Teaching Reading to English Learners, Grades 6-12: A Framework for Improving Achievement in the Content Areas


Margarita Espino Calderón & Shawn Slakk

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    To my most precious product and brilliant Dr. Luis Mauricio Calderón.


    To all those who believe and inspire, past and present.

    Sin ellos, todo no habría sido posible ni habría merecido la pena.



    What We Have Learned Since the First Edition of This Book

    Since the first edition appeared 10 years ago, we have worked with many more schools throughout the country, conducting long-term professional development workshops and classroom coaching. Several have been international professional development sessions. Through these experiences, we have come to realize that the basic instructional components for teaching academic language/vocabulary, reading comprehension, and academic writing cut across all subjects, grade levels, and student diversity. Invariably, teachers tell us that all students benefit. An advanced placement algebra teacher told us this spring that her students had never achieved as well until this year when she started using these strategies.

    It is exciting that this original study on the essential components for helping English Learners (ELs) and their classroom peers succeed has withstood the test of time. We coached hundreds of teachers in our classroom visits, and we too learned a lot! We learned from the real masters – the math, science, social studies, language arts, and ESL/ELD teachers as they applied the instruction in diverse classrooms, making appropriate adaptations.

    Soon, we began to observe certain patterns of adaptations and small tweaking. Happy to see these variations and additions, we now want to share ways to enhance the original instructional strategies and yet maintain those components and key features that have worked.

    In this second edition, you will see the following changes:

    • More explicit explanation on how to select words to teach
    • Addition of a Tier 2 words and phrases list as requested over the years
    • Fine tuning of the preteaching vocabulary steps
    • Addition of Step 7 as an accountability step
    • Refined ideas for that critical Step 6
    • Polished the Partner Reading + Summarization strategy
    • Descriptions of Triad Reading + Summarization for Newcomers
    • Elaboration on addressing state and language standards
    • Close reading strategies for teaching ELs
    • How to generate richer discussions and argumentative speech
    • Two new chapters on writing and how it helps consolidate comprehension
    • Revamped chapter on professional development strategies, coaching, administrator support, and whole-school endeavors

    We retain our mission—to find appropriate ways to foster English Learners’ reading skills that lead to academic success. For as we know, secondary level ELs are more likely to have experienced many challenges. Many need additional instruction due to interrupted schooling, while others have zero-English proficiency such as our EL Newcomers. All require substantial educational growth in a short amount of time. Secondary-school-age children present educators with unique and specific challenges for core content instruction, literacy, and language proficiency.

    This updated book attempts to address some of these challenges by combining our experiences, continuous research, and practice as they emerge from the original set of longitudinal studies in various parts of the United States and other English-speaking territories/countries. The Carnegie Corporation of New York, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences, and the U.S. Department of Education’s Native Americans Projects funded these studies. Standardized language and reading and subject-matter measures, as well as formative assessments, were used to collect information on what strategies are successful in closing the achievement gap for English learners from different language backgrounds, learning in a variety of English structured immersion, sheltered English, and dual language programs.

    Developing literacy skills for secondary school students is not easy. Secondary school literacy skills are more complex and more embedded in subject matters than in primary schools (Biancarosa & Snow, 2004). In their publication on adolescent literacy titled Reading Next, these two authors assert that subject matter literacy

    • Includes reading, writing, and oral discourse for school
    • Varies from subject to subject
    • Requires knowledge of multiple genres of text, purposes for text use, and text media
    • Is influenced by students’ literacies in contexts outside of school
    • Is influenced by students’ personal, social, and cultural experiences

    For ELs and struggling older readers, reading becomes an insurmountable task without explicit instruction on reading each of the subject matter texts. Fortunately, through ongoing studies specifically designed for adolescent EL literacy, educators now have a powerful array of tools at their disposal. We know from the data that these tools work well for non-EL striving readers. We initially spent 3 years “components testing” to find the best instructional and professional development combinations for addressing students’ and teachers’ needs. Subsequently, we have learned so much more from teachers and administrators who continue to implement the combinations. The combination of components, strategies, and performance assessment tools has been arranged in a framework that we call Expediting Comprehension for English Language Learners (ExC-ELL™).

