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This is a critical moment for education in California. After years of attempting to educate students during a pandemic, districts across California are facing unprecedented teacher shortages and burnout.

We need to do all we can to better support our teachers. Ensuring they have high-quality instructional materials, such as textbooks and other educational tools, to help their students succeed academically is a key part of that.

In California, where English learners make up almost 20% of our student body, it is particularly urgent that teachers have instructional materials that are most effective in supporting the more than 1 million students who come from families that speak a language other than English. California’s schools cannot be successful if they aren’t addressing the needs of English learners and the inequities in educational access that the pandemic has only exacerbated.

Unfortunately, a recent study of California teachers’ perception of their instructional materials for English learners conducted by the English Learners Success Forum and San Diego State University shows we are falling far short.

In our survey, what we found — while not surprising — was disheartening: More than half of teachers feel their district-provided instructional materials fall short of even moderately supporting them in teaching math and English language arts to students learning English as a second language.

For this study, we partnered with the Rand Corp.’s American Teacher Panel to ensure a broad sample of K-12 math and English language arts teachers in 115 districts across California, with each district comprising over 10% English learners. The 2,558 participating teachers represented a range of experience — from one to 42 years.

High-quality instructional materials can improve instruction and students’ academic outcomes. But half of the teachers reported that their materials do not even moderately help tailor instruction to support English learners. Worse, more than 60% of the teachers said their materials do not have cultural relevance and over 55% said their materials do not even moderately support them in assessing English learners’ language development.

Most secondary teachers are using self-created materials on a daily basis, costing them time and energy. As one teacher noted, “The variety provided by our program seems superficial. There might be blurbs here and there, but they lack clarity and details. These need to be fleshed out and explained in better detail.”

Teachers said their materials might include a little tip or a sidebar on a suggested activity for English learners. But, that’s not enough. Teachers know that simply learning vocabulary words separate from the academic concepts does not help students truly attain grade-level learning. For English learners to develop both language and content, they must practice speaking, listening and writing while learning key concepts. Without quality instructional materials that help English learners build on their language development within the context of the broader lesson plans, teachers are being left to supplement on their own.

One Southern California teacher specifically asked for “guidance as to … reliable assessments when teaching English Learners.” And another San Diego teacher wanted “multi language support that is easy for the teacher to implement with some training.” Our teachers are asking for materials that better support their instruction and for the professional development tied to those materials.

If teachers don’t feel prepared to teach their multilingual students and they can’t rely on their materials to support them, then something isn’t working as it should.

In order to improve the quality of teaching and English learner student outcomes, materials must incorporate practices that have been shown to improve outcomes, like language development supports that are directly tied to the content knowledge students need to learn. While all students will benefit from these improvements, EL student success depends on it. Teachers know this. The research supports it. It’s time we give our educators the resources that they’re asking for.

Luckily, we see some encouraging progress in California. For example, California’s new math framework includes important shifts in its guidance for supporting multilingual learners. The framework could have huge implications on the instructional materials that content developers create and the materials the state chooses in its coming adoption. Early drafts of the framework   — which we hope will remain in the final version — show a deep understanding of how learning is “fundamentally tied to language development and linguistic processes” (Chapter 4, p.3). This is good news for all students, but essential for English learners.

These are positive signs, but they are not enough.

We all have a role to play. As we continue working to improve the quality of education for our students and teachers, curriculum developers must create content that meets the needs of English learners.

Education leaders need to understand what high-quality instruction materials look like and then adopt those materials. Advocates need to push for the importance of instructional materials that are inclusive of English learners, who are too often sidelined. Only then will teachers have the materials they need to truly provide better instruction for English learners and all students.

•••

Renae Skarin is senior director, content, at the English Learners Success Forum, a collaboration of researchers, teachers, district leaders, and funders working to improve the quality and accessibility of instructional materials for English learners. William Zahner is an associate professor of mathematics at San Diego State University.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the authors. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Eric Kamm 1 day ago1 day ago

    For the last 4 years, I have taught HS, Government, Econ, for SDAIE EL students. My district does not have textbooks with language supports in Latin American Spanish, let alone worksheets, activities, etc. I create ALL of my own content. One of the key issues I (we, in fairness) face is I have the core framework for what California wants me to teach my English speaking students, and expects me to teach that to … Read More

    For the last 4 years, I have taught HS, Government, Econ, for SDAIE EL students. My district does not have textbooks with language supports in Latin American Spanish, let alone worksheets, activities, etc. I create ALL of my own content.

    One of the key issues I (we, in fairness) face is I have the core framework for what California wants me to teach my English speaking students, and expects me to teach that to students who just arrived in the U.S. a day or a week before, who speak minimal to no English. HOW? I am conversational in Spanish, but not Chinese, nor Pashto, all of which I’ve had in the last few years. I have been told I am to instruct only in English and to teach all the required elements in the CA core framework to my EL students. HOW? The moment I (we) start translating I’ve lost instructional time, if I have a translator, and I did not for Chinese or Pashto. So what material do I need to cut? What is the core of the core framework I’m supposed to teach?

    Once I determine all that, I still need to create my own materials, all of it. With assessment, I am required to give them in English. If the student can’t read and fully comprehend the question … you teachers out there know where that grade will be, even being very generous.

    It’s the 21st century and textbook publishers can have digital versions in the languages we need with the support materials we need. We’re paying a bloody fortune, they should include the top 10 languages for free.

    Reading the comments is the first time I’m heard of ELSF, which tells you about my support.
    On the plus side, my district office is listening to me and making changes.

  2. Martin Blythe 5 days ago5 days ago

    I agree. I have had to create my own units and lessons for the reasons you give, but here's an idea: why not put Teachers Pay Teachers out of business by modifying the ELSF website (or SDSU website) to create a section where teachers can upload their most successful units and make them available for free to any California teachers who find them useful? Why hasn't somebody done this already, I'd like to know. The … Read More

    I agree. I have had to create my own units and lessons for the reasons you give, but here’s an idea: why not put Teachers Pay Teachers out of business by modifying the ELSF website (or SDSU website) to create a section where teachers can upload their most successful units and make them available for free to any California teachers who find them useful?

    Why hasn’t somebody done this already, I’d like to know. The lesson plans you have made available on your website are good but they take the usual top down deductive approach (form over content), and maybe it’s just me but what works for me is the inductive approach where I see the actual content that students see and then work from there to refine goals. I know that’s how I teach.

    Replies

    • Renae Skarin 4 days ago4 days ago

      Great question. Thanks for your insights. The mission of the English Learners Success Forum is to support content developers in understanding the features and architecture of quality instructional materials that are inclusive of English learners and are educative for teachers. We also support SEAs/LEAs in developing adoption criteria that reflect the EL students they serve. Our Guidelines and Benchmarks of Quality are our hallmark tools for supporting that attention to quality design. While … Read More

      Great question. Thanks for your insights.

      The mission of the English Learners Success Forum is to support content developers in understanding the features and architecture of quality instructional materials that are inclusive of English learners and are educative for teachers. We also support SEAs/LEAs in developing adoption criteria that reflect the EL students they serve. Our Guidelines and Benchmarks of Quality are our hallmark tools for supporting that attention to quality design. While we applaud the many amazing teacher resources out there, our intent is to improve curriculum quality so that teachers can spend more time and attention on refining their pedagogical skills and differentiating their lessons based on the unique needs of their students, and spend less time trying to find or create great content to teach.

      I agree with you about elevating engaging and important content. That should be the foundation of any curriculum. But, if designers don’t know how to create content reflective of American students and provide guidance on how to teach to the diversity of students in their classrooms, then the content is irrelevant… Both engaging and relevant content, as well as pedagogical approaches to teaching that content are important.