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The Key to Boosting English Learners' Language Skills? Challenging Content

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ESL students can choose avatars to navigate them through certain sections of the course. (Middlebury Interactive Languages)

The English language learner population in the United States is growing quickly, posing a challenge for cash-strapped schools struggling to balance the diverse needs of learners. And while technology is becoming a more ubiquitous part of the school experience, it hasn’t always been used effectively to improve the language skills of English learners. A new curriculum using both online modules and teacher-led instruction developed by Middlebury Interactive Languages in partnership with Hartford Public Schools is showing promise as an engaging way for students working on their English skills to also access challenging content.

Middlebury Interactive Languages is known for its online world languages program, but the partnership with Hartford marks the company’s entry into developing a blended-learning program meant for students learning English. Middlebury used research showing that English language learners need to develop academic English to succeed in school, as well as motivation to learn a new language through challenging and interesting work. To that end, the ESL curriculum uses content from science, math, social studies and English language arts curriculum as the basis for building up language skills.

“The whole process and developing these courses has been extremely collaborative with the real users,” said Aline Germain-Rutherford, chief academic officer for Middlebury Interactive Languages. “We take [the teacher and student] feedback and integrate that into our design.” For example, the Middlebury designers had little understanding of how much language a level one ELL student has. After looking at an initial prototype, Hartford educators came back to the company explaining areas that needed more background, context and clues to scaffold a student's understanding of texts.

Hartford educators have been pleased with the progress their 4th-8th grade students are making using the blended learning curriculum and with the collaboration generally. They are currently piloting the program in the eight schools with the highest population of English language learners. “The curriculum is not static,” said Mary-Beth Russo, a Hartford ELL coach about the program's flexibility. “It’s online, but you can take parts of it and build out, and it’s theme based.”

Before, Hartford used a typical model that included both helping English learners within their subject area classes and pulling them out to work on language specifically. If a class was reading The House on Mango Street, the ELL teacher might try to front-load important vocabulary with students so they would have some idea of what was going on in the book, but often limited language skills still kept those students from participating in discussions.


In comparison, the Middlebury blended curriculum is grouped by overarching themes and subthemes. Each subtheme follows a predictable progression of modules that focus on vocabulary, reading, writing, listening and speaking. Students are working towards completing a project in each module. Since the curriculum is meant to be used as a supplement to in-person instruction, ESL teachers can build off the modules however they see fit, adding elements the connect explicitly back to curriculum in other classes or differentiating for individual students as they see fit.


“None of the curricular components are watered down,” said Monica Quinones, director of English Language Learners Support Services for Hartford Public Schools. “That’s something we were very adamant about. We were able to take grade-level appropriate content and scaffold it so they can access it.”

That’s a big leap for a group of students who are often thought to be less smart because they don’t understand English as well. A big part of helping those students access their content coursework is to help them develop the academic English they will be expected to use throughout their school careers.

“A piece that’s really different is the rigor of the content,” Russo said. “We worked hard to align it to the Common Core.” For example, in sixth grade, Common Core State Standards recommend reading work by Frederick Douglass. Helping a student who only knows a few words of English understand this difficult text requires lots of supports.

The program does this by helping the learner deconstruct the text. Difficult words have pop-up boxes with visual, audio and written definitions. Activities are built in to help learners identify key words that signal an idea is being introduced or an example given. They work on identifying word roots, common prefixes and suffixes that give clues about whether the word is a noun or a verb and families of words.

The activities also use the well-worn practice of modeling by offering students examples of the written or oral statement they have been asked to produce. “We expect that at first the learner will model his sentence on the model,” Germain-Rutherford said. “And bit by bit, he will become more independent.”

Quinones and Russo said Hartford ESL teachers were wary of the pilot at first, believing the content would be too challenging for very new English speakers. “Now those teachers are coming back and saying they can’t believe the quality of work their students are producing,” Russo said.


While Hartford won’t have real data for several more years, Russo and Quinones say students in the pilot courses are accelerating their reading, writing and speaking skills more quickly than those not in the course. They’ve shown improvement on benchmark tests and seem more engaged in their work. Teachers are reporting better attendance and, interestingly, more engagement from parents.

A big part of the curriculum is recognizing that students come with a culture and a set of skills from their first language that they can use to learn English. Rather than suppressing the first language, the curriculum celebrates it. “Research really shows that the more you help the students develop a multicultural and multilingual identity….the more students are engaged and motivated,” Germain-Rutherford said. The projects included in each module always connect back to the student’s culture. Students are encouraged to talk about who they are and where they come from in English. This celebration has in turn made parents feel more welcome at school.

“[Students are] so invested in learning,” Quinones said. “The discussions they have amongst each other, even if they aren’t in agreement, these are things we haven’t seen before.” Students even feel empowered to give direct feedback on the program to Middlebury. One student wrote to the Middlebury Interactive Languages CEO, Jane Swift, with some recommendations about the user interface and a complaint that his country’s flag wasn’t represented on the site.


“Districts have to know what the program is and understand that there’s no silver bullet that’s going to answer everybody’s needs to grow ELLs overnight,” Russo said. But, after 28 years as an ELL teacher and coach, she says the Middlebury program is the best technology tool she’s seen. It’s flexible enough for teachers to incorporate their own lessons, provides a predictable path for students and engages them in high level work. Russo says it takes five to seven years for a child to acquire language, but she’s hoping in a few years time, the bet her district made on Middlebury will pay off.

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