Designing Effective Instructional Materials for ELLs

In August 2014, the Council of Great City Schools published their Framework for Raising Expectations and Instructional Rigor for English Language Learners, which I and Course Crafters use as a guidepost for designing curricula and instructional materials for ELLs and their teachers.

The Council of Great City Schools has a huge stake in the academic success of ELLs: their 67 school districts collectively enroll over 1.2 million of the country’s ELLs, or 26% of the nation’s total. After NCLB, and now reiterated in ESSA, all ELLs, K-12, are held to the same rigorous academic, college- and career-ready standards as their English-proficient peers. Helping school districts meet this goal requires those of us who design curricula and instructional materials for ELLs and professional development for teachers of ELLs—language educators and, increasingly, mainstream classroom teachers—to reexamine the way we are looking at developing ELLs’ academic language proficiency. We’re not there yet, but we’ll get there if we examine and pay heed to the suggestions in the CGCS Framework.

In the Preface to the Framework, the CGCS states that in conducting their work, they found that many urban school districts reported “significant difficulty finding high-quality, rigorous, grade-level instructional materials that are written for ELLs at varying levels of English proficiency.”

The document lays out what they call “Re-Envisioning English Language Development,” or “ELD 2.0). ELD 2.0 is responding to the reality that districts face:

  1. Ensuring that ELLs across all levels of English language proficiency “can access and fully engage” with the rigorous grade-level ELA and math standards, the Next Gen Science Standards, and the College and Career Ready Standards. This means developing ELLs’ academic skills and discipline-specific content knowledge.
  2. Ensuring that ELLs are developing their English and “closing the academic achievement gap.” This means developing ELLs’ academic language proficiency.

New language development standards, such as WIDA <> and the California ELD standards <>, anchor the language demands for ELLs—listening, speaking, reading, writing—to the rigorous academic requirements that all ELL students must meet. The language learning experience that ELLs must have, therefore, must be “grounded in a theory of action that affirms that English language learners are capable of engaging in complex thinking, reading, comprehension of complex texts, and writing about complex material.” Affirming this as educators is critical.

The essential components for effective instruction and materials for ELLs are provided in the CGCS document. They include guidelines and checklists for schools for program model and delivery options, effective instructional practice, and—of great interest to me—for evaluating instructional materials for ELLs. The non-negotiable criteria they cite for evaluating materials for ELLs have become a benchmark for us at Course Crafters as we develop new materials:

  • For ELLs, non-negotiable criteria revolve around maintaining grade-level rigor, building knowledge while acquiring and building academic language (in English and/or other languages), and cultural relevance.
  • The ELL-specific non-negotiable criteria seek to identify materials that

– Provide ELLs with the necessary rigor in language development

– Provide ELLs with full access to grade-level instructional content

– Integrate scaffolding for ELLs without compromising rigor or content

– Provide ELLs access to text that increases in complexity, with intentional connections 
between ESL and ELA instruction, all anchored in the CCSS.

Those of us who have worked with English learners for decades know that ELLs are a diverse group of learners, who come to school with a range of language and cultural backgrounds, educational experiences, and levels of English language proficiency and literacy skills. We also know that districts nationwide offer a range of program models and instructional practices, and that many are challenged by their fast-growing ELL student populations. But we also know that ELLs bring many assets to the classroom, starting with their home language; in fact, changing our mindset by referring to ELLs as “emergent bilinguals” is an important first step in this asset-based thinking. (I’ll speak more of this in blogs to come.)

We also know without question that ELLs, like their non-ELL peers, if provided with effective instruction and support, will excel.

Lise Ragan