I published a two-part series on teaching English Language Learners with special needs in my Education Week Teacher column in March.

Unfortunately, I just discovered that I had misfiled an important contribution to it from Dr. Paul Boyd-Batstone. I’ve now added it to one of the two columns, and am also publishing it here as a guest post.

The Ed Week question was:

What are the best instructional strategies for working with ELLs who have special needs?

Here’s is Paul’s bio and response:

Dr. Paul Boyd-Batstone is Chair of the Department of Teacher Education at California State University, Long Beach.  He has worked in public education for almost 30 years as a bilingual teacher, reading and language specialist, and professor of language arts and literacy.  He has write five books in the field including his most recent book, Helping English language learners meet the Common Core:  Assessment and instructional strategies. Eye on Education (2013).

These are two very big questions because they involve multiple factors including socio-economic status, schooling environment, family involvement, cultural differences, and cognitive processing issues on the part of the students; not to mention linguistic issues such as literacy in the primary language and access to quality materials in first and second languages.

Asking for strategies is not the starting point with closing the achievement gap. What we need to be asking for first of all is what systems support all students. When I use the term “systems,” I refer to coordinated efforts of the entire educational community. Schools where all students are supported begin with administrators who have been entrusted with adequate budgets, facilities, and resources to address a coherent vision for achievement.  Teachers are supported with materials, tools, and time to plan and confer with each other and families about their students’ progress. Business communities open up sites for field trips, internships, and celebration of achievement. Families of all cultures and language populations have a place to network and learn how best to work with their children in a North American schooling community. 

Let me share one example of a very cost effective approach one urban school employed.  This school’s population was over 85% ELL, low income, and consequently, low achieving academically.  But the principal had a vision to create a parent center.  He received funding to hire support teachers to run the parent center.  The teachers opened the center for drop in times before, during, and after school.  Parents received classes from the community on family medical and dental resources, how to write a resume, and how to interview for a job.  They also received classes in English, but in the context of using English to help their own children with their homework. 

During the school day, the parent center functioned as a tutoring hub for the entire school.  Classroom teachers could refer students to the center for help with their schoolwork.  The teachers in the center would utilize the tutoring opportunities to show parents how to help their children.  Even illiterate parents were taught to sit with a child as they read, and to ask simple questions like, “What does that word mean?” and “Where does the text say that?”  Members of the surrounding business community provided coffee and snacks for parents.  And parents were encouraged to organize themselves as boosters for the schools programs. 

This kind of systemic model costs money in the form of teacher salaries, facilities, and materials; but it was an extremely cost effective support that engaged the entire school community for the benefit of the students.  The net impact was a dramatic increase in academic achievement as measured by classroom performance as well as standardized test scores.

Students with special needs require systemic approaches, as well. More recently Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) has gain a lot of attention, but the body of research support is still very slight.