    Recommendations for Instructional Components

    If we want students to read well—comprehend and learn the content—we must start integrating academic language with literacy in the content areas. We have identified 12 premises for this framework. Some components are aimed at helping teachers improve student achievement. Others are for helping teachers be successful themselves. These are the recommendations derived from the multiple ongoing studies thus far:

    • Teachers need assistance and models for developing lessons that integrate subject matter content, language, reading, and writing skills. There are five lesson-planning components that help teachers integrate these features into a cohesive lesson plan. Twelve instructional components are used to deliver the integrated instruction.
    • Teaching subject matter to ELs requires direct, explicit instruction in the strategies students need to build vocabulary and comprehend grade-level texts. The subject matter “Mentor Texts”— those that give explicit examples of the skills about to be learned—provide context and content that facilitate comprehension and success.
    • Students need to learn how to read a variety of texts that progress to grade-level texts quickly. To master content and meet standards, teachers learn how to parse texts and select most important content. Teachers select the district’s content standards, objective, indicators (“I can” statements), purposes, outcomes, and targets, and scan the text once more for eliminating unnecessary information and highlighting information that addresses the standard.
    • Explicitly teaching depth and breadth of words found in the texts students will be reading, before, during, and after reading, is a primary role of all content teachers.
    • Collaborative text-based reading engages students with text, peer verbal summarization after each paragraph, and rich discussions where the new words are used repeatedly.
    • Explicitly teaching reading and writing skills is just as important in secondary as it is in elementary schools, notwithstanding adaptations in delivery:
      • Teachers select comprehension strategy (e.g., main idea, cause and effect, inferences, comparing/contrasting, self-correction, rereading a sentence, decoding a word, summarizing, questioning the author, questioning the information in the text, questioning ourselves.
      • Teachers conduct Read-Alouds to model fluency, close reading, and comprehension strategies.
      • Students conduct partner reading summarizing after each paragraph to practice comprehension strategies and comprehend content.
      • Teachers debrief with whole class about the content and the skills (linguistic, metalinguistic, comprehension, social, and cooperative learning) that they learned.
    • Explicitly teaching the different writing genre required by each content area, including the various formats for technology.
    • Consolidation of content and skills. Teachers use strategies throughout the lesson to anchor knowledge, check for understanding, and assess individual student learning.
    • Student assessments include a variety of formats to gauge learning progressions on language, literacy, and content.
    • The quality of implementation is assessed with specific observation protocols supported by expert and peer coaching to have instant reports for teachers and administrators. Coaches and administrators need to be trained to observe this type of instruction.
    • Systematic and comprehensive professional development workshops and coaching throughout the year is necessary to sustain any program, approach, or instructional change.
    • Teacher Learning Communities for collegial efficacy help teachers with implementation hurdles and to learn from one another.
    Organization of the Book

    Since using only three or four of these components is unlikely to yield positive results for students or teachers, the chapters show how the topic is integrated, founded upon, or supports the other components.

    Chapter 1. “Introduction: The ExC-ELL Model for Content Knowledge, Literacy, and Academic Language Integration”: The introductory chapter details the background of the ExC-ELL study. It also states several “myths” that have been around for many years, such as “it takes 7 years to learn a language,” which often hold back students and keep teachers from delivering challenging, rigorous, yet sensitive instruction to ELs. Each myth is followed by a “good news” section that dispels that myth and offers empirically tested recommendations instead.

    Chapter 2. “Planning Lessons Using a Research-Based Design”: This chapter gives a detailed background of the research for each of the ExC-ELL components. Each component was carefully selected based on the amount of reliable scientific research available. Each of the 12 lesson components was empirically tested across a variety of classrooms and with different language groups to gauge applicability and appropriateness. Refinements were made during the first 2 years of the study and are ongoing as we work with teachers throughout the country. With a new Title III 5-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA), we will be implementing ExC-ELL in more middle and high schools to train hundreds of teachers, administrators, and coaches to refine the model even further with accompanying data.

