Which Product Reigns Supreme at Supporting English Language Learners?

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The night of February 16, three literacy companies threw themselves into the treacherous waters of the second EdSurge Virtual Shark Tank. There is a little twist in our tank: Rather than having investors play sharks, we select three discerning educators as judges. Our sharks evaluate the companies—ThinkCERCA, LexiaCore5 and Istation—not only on their curriculum but also how well each company supports English Language Learners (ELLs).

The magic of the Shark Tank lies in the questions. In a boardroom, it can often seem like a certain idea will “transform” education even if it turns out to be impractical in the classroom. In the Shark Tank, our judges break down the buzzwords, and the companies have to face whether their technology would improve the work educators are already doing.

With terms such as ELL, ELD (English Language Development), phonemic awareness, expressive and receptive thrown around, this was definitely not a topic for the faint observer. However, the attendance and engagement speaks to the importance of this topic. Two hundred people tuned in for the Shark Tank, and almost all stayed through the whole webinar.

Shark Esther Garcia, a principal from Riverside, CA deeply understands the importance of this topic. In fact, just last week finished a federally mandated audit where her school was analyzed for compliance with the laws and standards set up for ELLs. Esther’s questions probed how these tools comply with CA English Language Development Standards in reality versus in theory.

It wasn’t until 1970 that ELLs were put under the legal microscope when the Office for Civil Rights issued a memo regarding the responsibilities of schools under civil rights law to provide them a quality education. It stated:

Where the inability to speak and understand the English language excludes national origin minority group children from effective participation in the educational program offered by a school district, the district must take affirmative steps to rectify the language deficiency in order to open its instructional program to these students.

In 1974 the US Supreme Court upheld this law in Lau v. Nichols, claiming,

There is no equality of treatment merely by providing students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers, and curriculum; for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education.

It’s now an expectation in every classroom that teachers will support ELLs with a curriculum that is modified yet equal in rigor to that of the general classroom. Shark, Raye Wood, third grade teacher from Michigan, has 25 third graders all reading at different levels. For Wood, finding a curriculum that actually can support her students in practice is a challenge. In the Tank, Wood pushed ThinkCERCA on their claim that their curriculum can actually be used at a third grade level, “It says that your curriculum is for third grade, but I have ELLs in my third grade class that are entering reading at a first grade level, would this curriculum actually work for them?” ThinkCERCA replied that their curriculum is designed to start at the third grade level, not for a third grader reading at a first grade level.

Our final shark, Ricardo Elizalde, took the conversation beyond skills and mandates. Elizalde is an educator at San Francisco Unified School District and a doctoral student studying learning technologies. He’s also the author of the EdSurge article How My Students Learned English by Making Movie Shorts. His dissertation focuses on the implication of connected learning for English Learners. Over and over Ricardo pushed the companies to explain how their tool provides meaning to English Language Learners. It is not enough to teach them language and literacy, they must feel connected.

Istation, presented by ELL consultant Viviana Hall share that Istation’s software provides Interactive opportunities for ELLs to demonstrate progress toward mastery of content while also integrating cultural and heritage themes that support reading of familiar topics. ThinkCERCA, presented by CEO Eileen Murphy, shared that students create meaning through the collaborative discussion and debates which are embedded in the program. LexiaCore5, presented by Chief Education Officer Liz Brooke, noted the wide range of topics that would be of interest to students within its programs.

Garcia was impressed by how LexiaCore5 was able to help students to understand how language emerges and develops rather than the skills to write correct sentences. The company won first place by impressing the sharks with graphics and its approach to supporting the core six areas of literacy development. Istation took home the audience vote.

Companies—Does your tool support ELL in the classroom? Educators - Do you use tools in your classroom that do? Share it in the comments.

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