Helping Schools so English Learners Learn

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David Francis may be a statistician, but he is in the business of finding out what children are learning. He is concerned with English Learners, students who grew up hearing and speaking another language at home before entering school. Instead of starting from scratch, his research augments the curriculum already in place in schools throughout Houston and Texas – and other states, as well.

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A $10 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences is funding the Center for the Success of English Learners (CSEL). The Center will be a part of University of Houston’s Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation and Statistics (TIMES), of which Francis is a founding director.

When a child enters the public school system as an English Learner, their success with language and schooling are intertwined and depend on numerous factors. "We hold schools accountable for the achievement of all students. Unlike gender or ethnicity, membership in the subgroup of students who are English Learners is dynamic," said Francis. "Students are counted in the subgroup only until they become proficient in English. The challenge is to provide instruction that simultaneously promotes the learning of content and the development of English proficiency."

The trickiest thing about his research – and what he tries to convey always – is that English Learners are heterogenous and have diverse educational histories. People naturally see the gap in performance on achievement tests between English Learners and students who are not designated as English Learners. What people fail to realize is that the students designated as English Learners are in the process of learning English – it's not a static thing – and the statistics don’t often take into account the significant numbers of English Learners in the same grade level who have become proficient.

Schools and districts sometimes use "tracking" as a way to organize instruction for non-native speakers. This educational concept is proving to be less than ideal for English Learners. When a student is "tracked," they are generally excluded from grade-level instruction. The question is, if they are behind, how will teaching them more slowly than the rest of the grade-level students work in their favor? Francis is convinced it won’t.

An intervention called "Word Generation" is proving to engage all students in active learning. Developed by Catherine Snow at Harvard University and Suzanne Donovan of the Strategic Education Research Partnership, who are collaborators in the Center, high-interest topics are used to promote the development of academic language across all disciplines. The words associated with the topic are infused into the curriculum by the instructors. Math, Science, Reading, Social Studies – all subjects emphasize the academic language being taught. "In a way," said Francis, "all teachers become aware of their roles as teachers of language as well as teachers of disciplinary knowledge, discourse and practice."

Francis insists that these students will excel, and native speakers will also benefit – when content is put in the foreground of the curriculum. This can be accomplished through many things, such as videos and interactive learning, and allowing students to use their full array of communication skills to reflect and communicate what they know and are learning.

Francis contributes to policy with this research. Intervention studies, working in tandem with state policy, are determining how to best serve the roughly 34 percent of students in Houston who are not native English speakers.

"I'm a quantitative guy," said Francis. "My research is designed to assist my colleagues who are the experts at developing materials and instructional tools to better serve these students. And through our work together, we want to communicate just how remarkable a group of students English Learners are. Our mission is determining how best to challenge English Learners in school so that they reach their full potential."

Category: Social Justice

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