• by Adela Solís Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • April 2008 • Dr. Adela Solis

To create schools that work for all children, we need teachers to teach for engagement. Two things are clear from the education literature about this matter: student engagement is a prerequisite of student learning, and for learning to be truly meaningful students have to be cognitively engaged.

A challenge for professional developers charged with training teachers for student success, then, is to help teachers align their instruction with principles and practices for cognitive engagement. They first need to clearly understand the meaning of relevant terminology. Second, and most importantly, they need evidence of whether or not their teaching causes students to be cognitively engaged so they can adjust their instruction accordingly.

This article elaborates on the definition of cognitive engagement (see article in March 2007 issue of the IDRA Newsletter) and describes a new approach for helping teachers of English language learners to more accurately and strategically assess how well they are teaching for student engagement.

Definition of Cognitive Engagement

One definition of student engagement distinguishes between procedural engagement and substantial engagement (McLaughlin, et al., 2005). A procedurally engaged student is one who follows traditional rules of behavior. He or she is quiet, looking at the teacher, has the book turned to the correct page and may even help the teacher collect the homework. A substantially engaged student is one who not only attends to the built-in procedures of instruction but also interacts with the content of the lesson in a deep and thoughtful manner.

The ways in which these two types of students are involved look different and lead to different academic results. Research points out, not surprisingly, that it is through substantial engagement that students are able to “get it” and “make the mark” on the test. Several recent works expand on this and other definitions of student engagement (see Guthrie, 2000; McLaughlin, et al., 2005; Voke, 2002).

The literature on second language learning further expounds on what cognitive engagement means within the context of instruction for English language learners. Cummins (2001), specifically, has explained what it takes to cognitively engage English language learners. For these students, a clear link has to be made to their home language and culture, and there must be a genuine socio-emotional connection, or relationship, between the student and teacher.

Equally important for cognitive engagement of English language learners is the teacher’s delivery of instruction and how this teaching embraces the learner’s need to learn language and content at the same time.

For the English language learner, this means teaching has to address cognitively challenging content and academic language development (Center for Applied Linguistics, 2004). It also means that the delivery of instruction must be accurate and strategic so that students are cognitively and linguistically engaged (Cummins, 2001; Walqui, 2000).

The Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) model (Center for Applied Linguistics, 2004) addresses the importance of lesson delivery stressing three aspects of student engagement – allocated time, engaged time and academic learning time – and the urgency for English language learners to be recipients of instruction that is efficient and on target.

Teaching for Engagement: What It May Look Like

The academic failure of many English language learners and the belief that teaching really matters have been the forces behind IDRA professional development efforts to prepare teachers of English language learners, especially secondary content teachers, in cutting-edge instructional practices. IDRA is convinced that meeting the challenge of creating schools that work for English language learners means ensuring that teachers are creating classroom environments where students are substantially and cognitively engaged.

For teachers who are similarly convinced, it is then important to answer those questions they often raise: What does it look like when students are engaged? What does it mean instructionally speaking if they do not exhibit evidence of engagement?

A way to respond to this need is to follow trends in the educational standards movement and create a standards based view of student engagement.

Student engagement in the classroom can be seen in the use of critical features, or indicators, of student engagement. These can be extracted from current and past research on effective teaching and second language learning (Brewser and Fager, 2000; Echevarria et al., 2004; North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 2004; Robledo Montecel, et al., 2002).

The intent is to use these indicators to assess as accurately as possible the type and level of student engagement in the classroom. Following are some possible indicators of engagement derived from the literature.

What Engaged Students Say, Do and Look Like

First, there are student behaviors (among mainstream and English language learners), as captured by observers and reported by others, that are evidence of student engagement. Below are some examples.

  • Students are included and treated fairly.
  • Students show that they know when they are successful in tasks.
  • Students can make real authentic choices and regulate own learning.
  • Students seem secure and safe in the classroom.
  • Students are actively discovering, constructing and creating.
  • Students are listening, observing, noticing and being mindful.
  • Students are immersed in tasks.
  • Students keep busy and active. They are not clock-watching.
  • Students say they understand task expectations.
  • Students are saying, doing, writing and responding openly.
  • Students look satisfied and fulfilled after responding.
  • Students sit, walk tall, speak up, look self-assured.

What Teachers Teaching for Engagement Do

Second, there are teacher behaviors, or strategies, that predict student engagement. Here are some examples.

  • Teachers express high expectations.
  • Teachers create personal human relationships between teachers and students.
  • Teachers use a variety of space, student and room arrangements.
  • Teachers link to prior knowledge and experience.
  • Teachers plan and address allocated time, engaged time and academic learning.
  • Teachers review frequently.
  • Teachers do continual assessment and feedback.
  • Teachers focus language on meaning, form and use.
  • Teachers seek evidence of participation and flow.
  • Teachers ensure all students are always doing something.
  • Teachers articulate rules for participation.
  • Teachers use list of evidence checks.
  • Teachers include lots of language practice.
  • Teachers use a variety of interaction modes.
  • Teachers structure tasks in rigorous, active and accountable ways.

What are the implications for professional development of this derived picture of student engagement? IDRA has employed these findings to create a draft set of indicators of student engagement and observation tools with which to measure the degree to which students are cognitively engaged, as a preliminary step, and then guide teachers to scale up their teaching using research-based strategies to ensure cognitive engagement. Use of the observation tools in selected school districts and classrooms of English language learners in the past year indicate this is a promising and much needed resource to integrate into professional development.

Success Stories with Indicators of Student Engagement

The effort to create change through this conceptualization of student engagement should be especially targeted toward new and experienced sheltered instruction teachers. It is these professionals who in many schools are charged with helping struggling English language learners. Such has been the effort of IDRA in the past year. Teachers who have participated in this effort (through training and in classroom assistance) have been oriented to and have used the indicators of student engagement within the context of sheltered instruction training.

Some of these teachers have provided feedback that demonstrates the following.

  • A better understanding of how cognitively demanding content can be especially so for students with limited English skills;
  • A realization that despite the complexity and difficulty of academic content, students need to be meaningfully engaged in it;
  • A new commitment to the idea that teachers must do what it takes to ensure that children are cognitively engaged; and
  • A strong desire for sustained support from their schools to help them meet the challenge of teaching English language learner adolescents who often have been disengaged and ill prepared.

Models of sheltered instruction specifically target the teaching of content through language sensitive pedagogy which, at the same time, is sufficiently challenging and relevant. The framework for teaching for student engagement proposed here is a way to materialize the promise of sheltered instruction and fulfill the yearnings of these valuable professionals serving English language learners.


Brewser, C., and J. Fager. Increasing Student Engagement and Motivation: From Time-on-Task (Portland, Oregon: Northwest Regional Laboratory, October, 2000).

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), 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).

Guthrie, J.T. Contexts for Engagement and Motivation in Reading (2000). http:www.readingonline.org/articles/handbook/Guthrie

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). (www.air.org)

North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. Meaningful, Engaged Learning (Naperville, Illinois: Learning Point Associates, 2004). http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/engaged.htm

Robledo Montecel, M., and J.D. Cortez, A. Cortez, A. Villarreal. Good Schools and Classrooms for Children Learning English – A Guide (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2002).

Voke, H. Student Engagement: Motivating Students to Learn, Infobrief No. 28 (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, February, 2002).

Walqui, A. Access and Engagement: Program Design and Instructional Approaches for Immigrant Students in Secondary School, Chapter 4 (McHentry, Illinois: Delta Systems, 2000).

Adela Solís, Ph.D., is an IDRA senior education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2008, IDRA. The following article originally appeared in the April 2008 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. 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.]