School Leaders Reveal the Common Sense Keys to ELL Success

Two educational leaders share their districts’ strategies for supporting ELLs; specifically by meeting ELLs where they are.

English language learners (ELLs) are not a monolithic population. They come from different countries, have different levels of English exposure at home, and have widely different educational needs. Here, two district leaders discuss their approaches to giving every ELL the best possible chance at reaching their literacy goals.

Vicky B. Saldala: Seeing Bilingualism as an Asset

Broward County Public Schools (BCPS) is the sixth-largest school district in the nation and the second largest in the state of Florida. In a diverse student population, with students representing 208 countries and 181 languages, ELLs comprise almost 14 percent of our student body. Promoting language development and achievement for our students has always been my priority; however, when Florida joined the WIDA Consortium in 2015, my team and I saw an opportunity for improvement.

As BCPS began to explore WIDA, we immediately recognized the opportunity to set a common language when it came to providing instruction to our ELLs. It was time to change our role from “compliance specialists” to “instructional specialists.” We collaborated with other academic departments to integrate the WIDA Framework into all professional development and curriculum. From there, we started working with the leadership teams at our schools, presenting language acquisition to their staff as we redirected our focus from what ELLs can’t do to what they can do.

There were multiple challenges, of course. Our ELL population is very diverse across the district, and some of our newly arrived students come to us with limited or interrupted formal schooling. When we looked at the data, my team discovered that many of these students are at the high school level. As a result of our new efforts, BCPS is accommodating this select group and will be opening our first International Academy this fall at one of our high schools. The Academy will focus on newcomer ELLs, providing them with a sheltered model of instruction until they reach a level of proficiency where they can be successful in the mainstream.

Supplemental reading and language tools have proven essential in these settings, especially for 9th– through 12th-grade students. Through my department and grants, we fund specific programs for our ELLs such as ESL Reading Smart and Imagine Learning. The district has also committed to Newsela and We use Reading Horizons to engage ELL students with age-appropriate basic literacy skills. It focuses on foundational literacy skills, while still keeping our middle and high school students interested.

While we strive to build our students’ English literacy skills, BCPS values supporting native-language instruction as well. ELLs are often students who are intent on succeeding in English while maintaining their language and culture. BCPS has made a commitment to bilingual education. The district currently offers a dual-language program in Spanish at 41 elementary schools and French in one. In addition, our high schools offer 10 different world language courses. One of the Bilingual/ESOL department’s roles is to provide students a pathway to biliteracy so they can ultimately graduate with the Florida Seal of Biliteracy.

In all these efforts, we strive towards ensuring that everyone in our district understands that knowing another language besides English is an asset, not a deficit.

Jose Aldaco: Offering Language Modeling for Every Student

Waterford Unified School District, located just outside of Modesto, is a diverse district where 63 percent of our student population is Hispanic, and 30 percent are ELLs. Research shows that if ELLs are not reading on grade level by the end of 3rd grade, then the likelihood of them graduating from high school dramatically drops. This is the primary reason why we work hard to ensure all ELLs have equal access to education and the tools they need to achieve success.

While a majority of our ELLs speak English, their parents are first or second-generation immigrants who speak Spanish, meaning students do not have exposure to English at home, and overall, have limited knowledge of the language functions. We call these students “language deprived,” since the only opportunities for clear English language modeling they receive are at school.

Young people require multiple opportunities to listen and interact with proficient English speakers in order to successfully learn the language. Additionally, it is with and through language that students learn, think, and express information, ideas, perspectives, and questions. Since we know that in many cases school is the only place where proficient English is spoken, we need to make sure each lesson has maximum effect, allowing each student to hear every word spoken in the classroom.

To help our ELLs, teachers focus on modeling and having students use complete sentences, utilize academic language appropriately, and employ sentence stems to promote students’ use of complex language. Teacher-led close reading activities also play a role in the acquisition of academic language. English learners benefit from visual aids, as well. For this reason, we equip all classrooms with LCD projectors and document cameras, and provide Chromebooks to students, which serve to support staff in the facilitation of learning.

To reach every student regardless of where they are seated in the classroom, we implemented a variety of Lightspeed classroom audio systems including two-way podsRedcats, and Topcats, in every 4th– through 8th-grade room. The audio systems allow students to hear clear language modeling and crisp pronunciation from the teacher. Our teachers use the audio systems to amplify their own voices, and students utilize the system during presentations and during in-class participation opportunities, which helps build their English skills and confidence when speaking a new language.

Since the implementation of the audio systems and clear language modeling, teachers report that students are more attentive and have a better time following instructions, as they can hear and process enunciated words appropriately. Our hope is that all of these tech tools with help our teachers as well as our English-speaking students become role models for ELLs as they develop the language skills they need to be successful in our society.

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