Many educators incorporate special techniques to help English Language Learners (ELLs) in their classrooms, but a more disciplined approach to teaching ELLs is needed if these students are to improve on measures of academic achievement.
In a recent study in The Journal of Educational Research, California State University researchers say what is needed is for educators to use a research-based model of these strategies and techniques, not only to teach content but also to help ELLs acquire proficiency in English.
The authors have developed a model for delivering instruction to ELLs that has been funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. The model uses sheltered instruction (SI) techniques. The researchers report on results from testing that model in one West Coast and two East Coast public school districts with 346 intervention students and 94 comparison students.
“The goal of high academic standards for all students is laudable, but the way to accomplish that goal must be reexamined because the achievement of ELLs is poor at present,” the authors write.
Sheltered instruction model
One strategy for teaching academic content to ELLs is sheltered instruction. Some SI techniques include slower speech and clear enunciation, use of visuals and demonstrations, scaffolded instruction, targeted vocabulary development, connections to student experiences, student- to-student interaction, adaptation of materials, and use of supplementary materials.
“Although most educators agree on these features as being important for SI for ELLs,” the researchers write,” there has not been an explicitmodel for effectively delivering sheltered lessons nor many investigations in which researchers measure what constitutes an effective sheltered lesson.
“Without a sheltered model, language development is apt to be disregarded as a result of the pressure that teachers face to cover the curriculum,” the researchers write.
The Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) was originally developed as a research observation instrument or a rubric that allowed researchers to score teachers on how much and how well they used SI strategies. Later, researchers worked with practicing middle school teachers so that they could use it as an instruction tool.
More systematic approach needed
The SIOP has 30 features reflecting the best practices for helping ELLs in learning content and in language acquisition. Some of the features include clearly defining content and language objectives for students, linking concepts with students’ background experience, emphasizing key vocabulary and providing activities for students to apply content and language knowledge in the classroom. The SIOP assists teachers in using these research-based techniques more consistently and systematically.
Nineteen intervention teachers were trained in use of the SIOP model for one or two years during a few 3-day sessions during the summers and during meetings in the course of the school year. Teachers were videotaped in their classrooms three times–fall, winter, and spring- and provided with feedback. The three comparison teachers had years of experience teaching ELLs but did not receive staff development on the SIOP model.
“Although teachers in the comparison group were competent, experienced teachers of ELLs, they did not have the specific instructional goals that the SIOP project afforded (i.e., to systematically examine features of instruction, highlight academic language needs of students, and work to improve practice in discreet ways),” the authors say.
To measure students’ academic achievement, researchers used an expository writing assessment (from the Illinois Measurement of Annual Growth in English IMAGE) Researchers concluded that ELL students in the intervention group made greater gains in expository writing, as measured by pretests and posttests, than comparison students. The intervention students had lower pretest scores and slightly higher posttest scores, which meant they made greater gains than the comparison students.
“We believe that finding is especially important because expository writing is one of the most challenging academic areas for ELL students, and it is the type of writing that is fundamental to academic literacy,” the authors write.
“School Reform and Standards-Based Education: A Model for English-Language Learners” The Journal of Educational Research Volume 99, Number 4 March/April 2006 Pps. 195-210.