effective implementation and results. The whole school needs to do whatever it takes to break old habits and see professional development and collaboration (DuFour et al, 2010) as all-inclusive student achievement.
The implementation of EL programs is problematic when a reductionist approach is taken. Without appropriate instruction. in small-incidence schools, with fewer than 100 ELLs, there will be small effects, and for schools with more than 100 ELLs, there will be dismal effects. This calls for extensive preparation for all core-content teachers on how to integrate speaking, listening, reading, and writing throughout the day. We have found that this type of instruction benefits all students, not only ELLs.
Professional development begins with whole-school program structures. From teacher and student interviews, we found insufficient rigor in K-12 instruction as one of the main reasons we have so many long-term ELLs in the upper grades. These are some guiding questions schools use to gauge the rigor and effectiveness of existing program structures in the school:
Rigor and Effectiveness
1. Do teachers do most of the reading for ELLs? Do ELLs rarely get to read during their early stages of language development? (This delays their exposure to academic language and subject-matter concepts.)
2. Do ELLs do mostly independent or silent reading (of books that have been leveled with formulas for mainstream readers that might keep them from advancing levels quickly)? Do they do “pretend reading” and try to guess content from pictures? (ELLs need explicit instruction on reading — specific to their range of needs and focused on comprehension skills.)
3. Are K-12 teachers teaching 3,000 words in English per year within the context of learning all subjects? (There are too many silent classroom assignments, and scant interaction opportunities to practice vocabulary within oral discourse, reading, and writing assignments.)
4. Is vocabulary taught in isolation, without connections to discussions, reading, writing, and content learning? (Vocabulary is a means to comprehend text, write cohesively, and master content concepts and should be applied within those contexts.)
5. Does writing consist of canned mini-workshops or worksheets with writing prompts? (Writing needs to be developed in tandem with the vocabulary and concepts ELLs are learning in the texts they have been reading.)
6. Do secondary teachers teach vocabulary/discourse, reading, and writing strategies within their content areas, or do they feel the urgency to “cover” their content? (Ways of integrating language, literacy, and content can be the focus of whole-school professional development.)
7. Do bilingual/dual-language programs keep students in the primary language throughout elementary grades without teaching sufficient English to succeed in secondary schools? (There should be a balance and sufficient rich language and literacy development in both languages.)
8. Are only ESL or bilingual teachers held responsible for ELLs? (When all teachers and administrators participate in year-long learning focused on ELLs, all students improve, not only ELLs.)
9. Is professional learning around EL instruction reduced to a couple of teachers attending a workshop and then “training other teachers” in one- or two-hour sessions at the school? (Comprehensive training for all teachers, follow-up systematic coaching, and continuous learning about ELLs in the schools’ professional learning communities is the norm in excellent schools.)
Whole-School Evidence-Based Learning
Through our studies and work with schools, we have found common instructional, professional-development, and school-effectiveness features that work across school settings, content areas, and grade levels (Calderón 2007; Calderón & Minaya-Rowe, 2011; Calderón (Ed.), 2012). My associates and I have also observed many classrooms throughout the country for various research studies, panels, projects, and the U.S. Department of Justice.
The ways schools are addressing whole-school professional development include:
• At least five days of professional development right before school starts focusing on integrating academic language, reading comprehension, and text-based writing.
• Expert coaching once a month for all teachers.
• Site coaches and administrators shadowing the expert coaches during the morning observations, coaching the teachers in the afternoons, and receiving feedback on their coaching.
• Teachers, coaches, and administrators using the same observation protocols focusing on reading and writing instruction.
• After one year of quality implementation, some of the “stars” become trainers and help sustain the quality of the professional development.
The instructional components that are implemented and supported by administrators and coaches include:
Academic language/vocabulary for discourse, reading, and writing. Explicit instruction of text-based vocabulary is necessary for students to have those robust vocabularies that can be used throughout their daily learning routines. Whether gifted or simply learning English as a second or third language, all students need explicit and varied instruction to build solid word power. Teachers need to provide rich language experiences and direct instruction in vocabulary and word-learning strategies so that students learn 3,000 to 5,000 words a year.
What We Have Observed in Schools
Explicit vocabulary instruction is rare in most classrooms, particularly in secondary schools. There are three prevalent approaches to vocabulary: (a) teachers send students to the dictionary with long lists of words; (b) teachers spend 15 to 30 minutes teaching one word by asking students to copy definitions and sentences and draw pictures, long exercises with only one word, or by generating complicated word-webs that leave students more confused about the meaning; and (c) teachers provide no instruction on word knowledge before jumping into reading or writing but as an after-reading activity through worksheets. The children do not practice using new words orally with peers in any of these approaches. Students “help” each other by either copying or correcting, but not by constructing.
Essentially, teaching vocabulary should be pervasive throughout each school. The more teachers involved in systematic vocabulary instruction, the faster ELLs and all students learn and do well in their core subjects and, yes, on tests. We have seen evidence of accelerated learning in schools when all the teachers and administrators applied and sustained these premises.
Explicit Instruction on Reading in All Subjects
Educating the full range of ELLs and low-achieving students in intellectually demanding programs will require education professionals to learn new ways of teaching reading in the content areas, not only in language arts or ESL. Teaching reading comprehension is one of the most complex instructional endeavors. Yet without reading comprehension, students cannot learn core subject matter or meet the challenges of the Common Core State Standards or Science, Technology, and Math Standards (STEM), such as analyzing multiple interpretations of a story, analyzing the effectiveness of the structure or argument, providing claims, developing solutions, and/or summarizing the experiment and results.