    Chapter 3. “Vocabulary Development: Selecting for High-Impact Usage and Comprehension”: This chapter goes further in-depth about vocabulary. The 2007 theoretical framework for selecting and teaching vocabulary to ELs was presented at the Pacific Regional Educational Laboratory conference on Vocabulary: Research and Practice, where researchers such as Isabel Beck, Diane August, Freddie Hiebert, Michael Kamil, Steve Stahl, and others were kind enough to give us feedback. Once refined, we tested a few instructional strategies and then let the teachers run free with their own creative ways of teaching. Our 2017 version adds all the refinements from the past 10 years. In the ExC-ELL lesson delivery sequence, the teacher still begins with vocabulary instruction so students can comprehend and engage during reading, the processing and mastering of information, and text-based writing.

    Chapter 4. “Bridging Vocabulary and Reading”: This chapter deals with the heart of the program—reading comprehension. While it presents comprehension strategies that work with ELs, it also emphasizes all the other instructional features that need to be in place for comprehension to work. It presents ideas for consolidating student knowledge after they have read a text. The consolidation of knowledge can take several forms, from instructional conversations with the teacher, students with students, to students formulating Bloom’s Taxonomy-type questions, using Cooperative Learning strategies, graphic organizers in teams to writing strategies, and finally debriefing with students what they have learned. There needs to be a different approach to teaching reading in secondary schools. Therefore, a set of guiding questions is used to help teachers integrate reading into their existing lessons and content standards.

    Chapter 5. “Content Reading”: This chapter highlights the challenges ELs and striving readers encounter daily and ways that content teachers can prepare their lessons to include simple basic reading strategies. Concomitantly, close reading strategies are gradually brought into the reading. The chapter specifies how science, math, social studies, electives, and language arts teachers can integrate those strategies for introducing text-based reading, while addressing the content objectives and standards for a lesson. Ways of getting 100% engagement in reading are detailed. The reading strategies enable all students to use new vocabulary, frequently summarize orally the contents using academic discourse, and going back into the text to find more key information. We discuss structures for Newcomers to participate in reading along with all other students to accelerate their learning.

    Chapter 6. “After Initial Reading”: Once the students have read and summarized orally the contents of a selected text, there are other strategies that help anchor language, reading skills, and content learning. Students return to the text to formulate questions and answer peer questions, approaching these with higher-order thinking strategies. Exciting ways of engaging in close reading is one of the goals for after reading since we want the students to master the content they have been reading. Other strategies for consolidating knowledge, language, and literacy are presented such as a variety of Cooperative Learning and class debriefing techniques. Ideas for formative assessment of the whole reading process are offered, as well as the sequence for a lesson design.

    Chapter 7. “Writing Increases and Consolidates Vocabulary, Reading, and Content Learning”: Writing is the final proof that students have mastered new vocabulary and reading comprehension skills, when students can write about the content they are studying, using ideas, details, evidence from a text, and own opinions based on facts. There are popular writing programs that have been proven ineffective for ELs. We describe here the components of an effective writing approach that fits all content areas. This chapter offers evidence-based strategies for drafting, revising, and editing small and large pieces of writing. Specific rubrics for student self-assessment and ownership of editing and proofing are also discussed and modeled.

    Chapter 8. “Diving Deeper Into Writing”: There are several ways to integrate the revising and editing strategies into other types of writing. This chapter describes the types of writing for science, social studies, math, and language arts. It also adds more instructional supports for creative writing, critical thinking, selecting rubric criteria, and working with text structures and features in writing. Most important, it highlights the type of academic language students can use.

