Back in May 2020, The U.S. Department of Education had to issue guidance clarifying that, yes, schools and districts were still required to provide language instruction services for English learners (EL) during remote learning. The need for this reminder is disheartening, given that, for many ELs, school closures mean they are missing out on opportunities to hear and speak English on a regular basis, which compounds the extent of their potential learning loss.
Even during business-as-usual schooling, the needs of EL students—despite being the fastest growing student population in K–12 schools today—often garner far less attention than enduring learning gaps suggest that they are owed. Although 55 percent of teachers have at least one EL in their classroom, only 2 percent of teachers are actually certified to teach ELs, and eleven states have no requirement for EL-only instructors to have any kind of specialist certification or endorsement.
Nor has EL instruction been given priority in general education teacher preparation. Only California and Texas, states with the highest percentage of EL students (19 and 18 percent, respectively), specifically mention EL-relevant content in their requirements for teacher candidates.
If this is the case, then we’d better hope we have some pretty darn strong EL-friendly instructional resources in our classrooms. But do we? A recent Rand Corporation report by Andrea Prado Tuma, Sy Doan, and Rebecca Ann Lawrence draws on data from 5,978 teachers who participated in the 2020 American Instructional Resources Survey to analyze their perceptions of whether the primary instructional materials they used during the 2019–20 school year met the needs of ELs, as well as the extent to which teachers modified the materials to meet the needs of their EL students.
Their findings seem to indicate that, yes, most teachers do believe that their instructional materials meet the needs of their EL students. Seventy-eight percent indicated that they either “strongly agreed” or “somewhat agreed” with this statement. Teachers who taught in majority-EL classrooms, however, were much more confident in their materials than teachers who taught in classrooms where less than 50 percent of their students were ELs. The researchers hypothesize that perhaps this indicates that teachers in more heterogeneous classrooms have a more difficult time finding appropriate instructional materials that meet the needs of both English speakers and English learners, while EL-majority classrooms were able to more closely tailor their materials to the needs of ELs.
Teachers serving a high percentage of ELs were also exceedingly more likely to report making extensive modifications to their main materials to better meet the needs of EL students, especially when they believed these materials were falling short. In contrast, only 6 percent of teachers who taught fewer than 10 percent ELs reported that they engaged in substantial modification. Teachers who had an EL-certification were significantly more likely to make extensive modifications to better meet their EL’s needs—although this difference became non-significant when it was taken into account that such teachers were more likely to teach in majority-EL classrooms.
The researchers use the findings of this study to make somewhat vague suggestions for stakeholders. Teachers in heterogeneous classrooms probably need better EL instructional materials, they say, and probably need PD on how to modify their existing materials.
But one substantial limitation prevents the authors from offering more substantive policy recommendations. Because the survey data don’t account for students’ learning outcomes, it’s impossible to get a clear picture of whether instructional materials are actually meeting EL needs. Nor do the data allow us to answer perhaps even more important questions: Are teachers, most of whom have little formal training in EL teaching, able to accurately determine the quality of their instructional materials with this population in mind? And, if so, do they have the skills necessary to appropriately modify insufficient materials to better meet EL needs?
Although this study provides a jumping off point for thinking about the needs of EL learners and their teachers, further research is needed so that schools, teacher preparation programs, curriculum manufacturers, and policymakers have a clearer understanding of how classroom assets and issues affect the support and education of our country’s growing EL student population.
SOURCE: Andrea Prado Tuma, Sy Doan, and Rebecca Ann Lawrence, “Do Teachers Perceive That Their Main Instructional Materials Meet English Learners' Needs? Key Findings from the 2020 American Instructional Resources Survey,” RAND Corporation (2021).