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As Feds Turn Focus on English-Language Learners, Teachers Struggle to Find Quality Materials

Back to Skills

Craig Brock teaches high school science in Amarillo, Texas, where his freshman biology students are currently learning about the parts of a cell. But since many of them are refugee children who have only recently arrived in the U.S. and speak little or no English, Brock often has to get creative.

Usually that means creating PowerPoint presentations full of pictures and “just kind of pulling from here and there,” he said — the Internet, a third grade textbook or a preschool homeschool curriculum from Sam’s Club, for example.

“I’m all over the place,” said Brock, who has been teaching for 27 years. And while the materials he uses match his students’ level of English proficiency, Brock said he sometimes feels like he’s insulting their intelligence.

He isn’t alone. Research has shown that a majority of the educators who teach English-language learners (ELLs) are creating their own instructional materials — often with little oversight — that don’t necessarily match the student’s grade level or the rigor required by state academic standards.

A nationwide survey of ELL educators by McKinsey & Company during the 2012-13 school year revealed 70 percent created their own materials. In urban districts, which educate the highest concentration of students who are not proficient in English, half of survey respondents did the same, according to a report by the Council of the Great City Schools, a membership organization of urban school districts.

It’s not that teachers want to double as curriculum developers, said Gabriela Uro, director of ELL policy and research for the Council, who presented these findings at an education conference in Mexico City last month. An overwhelming majority of survey respondents (88 percent) said they have a difficult time finding teaching materials for their students. Many reported that they did not have enough time or money to access quality materials, while others stated these materials simply don’t exist.

Students who are learning English as a second language make up about 10 percent of the population in U.S. public schools and historically have some of the lowest test scores and highest dropout rates of all student groups. Those statistics recently prompted the U.S. Department of Education to release a series of guidelines for their education. Included is a reminder that ELLs are entitled to programs with sufficient resources, such as “appropriate instructional materials.” The new federal education law passed last year, the Every Student Succeeds Act, also requires more accountability for their education.

But advocates are worried schools might not be able to meet these benchmarks without proper materials. According to the Council’s report, a majority of survey respondents at urban schools feel that the materials they are using to teach ELLs are either “somewhat” or “not at all” grade-appropriate, or address the right level of conceptual thinking for their students. Approximately 82 percent of the survey respondents indicated that the materials they used “somewhat” or do “not at all” reflect the rigor of the Common Core State Standards that are used to measure students’ academic performance each year in the states that have adopted them.

“We’ve always had a difficulty finding quality resources for ELLs,” said Uro. “You’re not going to have a lot of publishers that want to jump in just because there’s not a sense that you’re going to really have much of a profit.”

Lily Wong Fillmore of the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in second language teaching and learning, told Education Week earlier this year that too often, instructional materials for ELLs get treated as an extra “rather than as an integral part of any instructional program.”

“Publishers see the need to deal with English-learners only as a kind of a sidebar where you put in some extra activities that really don’t add up to anything and have very little to do with the actual curriculum materials they put together,” Fillmore said.

This often leaves teachers to shoulder the burden themselves, leading to concerns about the quality of materials used, potential copyright infringement for materials found online, and the ramifications of an incoherent curriculum for ELL students as they pass from one grade to the next.

It’s also unclear who, if anyone, is vetting the materials that ELL teachers create themselves or find outside their schools, Uro added. Requirements for the approval of instructional materials vary widely in districts across the country, and 32 percent of ELL educators in the Council’s study said they do not receive any guidance from their district or state in this area.

At biology teacher Brock’s Texas high school, for example, he said he’s usually allowed to “just go with it,” though he does sometimes run the materials he finds by a curriculum director. And that’s not an unusual degree of freedom, some other teachers say. In Newport News, Virginia, middle-school teacher Paul Hudson is also able to select his own materials without a supervisor’s approval as long as he’s not using district funds. Recently, before his students were scheduled to study “The Highwayman,” he prepared a background lesson with pictures and an explanation of highwaymen during the time the poem was written, a phonics activity breaking down multisyllabic words in the text, and activities to practice vocabulary words.

“All of these materials I felt were necessary to help my ELL students read and write about this story successfully,” he said.

But he wishes he didn’t have to be the one to spend hours creating the materials.

“It would be awesome if someone from our district would prepare those kinds of materials for each of the texts in the curriculum and make them available for us so that I wouldn’t have to do all of that myself,” Hudson said.

In its report, the Council of the Great City Schools offers recommendations for improving the quality of instructional materials for ELLs. These include collaborative partnerships between publishers and educators who work directly with these students, as well as “a more systematic approach to developing and reviewing high-quality materials” that teachers can have access to. The Council also suggests that schools train all teachers, even those in general education classrooms, in strategies to ensure ELLs meet state education standards.

“We know that for our districts, in order for them to really see improvement, they really need to be addressing their English-language learner programs,” Uro said.