    Chapter 9. “Setting the Context for Success”: This chapter steers away from instruction and lesson design to a critical topic: professional development and continuous learning communities in schools. After a professional development session, be it a summer institute or within the school year, on comprehensive programs such as ExC-ELL, school administrators want to know what is the best follow-up and systematic support they can give their teachers, so all new learnings are implemented with quality and as much comfort as possible for the teacher. Strengthening collective teacher efficacy via Teacher Learning Communities leads to strengthening coaches’ and site administrators’ efficiency as well. Principals, supervisors, and coaches also need to be part of the training and work to support the implementation in the classroom. The collective efficacy becomes the change strategy in the school. This chapter offers ideas on sustaining the innovation through various support mechanisms. This chapter also provides tools for self-assessment and peer coaching using the ExC-ELL Observation Protocol. The Protocol can also be used by the teachers to observe their students, to plan their lessons, and to reflect on their practice.

    Chapter 10. “Implementing ExC-ELL: A Principal’s Perspective”: This chapter provides insights from a middle school principal in Memphis, Tennessee, who has been trained in ExC-ELL and has invested in her staff and the students to train and coach the majority of her staff in ExC-ELL. She discusses the process for whole-school implementation, where her school is now and the next steps going forward. Also provided in her words are tools for school administrators, literacy coaches, content coaches, and district level professional development teams on how to observe, reflect, and coach teachers implementing ExC-ELL using a District Support Cadre model.


    The first edition of this book was written with the help of Dr. Liliana Minaya-Rowe, Argelia Carreón, María N. Trejo, and Ashley Fitch. We are indebted to the teachers from Kapa’a Middle and Kapa’a High Schools, the Kawai District Office administrators, and resource specialists for their commitment to the testing of the original version. In New York City schools, we saw M. S. 319 in Washington Heights go from a reconstituted school to an exemplary school in 2 years. The principal, Ysidro Abreu, led his faculty to a quality implementation of ExC-ELL that enabled us to learn about the administrator’s leadership role.

    For this second edition, we are most indebted to our current team that helps us train teachers throughout the country and abroad: Dr. Maria N. Trejo, Dr. Hector Montenegro, Argelia Carreón, Elma Noyola, Elizabeth Montes, Guadalupe Espino, Joanne Marino, Carlos Ramírez, Karen Solis, Anita Crowley, Dr. Joy Peyton, Alexis Glick, and Barbara Cohen.

    The vice president of Margarita Calderón & Associates, Inc. and coauthor, Shawn Slakk, has made many of the contributions that are reflected in this second edition.

    As part of the learning process for the authors, we look at how we train, present, and coach the teachers we serve. At times, that service has taken on interesting variations. One interesting extension of ExC-ELL is in the form of Massachusetts’ Rethinking Equity and Teaching for English Language Learners (RETELL) initiative. Beginning in June 2012, as a response to the need to provide equal educational opportunities for ELs in Massachusetts, the state’s core academic educators (classroom and supervisory) are required by state law to earn a Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) endorsement. This ongoing endorsement process took more than 4 years to train more than 40,000 licensed educators: teachers and administrators. It involved developing several variations of a 45-hour graduate-level course based upon the components of ExC-ELL, training more than 250 RETELL instructors over the 4 years, developing a new teacher educator licensure test, and guiding the state’s teacher preparation programs to infuse RETELL (a.k.a. ExC-ELL) strategies and techniques into their curricula as well. All at no cost to the educators themselves.

    For transparency sake, the authors of this book were highly involved in the process. Margarita was selected by the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division (DOJ), and the Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR), as their expert witness in the successful instruction of ELs. Shawn was hired as the RETELL Coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition & Academic Achievement.

    The implementation of ExC-ELL throughout the state of Virginia has helped advance the model considerably. We are most grateful to Virginia’s ESL Professional Development Coordinator, Judy Radford, for sponsoring our institutes throughout the state and offering mini-grants to schools/districts to start ExC-ELL. We are most grateful to Loudoun County Public Schools for being the first to request a whole-school approach to professional development in a middle and high school. Based on their first-year results, two more secondary schools agreed to be part of the National Professional Development Title III grant from OELA. This next phase of implementation, data collection, and documentation will yield a stronger model to share with other schools.

