Differentiated Instruction for English Language Learners as "Variations on a Theme"

Article excerpt

Teachers can differentiate instruction to support English language learners.

U.S. schools are experiencing a rapidly growing population of English language learners (ELLs). By 2015, ELL enrollment in U.S. schools will reach 10 million and, by 2025, nearly one out of every four public school students will be an ELL (National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition, n.d.). Contrary to common assumptions, most ELLs are native-born U.S. citizens, not immigrants. Seventy-six percent of elementary school ELLs and 56% of secondary school ELLs are native-born, and more than half of the ELLs in public secondary schools are second- or thirdgeneration U.S. citizens (Capps, Fix, Murray, Ost, Passel, & Herwantoro, 2005). This suggests that educators may not have been meeting the needs of ELLs over the course of their school lives, resulting in insufficient development of their content knowledge and literacy.

Young adolescent ELLs are perhaps our most vulnerable population in schools. At this point in their lives, concerns about peer acceptance are acute, yet middle grades ELLs often are considered different because of language, race, dress, and cultural practices. The intense desire to "fit in" may cause many of them to reject their home culture and language as they struggle with issues of acculturation (Suárez-Orozco & Suárez- Orozco, 1995). This makes it difficult for teachers to comfortably require ELLs to take risks in producing English, yet this is essential in developing skills in a new language (Harklau, 1999). The academic stakes become raised at the middle level, and, unlike elementary school students, students in the middle grades move from teacher to teacher, which makes it more challenging for teachers to get to know their particular family, cultural, and language backgrounds. While development of literacy in the first language has progressed steadily for many ELLs, many others have interrupted formal education or have spent years returning to their home countries and back to the United States, resulting in gaps in their academic skills (Robertson & Lafond, 2008). Research has helped practitioners understand the complexity of the academic achievement of ELLs in U.S. schools and has identified many of the key variables at play. These include the level of first language literacy, years and type of schooling in the home country, length of residence in the United States, and the nature of academic English (Collier, 1987). For school-age ELLs, this academic English requires linguistic, discourse, sociolinguistic and strategic competence (Canale, 1983), and specific semantic and syntactic knowledge to meet high literacy demands across multiple genres (Shlepegrell, 2001).

One of the ways teachers may be told to meet the needs of their culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms is to differentiate instruction, yet the National Council of Teachers of English, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, National Science Teachers Association, and National Middle School Association (now AMLE) do not use the term "differentiation" in their national standards for teacher preparation. Therefore, what differentiated instruction actually looks like and how teachers can integrate it into their routines and procedures may be unclear. This leaves teachers posing questions such as: Am I supposed to make up five different lesson plans every day? How am I supposed to maintain classroom management if everyone is doing something different? But I was told to always use heterogeneous groups-are you telling me to "track" students in my classroom?

As part of a larger study of the connection between teacher preparation and teachers' induction years, researchers documented activities in classrooms with high percentages of ELLs through collaborative inquiry between teachers and a college of teacher education. The purpose of this article is to distinguish sheltered content instruction from differentiated instruction, provide an overview of key principles for differentiating instruction for ELLs, and share descriptive accounts from three middle level English as a second language (ESL)/English language arts (ELA) teachers. …