There’s an exciting convergence moving our collective thinking forward. With new ELD standards expanding on and building from the work of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and other content standards, we are encouraged – obligated! – to think about how we equip English learners with the language they need for all aspects of their academic day.

We are evolving beyond the limited notion of ‘sheltering’ instruction to considering how we integrate ELD into content instruction so students learn the language needed for subject-matter demands. And rather than thinking of ELD as a time to teach basic vocabulary and grammar – or relying solely on integrated ELD to teach English – the field is acknowledging that English learners deserve a daily designated ELD block that builds foundational knowledge of English into and through the content.

blueprint graphicThis refined approach to providing language support for English learners aligns beautifully with E.L. Achieve’s Blueprint for Serving English Learners Throughout the School Day. Our research-based and federally compliant model illustrates how school systems can structure the school day to ensure English learners receive explicit language instruction for these two related, but distinct, purposes:

  • Integrated English language development within content instruction (Constructing Meaning), and
  • Designated ELD (Systematic ELD) to grow students’ proficiency in English.

Integrated ELD – Beyond sheltered instruction

Let’s start with the glossary definition from the California English Language Arts / English Language Development Framework.

Integrated English language development. English language development instruction provided throughout the day and across the disciplines. Teachers with English learners use the English language development standards in addition to their focal English language arts/literacy and other content standards to support the linguistic and academic progress of English learners.

This compels us to move beyond sheltered instruction as the sole approach to content instruction for English learners. While sheltered instruction emphasizes critical elements that are fundamental for student learning – particularly the use of comprehensible input techniques to scaffold instruction – it has typically been silent on the role of language in content learning. Yet, the literature strongly suggests that without explicit support in how to use English to comprehend text and express their thinking, English learners are left with only a partial command of the language they need to be academically successful.

Fortunately, new standards acknowledge that a more comprehensive model for subject-matter instruction is required. In addition to traditional sheltered techniques and solid instructional pedagogy, English learners need integrated ELD: explicit support in using the language of the topic and concept at hand. This is what E.L. Achieve’s Constructing Meaning provides. It calls for identifying the language demands of content area learning goals and providing scaffolds so students are aware of how to use subject-matter vocabulary and linguistic patterns and structures to communicate their thinking. Students learn the discourse and register appropriate to the work they are doing. Teachers backward map from the learning goal and plan instruction that weaves explicit language support into the fabric of their lessons. In integrated ELD, although consideration is given to students’ proficiency, their grade-level subject-matter learning is the goal, and language support is in the service of achieving content standards.

Designated ELD – Developing awareness of how English works

The California ELA/ELD Framework provides a helpful description:

“Designated ELD is a protected time during the regular school day when teachers use the CA ELD standards as the focal standards in ways that build into and from content instruction in order to develop critical English language skills, knowledge, and abilities needed for content learning in English. Designated ELD is not separate and isolated from ELA, science, social studies, mathematics, and other disciplines; rather, it is an opportunity during the regular school day to support ELs in developing the discourse practices, grammatical structures, and vocabulary necessary for successful participation in academic tasks in all content areas. During this protected time, ELs are actively engaged in collaborative discussions in which they build their awareness of language and develop their skills and abilities to use language.”

What is meant by “into and from content instruction” during designated ELD? 

Common Core State Standards and new ELD standards focus on equipping students with thinking skills. For example, consider a couple of key Kindergarten Reading Literature standards:

  • RL.1 With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
  • RL.2 With prompting and support, retell familiar stories, including key details.

The CCSS content is retelling and asking and answering questions about details of the text. The CCSS and CA ELA Framework articulate the thinking work students must do; they do not specify topics or materials schools must use to teach. The thinking work itself is the content. Therefore, one teacher may opt to use The Three Little Pigs as a vehicle for teaching and practicing that content. Another may choose A Birthday for Frances. The story itself is not the content; a myriad of stories can be used to teach the thinking skills of the standards.

