Developing Skills for English Learners through Social Sciences

Article excerpt


One of the biggest challenges in education today is to train teachers effectively to improve instruction for English learners (ELs). No longer is the teaching of English the sole concern of educators but rather they must be concerned with the comprehension of content knowledge found in standards and with the acquisition of academic language proficiency required for effective conceptual development (Chamot & O'Malley, 1994).

This is especially challenging in communities where a large portion of the educational population is made up of English learners. It is also of special concern at the secondary level where teachers struggle to meet the students' needs and prepare them to meet graduation requirements in a very short amount of time.

In a border community in Southern California, teachers are participating in professional development activities that focus on ways to enhance the development of academic language for ELs as they teach social sciences.

How To Get There

Theorists have indicated that the daily instruction of ELs benefits from being more hands-on, experiential, context-embedded, and cognitively demanding (Cummins, 1989; Freeman & Freeman, 1992). This can occur in all subject areas. Little research, however, has been conducted in the area of social sciences to see if these benefits translate into student achievement.

Furthermore, little is known about the growth in understanding of the teachers who receive training on how to integrate language development and social sciences content instruction for ELs.

The first step taken in this study was to identify which training activities would take place to help teachers deepen their understanding of how ELs learn and the development of skills relative to social sciences. The question to be answered was whether these training activities would result in actual changes in classroom implementation. It is important to note the fidelity of implementation because we cannot assume that training in a particular topic will necessarily transfer to classroom practice (Fullan, 1983).

Professional DevelopmentActivities

In 2001, teachers at the secondary level in rural Imperial Valley in California were asked about how they would like to see their own educational programs change in order to better prepare students to achieve at higher levels in social sciences. This resulted in a sense of ownership being developed by participating teachers in that their suggestions were well received and they believed that their work would make a difference for their students.

Teachers decided that working with units of study would bring about better results for their students. Units that were cohesive and delivered by teachers familiar with strategies for English learners were deemed to be preferable to solely following a textbook or working with state standards in isolation.

Training Modules

In the area of social sciences and history, all activities in professional development were modeled on experiential designs based on materials from the Teacher Curriculum Institute (TCI) and the guidance on how to implement it as described by Ron H. Pahl in Breaking Away from the Textbook (2002).

The focus of the summer training was on making history accessible to English learners and teaching academic language functions. This was delivered in a forty-hour module. Topics included:

1. Looking at ELD/history-social science content standards; understanding academic language functions, analyzing content standards for academic language functions;

2. Reading Stages 1-2: focus questions, functional reading; Reading Stages 3-4: Directed Reading Thinking Activity (DRTA), cooperative comprehension, reciprocal teaching, reading a text;

3. Critical thinking: dimensions of learning/Bloom's taxonomy, learning strategies, group problem solving;

4. Social studies skills: cooperative learning principles, teaching social studies/basic skills;

5. …