Report: Equal Access to Content Instruction for English Learners: An Example from Science


STUDENTS: English Language Learners


Brown, Z.A. & DiRanna, K.




Region IX Equity Assistance Center at WestEd


Equal access to content instruction is the foundation of educational equity—it reduces opportunity gaps that
lead to achievement gaps. Achievement gaps lead to gaps in college and career access, which lead to income
gaps. Income gaps lead to language gaps, thus perpetuating one of the most critical gaps we face in education.
This paper is about the importance of equal meaningful access to content instruction for English learners and
how academic-language instruction through content improves both content and English achievement. In this
paper we use quality science education as an example of providing meaningful access to content instruction
through hands-on, inquiry-based lessons to apply higher-order thinking skills that promote the development
of academic language. We conclude by advocating that this type of science education should be available to all
students and suggest policies and practices to increase the likelihood of this taking place.
Do English Learners Have Equal Access to Content Instruction?
English learners are students in U.S. schools whose first language is other than English and who are in the
process of learning English. These students include those who are just beginning to learn English as well as
those who have developed considerable proficiency. English learners are a heterogeneous group of students,
coming from diverse linguistic, economic, and educational backgrounds. They can be newcomers, with various
levels of prior schooling, as well as students born and educated in the United States.
State-approved oral language and literacy assessments determine that these students lack the clearly defined
English language skills of listening comprehension, speaking, reading, and writing necessary to succeed in the
school's regular instructional programs. Federal legislation (Elementary and Secondary Education Act, 2002)

provides additional funds (Title III) for schools to ensure that English learners attain English proficiency and
meet the same challenging academic content standards that other students are expected to meet.
Equal educational opportunities can be provided for English learners through instruction in English language
development (ELD) or English as a second language, combined with engaging content instruction using
specific techniques to make content comprehensible and usable. Both of these instructional opportunities
should be provided simultaneously. Leaving the latter until English learners have sufficient English proficiency
automatically relegates the students to a second-class citizen role, where they are “disadvantaged” and have
“deficits” because they lack content instruction and content knowledge that they are expected to master at
specific grade levels. Both ELD and comprehensible content instruction are required.
English language learners face the dual challenge of acquiring content knowledge and academic language.
Without proper instruction, the language demands of content disciplines can compromise English language
learners’ content understanding. However, teachers can make content instruction accessible through
scaffolding. Scaffolding is an instructional strategy that involves supporting novice learners by limiting the
complexities of the context and gradually removing those limits as learners gain the knowledge, skills, and
confidence to cope with the full complexity of the context (Young, 1993). In other words, scaffolding amplifies
the language of content. Examples of scaffolds include using concept maps, t-charts, graphic organizers,
illustrations, and realia; pre-teaching appropriate vocabulary; fostering collaborative projects that involve
content specific conversations; and using paragraph starters and sentence frames in developing writing skills.
Carefully crafted instruction can not only obviate many of the obstacles that English learners face in learning,
but it can also have particular benefits for their development of academic English language and their ability to
navigate the reading and writing assignments that shape their school lives (Lee & Luykx, 2006; Cervetti, Bravo,
Duong, Hernandez, & Tilson, 2008). By employing appropriate techniques that increase students’ use of oral
language and meaningful use of academic language, content area teachers provide a level playing field on
which English learners can achieve.


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