Common misconception #1: We must teach the same topics in ELA and ELD
Some educators have interpreted “into and from content instruction” to mean that if students are involved in a unit about “heroes” during English language arts (ELA) time, designated ELD lessons should teach that same topic. As we see in the example above, this misses the point of the thinking work called for in the CCSS. Retelling, asking and answering questions about plot, describing character relationships or motivations, comparing two characters’ adventures or two versions of the same story, acknowledging differences in the points of view of characters, making connections among themes, etc., are not dependent on a specific topic or text. In fact, it is only when students can apply those literacy skills to any unit of study that they truly know the standards. Specific topics are vehicles for teaching CCSS standards; they are a means, not an end. 

Common misconception #2: We must teach the same thinking skill or genre in ELA and ELD
Sometimes, “into and from content instruction” is thought to mean that if we are working on a specific thinking skill or genre during ELA, we should address the same thinking skill or genre during designated ELD. But designated ELD is meant to “develop critical English language skills, knowledge, and abilities needed for content learning in English.” It is not meant to replace content instruction.

Let’s take a look at how the English language skills and knowledge students learn in designated ELD support ELA content work. In one of the Grade 1-2 Systematic ELD units, students take a virtual field trip to a city museum. They learn a range of adjectives to describe places and a range of verbs to describe actions. They build background knowledge needed to understand and discuss similarities and differences between life in a town and a city. The unit language is high leverage and portable because describing places and actions is foundational; it can be built upon and applied to other thinking work. In ELA, the same students are discussing cause and effect relationships using a nonfiction piece. Learning to talk and write about The Story of Ruby Bridges with a statement like, “Many people in the town did not want Ruby to go to their school so they stood outside yelling and threatening her,” is much easier with an internalized basic vocabulary that includes town, school, outside, a range of past tense verbs and verb phrases, and knowledge of sentence formation. Students frequently apply their growing command of English to other contexts effortlessly. Naturally, this process of making connections and building metalinguistic awareness (being aware of what you know about how to use language) is exponentially accelerated when teachers intentionally weave these skills into both designated and integrated ELD instruction.

As stated in the CA ELA/ELD Framework, designated ELD is the time to “develop the discourse practices, grammatical structures, and vocabulary necessary for successful participation in academic tasks across the content areas.” In short, designated ELD must focus on building a solid foundation of language learning for the thinking work that grade-level learning requires.

Common misconception #3: Designated ELD is a preview or review of literacy learning
A third confusion is that designated ELD can serve as pre-teaching or an extension of literacy instruction. This leads to a troubling question: If we believe designated ELD must be drawn directly from students’ other lessons, does that mean we believe dedicated ELD is a form of remediation? As the ELD standards clearly state, designated ELD is a protected time for English learners to learn the language and build proficiency along a continuum from emerging to expanding to bridging. If students are limited to echoing vocabulary and language patterns from subject-matter classes, their only dedicated time to use language along an identified scope and sequence is undermined. Allowing literacy goals to drive designated ELD time necessarily puts language learning in a secondary position, trumping its purpose. This approach leads to de-emphasizing or even ignoring the proficiency-level needs of English learners and creates gaps in their language knowledge.

Finally, if we allow designated ELD to either front-load or remediate ELA instruction, it may lead teachers to assume they’ve adequately addressed their students’ language needs and neglect to plan for addressing the linguistic demands of literacy instruction via integrated ELD. The result would be contrary to the intention of prioritizing both integrated and designated ELD in the instructional day. 

E.L. Achieve’s Systematic ELD curriculum 

Designated ELD is the part of the instructional day that E.L. Achieve’s Systematic ELD has been designed to provide. The purpose of Systematic ELD instruction is to equip English learners with the language they:

  1. Are not likely to efficiently pick up on their own.
  2. Are expected to use, but are not necessarily explicitly taught, in other content area instruction.
  3. Need to be able to use every day for effective academic learning and classroom participation.

