Increasing Rigor for ELL Students

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by Scott Sterling

We talk a lot about rigor here, and we will continue to do so. At Instructional Empowerment, we believe that a lack of rigor is one of the primary factors determining whether or not a school is succeeding. And with most of us implementing new, more rigorous standards, this message is more important than ever.

On the other hand, the demographics in this country are shifting rapidly. The number of English Language Learner (ELL) students in U.S. schools increased by 51% in the first decade of the 21st century; they now constitute nearly 10% of the total student population. Some estimates bring that number to 25% of that population in another 15 to 20 years.

Essentially, educators across the country are preparing to meet these challenges, but they often view them as separate. The conventional wisdom is that ELL students need to be able to fit in with the general population before worrying about how far they can go in the subject areas.

ELL students deserve the same rigorous goals as traditional students. They can’t afford to wait until they reach a certain level of language proficiency to receive a rigorous education. In fact, more rigor can help them reach high levels of proficiency, sooner.

ELL students deserve the same rigorous goals as traditional students.

But how can you get there, especially when for some students increased rigor might mean forming a complete sentence?

Let’s first look at our definition of rigor that we discussed in a previous post. Remember that rigor is often misidentified as more practice, when it in fact could mean less. Rigor is the meeting of complexity with autonomy, and it’s more than possible in an ELL setting.

The first step in complexity is setting appropriate, challenging learning goals and scales—the cornerstone of Domain 1 and a large part of the new Marzano Center Essentials for Achieving Rigor.

In our Marzano Center sister blog, Stephanie Shepherd wrote about implementing Domain 1 in a language immersion setting and how it’s important to communicate your goals and scales even if they’re not in students’ native language. If this strategy can work in a full immersion class, it can definitely work in a partial immersion setting.

But what does a specifically rigorous strategy for ELL students look like? As an example, last month Tracy Ocasio wrote about a content journaling strategy that helps build vocabulary. Vocabulary is a key challenge in the ELL setting. Without getting too much into the strategy itself, it asks students to keep a journal as you partially feed them vocabulary concepts.

One idea is to show students pictures of related topics and have them come up with words that tie the pictures together—perfect for ELL classrooms! It grants a certain level of autonomy (they can write any words and sentences they choose rather than just follow some vocabulary worksheet), and you can tune the complexity right into their zone of proximal development. The journal lets them monitor their progress, generating more buy-in.

In reality, the “taxonomy” that touches everything you do in the classroom is to have high expectations for every student. High expectations and careful planning can easily create rigor. This is doubly true in an ELL setting. Perhaps students have low expectations of themselves, or other adults in their lives have expressed doubts about their abilities. With a willingness to support their growth, students often meet the expectations set for them.