    We want to particularly thank Andrés Henríquez at the Carnegie Corporation of New York for his ideas, support, and the trust he placed in us to create and empirically study in experimental-control schools ExC-ELL for 4 years to make sure it had the evidence necessary to make it an effective model for all content teachers in secondary schools.

    We would also like to thank Dr. Tarcia Gilliam-Parrish for her insight and contribution provided in Chapter 10 and to her staff for their hard work infusing ExC-ELL into their lessons and instruction.

    Moreover, we couldn’t have captured all about this effective model without the interest, support, and mentoring of our great friend Dan Alpert and most recent friend Maura Sullivan. The Corwin staff, Erin, Christine, Amy and Katie, are always ready to facilitate all preconference and conference logistics.

    The contributions of the following reviewers for the first edition are gratefully acknowledged:

    • Mary Enright
    • National Board-Certified Teacher
    • New York State Education Department
    • Office of Bilingual Education
    • Albany, NY
    • Al Payne
    • Administrative Director
    • Regional Center IV
    • Miami-Dade County Public Schools
    • Miami, FL
    • Patricia Schwartz
    • Principal
    • Thomas Jefferson Middle School
    • Teaneck, NJ
    • Neal Glasgow
    • Teacher and Author
    • San Dieguito Academy
    • Encinitas, CA
    • Arlene Myslinski
    • EL Teacher
    • Buffalo Grove High School
    • Buffalo Grove, IL
    • David Bautista
    • Bilingual Director
    • Woodburn School District
    • Western University
    • Woodburn, OR
    • Nadia Mykysey
    • Adjunct Faculty at Temple University
    • Curriculum, Instruction and Technology in Education (CITE)
    • Philadelphia, PA

    About the Authors

    NoneMargarita Espino Calderón, a native of Juárez, Mexico, is Professor Emerita and Senior Research Scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Graduate School of Education. She is President/CEO of Margarita Calderón & Associates, Inc. Margarita has served on several national panels, among others The National Research Council’s Committee on Teacher Preparation; the U.S. Department of Education Institute for Education Sciences’ National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children and Youth; the Carnegie Adolescent English Language Learners Literacy Panel; and the California Pre-School Biliteracy Panel. She was principal investigator in three 5-year studies on Expediting Reading Comprehension for English Language Learners (ExC-ELL) Programs, one that focuses on professional development of science, social studies, and language arts teachers in New York City’s middle and high schools, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York; and two other studies, the Bilingual Cooperative Reading and Composition (BCIRC) in El Paso, Texas, and another funded by the U.S. Department of Education in the Pacific Islands for fourth- and fifth-grade teachers and students, and in middle and high schools in Alaska. She was co-principal investigator with Robert Slavin on the 5-year national randomized evaluation of English immersion, transitional, and two-way bilingual programs, funded by the Institute for Education Sciences. She has published over 100 articles, chapters, books, and teacher training manuals and is invited to present at national and international conferences and professional development events.

    NoneShawn Slakk is the VP of Operations and Senior Consultant/Master Coach for Margarita Calderón and Associates, Inc. He is coauthor and codeveloper of professional development sessions for all levels of educators, focusing on whole-school implementation, administrative support, and coaching. He is a former Certified WIDA Trainer and Title III SIOP Coach. He is the former Rethinking Equity and Teaching for English Language Learners (RETELL) Coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the required endorsement for all teachers and administrators in the state. Shawn and his team developed, implemented, and evaluated the training of trainers for RETELL. Shawn has taught ESL in grades K–University, Spanish, and even once taught Japanese to K–2 students. He has served as an elementary and middle school administrator, and District Office SIOP coach. Shawn holds bachelor’s degrees in English Education K–12 and Spanish Education K–12 from Whitworth College, a master’s degree in Teaching English as a Second Language from Eastern Washington University, and a master’s degree in School Administration from the University of North Carolina: Greensboro; he is completing his Ed.D. at the University of Virginia with a focus on reading instruction.

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    Additional Resources

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    Effects of Bilingual Cooperative Integrated Reading and Composition: www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/461920

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