Making Instructional Adaptations for English Learners in the Mainstream Classroom: Is It Good Enough?

Making Instructional Adaptations for English Learners in the Mainstream Classroom: Is It Good Enough?

Solomon, Margaret

It has been well documented that English language (EL) learners across our nation’s schools are underperforming and their teachers are not adequately prepared to meet their multifaceted learning needs (Gandara, 2005; Miller & Endo, 2004; Haycock, Jerald & Huang, 2001; Haycock, 1998). This dilemma, often associated with race, ethnicity, and poverty, is handled by policymakers and educators in various ways.

Generally, there have been attempts to legislate and institutionalize educational reforms and streamline instruction to bring improved academic achievement for all learners. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law is not an exception; it emphasizes that teachers be highly qualified to meet the diverse needs of diverse students in mainstream classrooms.

On the other hand, in the case of English learners (ELs) in California, Proposition 227 mandates ELs to be taught in English after one year of intensive English instruction which is assumed to be sufficient to make ELs proficient to function in mainstream classrooms. In order to resolve these teaching and learning challenges teacher training institutions are taking steps to training teachers who will provide quality teaching for ELs in their mainstream classrooms.

One of the current popular approaches in meeting the academic needs of ELs is to train teachers to make instructional adaptations for ELs to facilitate access to subject matter content as a way of decreasing the achievement gap between English speakers and second language learners. Teaching EL by making adaptations in the mainstream classrooms is one of the teacher performance expectations set by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CCTC).

For example, Jennifer Kline, is a pre-service teacher of science (the term commonly used for credential candidates) at Monroe High School. She spends many hours preparing instructional activities that are stimulating and engaging for all students. Although she is satisfied with her mainstream learners’ academic performance, she is very much troubled by the weak academic progress of the ELs in her class.

Following the NCLB implementation plan, it becomes her responsibility to teach ELs the science content. Subsequently, she wants to make instructional adaptations to meet the needs of ELs in her classes for language development and improved academic achievement. Although it seems like an impossible task, Jennifer continues to make science concepts understandable and meaningful for all learners by making special adaptations for the ELs who are immersed in her mainstream classrooms.

According to a recent news release, Gandara (2005), a researcher from the University of California, Davis, reported that

more than one-fourth of all students in California classrooms have limited English skills, and about 85 percent of teachers have non-native speakers in their classrooms. Although most credentialed teachers now receive some training focused on the needs of culturally diverse students, most need specific training to address the needs of English learners.

In other words, it should become a top priority for teacher preparation programs to develop beginning teachers who are prepared and grounded on how to effectively instruct ELs in their classrooms.

There is a high expectation that aside from subject knowledge competence, teaching methods coursework, field experience, and performance assessment, future teachers need to have the ability and disposition to work in high-poverty and hard-to-staff schools where many English language learners attend. Pre-service teachers need to exhibit effectiveness in making adaptations for ELs to facilitate their access to academic content as well as develop their communicative skills in English.

In this article, we present the variety of adaptation strategies that we have compiled from responses and instructional plans shared by pre-service teachers in their teaching performance assessment (TPA) submissions. The TPA is designed to assess the set of teaching performance expectations (TPE) that pre-service teachers need to demonstrate before earning their preliminary teaching credential, including the ability to teach English learners by making instructional adaptations or any means necessary to provide them access to subject matter content.

Teaching Performance Expectations

By the statute signed by the governor of California in 1998 as Senate Bill 2042, all multiple (elementary) and single (secondary) subject preliminary credential candidates in California are required to be assessed on the Teacher Performance Expectations (TPE) in order to be recommended for a Preliminary Teaching Credential.

The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CCTC), with the assistance of Educational Testing Service and California educators, developed the CCTC-TPA (Teaching Performance Assessment) through rigorous research, pilot testing, benchmarking, and scoring calibration. The specific list of teaching performance expectations (TPEs) in Figure 1 was created by the Legislature as teacher preparation goals for all the teaching credential candidates.

As can be seen from Figure 1, one of the essential areas of teaching that is given attention is the set of knowledge, skill, and ability to adapt instruction to meet the needs of the ELs in mainstream classrooms, as in TPE 7. Specifically, preservice teachers need to demonstrate their pedagogical skills in using relevant and appropriate strategies in teaching all types of learners including the ELs.

In this article, we attempted to categorize the adaptation strategies pre-service teachers make in facilitating access to subject matter content and English language development for the ELs. The pre-service teachers’ competence in doing these adaptations is assessed through Teaching Performance Assessment (TPA) tasks.

Teaching Performance Assessment (TPA) Tasks

In our teacher preparation program at the University of Redlands, all credential candidates are required to pass all four performance-based tasks in the TPAs. By utilizing the pre-service teachers’ narratives from the TPAs, we documented the categories of adaptation strategies that we considered viable, effective, and practical in facilitating the academic and language development of English language learners. The four TPA tasks are summarized in Figure 2.

What Adaptations Do Pre-Service Teachers Recommend for ELs?

The TPA responses or submissions of 150 pre-service teachers on TPA Task 1 and Task 2 were compiled and analyzed for adaptation ideas and strategies they plan on implementing for the EL in their classrooms. Using a set of modified adaptation nomenclature formulated by Deschenss, Ebeling, and Sprague (1994), we analyzed all the responses related to making adaptations for EL, selected the most applicable ones, and categorized them into three kinds of adaptation strategies as described in Table 1.

