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January 23, 2020

An Asset-Based Approach to Support ELL Success

Instructional Strategies
An asset-based approach to teaching English language learners is about creating a culture where we acknowledge strengths and expect success. It's the shared vision everyone in a district must adopt before we can hope to set relevant learning goals or implement worthwhile instructional strategies for ELLs.
This is the approach we've taken in Albuquerque Public Schools, the largest district in New Mexico with nearly 82,000 students in 143 schools. Two-thirds of our students are Hispanic, we have learners from 23 different Native American communities, we're a refugee resettlement area, and nearly 17 percent of kids in our schools are classified as English language learners. I was myself an ELL, and linguistic and academic supports were noticeably absent from my education. Once I became a teacher, I noticed not much had changed since my days as a student. The district's resources and planning hadn't yet caught up with ELLs' unique needs. They didn't have quality English language development instruction or appropriate linguistic scaffolds. Some ELL students were not scheduled in English language development (ELD) classes, and those who were did not have equal or equitable access to standard resources found in most English Language Arts classes, such as textbooks and computers. Many long-term ELLs spent six years or more receiving English language instruction without exiting ELL status, which is evidence of a broken system.
It was close to impossible to address these issues as a classroom teacher, but I did what I could within my sphere of influence. I strived to push my students and refused to coddle them. I encouraged them to stretch their academic skills by reading literature, debating complex and polarizing ideas, and developing voice through writing. I also believed in their right to a rigorous education in their home language—a right denied to me—and taught students to see the academic value in their home languages and cultures.

Back to Basics

What we needed was a districtwide plan to improve instruction for ELLs. When I became the senior director of language and cultural equity, I knew the first step was to change mindsets. ELLs must be a priority of all district leaders and stakeholders. When leadership lacks an advocacy and equity lens, history is doomed to repeat itself.
Our approach now includes supporting linguistic and academic development together, including oral language development and explicit literacy development, along with instruction in academic uses of English, writing skills, and relevant texts that reflect students' identities and experiences (Sharma & Christ, 2017). These foundational elements lead to improved academic language development, which enables ELLs to participate in classroom discussions, to better articulate their thinking as they learn new material and, overall, to engage.
The engagement piece is essential as students move through the grade levels. If students continue to struggle with language skills as they grow older, they will feel less confident in their ability to express their knowledge and may become reluctant to participate.

When You See Engaged ELLs, You're Doing It Right

To refine our approach, we partnered with Curriculum Associates, a company that specializes in data-driven, differentiated instruction. Our asset-based philosophy, reflected in the lessons and vocabulary, makes learning personal, as students understand that their unique experiences and perspectives are beneficial to their learning.
Some key strategies have been highly effective for our students:
  1. We use culturally responsive materials. From books in our library, such as The Children of Blood and Bones by Tomi Adeyemi and Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan, to authentic classroom resources en Español such as Yabisí, we find resources that will resonate with students and connect to their backgrounds. Instructional materials should be built by a diverse team of experts with ELLs in mind, as opposed to "retrofitting" textbooks as an afterthought. Tools like Curriculum Associates' i-Ready, an adaptive diagnostic that connects assessment to instruction, can be valuable support. Giving students voice, such as the option to choose what they read, allows them more control over the process of language development.
  2. We use strategic scaffolding. Because we believe in our learners' assets and abilities, we start with appropriately challenging materials and then provide supports as necessary. Scaffolds may look at math through multiple representations or frame sentences to help students communicate their mathematical thinking.
  3. We make PD a priority. As content's difficulty and pacing increases, there is risk for long-term ELLs to become permanently disengaged. To prevent this, our district prioritizes teacher training and professional development, so all educators understand how to lay the foundation for success. Newly hired secretaries, paraprofessionals, and certified staff all receive tailored training around the needs of ELLs, using methods that champion student voice, language development, and content knowledge. Classroom educators use English proficiency data to guide differentiation and specialized supports for newcomers, translanguaging for biliteracy, and other strategies to contextualize content for ELLs.
  4. We celebrate our students. Even if districts prioritize services for ELLs on a larger scale, every teacher can improve instruction for ELLs by getting to know students' strengths and struggles. One activity that our teachers use involves a simple prompt. They write, "I wish my teacher knew … " on the board, and after some small-group and whole-group discussion, students respond anonymously on sticky notes or in their journals. This short activity can set the stage for trusting relationships.
Our English language learners are filled with potential. Educators have the awesome opportunity to help them reach it. With a dedicated plan and a commitment to action, we can change outcomes for every student in our schools.

Sharma, S. A. & Christ, T. (2017). Five steps toward successful culturally relevant text selection and integration. The Reading Teacher, 71(3), 295–301.

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