Meeting the diverse needs of our diverse students

Iowa’s rigorous Core Standards are cognitively demanding for all students and they’re supposed to be that way. The standards state what all students need to learn, but don’t provide guidance on how to instruct each standard to students with varied levels of language ability. This is important for districts like Marshalltown, where high populations of English Language Learners (ELLs) are not only engaged in the rigorous learning tied to Core Standards, but working to learn English along the way.

To best serve ELLs, their instruction must be adjusted so they can both understand the content and practice their English language skills throughout. Teachers know this, but not always the best way to make those adjustments.

Many teacher education programs in the U.S. lack the ample coursework to prepare teachers for teaching students who don’t know English as their first language. Teachers leave college underprepared for supporting academic language learning and the techniques to make content understandable to them. To counteract this, Marshalltown Schools are using professional learning to close this gap and equip teachers with the skills to meet the needs of all students.

Those skills come in the form of an identified instructional framework, which is critical for delivering Iowa CORE Standards. The Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) Model provides a pathway for reaching the Iowa CORE Standards. Teachers planning and delivering lessons through the SIOP Model allow students to access and apply the content information and practice and learn academic English.

The SIOP model offers a real benefit for teachers because it shows them ways they can make their content understandable for students and, at the same time, increase the students’ English language proficiency. The model asks teachers to consider and support the language demands of standards, materials, and tasks they’re asking students demonstrate in class and, ultimately, on high-stakes state assessments. The model requires teachers to be content and language teachers just as the Iowa CORE standards require students to learn content and language.

The concepts of learning content and learning language are not mutually exclusive; one cannot be learned in the absence of the other. All students must comprehend the content they read and hear so they can respond in writing and engage in discussions. If ELLs are required to learn content and the English language, then all teachers will need to collectively respond to support that dual instructional need. It’s through our district’s implementation of SIOP that we can do just that.

Rachel Inks is Coordinator of English Learning and Migrant Programs for the Marshalltown Community School District.