Educator’s Insight: Implementing Research-Based Instructional Strategies for English Learners
An Interview with Francisco “Harvey” Oaxaca, Director of the Department of Multicultural Education for The School District of Palm Beach County, FL
Preparing teachers to use research-based strategies in their classrooms will help ensure all of the hard work of planning EL programs will have the desired results for students. In her review of the most recent research, including U.S. Department of Education syntheses, Diane August of the Center for English Language Learners at the American Institutes for Research outlines seven best practices for effective instruction of English learners.
- Provide access to grade-level course content
- Build on effective practices used with English-proficient students
- Provide supports to help English learners master core content and skills
- Develop English learners’ academic language
- Encourage peer-to-peer learning opportunities
- Capitalize on students’ home language, knowledge, and cultural assets
- Screen for language and literacy challenges, monitor progress, and support English learners who are struggling
For more detailed descriptions of what these practices entail, we recommend reading August’s article, “Educating English Language Learners: A Review of the Latest Research,” which appeared in American Educator in 2018. Here, we wanted to provide insight into the challenges and benefits of applying these strategies in the classroom from the perspective of an experienced educator and district leader.
It’s a huge honor to help district and school leaders discover what works for them. I know people want to do what’s right. That’s why reports like this one are helpful; we can’t improve what we don’t understand.
Francisco “Harvey” Oaxaca
Grade-level content and exposure in general is really important for English learners. Exposing them to grade-level content helps students’ level of engagement because the texts are appropriate and respectful of the students’ age. It allows students to be exposed to rigorous, complex academic language rather than just the basic forms of English grammar. Using grade-level course content can accelerate language acquisition by providing meaningful, appropriate context for developing language skills.
Have you found success building on the effective practices for language instruction for English proficient peers with English learners?
I would agree that the basic tenants of reading instruction are good for everyone. Practices such as phonemic awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency, reading comprehension, and writing help many students. However, these cannot be taught in isolation. In order to engage English learners in their literacy process, they must be exposed to a variety of texts and genres just like their English-proficient peers. We have found, across all grade levels, that embedding instruction inside a literacy-based lesson with engaging content gets a bigger bang for your buck.
What do educators need to consider when providing supports to help ELs master core content and skills?
Not only is it important to have a variety of language supports, but educators need to be intentional about which supports they are using throughout the arc of the school year and the students’ educational journey. It’s easy enough to have a picture, or a photograph, but is it the right one to demonstrate the concept that you are really trying to convey? For example, using a picture of a globe may not convey the full meaning of 'globalization.' So we have to choose the right supports at the right time in the right context. As a teacher, I shouldn’t still be using the same paragraph frame in August as in May because our students are gaining English language skills and need different supports throughout the year. We provide access to multimedia supports, charts, pictures, glossaries, vocabulary keys, and sentence and paragraph frames via Achieve3000 Literacy and Achieve3000 Literacy with Boost. These digital learning solutions are extremely helpful, because they allow our educators to find all of the appropriate resources for a lesson in one place.
What have you found to be the most effective way to develop English learners’ academic language?
With regard to vocabulary instruction, recent research indicates embedded instruction is a promising technique for developing English learners’ vocabulary by providing access to word meanings through student-friendly definitions of the target words. Most of our online programs have vocabulary keys inside them, but in order for them to be effective, they must include emphasis on Tier II words. These are the types of words students will encounter in a variety of contexts so focus on these vocabulary concepts is critical. In addition, instructors need to support students’ academic language development by providing opportunities for students to discuss and write about main concepts in a reading passage using evidence from the text. This is challenging work for the student, so we also encourage instructors to maintain a balance between challenging and supportive tasks. It’s important to allow students to feel successful as they are learning.
What are the benefits of peer-to-peer learning opportunities?
We are always getting better at this; we know we need students to collaborate more. Honestly, I think students in general feel better while working with their peers. However, we have to be careful that we don’t stay in the same patterns all year by pairing students with the same peer each time to ensure everyone has the opportunity to interact with one another. This way, we can build a feeling of excitement around the knowledge and experiences our students bring to us—they don’t come to us not knowing anything. Providing the opportunity for peer-to-peer interaction can help English learners integrate socially and academically.
What kind of guidance do you have for educators to help them capitalize on students’ home language, knowledge, and cultural assets?
The first step is for educators to understand that a students’ prior knowledge and experiences are assets. When a teacher sets this tone for their students, they are creating a welcoming environment for English learners. When a student doesn’t feel welcome, they may not be as engaged. We support educators in our district by sponsoring several culturally responsive training sessions for leaders and classroom teachers. In all classes, educators can help students identify cognates in English and the students' native languages in grade-level texts to support language acquisition. I believe this understanding is becoming more common throughout our education system which is why native language supports and dual language programs are seeing an uptick. Educators can see how building on students' native language skills can accelerate their English language acquisition. In my opinion, this is a positive shift. We have to be cognizant of and then tap into what our students already know.
From a district perspective, how do you manage the process of screening, monitoring, and supporting ELs who are struggling with language proficiency?
We do a particularly good job of helping our schools identify, assess, and monitor students’ language proficiency overall. When assessing native language proficiency in languages that are more common in our district, such as Spanish or Haitian Creole, we have more resources available. This process becomes more challenging when students speak languages that are found less frequently. In these cases, when we don’t have anyone on staff who speaks the family’s language, we partner with Language Line to get over the phone interpretation. This helps us obtain more information so we can support students more effectively. Then, it’s essential to take our time before deciding how or why a student is struggling. We don’t want to over- or under-identify students as having learning difficulties when it’s not appropriate. If students still struggle after a sustained period of high-quality instruction that addresses all four language domains, then we ensure multi-tiered systems of support are put in place.
About Francisco Harvey Oaxaca
Mr. Oaxaca has worked in multilingual classrooms for several years as an ESOL teacher in Texas and Georgia. He then served as principal of an elementary school in the Atlanta, Georgia area where English learners made up 90 percent of the student population. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Applied Linguistics/ESOL and is pursuing his doctorate degree in educational leadership.