Conclusion: Responsiveness to EL Needs and Other Concerns

In order to achieve the desired learning outcomes for English learners in the mainstream classes, the types of adaptations listed in Table 1 are helpful instructional accommodations to achieve the desired learning outcomes for English learners in mainstream classes. However, it is important to see if these types of adaptations would facilitate the acceleration of their language and academic developments.

The adaptation strategies listed under “Logistical and Instructional Support,” “Informational Difficulty,” and “Curriculum Delivery” are attempts to provide extra help for the ELs who are struggling to keep up with their mainstream peers in the class. These efforts would help the teachers establish a context-embedded learning environment for the ELs to negotiate meaning of the content.

For example, adaptations such as after/before school support, working with another expert student or a bilingual aide, group work, and peer tutoring are practical instructional accommodations that might help. They certainly provide opportunities for the ELs to receive feed back about his/her understanding of the material to be learned or learning activity that has to be completed. Similarly, using translated materials, giving modified assignments, and re-teaching are examples of “Curriculum Accommodations” made by the mainstream teacher for the EL to have access to content.

While these strategies provide opportunities for academic access and engagement we have to raise a reminder that it is very difficult to gauge how successful these adaptations are in the mastery of academic content. In order to achieve language development and content learning, teachers need to demonstrate high expectations for their EL students, strong understanding of language learning and pedagogy and consistent reliance on good data to guide instruction (Linquanti, 2004).

Under the “Logistical and Instructional Support” category, peer assistance or assigning the student to another student who has bilingual proficiency topped the list. In addition, providing learning support through tutoring and paraprofessional assistance was also listed. These adaptations certainly have their benefits because EL students in the mainstream classrooms mostly come with certain level of competency in conversational abilities.

Working with someone would certainly provide interpersonal and contextual cues to make the cognitive demands easier. Although it is an effective strategy, it cannot fully provide all the elements needed for high level of cognitive involvement and processing required for learning. Delegating the EL to a student or a professional would certainly help the mainstream teacher manage the difficulty he/she would face in dealing with the learning needs of EL students but these adaptations would not replace instruction that is structured to meaningfully engage the ELs with the content.

The adaptation strategies under “Information Difficulty” speak to the accommodations of pre-service teachers to make difficult information meaningful. In general, teachers use various methods to input their content while students receive the input in varying degrees of depth and understanding. Pre-service teachers in our program recognizing the difficulties ELs will encounter in their instructional contexts opted for various types of adaptations to deliver their content.

For example, using visual aids, providing a vocabulary list in Spanish and allowing the EL to draw pictures to illustrate his/her learning were excellent instructional cues. Although these adaptations are useful steps, further studies have to be done to find out how effective such adaptations would be to engaging the EL cognitively to acquire the content meaningfully.

Similarly, modeling as an adaptation is an excellent instructional tool providing an opportunity for the ELs to visualize what needs to be learned and how it could be accomplished. Modeling as an instructional technique allows the teacher to become an active role model to explicitly demonstrate to students how to learn something or what needs to be learned. It is also a useful strategy in guiding students in reading of a text and comprehending it while rehearsing the mental operations involved in comprehending a selected text.

Pre-service teachers in our sample stated they would model learning certain concepts while others said they would model process for learning certain concepts. For example, if an experiment has to be conducted to understand a science concept the teacher would model not only the procedures but also the expectations of the experiment. In these contexts modeling would serve as an excellent tool for the ELs to understand content concepts and provide both academic and linguistic cues. This method should be studied further as to how its application would assist ELs in the learning of content knowledge in mainstream classrooms.

Under the category “Curriculum Delivery” the pre-service teachers listed a variety of adaptations that are directly connected to the curriculum and its delivery. For example, making learning goals specific, using translated materials and modifying assignments are constructive efforts to make the learning content approachable for the ELs. However, in order to provide opportunities for meaningful learning other types of adaptations are needed.

For example, “focus on content and meaning instead of grammar and spelling in the written work” is a great start but providing instruction that enables meaningful knowledge acquisition involves further actions. Making adaptations of materials at the ELs’ reading levels in English, increasing efforts to develop comprehension of content materials, and grounding their learning in meaningfulness through effective vocabulary instruction and prior knowledge activation would be excellent strategies. Such adaptations would meet their linguistic needs and help them connect to what they know.

Instead of looking at adaptations for ELs in the mainstream classes as a separate strategy, mainstream teachers must plan an integrated instructional system that truly includes the EL in the total learning process. Instructional adaptations must eventually bring the ELs to actively engage in negotiating meaning of the learning context and monitoring their progress.

That can be done by amplifying and enriching the language of the classroom, using new words in a context and paraphrasing it, instructional scaffolding and schema building, and using assessments that inform student progress. Such accommodations would provide rich learning opportunities that allow the ELs to weave new information presented in the class into structures of meaning or schema that exist in their learning system.

In providing equal access for academic achievement for ELs, the educational policy in California clearly has its own agenda which is neither rooted in research evidence nor in the realities involved in the total teaching and learning processes. Asking mainstream teachers to make instructional adaptations for ELs is only the first step; it is not an end itself. More steps are needed to create a structured learning environment that takes into considerations all the factors related to learning English for academic success.

English learners need more support and resources for developing academic language proficiency through meaningful engagement with the curriculum. Therefore, the instructional adaptations that pre-service teachers demonstrated for ELs pose a lingering imperative question “Are these adaptations good enough to lead the ELs to academic success?” without a definite answer.


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Margaret Solomon is an assistant professor and Jose Lalas and Carol Franklin are professors, all in the School of Education at the University of Redlands Redlands, California.

Copyright Caddo Gap Press Spring 2006

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