Most districts face an uphill challenge when it comes to English Language Learners, or ELLs. Not only are there language barriers, but also the numbers of such students are skyrocketing. The federal No Child Left Behind act further squeezes schools, because it requires that ELL students pass standardized tests in English within their first two years of living in the United States.
Another challenge is training. Most classroom teachers aren't prepared to meet the instructional needs of ELLs, as pre-professional programs don't focus on instructional strategies for English as a Second Language (ESL).
But that is changing. Some districts, such as San Marcos (Texas) Consolidated School District, are addressing the challenge with hefty investments in ESL professional development.
Last fall the Texas district began the process of training content teachers, ESL specialists and principals in the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) model, one of a few professional development models that target ELLs. "SIOP changes the way teachers teach," explains Niki Konecki, coordinator of bilingual/ ESL and innovative programs in San Marcos. The program is designed to help kids simultaneously learn grade-level content in any subject, such as math or science, while they also learn English. Today San Marcos has 70 students in high school who are immersed in English language and content vocabulary in all classes. The students are mixed with native English speakers in classes taught by SIOP-trained teachers, who use techniques that help all kids master vocabulary. This new model is a shift from traditional ESL methods that segregated language learners until they demonstrated basic English mastery.
In a geometry class taught by a SIOP-trained teacher, for example, students might review terms such as angle, hypotenuse and obtuse in a conga line-with students pairing up to define each term. Kids would then rotate pairs because this would provide multiple, varied exposures to essential terms. How student A defines a term will differ slightly from how student B defines it; English learners benefit from repetition and varied use of language. Students speak, listen and digest to accelerate content vocabulary acquisition.
San Marcos ensures that ELLs are placed among their 24 SIOP teachers. The new approach is a stark contrast to traditional ESL methods centered on pulling kids out of the mainstream classroom to teach them English. After such students had demonstrated basic English mastery they were moved to mainstream classrooms for instruction in academic content. The problem, says Melissa Castillo, senior national faculty at the SIOP Institute, is that students fell further behind in content area classes as they learned English. Today ELLs are expected to simultaneously acquire language and learn content and prove it on standardized tests.
The Significant Challenge
Census data from 2000 indicate that the ELL population is dispersing beyond traditional destinations such as California, New York, Texas and Florida. Indiana has seen a 400 percent increase in ELL students in the last three years, says Castillo. Mexico and Latin America account for about half of English learners in the United States, and another 25 percent are Asian. Many districts grapple with a panoply of languages and cultures. For example, ELLs in Clifton (N.J.) Public Schools speak 68 different languages.
NCLB exacerbates the impact of the demographic shifts. In the past, students learning English often were exempt from testing. Now pupils must be tested in their first year of U.S. residency, although some states do allow schools to suppress the first year's scores. But by their second year of residency, ELLs are expected to perform as monolingual English speakers, says Janina Kusielewicz, district supervisor of bilingual education and basic skills in Clifton Public Schools.
In the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a mere 29 percent of eighth-grade ELLs scored at or above the basic achievement level in reading, compared to 75 percent of native English-speaking students. Similar gaps were demonstrated in mathematics.
The demographic and accountability changes translate into a massive challenge.
Districts need to employ tools to boost performance of such students, and professional development is an important component of the solution. General teachers typically aren't prepared to teach ELLs, says Konecki. Many have fewer than eight hours of training in ESL methods, according to the 1999-2000 Schools and Staffing Survey, published by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2002.
And school districts are trying to fill the gap. Ten years ago the majority of requests to the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), which offers various ESL professional development programs, focused on specific ESL staff . Today about 75 percent of professional development targets mainstream K12 teachers, says Betty Ansin Smallwood, manager of pre-K12 services at CAL and a pre-K12 ESL/ELL specialist. And ESL teachers need assistance, too, as ESL programs move from self-contained pods, or pullout programs, to collaborative programs with classroom teachers. Administrators also need a hand in training, as they need to understand the issues and nurture systemic change.
The SIOP Model
A number of districts are turning to SIOP, a scientifically validated professional development program that trains teachers in techniques of sheltered instruction, which emphasizes content vocabulary and language acquisition. Post-training coaching is a key part of the program, and the professional development provider can set up several coaching sessions after the initial training. Trainers, who are experts in ESL and SIOP, may double as coaches. But some coaches can also be district teachers or administrators trained as SIOP coaches.
The program introduces teachers to eight components of sheltered instruction, including preparation, lesson delivery and review/assessment. The protocol can help all pupils master academic vocabulary of scientific terms, such as chlorophyll or photosynthesis, while addressing language objectives for ELLs by providing teachers with a set of strategies to modify content to make it accessible for students. For example, if test data shows a high school student reads at a third-grade level and cannot comprehend the biology textbook, SIOP helps teachers differentiate instruction so that the student learns the content in an alternate way that takes the student's language ability, background knowledge and learning style into account. Depending on the student's needs, the teacher might highlight important points, label pictures or turn to multimedia options such as computer simulations.
