How Much There is To Learn

Over the years, NCTL has written a number of reports from the field on the how expanded time opens up opportunities for educators to be much more effective in teaching science, the arts, and even creative problem solving (deeper learning).  Now, we’ve produced another in this series of case studies on the effective practices of expanded-time schools, but this one is different for a fundamental reason: it focuses less on what is being taught—though getting kids to proficiency is paramount—and more about who is being taught. And the “who” is English Language Learners, one of the fastest growing populations in American schools.

As I was researching and writing our latest study, Giving English Language Learners the Time They Need to Succeed, I could not help but think about the steep learning challenges that children whose primary language is not English face in American schools.  Imagine: they are called upon to do all that their English-speaking peers are doing, while also becoming proficient in their non-native tongue at the same time. To convey the scope of the challenge, I included in this report a lengthy passage from one scholar who described just how much we expect of a second grader, and how these expectations seem all the more imposing when we think about the child who may not even fully understand what her teacher is saying.

But, in the course of putting together this report, I also came to appreciate even more just how valuable the additional time can be in enabling English language learners to catch up to their native-English speaking peers.  In particular, expanded-time schools have the capacity to put in place four fundamental practices that, together, can do wonders in leading ELL students to full proficiency.  These include:

  1. Extended literacy blocks so that ELLs have many successive and self-reinforcing opportunities to engage with and practice reading, vocabulary, writing, and oral communication
  2. Designated academic intervention sessions in order to provide students the kind of intensive one-on-one attention that is sometimes necessary to help students overcome individual learning deficits and misconceptions
  3. Continual support such that students continue to get individualized instruction, even when it might appear that an ELL student seems to be fully able to speak and understand English because educators know that academic proficiency can often lag behind oral fluency
  4. Teacher collaboration, planning, and professional development to help make sure that the first three practices are put in place as effectively as possible

Even more than these specific practices to support English language learners, these structures (especially a, b and d) reflect good educational practice, no matter the group of learners being targeted.  And this is why the research on how best to support ELLs comes to a very common-sense, but still-worth-repeating conclusion: the best way to support students learning English alongside all the academic content, is “merely” to aim for providing high-quality instruction, plain and simple.  As the National Literacy Panel on Language Minority Children and Youth explains, “the programs with the strongest evidence of effectiveness [in promoting achievement among ELLs]…are all programs that have also been found to be effective with students in general.”

At NCTL, we hope that as the population of ELL students grows over the coming years, and, in turn, as schools look for more effective ways to acculturate and educate those students so that they are prepared to be successful American workers and citizens, educators will come to realize that a key to their success is providing sufficient opportunities to learn.  As they prove over and over, high-quality expanded-time schools provide such opportunities.