Meeting the Needs of English Language Learners

Meeting the Needs of English Language Learners

An innovative program started in Hartford Public Schools shows how technology can help English Language Learners succeed.

Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez, wanted to find new ways to help students learn English and become better prepared for academic and career success. So HPS partnered with Middlebury Interactive Languages, the leader in digital world language education for K-12 students, to create a pilot program for 300 ELL students in the 2014-15 school year.

For months over the spring and summer of 2014, teachers and administrators from HPS collaborated with Middlebury Interactive’s curriculum experts and technologists to build programs that were designed to meet the specific needs of HPS students and faculty members.

The program follows a similar structure to Middlebury Interactive’s proven K-12 world language courses, which have a strong focus on culture, task-based activities and challenging students beyond their current capabilities.

English Language Learners are the fastest growing demographic in U.S. schools, but a persistent achievement gap for non-native English speakers is challenging educators across the country. Technology can help close this gap, as an innovative new program at the Hartford Public Schools (HPS) in Hartford, Connecticut has shown over the past two years.  

There are 86 languages spoken in the homes of HPS students, and ELLs compose approximately 18 percent of the district’s total enrollment. 

Much like the rest of the nation, Hartford’s ELL population was growing at unpredictable rates. Community leaders, including HPS faculty witnessed almost immediate benefits with the new ELL program, feeling a new energy in the classroom and seeing higher student attendance rates. But in order to truly measure the value of the new program, the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) Center for Research and Reform in Education was brought in to conduct a series of quantitative and qualitative analyses. 

The findings of the assessment were very positive, with encouraging early progress on the LAS Links Benchmark reading assessments. The Johns Hopkins study also showed  an increase in student, teacher and parent engagement in the learning process. Additionally, the program was viewed very favorably by the ELL stakeholders interviewed by the researchers.

Classroom teachers polled by the researchers unanimously had positive views of the program’s culturally authentic texts and videos, as well as the increased flexibility from using the online curriculum resources and activities. 

Furthermore, teachers said that the ELL curriculum was aligned with grade- and age-relevant academic subject area topics. The Johns Hopkins study also documented overwhelmingly positive feedback from principals, ELL coaches and parents of students enrolled in the pilot program.

While the pilot started relatively small, the district eyed expansion of the program by taking “an innovative and technology-driven approach that would help us drive quality across the district,” said Kelvin Roldan, Chief Communications and Public Policy Officer for HPS.

The program currently serves more than 800 students at 25 schools throughout the district, with more expansion planned in the future. Middlebury Interactive has also developed new digital ELL programs at school districts across the country, including California, Colorado, Georgia and Massachusetts.

The curriculum modules developed through the HPS collaboration allow districts to create flexible, customized ELL programs, according to Aline Germain-Rutherford, Ph.D.,  who developed the courses in her role as Middlebury Interactive’s Chief Academic Officer. 

Dr. Germain-Rutherford, who is a Professor of Linguistics at Middlebury College 
and the Associate Dean for Middlebury College’s Language Schools, noted that the curriculum frameworks are designed at the specific grade level of the learner and can be used to teach students with all native language backgrounds, including Spanish, French/Haitian Creole, Chinese, Arabic and Vietnamese. 

In support of the academic team’s design of the curriculum modules, Middlebury Interactive worked with Dr. Jim Cummins, one of North America’s foremost experts on ELL instruction and the author of some of the most influential academic studies on the topic.

Dr. Cummins’ renowned research on ELLs is the basis of the courses, including the focus on recognizing and appreciating the culture of the native speaker – not just the culture of the English learner’s new city and nation.

In addition, the professional development program is customizable and provides extensive support and training for ELL teachers. Districts can choose from a menu of upfront and ongoing professional development themes to meet specific needs of their teachers. In addition, teachers have access to a variety of digital support, including webinars, online communities of practice and other resources.  

“The overarching goal of our ELL program is to ensure that teachers, students, administrators and parents have the tools and support they need to help more English learners gain the skills they need to thrive in school and the workplace,” said Jane Swift, CEO for Middlebury Interactive Languages.