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English Learners Need Equal Access to Rich Texts. How One School Makes That Happen

Editor’s Note: Click on the words highlighted in this story to pull up a definition and short research summary.

As the coordinator for an English-learner program, Lisa Hoelmer walks a fine line.

She knows that her EL students need extra support and specialized instruction to build their English-language skills. But she also wants them to have access to the same rich reading instruction—the high-quality texts, the in-depth conversations—that native English speakers at her school do.

At Beacon College Preparatory Charter School, a K-4 school in Memphis, Tenn., Hoelmer is working on a way to blend those two priorities. Her school uses a co-teaching model for English/language arts.

The school has adopted a knowledge-building curriculum: a program that organizes reading-comprehension instruction around conceptually connected topics, with the goal of systematically growing students’ understanding of the world. The theory behind these curricula stem from research that has found a connection between students’ general world knowledge and their ability to understand what they read.

The materials are heavy on academic, topic-specific vocabulary and complex texts, so Hoelmer and the teachers she works with have integrated language supports that prepare English learners to engage with the content.

Education Week spoke with Hoelmer about how co-teaching works at her school, what English learners need from reading-comprehension instruction, and what advice she has for other educators who might want to adopt the model.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What does the co-teaching model look like at your school?

We needed to look at a heavy knowledge-building curriculum and figure out how to incorporate language into it. Wit & Wisdom, EL [Education], all of these knowledge-building curriculums do a great job with topic building, but they do the language piece as sort of a side note. What my job has become is to support both content and [English-as-a-second-language] teachers, and ask, how are we incorporating language development into reading comprehension as well as into building writing capacity?

For example, we’re currently in a unit on space and how people learn about space. One of the sidebars was prepositional phrases. We really leaned into the grammar piece, taught them what it was, how to understand what a preposition of time was, and then bring them back into the text to really analyze text based on sequence and time-order words.

We’re reading the text Hidden Figures [a book about the Black women mathematicians at NASA who made pivotal contributions to the space program in the 1960s]. The text structure of this particular book was essentially a time-order sequence. So we were really looking for those prepositional phrases that signal, this is when something happened. We were using those prepositional phrases to build comprehension. When did Katherine Johnson develop math skills with NASA? Really helping them break apart the sentences to understand text structure, and more importantly, to understand what the hidden figures accomplished.

In general, how should reading-comprehension instruction differ for English learners and for native English speakers?

Before we begin to start teaching students the text, we have to annotate that text looking specifically for language structures—how is the text written? Specifically, what are those language structures that the author uses to get to the central idea? We’re also analyzing the text for tier-two [academic] vocabulary. What are those multiple-meaning words that a language learner may have difficulty with? We’re also thinking about sentence complexity and adverbial and prepositional phrases that trip language learners up, like “on the other hand.”

When I’m thinking about delivering that lesson, I also have to think about what background do my students need? We really do a lot of preteaching of that tier-two vocabulary but not just preteaching it—[deciding], where are we inserting it so that students are using it to talk about the text?

This preteaching of vocabulary and background knowledge, when does this take place?

Building background and the preteaching of vocabulary—initially, to get them to really understand the topic—happens first, before you even touch the text.

If you really want it to be high impact, you do your big words that they need for the culminating activity, for topic-building in the beginning, and then every day, as you retouch the text, you’re doing more vocabulary.

At your school, does this instruction just happen with English learners, or is it happening in a whole-class setting as well?

It’s happening in the whole-class setting, because we do co-teaching. Now, where we might differentiate is when we get to the independent practice when we’re doing small-group instruction—what we might need to do differently for the language learners in the classroom.

We might slow down the pace of the lesson in that small group or we might give additional vocabulary support or additional building background. But the way we do it here—and it’s been pretty fantastic—we teach the class as though everybody was a language learner.

In just six weeks, when we moved from the pullout model to the co-teach model, every student in the class, whether they’re a language learner or a native speaker, their comprehension of the text, their ability to answer standards-based questions—all students have improved. Their ability to lengthen the writing with more sentence complexity—all students have improved.

How common is this alignment of English/language arts and English-learner curricula?

It’s a new trend in ESL. Even here in Tennessee, many districts have not aligned. But alignment is, in my opinion, an equity piece. If you’re doing a pullout model, all schools have to pull out from tier-one instruction. The law is pretty clear that we can’t pull from lunch, we can’t pull from P.E. And in many states, we can’t pull from math.

If we’re pulling out of instruction and we are doing something different for ESL students, we’re effectively denying them access to tier-one [whole class] instruction. Alignment ensures that equity piece, and it ensures that ESL students are receiving tier-one, standards-based instruction.

What advice would you have for other schools that are thinking about a co-teaching model and this alignment of curricula?

First is a mindset shift. That has to start in the summer or in professional development—explaining the why and then explaining the how. In many districts, there are still teachers, ESL teachers, that really believe that they need to give ESL students something less because of the deficit mindset, right? Start with helping your teachers understand the why. And then give them the tools to make grade-level curriculum accessible to ESL students.

We say annotate your text, but what does that mean? So, really working with teachers, doing side-by-side coaching, to help them understand how to annotate the text with both reading standards and language in mind. If my standard is understanding the author’s perspective, what portions of those texts do we pull out to really reduce cognitive load for students?

The other piece I would say is, ensure that all teachers understand your ESL demographic. Here at my school, we do not have a lot of newcomers; we are essentially heritage speakers. That’s going to make my instruction different than if I had a high newcomer population.

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