When ELLs are given the opportunity to apply a reading-comprehension strategy (e.g., summarization, close reading of different text structures) in all their subject areas — with math, science, and social studies, as well as language arts — it reinforces the knowledge of the strategy. Students work in pairs to practice reading aloud with peers to apply the strategy. After reading each paragraph, reading partners stop and summarize verbally what they have read to retain key information, practice new words and phrases, and fix any comprehension problems by rereading. Naturally, the teacher models how to go about doing all this before students apply.
The Reading We Have Observed in Classrooms
We have observed two prevalent reading approaches in most K-12 classrooms — silent/independent reading and teachers reading. Silent reading does not benefit ELLs. One can never tell if they are comprehending or just “pretend reading.” In other classrooms, we saw teachers read aloud to students so that students could answer low-level questions. Teachers read novels to students in some middle schools. This kept the students quiet with their heads on their desks, until the teachers asked them a question. Some teachers asked students to take notes while the teacher read. This was followed by a handful of students sharing from their notes. In all these cases, students were not reading and were not being taught to read. These were general education classrooms with ELLs. All the students in these classrooms would have benefitted from quality reading-instructional practices. Expediting Reading Comprehension for English Language Learners (ExC-ELL) is a professional development program that was developed to show core-content teachers, and ELL teachers, how to teach reading across all subject areas (Calderón 2012). ExC-ELL nests reading in vocabulary and discourse, and culminates with text-based writing.
How Writing Comes Together in Schools
Writing improves dramatically when teachers use the texts that the students are reading as models. Core-content teachers first point out or model the type of writing they are requiring (e.g., expository/procedural, persuasive, essays, or research texts); they explain how to edit for each type and how the teacher will grade according to proficiency levels. For example, a newcomer to the country may have good writing skills in the primary language, but the style may be very different from what our schools require. A long-term ELL, who has been in U.S. schools since kindergarten, may have oral fluency but no literacy skills in either the first or second language. An approach to writing we have piloted with good results follows an eight-step sequence adapted for ELLs from previous research by Graham and Hebert (2010).
1. Pre-Teach Most Important Vocabulary. Select key words that you want to see students use for writing assignments and grading (e.g., words for specificity, transition words, phrases, connectors, compound sentences).
2. Develop Background Knowledge. Students from different cultures approach writing differently, and they also have different schooling experiences. Develop background knowledge or explanations of unfamiliar concepts, structures, and mechanics for writing by using the texts they are reading as a mentor texts.
3. Describe It. Discuss and present the writing strategy (e.g., arguments, claims, counterclaims, thesis statement, setting a problem, or using narrative techniques), its purpose, and benefits, and the grading rules of finished products. Consider differentiated grading scales for ELLs, depending on their five levels of English proficiency.
4. Model It. Model the writing you want them to emulate. Model each phase of the strategy. Show examples from the texts they are reading.
5. Support It. Support or scaffold the students’ use of the strategy until they can apply it with few or no supports. Model self-regulated learning and the use of mnemonic devices.
6. Ample Use of Student Interaction. Model and implement collaborative and cooperative writing strategies to plan, draft, revise, and edit compositions.
7. Differentiated Assessment. Assess the point of entry for writing, and continue measuring the learning progression of writing.
The writing we have observed consisted of either filling in worksheets that accompany textbooks or doing “writing workshops” which lack evidence of being effective with ELLs. We rarely observed explicit writing instruction in all its basic steps, nor writing connected to what students had been reading. Explicit word/discourse instruction in preparation for writing was negligible. When we visited second-grade classrooms with large numbers of ELLs, we looked at student writing posted around the walls and read examples such as: I like my pet. I like the ears. I like the nose. I like the color brown. When we visited ninth grade classrooms, we read examples such as: I like photosynthesis. I like analyses. I like procedures. The posted writing samples in Spanish were lengthier but contained many grammatical, punctuation, and spelling errors. The higher the grade, the larger the number of errors on student papers posted.
The strongest message we can share is that reading, writing, and oral language proficiency are best developed simultaneously through rigorous but caring instruction. All students across the country need further development in reading, writing, and oracy — not only the ELLs. Success leaps out when a whole school commits to this attainment.
August, D., Beck, I. L., Calderón, M., Francis, D.J., Lesaux, N. K., & Shanahan, T. (2008). “Instruction and professional development.” In August, D. & T. Shanahan (Eds.), Developing reading and writing in second language learners. Lessons from the Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth.
Calderón, M. E. (Ed.) (2012). Breaking Through: Effective Instruction & Assessment for Reaching English Learners. An Anthology. Indianapolis, IN: Solution Tree.
Calderón, M. E. (2011). Teaching Reading and Comprehension to English Learners, K-5. Indianapolis, IN: Solution Tree.
Calderón M.E. & Minaya-Rowe, L. (2011). Preventing Long-Term English Language Learners: Transforming schools to meet core standards. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Calderón, M. E., (2007). Teaching reading to English language learners, Grades 6-12: A framework for improving achievement in the content areas. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
DuFour R., Eaker, R. & Karhanek, G. (2010). Raising the bar and closing the gap: Whatever it takes. Indianapolis, IN: Solution Tree.
Graham, S. & Hebert, M. (2010). Writing to read: Evidence for how writing can improve reading. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellence in Education.
Margarita Calderón is professor emerita, School of Education, Johns Hopkins University, and president of Margarita Calderón & Associates.