Newton Public Schools collaborates with Dr. Leider on ELL program

In 2012, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) adopted the WIDA English Development Standards Framework (WIDA ELD), which aims to promote English Language Learners’ (ELL) success through academic language development and academic achievement for linguistically diverse students.

Chris Leider (School of Education) & Kate Phillipson (Newton Public Schools) // PHOTO BY PAIGE KELLY
Christine Leider (School of Education) & Kate Phillipson (Newton Public Schools) // PHOTO BY PAIGE KELLY

According to WIDA, though, the standards “are not a scope and sequence of language skills,” and educators are encouraged to utilize tools and resources provided by the organization in order to differentiate instruction for their ELL students. For Kate Phillipson, the ELL Intake Coordinator for Newton Public School’s ELL Program, implementation of the standards has actually involved quite a bit of innovation. What she and her ELL teachers have developed amounts to a tangible resource that ELL and general education teachers can use to both track and encourage academic language development.

“We’ve been circling this concept for a number of years from the initial germ of an idea to the actual fruit of the tree, Ms. Phillipson said. “Basically about five years ago we started talking about a functional approach to language, which is a theory pertaining to how people use language for specific functions, and that there are language demands associated with specific academic tasks.”

For example, Ms. Phillipson explained, if a student is going to describe something they’ll need a number of adjectives in their vocabulary, versus if they’re going to offer an opinion, they need the phrases “I believe” or “in my opinion.”

Ms. Phillipson and her colleagues– including Jody Klein and Alison Levit from Newton Public Schools, and Tara Trent from San Mataeo-Foster City School District– worked to break these language functions down based on the levels of proficiency that WIDA assigns to students. Levels one and two pertain to more social functions of language, whereas levels 3-5 are more academically focused.

“The WIDA standards are very vague, and they’re meant to be for K-12 but they read more like they’re for high school students,” Ms. Phillipson said. “A group of us elementary school teachers wanted to know what these standards would actually look like for kindergarten students.”

So she and her fellow teachers created a flipbook, broken out into three different grade bands: K-1, 2-3, and 4-5.

“Basically what we’ve done is we’ve taken each language function and described what it might look like it at different levels,” Ms. Phillipson said. “So if you’re in kindergarten and you’re a Level four, what are you working on? If you’re a third grader and you’re working on the sequencing function, what language would you need?”

She added that the language functions are applicable across subject areas, and that ELL and general education teachers can collaborate on the content the student will be learning in the classroom, and how they might use a particular language function.

“For instance if a teacher is teaching Civil Rights, a lot of people might think that it’s only vocabulary that’s important, but students also need language functions like cause and effect to study something like that,” Ms. Phillipson said. “They need to understand how the language works and how to use certain grammatical constructs.”

The language frames that Ms. Phillipson has developed provides students with the scaffolding they need to become proficient in academic discourse, and it provides ELL and general education teachers the opportunity to be on the same page in regards to a particular student’s progress. The overarching goal involves collaboration in order to move a student along the continuum of language development.

“What Kate and the teachers in Newton have created is a common tool and a common language that teachers can utilize when talking about bilingual students’ language development,” Clinical Assistant Professor Christine Leider said. Dr. Leider is serving as a research advisor for Ms. Phillipson’s project. The two connected through the BU Consortium, which is now funding additional research that the group will conduct to determine what kind of growth educators can expect to see using the resources that they developed, and how often lessons should be implemented in order to achieve this growth.

“For instance we can observe students talking, using the language frames, and the frames have a rubric which the teachers can use for assessing speaking and writing, and it provides a common tool to talk about ELL language and literacy development,” Dr. Leider said.

She added that this project has highlighted both the benefits of collaboration amongst teachers, as well as between a university and neighboring district.

Dr. Leider, Ms. Phillipson, and Ms. Trent (formerly of Newton Public Schools) will be presenting the language framework at the upcoming TESOL 2017 International Convention & English Language Expo in Seattle, Washington this week, where they plan to demonstrate how the language frames work, and to have audience members practice using one of their rubrics.

“We’re hoping we can get some feedback, too, from other educators,” Dr. Leider said.

Lisa Randall