Elizabeth Macías, Director of Secondary Services
Raquel Núñez, Director of Elementary Services
There is little disagreement about some of the challenges English learners face in meeting the content and language demands of grade-level standards.
To achieve academic success, students must be able to extract meaning and information from texts, evaluate evidence and relate it to other ideas and facts, and make informed, skillful language choices to express themselves.
Research suggests that in doing this work, English learners benefit from:
• Explicit attention to the grammatical features and vocabulary of English for authentic functional purposes coupled with well-structured, focused, and engaging opportunities for practice (Saunders and O’Brien, 2006; Ellis, 2005; Norris and Ortega, 2006; Keck et al., 2006)
• Effective lesson design that includes a gradual release of responsibility (Fisher et al., 2007)
• Ample opportunities to develop fluency by “trying out” newly acquired language through structured, engaging, and authentic oral and written practice (Lightbown and Spada, 2006; Norris and Ortega, 2006; Keck et al., 2006)
The focus of E.L. Achieve’s work is on building teachers’ skills for delivering explicit language instruction using strong instructional pedagogy. However, the research is clear that achievement for English learners will not improve if teachers and administrators do not also have “academic optimism.”
This has led us to highlight three elements that are instrumental for English learners’ success:
• Strong instructional pedagogy
• Explicit language instruction
• “Academic optimism” for English learners
These components do not live in isolation. Instead, they work in conjunction to promote academic success.
Academic optimism has been conceptualized as a “triadic set of interactions” (Hoy et al., 2007) where collective efficacy supports trust in students and families, which in turn nurtures academic achievement (Kirby, 2009).
Academic optimism is a construct that arose out of quantitative studies identifying three related school characteristics that had strong associations with academic achievement. Collective teacher efficacy, academic emphasis, and trust have each been linked to academic achievement, and in each instance the association was so strong that it overcame the effects of socioeconomic status (McGuigan, 2005).
In addition to the importance of creating a culture of academic optimism, research has shown that English learners and students of color are more likely to succeed academically when they have strong relationships with teachers and counselors who value their knowledge and experiences – their funds of knowledge. These adults help students navigate the system and make connections between education and students’ individual lives.
While one might believe that these relationships are a given, the dropout rates for English learners and students of color in many high schools continue to show that students feel disconnected and struggle to see a place for education in their lives. Students must not only have positive interpersonal connections with adults on campus, but they must also be challenged to reach the highest levels of academic achievement.
Often we make assumptions about which students will or will not succeed in school, limiting our expectations of what they can achieve. Unfortunately, students’ smartness is often judged by their behaviors and not by what they actually know (Hatt, 2012). Research indicates that teachers use different instructional approaches based on their perceptions of students’ English proficiency, but their expectations are not always aligned with students’ actual capabilities (Hatt, 2012).
Therefore when we examine the construct of academic optimism for English learners, we need to include the ideas of collective and individual teacher efficacy, academic emphasis, and trust. Additionally, it is imperative for English learners that their rich background and knowledge be recognized and incorporated into academic experiences.
We must hold the belief that all children can learn and that it’s our responsibility to help them realize success. We also must be committed to gaining knowledge and skills to continuously improve our instructional pedagogy and delivery of explicit language instruction.
Ellis, R. (2005). Principles of instructed language learning. System 33 (2) (pp. 209-224).
Fisher, D., Rothenberg, C., & Frey, N. (2007). Language learners in the English classroom. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English.
Hatt, B. (2011, 2012). Smartness as a cultural practice in schools. American Educational Research Journal 49(3) (pp. 438-460). American Educational Research Association and Sage Publications. Retrieved from: http://aer.sagepub.com/content/49/3/438
Hoy, W. K., Tarter, C. J., & Hoy, A. (2007). Academic optimism of schools: A force for student achievement. In W. K. Hoy & M. F. DiPaola (Eds.). Essential ideas for the reform of American schools. Charlotte, NC: Information Age.
Keck, C. M., Iberri-Shea, G., Tracy-Ventura, N., & Wa-Mbaleka, S. (2006). Investigating the empirical link between task-based interaction and acquisition: A meta-analysis. In J. Norris & L. Ortega (Eds.), Synthesizing research on language learning and teaching (pp. 91–131). Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Kirby, M. M. (2009). Academic optimism and community engagement in urban elementary schools. Unpublished Doctoral Thesis. College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA.
Lightbown, P., & Spada, N. (2006). How languages are learned. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
McGuigan, L. B. A. (2005). The role of enabling bureaucracy and academic optimism in academic achievement growth. Unpublished Doctoral Thesis. The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH.
Norris, J. M., & Ortega, L. (Eds.) (2006). Synthesizing research on language learning and teaching. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Saunders, W., & O’Brien, G. (2006). Oral language. Educating English language learners: A synthesis of research. New York: Cambridge University Press.