Academic Literacy Institute: Addressing literacy in low income/low literacy English-only students and English Language Learners (ELLs)

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Literacy helps connect people

Educators are on the front lines in addressing the low levels of student academic language literacy resulting from the phenomena of modern family life: both parents working full time, limited oral language acquisition in the home resulting from the economic pressure on families, and increased student screen time.

Ellen Guettler at Irving school in Bozeman, MT is implementing The  Academic Literacy Institute (ALI) to improve the instructional competencies of district teachers via intensive professional development to better serve two identified district populations at risk: low income/low literacy English-only students and English Language Learners(ELLs), for whom English is not their primary language.  As such a project has many components, The Academic Literacy Institute (ALI) is a three year project.

What were the goals of the project? 

The Academic Literacy Institute (ALI)  is a three-year project aimed at improving the instructional competencies of District teachers via professional development to shift the ‘culture of instruction’ to better serve two identified district populations at risk:

  • low income/low literacy English-only students 
  • English Language Learners (ELLs).

Their goal is to increase student knowledge of academic vocabulary via explicit vocabulary instruction in Tier 2 critical thinking vocabulary like ‘evaluate /classify / infer’ and Tier 3 content specific vocabulary like ‘perimeter / figurative language / hypothesis.’ This explicit instruction, coupled with the use of language frames, visual aids, and graphic supports, helps low literacy / EL students acquire and comprehend the academic vocabulary they need to be college and career ready.

How were these goals achieved?

ELL staff members, Ellen Guettler and Kathleen Johns trained K-8 ELL teachers on explicit vocabulary development and provided comprehensive data folders on each individual ELL student’s needs, using STAR reading and math data, WIDA ACCESS scores, a writing sample and a summary report from the previous year’s teacher. Teachers were allotted time during the trainings to analyze their ELL student data files in order to plan individualized sheltered supports for academic vocabulary development for their ELL students.

At the trainings, teachers learned about the stages of primary and second language acquisition, explicit vocabulary instructional strategies, and the importance of using graphic organizers to teach Tier 2/3 vocabulary to low literacy students in order to contextualize academic learning.

Teachers were allotted time during the trainings to analyze their ELL student data files in order to plan individualized sheltered supports for academic vocabulary development for their ELL students.

17 (K-12) district teachers attended a two-day WIDA training titled, “Scaffolding Learning Through Language”.  Twelve of those teacher participated in a two-hour online follow up with the WIDA workshop facilitator and Ellen Guettler to share their scaffolding implementation strategies. 

ELL staff developed 1-1 sheltered instructional supports for teachers districtwide with the development of an online resource page to support teachers in implementing explicit vocabulary development through the use of graphic organizers, Tier 2-word lists, YouTube instructional videos, literature support materials, and strategies to help teachers make the content more comprehensible for the district’s low literacy and EL populations. 

In this first year, what progress did they make towards their goals?

The entire first year was about creating an infrastructure to address the numerous existing programmatic holes in serving the district’s ELL students. The following processes and procedures were developed:

  1. An ELL Pathway teacher list is being compiled and computerized so that ELL student placement is formalized at each site to build teacher/site competency in addressing literacy needs of ELL and low language students.
  2. Online professional development supports were developed so that academic English literacy supports (Tier 2/3 vocabulary sheets, graphic organizers, language function charts, etc.)  are all available via one website.  Professional development instructional videos on effective vocabulary development are also listed.
  3. A VISTA application was submitted and approved to support 3 sustainable ELL program goals:

With the ELL program growing by 50% in the first year of the project and no bilingual materials available, time was consumed by translating forms and supporting ELL families in accessing community resources.   To further the VISTA goals, teachers, administrators and area agency leaders met twice at ELL working group meetings to identify the needs in the education and community agency arenas. Issues, goals and next steps were identified.    As a result of the UBD work, a lack of explicit phonics instruction districtwide for late arrival or low level EL students were identified as a roadblock to acquisition of academic vocabulary. As a result , a pilot program was planned.  The pilot will include all K-3 students in a predominantly ELL Title 1 elementary school, all late arrival ELLs, as well as ELLs scoring 3 or lower on the reading portion of the ACCESS 2.0 exam district wide. The curriculum of the pilot phonics program will be the Imagine Language and Literacy program. to address the identified need for explicit phonics instruction and remediation of their K-2 and late arrival ELL students who slip through the cracks and never master the requisite phonics skills to read fluently. With this additional instruction, they hope that students can engage in Tier 2/3 vocabulary development they need to access college and career readiness. With 152 students in the Title III program and only two staff members, the online curriculum will ensure every student receives the phonics instruction they need to proficiently read in English so they can access the core content standards equitably. 

How did their project affect the learning of students and/or teachers?  

Their project objectives were the catalyst for systematic ELL program improvement via professional development of teachers and infrastructure development.  Their mentor continually focused on the conversation of creating program sustainability and on the importance of establishing procedures that ensured that end, regardless of who was at the helm.

The steps they took in the first year moved the ELL program in the right direction. Over 65 district teachers understand the vital importance of vocabulary development and sheltered instructional strategies to ensure ELL and low language students have access to the academic vocabulary they need to be successful in school and beyond.  As a result of the PD trainings, district teachers are more receptive to ELL supports and accommodations than ever before. They are much more cognizant of the role that academic English language development plays in the success or failure of a student, because they have a clearer understanding of second language acquisition theory and the role that Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary acquisition plays in student achievement.  For the first time in the district’s history many teachers actively referred to the WIDA English Language Proficiency Standards and the “Can Do” Descriptors in their lesson planning. Although there is still much work to do in this area of instruction to maximize Tier 2/3 vocabulary acquisition, the groundwork was laid, and their teachers are receptive to this instructional paradigm shift.

What challenges did they experience and how they are addressing the challenges to improve the project?

Ellen reported, “this project was full of unanticipated challenges and roadblocks. As the adage goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know until you do,” definitely applied in this project.” Due to addressing the need for shifting negative teacher attitudes toward time set aside for professional development in a year when they were piloting a difficult new math curriculum, addressing a 50% increase in EL enrollment overnight, and realizing the myriad of social and procedural issues that were impacting the project implementation and EL achievement in school, they redefined the year 1 goals of the project.  

Although there was a significant focus on teacher professional development and training, Ellen’s mentor quickly shifted the focus of her energies as EL Coordinator to address the infrastructure issues that were preventing her from dedicating the time she needed to the project goals of providing ongoing teacher support of effective vocabulary development strategies in teacher classrooms.  By addressing the EL program infrastructure in the first year and part of the next year, Ellen will be better able to meet the time commitment and PD goals of the project, which focus on facilitating teacher engagement and reflection on their instructional processes throughout the year. In this way, teacher competencies in academic language and literacy instruction across content areas will be developed.

To improve the project, in addition to providing face-to-face trainings, Ellen is eager to create screencast trainings that will be accessible 24-7 online. The resources will be available to all district teachers to better meet the professional development needs both in intensive trainings and bite-size chunks for teachers to watch and utilize when they have specific EL questions and instructional needs throughout the year.

Ellen plans to utilize and share with parents the easy-to-access curriculum provided in the Imagine Learning and Literacy program her school is piloting. Ellen plans to continue ELL Family Literacy Nights but with a new focus on family engagement using the Imagine program. The Imagine program, offers a preview of all instructions for the English phonics and academic vocabulary curriculums in 26 different languages.  This easy-to-use literacy tool will be supportive in engaging entire families.  

As Ellen states, “diving in this project has been a bit like opening Pandora’s Box” due to discovering the layers upon layers of “missing” procedures.  With the steps they have taken to address the “missing” procedures and by building a sustainable infrastructure, we at the McCarthy Dressman Education Foundation are excited to see how this project progresses

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Further reading

 

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