Units build across proficiency levels and up through the grades. There are six units for each proficiency level within four grade spans: 

dec2015 blogchart1

The language learning is organized according to a research-based scope and sequence including the Matrix of Linguistic Knowledge, vocabulary, and cognitive functions mapped to grade-appropriate expectations. Across the six units, language builds from the early stage of the proficiency level to the later, or exiting, stage. The language in Beginning Unit Six leads to the language taught in Intermediate Unit One. Because the units are designed to teach and practice key patterns and functions in increasingly greater depth and complexity, they should be taught in sequence.

Why Systematic ELD unit topics differ from English language arts topics – and why that’s a good thing
Rather than replicate topics from any single ELA program, we intentionally use themes that cover broad areas of foundational content knowledge. This allows us to incorporate general language that is frequently assumed to be common knowledge, but that English learners must gain in order to access academic content instruction. It also allows us to teach some of the everyday language and registers that most native English speakers bring to school, but that can trip up English learners. We also believe English learners deserve to explore the English language using fresh topics. This makes Systematic ELD an exciting place for English learners to push the boundaries of what they know and grapple with learning to communicate their thinking.

Oral to print
The Framework states, “during designated ELD, there is a strong emphasis on oral language development. Naturally, designated ELD instruction will also involve some level of reading and writing tasks as students learn to use English in new ways and develop their awareness of how English works in both spoken and written language.” This is exactly how writing is built into Systematic ELD units. Writing tasks help students transfer what they can say into written text. Based on what we know from the research on guiding principles of effective ELD programs (much of the same literature on which the CA Framework is founded), we stand firm in the belief that writing and reading instruction should take place during language arts time. In dedicated ELD, reading and writing are infused, but they are not the focus of the lessons.

Content connections
The Systematic ELD Instructional Units complement and support learning in English language arts, science, social studies, mathematics, and other disciplines. Unit themes are customized by grade span to address age-appropriate topics and literacy tasks (listening, speaking, reading, and writing). The language build in each unit is carefully mapped to align with the CCSS and ELD standards. In addition to the connections in the chart below, each unit – in every grade span, at each proficiency level, and for all themes – addresses these CCSS standards:

    • Listening and Speaking Anchor Standard: Engage effectively in a range of conversations (pairs, groups, teacher-led) on grade-level topics, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.
    • Language Anchors
      1. Apply knowledge of how language functions to different contexts.
      2. Demonstrate command of conventions.
      3. Acquire a range of domain-specific words.

The benefit of revisiting familiar topics
It is common for children to watch the same movies, read the same books, and play the same games over and over again. As they revisit these books, movies, and games, their understanding becomes deeper and they notice things they hadn’t before. We have designed the Systematic ELD units to include what can be termed “intentional redundancy.” By approaching specific thinking skills from several different angles, students have the opportunity to truly integrate and apply their language learning in different contexts. We also provide two-year grade spans on a given topic so students can bring a year’s worth of experience to deepen their language learning. Once the topic is familiar, the cognitive load of building background is lightened so students can more freely focus on how to manipulate the language structures and patterns of the next proficiency level. Teachers report that in the second year of a topic within a grade-level span, their students demonstrate increased confidence and willingness to take risks in manipulating the language as they continue to develop and refine their use of English.

dec2015 blogchart

There is a powerful convergence of CCSS, the CA ELA/ELD Framework, and our work. The high-leverage and portable language taught in the Systematic ELD units bridges English learners’ access into the thinking work of the content (CCSS) by building from the linguistic demands embedded within the content. In other words, the functions taught in designated ELD come to life in all the content areas. Constructing Meaning equips students to meet both the linguistic and academic demands of subject-matter learning. 

Integrated and designated ELD, when thoughtfully braided together, enable English learners to gain the language mastery needed for academic achievement.

Written by: Susana Dutro, Co-founder and CEO

This blog was previously published with the title, “Into and Through the Content: What every educator ought to know about teaching ELD.”