Taking a Three-Pronged Approach to Help ELLs Excel
By Nancy McGee
In a diverse district with a large population of English language learners (ELLs), a high poverty rate, and a high mobility rate, we have to creatively maximize every opportunity to reach our number one goal: student achievement. In Grand Prairie Independent School District (GPISD) in Grand Prairie, Texas, one of our most powerful tools to engage ELLs is to harness the power of choice. Rigorous support and innovative professional support are the other two prongs of our trident to spear language barriers to instruction and help ELLs excel.
- Creating a Culture of Choice
The option of choice is empowering. In our district, the neighborhood school is no longer the only public school option available. Instead, GPISD is a portfolio district rife with opportunities for students to develop knowledge and interests in a vast number of careers beginning as early as pre-kindergarten. We believe that choice motivates ELLs and all students to take ownership in their educational and cognitive growth. These opportunities include dedicated STEM, STEAM, and fine arts schools; dual credit and Advanced Placement courses in our high schools; a career tech school; two single gender leadership middle schools; and a world language school that includes Vietnamese and Spanish dual language programs.
Another powerful tool to reach the minds and hearts of our ELLs is to make their educational experience interesting. Schools and programs of choice offer authentic, hands-on learning opportunities to support academic learning. A student interested in culinary arts could work in a kitchen preparing meals for community programs and the school café. Math and science process skills are cemented with the glue of engineering in weekly engineering design classes at our STEM elementary academy.
Service learning projects also offer peer collaboration and the ability to apply prior knowledge to new learning in an authentic environment. Reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills are enriched through the application of language and content. Vocabulary, verbal, and procedural scaffolding are natural connections in service learning.
In addition, learning opportunities before and after school can provide an intentional and inclusive community for ELLs. Clubs and activities generate student interest in school, and provide relaxed, less structured social interaction with peers. The variety of peer encounters and exposure to multiple disciplines afford our ELLs greater language acquisition opportunities. The experiential learning can also provide context to assist with cultural variances.
- Providing Opportunities for Content Acquisition and Cognitive Enhancement Rigorous support for ELLs is our mantra. Optimizing instructional time is also paramount for ELLs. GPISD uses the Gomez and Gomez Dual Language Enrichment Model. By using dual language (DL) instruction in elementary school grades (preK–5), students are able to master content in their native language while building English language skills.
In our DL program, mathematics is taught in English. Strong support and content information is delivered in the student’s native language in preK–1st grades. In 2nd grade, the model shifts to equally address the increased content knowledge demands of the curriculum while supporting language acquisition. Content-level biliteracy is the goal by 5th grade. To support rigorous academic instruction, vocabulary enrichment is essential. Spanish-language materials provided mirror those for English-language instruction.
We use homogeneous grouping to create a culture of cooperation and collaboration. Peer mentoring in DL classes is designed to support the social needs of the ELLs. To provide a language-friendly environment, all DL campuses display dual language word walls. School and classroom activities that are not already dedicated to a specified language of instruction follow the Language of the Day protocol, which requires alternating between languages every day. This practice allows students to strengthen their vocabulary and promotes bilingualism.
Cognitive development is targeted using a software program called Fast ForWord from Scientific Learning. It is a research-based program designed by neuroscientists to target language acquisition and literacy by building on the concept of neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to reorganize itself and form new neural pathways. ELL and at-risk students spend a minimum of 150 minutes per week in our Fast ForWord literacy and language acquisition labs to build memory, attention, sequencing and processing skills, and vocabulary development.
Since GPISD expanded the program’s use to include ELLs a year and a half ago, students have shown a 1.7-year improvement in English reading levels annually, and have also strengthened their first language growth through neuropathway development. Success on standardized tests has also been attributed to Fast ForWord due to the rapid increase in reading levels our students have experienced. With improved cognitive skills and vocabulary, students are understanding and retaining more content knowledge as well.
- Delivering Professional Support
Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) is the baseline for all ELL instruction at GPISD. All English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers and most content staff are trained in SIOP methodology. SIOP standards are non-negotiable instructional strategies. They are modeled by our instructional coaches and expected to be observed during administrative and peer walkthroughs.
Many content teachers are ESL–certified. However, we train all our English language arts teachers to be ESL–certified. Additionally, a team of district-level instructional coaches works in campus-level professional learning communities (PLCs) to assist with effective teaching strategies and data reflection.
Along with Texas state standards, English language proficiency skills (ELPS) are aligned with standards to support ELL instruction. The GPISD lesson frame, required for planning in all core content areas, embeds ELPS. ELPS are good instructional tools to develop language skills in all students, not just ELLs. Professional development training in ELPs strategies is ongoing.
Grand Prairie schools have taken a holistic approach to educating ELLs. Our focus is to meet students’ needs psychosocially, neurocognitively, and with a rigorous academic curriculum rich in language development. By allowing students to take ownership in their learning through choice programs and schools, brain-building programs, and a supportive staff, GPISD has seen tremendous success with ELLs. Using this three-pronged approach, GPISD is preparing ELLs and all students for college and future careers.
For more resources to help ELLs excel, check out the February 2016 issue of Educational Leadership.
Nancy McGee is the director of K–12 STEM for Grand Prairie Independent School District in Grand Prairie, Texas. Previously, she served as an English language arts facilitator, assistant principal, and at-risk coordinator in the district. McGee is also an Explorers Club Fellow, a member of the Women Divers Hall of Fame, and the first female Exosuit pilot.