The beauty and challenge of SIOP is its intensity. It requires long-term, sustained professional development not a one-stop workshop. Districts often begin with a three-day summer training. "It's difficult to affect change in three days; how districts implement SIOP from there is variable," admits Castillo, but the most successful districts follow up with several additional workshops and ongoing coaching during the school year. SIOP coaches visit classrooms on a regular basis to model lessons and provide feedback on instruction.
Clifton schools started training teachers in SIOP in 2003 and have built a self-sustaining program with five SIOP coaches on staff . Osseo (Minn.) Area Schools implemented professional learning communities to extend and enhance the program, with teachers meeting regularly to share assessment, data and research and learning from each other to improve classroom practices.
Coaching is a multiyear process; Clifton teachers trained in SIOP three years ago still receive support from the coaches. And that level of training and coaching isn't cheap, sometimes stretching into the $20,000 range in a single year, which forces some districts to skimp on coaching.
But data shows that SIOP works. The Center for Research, Diversity, Education and Excellence (CREDE) tested SIOP between 1996 and 2003 across the United States to demonstrate that students with SIOP-trained teachers outperform similar groups of students. For example, researchers compared two groups of sixth- to eighth-grade ELLs and showed in 1998- 1999 that those taught by SIOP-trained teachers gained 2.9 points on a modified Illinois Measurement of Annual Growth in English test compared to 0.7 points for the control group. And the average total score for SIOP students was 16.5 out of 25, compared to 15.3 for the control group.
Clifton has also seen the students' content area grades improve. Konecki predicts that San Marcos' ELL students will improve previous standardized test pass rates, which hovered in the 40 percent range before SIOP training. "SIOP benefits aren't limited to student performance," says Kusielewicz. Students receive consistent instruction in their core classes, and teachers can more readily connect and communicate with each other by using similar content and language objectives. The program provides a framework for cross-curricular communication. A math teacher, for example, might note that an ELL student responds well to a particular type of modified assessment, such as reading test questions aloud, and share that strategy with other teachers.
Scientific validation is key, as NCLB specifies that districts should use research-based or scientifically validated practices proven to have an impact on student achievement.
The CAL Model
Despite the current interest in SIOP, it is not the only model, nor is it always successful. Long-term professional development can be costly. Districts may try to trim costs by skimping on coaching, but if teachers don't have a deep understanding of the model, they may not apply strategies correctly and fail to realize expected gains in content and English language acquisition. What's more, SIOP is fairly rigid. If teachers adapt or tweak the model in the classroom the scientific results no longer apply.
Districts can train teachers in elements of the program without committing to the entire model, as many of the program's principles are covered in other ESL professional development programs.
CAL offers SIOP training as one option. But it also offers other professional development programs, including Enhancing English Language Learning in Elementary Classrooms and Enriching Content Classes for Secondary ESOL Students. These are more like ESL 101 that introduce K12 classroom teachers to ESL and can cover a range of topics from language acquisition to culture to reading to content area strategies. Rather than adapting to and implementing the SIOP model, the district can request a program built around its specific needs. For example, one school may want to train all teachers in strategies to boost core vocabulary.
CAL can incorporate SIOP elements or provide full-fl edged training if requested. Ansin Smallwood explains, "When we first receive a request for ELL professional development, we conduct an informal needs assessment. We clarify need, time, audience and other concerns, such as related district programs. Based on this dialogue, we suggest a variety of training options and let the client decide."
The preliminary needs assessment is an important first step, says Nahed Chapman, ESL/bilingual supervisor in St. Louis (Mo.) Public Schools. "Professional development should be tailored to the needs of the school," Chapman says.
St. Louis started its professional development process a few years ago with a survey of ESL and content teachers. The district decided to take a two-pronged approach. Most district schools opted for CAL's Enhancing or Enriching programs. "It's more flexible than SIOP and fit better with our school culture," explains Chapman. One St. Louis school just completed the first year of a two-year SIOP pilot. "We plan to evaluate both programs at the end of the second year," says Chapman. Earlyanecdotal data in schools using either the Enriching or Enhancing models are "very favorable," and the district hopes to expand training in the coming school year. Because SIOP demands longer training of teachers, Chapman and her colleagues do not have a solid grasp on its impact. The district also is growing a cadre of site-based trainers who can promptly respond to needs among teachers such as feedback on instruction.
State of Transition
Districts need to meet the needs of greater numbers of students learning the English language, guiding them toward content and language mastery in a fairly short time. Most classroom teachers, however, are not prepared for the demographic and accountability shifts. Although training and coaching is expensive, neglecting the need for long-term professional development processes and systems will be more expensive, says Joy Peyton, CAL vice president. Without a clear path toward instructional change, most teachers lack the tools to meet the needs of ELLs, and this ever increasing population of students is likely to continue to flounder.
Lisa Fratt is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin.