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Intentionality and Tailoring: Ways to Develop and Optimize Programs for English Learners

By Tim Blackburn | September 25, 2018

Tim Blackburn
Tim Blackburn works as a senior advisor at Education Northwest on projects focused on English learners, classroom instruction, and equity.

English learner students are not a monolithic group.

Rather, they represent a rich diversity in terms of country of origin, language(s) spoken, English proficiency, literacy level, and prior school experience.

It makes sense, then, that there is no one-size-fits-all approach for English learner programs.

Intentional Programming

All these factors can make it challenging for educators, schools, and districts to determine the best program to meet the needs of their English learner students.

A new infographic from REL Northwest seeks to address this challenge.

Specifically, "The Right Fit: Selecting an English Learning Program for Your Students" is a tool for designing programs for English learner students with intentionality.

This is crucial because intentional programming allows schools to tailor support to the specific needs of its English learner population.

Put another way, knowing who your students are can guide the prescription.

A medical analogy is that doctors must know their patients' symptoms before determining what treatment to pursue; they will not prescribe penicillin for someone with a broken leg, for example.

Guiding Questions

Learning more about your English learner students in terms of their stage of language development is a critical first step in designing English learning programs.

An important guiding question to ask is: Who are our English learners?

"The Right Fit" can help you answer that question; the first page of the infographic describes the differences among simultaneous bilingual learners, sequential bilingual learners, and heritage speakers.

Making that distinction provides a solid foundation from which to begin developing or optimizing your school's English learning program.

For example, if you recognize that most of your English learner students are heritage speakers, you can begin having discussions about the best ways to honor their linguistic and cultural backgrounds.

"The Right Fit" also addresses factors to consider and questions to ask after you establish your English learning program foundation.

For example, it provides an overview of the laws related to English learner programming, some of the assets English learner students bring and the challenges they may encounter, and common programs for English learners in Oregon.

Looking Ahead

"The Right Fit" is geared toward stakeholders at the district and school levels.

In addition, Title III directors can use it to communicate with educators and administrators regarding ways to develop and/or optimize English learning programs.

We recognize that this process takes time, teamwork, and dedication.

Our hope is that the infographic will help initiate, sustain, and inform conversations that lead to English learning programs that meet student needs and improve student outcomes.

Ultimately, the goal is to have a program that fits the local context—and the needs of English learner students.