I still remember Daniela’s* first day. She started as a third-grader and was brand new to our school. She had attended school in Mexico before arriving in our small Wisconsin town with her family, but communicating in both English and Spanish was a challenge for her. Starting at a new school is hard enough, but starting without the ability to easily communicate can be an overwhelming experience. It was my job as an English language teacher to ensure she was supported to learn and thrive alongside her fellow students. That meant making sure Daniela experienced grade-level content and high expectations.
Working closely with her classroom teacher, we began to introduce new texts and skills. We started with some basic letter sounds using a song and TPR (total physical response) and introducing a few sight words that were repeated frequently in text. While reading aloud, the focus was on meaning-making using visuals and building background to have Daniela hear the words out loud before seeing them in print. The hours were often challenging and painstaking, but we believed Daniela could succeed if provided the opportunities to do so. We utilized proven English language learner strategies such as pair or group conversation activities and reading tasks with a focus on vocabulary presented in context alongside high-quality, standards-aligned instructional materials with built-in supports. With time, Daniela began to make progress.
Fast forward three years, and Daniela is now in the sixth grade. Each year, she has continued to experience grade-level texts as well as the supports she needs to access quality content. Whenever I see her in the hallway, she comes up to me with a big smile and tells me about her day. She is writing and speaking in English. She is learning with her peers at grade level. Having known her from day one, these are huge strides and accomplishments.
Daniela is only one unique student among so many unique students in our district. Over half of our students are English language learners and each one brings different perspectives and experiences. All are eager to learn and all face different challenges in accessing the grade-level content necessary to help them develop and grow.
This means that in our district, every teacher is an English learner teacher. Every decision we make—about curriculum, about technology, about professional learning—is made with the needs of everyone in our community in mind. And because of this, we’ve learned so much about how to support multilingual students and students learning English for the first time, and the important role instructional materials play in ensuring students are prepared for college and careers.
Consider these five ways quality curriculum can support educators to inspire all students to learn while simultaneously meeting individual needs.
1. Quality instructional materials offer every student access to grade-level content and high expectations.
Research suggests that students learning English need the same access to college- and career-ready, grade-level instruction as their peers. Research also shows that students are more likely to receive consistent grade-level content and be able meet grade-level standards if teachers are using aligned materials.
Having a set of quality materials as the foundation of learning is essential. If we’re spending our limited free time searching for or creating our own materials, how are we going to know if what we’re teaching is at the appropriate reading level? How will we ensure that the lesson we’re teaching today is connected to the lesson we gave yesterday or the activities we’ll do tomorrow? Beginning with a baseline of standards-aligned materials means every student in the class, including those learning English, will access grade-level content designed with a coherent scope and sequence. It also allows teachers to then spend time identifying the individual needs of students and targeting supports.
2. Quality materials encourage teachers to keep high expectations for all students.
I have no doubt that every teacher wants the best for their students. However, because learning a language is a challenge, there are times when I’ve seen teachers make assumptions that students aren’t capable of learning grade-level content.
Quality materials are designed with the understanding that there’s a difference between ability and opportunity. Just because students require scaffolding and additional supports doesn't mean grade-level content is out of reach. The best materials encourage high expectations for all students, and aligned curriculum support teachers to encourage students while giving them the tools they need to be successful.
“A mountain can never be scaled if we don’t offer the students the chance to leave the valley.”
I firmly believe that a student can achieve anything if you believe in them and if you give them the proper support. More often than not, students will actually exceed the heights we set for them. But a mountain can never be scaled if we don’t offer students the chance to leave the valley.
3. Quality materials provide built-in supports for English language learners.
High-quality materials provide direct supports for English learners, such as language routines and sentence starters, and supports for teachers as well, such as suggestions for scaffolding and key vocabulary. Having these resources as part of a program allows teachers to spend more time and energy focusing on students as a whole. You’ll be able to think about things like: What can I do to ensure all of my students are challenged and moving to a higher level? How can I make sure I’m positioning my students as the experts and centering them in the learning? What questions can I ask my students in order to get the best response?
Having specific English learner resources also allows students to access grade-level content rather than segregating them on different tracks from their peers. As teachers, we are often asked to do an impossible job but with great materials that include specific English learner resources already built-in, the learning possibilities are infinite. I loved being able to use my time to focus on language building, to dive into the function of language, to look at a passage and read it four or five times, pausing to ask questions like: What does this verb do for this passage? What does this particular word do?
“Even supports geared toward English language learners are supports that will build up students no matter what their English proficiency is.”
High-quality materials allow me to make decisions that work for each of my students. I think we often forget that we’re all language learners building off prior knowledge. Every student is learning their academic language and building the skills to talk about their ideas and thinking. Even supports geared toward English language learners are supports that will build up students no matter what their English proficiency is
4. Quality materials contribute to equity.
When teachers are using the same high-quality instructional materials from classroom to classroom, it means that all students have access to the same grade-level content and necessary supports. This practice is even more critical as students navigate disrupted learning from the pandemic. Advice from language acquisition experts clearly state that students learning English “should be exposed to all the same content as their grade-level peers.”
While each teacher is unique in presentation and approach (and should be!), having strong materials in hand helps to ensure that teachers can collaborate with each other and that there’s a greater chance for equity within and between school buildings. In our district, this is especially important as many families move around often. With quality, aligned resources, we can be more confident that no matter what school they end up in, we’re offering consistent education that isn’t dependent on their neighborhood or zip code.
5. Quality materials combined with curriculum-based professional learning support teachers to meet individual needs.
Instructional materials are a crucial resource, but in our district we’ve found that professional learning around these materials is just as essential. This is especially true to prepare for individual student needs and to better understand how to support English language learners. Our sessions focus on activities about what it feels like to learn a new language as well as deep dives into how materials can support us to reach all students. Without this ongoing learning, we cannot make the most of our materials or be our best selves as teachers.
Embrace Language as an Asset
I have seen the power of quality instructional materials in the hands of great teachers. However, while materials are important, a program will never be at its best unless educators are willing to embrace the idea that language, any language, is an asset and resource. When students come to our classes with little experience in English, we have to remember the language that they do have is a foundation to build on and so are the experiences that come from that language.
* We are using a different name for the student to protect her identity.
Erin Moreno has nearly a decade of experience as a paraprofessional, English language learner teacher, and coach. She currently works for the School District of Arcadia in Arcadia, Wisconsin.