You Can’t Win if You Don’t Get to Play – Effectively Engaging All English Language Learners
Adela Solís, Ph.D., and Kristin Grayson, M.Ed.
Two English language learner youths talk about their school experience. One says: "Classes would be more interesting if teachers were excited, had us do interesting things and relate subjects to what’s happening around us. I hate it when all we do is silly worksheets" (Walqui, 2000).
Another student says: "It was really bad… I was almost the only one… and there were no translators. So I was just sitting there, and they were speaking English to me and I didn’t understand anything" (Peitzman and Gadda, 1994).
From these statements, one thing is clear. These students are not engaged in learning. There are many reasons students are disengaged. For these English language learners, it appears that the irrelevancy of classwork and lack of access to comprehensible instruction cause them to disengage.
As maturing adolescents it is likely they recognize the implications for not being in the game of learning. The academic learning process, in a way, is no different than participating in sports. To succeed, it is necessary to suit up and show up for the game and, more importantly, to be able to play. Just like the players in that all important ball game, English language learners cannot win if they do not get to play.
English language learners need to be cognitively engaged in the learning process. Regardless of their background or English language proficiency, they should have meaningful opportunities to succeed in school.
These authors, as IDRA professional development specialists, have been working for some time on a new professional development project that focuses on the engagement of English language learners in secondary English as a second language and content classes. The purpose of this initiative is to bring the literature on student engagement to bear on serving these students.
Guided by the literature and first-hand experiences working with teachers and students in sheltered instruction classrooms, IDRA has conceptualized a professional development model to refine and extend teachers’ sheltered instruction expertise so they can strategically plan and deliver sheltered instruction for engagement. This model, Engagement-Based Sheltered Instruction (EBSI), and its related research-base are the topics of this article.
The literature on student engagement offers insights to help define engagement and elaborates on the nature and extent of the problem, its implications and solutions. From this literature, we know that engagement is a prerequisite of learning. That is, without engagement there is no learning. Further, there is a distinction between superficial, or procedural, engagement and substantive, or cognitive, engagement. It is only through the latter that learning actually occurs (McLaughlin, et al., 2005).
The condition for learning has two dimensions: internal factors, or things residing within the student, and external factors, typically recognized as the contexts in which learning occurs (Hall and Bissell, 2006).
Motivation and discipline often are cited as internal factors that influence engagement (Voke, 2002), as are students’ socio-emotional readiness and level of skills, such as academic skills and English skills (Walqui, 2000). These sources on student engagement reveal specific characteristics of student behavior that serve as evidence of student engagement and are part of the Engagement-Based Sheltered Instruction model.
Certainly, for English language learners, limited English proficiency and academic skills play a large part in their disengagement. Cummins (2001) contributes significantly to the understanding of engagement and the English language learner. He asserts that a connection exists between cognitive engagement and student identity. His premises are expressed like this: "Cognitive engagement is a prerequisite of academic success. For students dominant in a language other than English, cognitive engagement occurs in the language?they understand. Negative teacher attitudes toward the student and his native language affects his identity (feelings about self) and inhibits engagement. The teacher then must affirm the student’s identity. In doing so, the student then creates conditions for maximum identity investment in the learning process. There is a reciprocal relationship between cognitive engagement and identity investment: the more students learn, the more their academic self concept grows and the more academically engaged they become" (Cummins, 2001).
Besides (student) internal factors, cognitive engagement also is dependent on external factors. A good portion of the literature indicates that the school in general and the teacher specifically can influence students’ willingness and ability to stay focused in the learning process. The number of suggestions in the literature on what teachers can do to engage students is extensive. This literature seems to be an important part of the pedagogical content knowledge base, or the knowledge of how to teach specific content areas. (University of Northern Iowa, 1999; Walqui, 2000)
The Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol model (Echevarria, et al., 2004; Center for Applied Linguistics, 2004), the most recent of several sheltered instruction approaches, provides a framework for effectively instructing English language learners that promotes engagement. The authors stress the importance of lesson delivery for engagement and describe three aspects of engagement: allocated time, engaged time and academic learning time as aspects of efficient and rigorous instruction (Echevarria, et al., 2004).
ESL literacy research (Kinsella, 2000 and 2006) similarly stresses rigorous student engagement. The author incorporates into her language and literacy training approach strategies for structured learning engagement.
The general and English language learner-specific sources cited above reveal contextual factors and teacher behaviors that are predictive of English language learner engagement that are pedagogical dimensions of English language learner instruction addressed in the EBSI model.
EBSI – Highlights of the Research-Base Model
IDRA’s Engagement-Based Sheltered Instruction model focuses on student engagement within sheltered instruction. The model was developed based on the literature that stresses its importance and on first-hand experiences that reveal the absence of substantive cognitive engagement in the instruction of English language learners. It is designed to more rigorously and strategically bring about desired learning. Following are some key components of the model.
Tools for Observing Engagement
Observing for evidence of student engagement is a unique feature of the model. Observable student behaviors can be noted as evidence of student engagement. These have been organized into the following evidence categories: sense of community; use of language; concentration and focus; confidence in performance; and active involvement and independence. These behaviors are included in a set of indicators and are one part of the Student Engagement Observation Tool.
Observing for teachers making engagement happen is a second part of this observation tool. The sound pedagogy predictive of English language learner engagement was organized into dimensions containing specific indicators that can be observed as evidence of engagement-based instruction:
Classroom environment and learning context conducive to interaction;
Lesson preparation and delivery plans;
Teacher-student relationships that promote trust and high expectations;
Comprehensible content and language teaching (i.e., sheltered instruction);
Active-interactive experiences; and
Structured engagement tasks (or specific techniques for focused participation).
Training and In-Class Support
This dynamic professional development focuses first on assessment of the current status of ESL teaching and levels of student engagement. Training and support are then offered to extend teachers’ knowledge of second language acquisition principles and sheltered instruction and to develop insight and expertise in structuring content teaching for maximum student engagement.
Technology and assessment tools for engagement-based sheltered instruction are interwoven into the training and assistance that are part of this model. Areas of training and support include:
Serving English Language Learners and Current Levels of Engagement;
English Language Learner Needs and English Language Proficiency Levels;
Understanding the Language Demands of the Content Area Classroom, Texts and Tests;
Understanding Cognitive Engagement;
Strategies for Comprehensible Content and Language;
Planning, Teaching and Observing for Maximum Cognitive Engagement of English Language Learners; and
Technology as a Tool for Student Engagement.
The Engagement-Based Sheltered Instruction model is helping teachers feel empowered to make a difference for English language learners, build trusting relationships with English language learners and, very importantly, present content in a comprehensible way to all students to be sure they are engaged. These are teachers who understand and act on the notion that you can’t win if you don’t play.
The IDRA EBSI professional development model is designed to accommodate each district’s or school’s unique needs with a combination of training sessions and individualized in-class assistance.
Contact IDRA at 210-444-1710 or
to learn more about how EBSI can help your teachers and English language learners achieve academic success.
Center for Applied Linguistics. Using the SIOP Model: Professional Development Manual for Sheltered Instruction (Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics, 2004).
Cummins, J. "Understanding Academic Language Learning: Making It Happen in the Classroom," chapter 5. In Negotiating Identities: Education for Empowerment in a Diverse Society (second edition) (Los Angeles: California Association for Bilingual Education, 2001).
Echevarria, J., and M.E. Vogt, D.J. Short. Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners: The SIOP Model (second edition) (Boston: Pearson, Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
Hall, D.M., and A.N. Bissell. "Who Are We Trying to Help? A Framework for Understanding the Nature of Academically Vulnerable College Learners and Implications for Practice," conference presentation (Durham, N.C.: Duke University, 2006).
Kinsella, K. Structured "Academic Talk" for English Learners: A Key to Narrowing the Verbal Gap in K-12 Classrooms," presentation at OELA Fifth Annual Celebrate Our Rising Stars Summit (Washington, D.C.: Office of English Language Acquisition, October 2006).
Kinsella, K. Reading and the Need for Strategic Lexical Development for Secondary ESL Students (California Social Studies Review, 2000).
McLaughlin, M., and D.J. McGrath, M.A. Burian-Fitzgerald, L. Lanahan, M. Scotchmer, C. Enyeart, L. Salganik. Student Content Engagement as a Construct for the Measurement of Effective Classroom Instruction and Teacher Knowledge (Washington, D.C.: American Institutes for Research, 2005).
Peitzman, F., and G. Gadda (Eds.). With Different Eyes: Insights into Teaching Language Minority Students Across the Disciplines (White Plains, N.Y.:?Longman Publishers Group, 1994).
University of Northern Iowa. Technology as a Facilitator of Quality Education Model (A Component of Integrating New Technologies into the Methods of Education (Cedar Falls, Iowa: University of Northern Iowa, College of Education, 1999).
Voke, H. "Student Engagement: Motivating Students to Learn," Infobrief (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, February, 2002) No. 28.
Walqui, A. Access and Engagement: Program Design and Instructional Approaches for Immigrant Students in Secondary School, chapter 4. (McHentry, Il.: Delta Systems, 2000).
Adela Solís, Ph.D., is an IDRA senior education associate. Kristin Grayson, M.Ed, is an IDRA education associate. Comments and questions directed to them via e-mail at
[©2007, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]