What English Learners Need: ELD Materials that Teach English


Written by Susana Dutro and Raquel Mendia Núñez 

English learners deserve student-centered instruction grounded in strong pedagogy and robust language learning. Title III requirements and ethical professional practice compel schools to provide accelerated learning that equips English learners to express the sophistication of their thinking for two related, but distinct, purposes. We need to equip students to fully engage in grade-level learning by infusing language support into content instruction. This is commonly referred to as integrated ELD. But that’s not enough (Dutro, Nunez, and Helman, 2016; Saunders and Goldenberg, 2010). We also need to grow student’s proficiency in English through dedicated time to explore how English works so they can take ownership of their language use. This is commonly referred to as dedicated, or designated, ELD.

Many current language arts programs include ELD instruction and claim to address both integrated and dedicated ELD. As districts consider adopting instructional materials, we have been asked for guidance. District leaders are finding that while programs generally address integrated ELD (language support for content learning), the proficiency-specific instruction they expect to see in dedicated ELD is lacking.

Critical Components of Dedicated ELD Materials

Language builds along a continuum of English proficiency

Look for a thoughtfully mapped language build by English proficiency, progressing from Emerging/Beginning to Expanding/Intermediate and then to advanced, bridging to full proficiency.

A high quality dedicated ELD program is organized along a research-based scope and sequence of linguistic knowledge. It engages students in thinking, talking, and writing that weaves rich, foundational vocabulary with a variety of linguistic patterns for a range of purposes.

The key is whether language intentionally builds from the early phase of each proficiency level to its exit phase. Look for an increase in nuance and complexity. There should a transparent continuum that is aligned to proficiency levels outlined in ELD standards (Goldenberg, 2008).

The goal is gaining English proficiency, not literacy invention

Literacy goals overwhelm language work when programs design their objectives from reading selections or literacy tasks. When reading selections are the focus, crucial language along the continuum may be skipped, resulting in gaps. Check that lessons are dedicated to exploring language patterns and building vocabulary for the target proficiency level. Look for lesson objectives that center on proficiency-specific language and not just language for a reading task.

Materials include instruction for both input and output

We know that language is not acquired through input alone (Norris and Ortega, 2006). However, some programs rely on differentiated prompts by proficiency level. Scaffolding input is a necessary support, but learning a language requires lots and lots of output – using it, thinking aloud, jotting notes, and exploring through speaking and writing. Some programs confuse language supports with language instruction. Supports such as word banks, graphic organizers, writing templates, and sentence frames are insufficient without instruction: modeling, discussion, and ample student practice. You want to see daily explicit instruction in how to use the language, so students understand how it works and build confidence in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Look for lessons that guide students through abundant oral and written practice.

There is a focus on teaching English needed for academic and real-life uses

Not only do English learners need to learn the academic language of each content area, but also the socio-academic language that is required to effectively interact with peers and adults in a range of contexts. Dedicated ELD creates a space for us to teach students different ways to clarify their thinking, ask questions, express their emotions, and disagree in productive ways.

Look for instruction that engages students in understanding the norms of social usage and pragmatics: how to communicate in different situations. This includes tone, cadence, the power of word choice, register, and discourse styles. The best instruction teaches the language that is high-leverage and portable to a wide range of communicative tasks.

Assessment guides instruction

A solid assessment component is part of instruction. In dedicated ELD, it captures data on the use and misuse of language. It focuses on the agility of language use, rather than reading comprehension or content knowledge. We use these data to adapt instruction in a way that grows students’ knowledge and leads them to full proficiency.

The literature suggests monitoring language use through 1) prompts for vocabulary, 2) prompts for forms, 3) and meaning-based application, eliciting open responses with functional language (Ellis, 2008). Look for unit or weekly assessments that collectively build a robust picture of student progress. There should be tools to collect ongoing assessment data as students express their thinking during peer interactions, discussions, oral presentations, and writing tasks with abundant oral rehearsal.

Metalinguistic awareness

In addition to being taught how to use language, students also must understand how and why we make different communication choices in different contexts. Metalinguistic awareness is the ability to reflect on the use of language, and know how to express a single idea in various way, both orally and in print.

Metalinguistic awareness is referenced as an essential component of language learning in most instructional standards. In high quality dedicated ELD instruction, English learners think about how to manipulate language to develop an understanding of how English works. They should be challenged to explore language in compelling and playful ways.

Students deserve to learn multiple ways to express their ideas using various language patterns and regular opportunities to experiment with language as they decide how to communicate their ideas. When teachers have the right tools, it makes it easier for them to provide English learners the schooling they need to thrive.

Susana Dutro is the co-founder of E.L. Achieve. Building on decades of service to English learners, Susana is an author and developer of a research-based framework that grounds E.L. Achieve’s Approach to English Learner instruction and has been adopted by hundreds of districts. Raquel Mendia Núñez, a former teacher and coach, is a Senior Director at E.L. Achieve. She is committed to creating tools for teachers that build a solid vision of instruction for English learners. Together, they authored a dedicated ELD curriculum and have worked with teachers and administrators nationwide in implementing robust systems for English learner achievement.