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How Blended Learning Works in ELL Instruction

Classroom interaction, combined with online activities, can greatly accelerate the learning process and reduce the time to English language proficiency for ESL students

A blended learning approach to English Language Learner instruction has been demonstrated to produce better results, and more quickly than classroom instruction only. Thesys International has developed an Acquired English Proficiency program that utilizes blended learning to improve reading, speaking, and writing skills for ESL students. The program emphasizes academic English and better prepares them for mainstream courses in much shorter time than the national average. This web seminar, originally broadcast on September 17, 2013, addressed Thesys’ philosophy of effective ELL instruction, how traditional models of ELL instruction compare to contemporary models, and how blended learning can improve reclassification rates of ELL students.

Alan Rudi  
Principal Solutions Strategist
Thesys International

The role of Thesys International is to develop digital curriculum for blended learning environments. Blended learning, a combination of teacher instruction and web 2.0 technology, works well to advance ELL students at a faster rate, enabling them to be “mainstreamed” for all of their learning sooner. What we have experienced at Thesys is that the connection of different modalities in the learning experience really drives improved learning. In our schools, about 66 percent of students are from countries outside of the US. To more rapidly prepare our students for mainstream classes, we have constructed the Acquired English Proficiency (AEP) curriculum.

Brenda Huey-Rosas 
Fairmont Schools

I began my career at Cornerstone Academy in 2005, where I built an ESL program and then subsequently moved to Fairmont Schools in 2009 and authored their AEP program. At Cornerstone, I faced the challenge of teaching English to 5th-12th grade students in one classroom. Their command of the English language varied greatly and they did not share common native languages. I had to develop three levels of curriculum for one classroom and create interactive participatory activities. When I moved to Fairmont, the ESL curriculum contained fiction and nonfiction works that were not relevant to Asian students, who made up the majority of the student population in my classes.

The curriculum also lacked the academic vocabulary that is necessary to reclassify students at the rate needed to move them into IB and AP courses. Additionally, it did not incorporate the use of technology in the classroom. After identifying the needs of the students and the classroom, I approached Thesys about creating a program that evolved into the AEP curriculum. I wanted an ESL curriculum that was built around an ESL philosophy of content-based instruction (CBI), communicative language teaching (CLT), and blended learning.

I wanted a program that incorporated technology inside and outside the classroom and contained materials for beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels. It was important to me to target academic English and reading, writing, and speaking to prepare students for success in mainstream courses. Themes needed to relate to the learners to keep their interest, so it also was necessary to incorporate global issues into materials. Content-based instruction (CBI) is about developing English proficiency through content. The content can focus on global issues, history topics, economics, science, and American cultural topics. Content themes are selected for their relevance to the students to encourage impromptu speaking, elicit discussion, and encourage debate inside the classroom.

Also, knowing that students who practice their English increase their proficiency level, I designed courses to increase classroom discussions. I also believe strongly in communicative language teaching (CLT), where students communicate meaning through speaking and writing and are encouraged to share opinions to develop English proficiency. The philosophy here is that fluency is more important than correctness. At the advanced levels, grammar is refined and word choice becomes important, but fluency is the primary target at the beginning and intermediate levels. The teacher is the facilitator; there is not a lot of lecture time.

My approach is student-centered, with many participatory activities to elicit unrehearsed speech. Vocabulary and reading must be practiced, not just memorized. The culminating assessment is a writing project, which also includes technology and a spoken presentation to incorporate as many skills as possible. Students can use our AEP curriculum to interact with technology inside and outside the classroom. One activity I utilize is the online discussion board, where students can post responses and reply to each other. Students can review vocabulary through PowerPoint presentations and audio on the computer. This allows me a lot more class time for practice in speaking, sharing ideas and opinions, unrehearsed speeches, and interaction with each other.

I piloted this AEP program at Fairmont Prep with beginning and low-intermediate ELL students in 2012. Overall, Fairmont saw a 0.8 level increase in English proficiency per semester based on a six-point scale from the SLATE test by ITEP. Students moved from beginning to intermediate in less than a year. With our previous curriculum, we had a two- to three-year program for ELL students. My students did more homework at home because of increased accountability with the LMS. They also said they knew more about world issues and spoke about them more with their homestay families and other students. Eighty-four percent of our students moved from level one and 1.5 to level 2.5 or 3 by November of the pilot year.

By April, 44 percent were at level 3 or higher; which meant they had moved from beginning to mainstream in less than a year. With the previous curriculum, nearly none of our students were able to move into mainstream classes at the end of one year. After seeing the results of the pilot, I rebuilt their entire ELL program for junior and high school students based on the AEP curriculum. Today, Fairmont brings 130-150 students per year through this program and then into mainstream courses. So far, teachers have commented that their students have been progressing at an accelerated rate and their students are more engaged than they were previously.

Dan Fichtner 
Palos Verdes Peninsula USD

Palos Verdes Peninsula USD piloted a six-week AEP program this past summer. I provided instruction during that period and found the topics were culturally relevant to teens, which motivated them to do more speaking, reading, and writing. My students worked on their vocabulary online then had impromptu speaking sessions in class using the vocabulary they had just learned. The online discussion boards worked well because it resulted in greater teacher and student interaction; students can demonstrate fluency with the topics of interest. AEP also focuses on literacy and oracy. There were varied listening and speaking activities, so students never got bored because of repetitious tasks. Voice board activities allowed students to speak on the computer at home or in the classroom. Teachers could then play back and evaluate the students’ speech. This was complemented with classroom activities, such as impromptu speech time that let students incorporate academic language.

AEP is also easy to use, for both teachers and students. Teachers and students can readily use the functions because the LMS is very intuitive. Student-to-student and teacher-to-student interaction is assisted by the online programs. I had great results given the time allotted. With only 100 hours overall, and about 24 hours devoted to computer work, speaking skills, including impromptu speech, increased. I also found that AEP develops productive and expressive and receptive language.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please go to: