Current Issue: Vol. 41, No. 3, Fall 2011:Conversations
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Cara Tuzzolino-Werben
Idiom Editor

Elisabeth Gareis
Column Editor,
Culture Notes

Nanette Dougherty
Column Editor,
Book Review

Ann Wintergerst
Column Editor,
Promising Practices


Featured Article

Promoting Academic Literacy in Adolescent English Language Learners: Strategies and Resources
Nancy Cloud

This article is based on a keynote address given at NYS TESOL 36th Annual Conference.

According to a recently released report to the Carnegie Corporation on adolescent English language learners, Double the Work: Challenges and Solutions to Acquiring Language and Academic Literacy for Adolescent English Language Learners (Short & Fitzsimmons, 2006), by any measure, ELLs in middle and high schools are struggling with reading, writing, and oral discourse in a new language. Only 30% of all secondary students read proficiently, and only 4% of eighth-grade ELLs and 20% of students classified as “formerly ELL” scored at the proficient or advanced levels on the reading portion of the 2005 National Assessment for Educational Progress (Short & Fitzsimmons, 2007). These students, who are in the process of acquiring the academic English needed to succeed at school, are still being held to the same accountability standards as their native English-speaking peers (see Wright 2006, for a cogent discussion of inherent flaws with this policy). Thus, they must perform double the work of native English speakers in the nation’s secondary schools.

Double the Work represents a major policy report of interest to ESL educators in that it summarizes the research base on best practices for developing adolescent ELL literacy as well as identifying promising instructional practices and secondary programs from across the nation that are meeting the needs of ELL students. The research which summarized on what we know about adolescent ELL literacy and ELL literacy in general, includes two recent and highly influential summaries of the literature: 1) the National Literacy Panel on Language Minority Children and Youth’s Developing Literacy in Second Language Learners (August & Shanahan, 2006) and 2) the Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence’s Educating English Language Learners: A Synthesis of Research Evidence (Genesee, Lindholm-Leary, Saunders, & Christian, 2006). Some findings conclude that native language literacy is not necessary for second language literacy but beneficial, that many specific and essential reading skills transfer from the native to the second language, that oral language and literacy can develop simultaneously, and that vocabulary development is a must (Short & Fitzsimmons, p. 44-45).

Double the Work defines academic literacy as the reading, writing, and oral discourse needed for school—discourse that varies from subject to subject, and requires knowledge of multiple genres of text, purposes for text use, and text media. It acknowledges that academic literacy is influenced by students’ literacies in contexts outside of school as well as their personal, social, and cultural experiences. Because adolescent ELLs make up a very diverse group of language minority, immigrant, migrant, refugee, and sojourner students, the report notes that the literacy interventions we design must also be diverse in order to meet the needs of a group of students who vary tremendously in their educational background, native language literacy, and socioeconomic status. Therefore, we must have a flexible array of responsive programs and instructional services designed to serve them. This urgent need led the study’s investigators to identify promising instructional practices and programs that could guide our practice in schools.

To make good use of the research findings and promising practices from the Double the Work report, a collaborative project, the AL 2 Institute, is currently being delivered at four secondary schools in two urban districts in Rhode Island. Students in Central Falls are 72% minority; 44% of students are minority in Pawtucket. Together, these urban Rhode Island districts account for roughly one-fourth of the English language learners in the state. In addition, as is the case in so many other districts with high enrollments of minority and English Language Learners, these districts both have high schools undergoing corrective action for failing to meet NCLB targets.

Project partners include:

  1. Deborah Short, principal investigator, Center for Applied Linguistics and Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Double the Work report;
  2. Davida Irving, ESL director, Pawtucket School Department;
  3. Patricia Morris, ESL director, Central Falls School Department; and
  4. myself, representing the Feinstein School of Education and Human Development at Rhode Island College in Providence.

We began by learning about the work taking place at one of the Double the Work Promising Programs: Hoover High School in San Diego(see Fisher & Frey, 2004); and by reviewing the recommendations offered in the Double the Work report. One of the challenges noted in the report is that educators working in secondary schools have had little professional development for teaching literacy to adolescents, and fewer still have had specific training to teach second language literacy to adolescent ELLs (Short & Fitzsimmons). Another challenge is the limited use of research-based instructional practices (Short & Fitzsimmons). In order to address these and other challenges faced by our secondary ELL educators, we designed our AL 2 Institute project to offer the following:

  • Program review and redesign as needed
  • Sustained professional development
  • Coaching in classrooms
  • Early field placements of Rhode Island College teacher candidates to tutor ELL students
  • Collaboration with community literacy specialists to encourage wide reading
  • Selection/purchase of motivating reading material for students

As the Double the Work report argues, in order to be successful, students must be able to read and understand expository prose found in textbooks, write persuasively, argue points of view, and take notes from lectures and reference materials. Therefore the AL 2 Institute project has identified the following six research-based strategies, identified in the teacher reference tools listed below, to strengthen the instruction taking place in classrooms:

  • Listening comprehension and note taking
  • Discussion skills
  • Vocabulary development
  • Reading comprehension strategies
  • Wide reading (contemporary, classic and personal)
  • Systematic writing development

In addition to project-developed activities, we are implementing teaching activities associated with each of these strategies, identified in the following teacher reference books:

  • Buehl, D. (2001). Classroom Strategies for Interactive Learning. Second Edition. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
  • Forsten, C., Grant, J., & Hollas, B. (2003). Differentiating Textbooks, (2nd ed.) Peterborough, NH: Crystal Springs Books.
  • Fisher, D., Brozo, W. G., Frey, N., & Ivey, G. (2007). 50 Content Area Strategies for Adolescent Literacy. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall.
  • Graves, M. F. (2006). The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction. New York: Teachers College.
  • Herrell, A., & Jordan, M. (2004). Fifty Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners (2nd ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall.

This year we are focusing on working with the secondary-language specialists in the districts (ESL teachers/coaches, reading teachers/coaches, English educators and special educators teaching reading and writing ELLs). Our focus classrooms enroll students of all proficiency levels (including those with limited formal schooling); the students come from (in descending order numerically) the Caribbean, Central and South America, Cape Verde, Brazil, Africa and Asia.

Our emphasis thus far in the professional development offered has been on creating awareness of the integration of the six strategies in the districts’ core ESL curriculum: High Point (Hampton-Brown), as well as the use of the six strategies when implementing adolescent core literature with students.

Begun in the summer of 2006, the AL 2 Institute is a work in progress. However, early feedback from teachers and administrators indicates that the strategies are achieving their intended end: improving the academic literacy of adolescent ELL students. Stay tuned!


August, D., & Shanahan, T. (Eds.). (2006). Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2004). Improving adolescent literacy: Strategies at work. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall.

Genesee, F., Lindholm-Leary, K., Saunders, W., & Christian, D. (2006). Educating English Language Learners: A synthesis of research evidence. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Shifini, A., Short, D. & Tinajero, J.V. (Eds.) (2001). High Point: Success in Language, Literature, Content. Carmel, CA: Hampton-Brown Co.

Short, D., & Fitzsimmons, S. (2007). Double the Work: Challenges and solutions to acquiring language and academic literacy for English Language Learners.A report to the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education

Wright, W. E. (2006). “A catch-22 for language learners.” Educational Leadership, 64 (3), 22-27.

About the Author

Dr. Nancy Cloud, a specialist in ESL, bilingual and dual language education, is a professor in the Educational Studies Department of Feinstein School of Education and Human Development, at Rhode Island College in Providence, and teaches in the M.Ed. TESL Program. Prior to Dr. Cloud’s work in Rhode Island she coordinated the M.S. in TESL and Bilingual Education programs at Hofstra University for 10 years and worked at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education at Teachers College on federally funded projects. She publishes regularly on topics pertaining to the appropriate assessment and instruction of English Language Learners K-12.