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Aurora Institute

Looking Ahead: Realizing the Promise of Next Generation Learning Models for English Language Learners

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Dale Frost, Maria Worthen, Natalie Truong

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

The case studies presented in the previous blogs illustrate how schools and education programs have begun to provide student-centered learning models for English language learner (ELL) students. The field is still emerging – and a long way from realizing fully developed personalized, competency-based education systems. Some education programs serving primarily ELL students have not adopted flexible pace and progress so students can move on when ready due to policies around grade-level promotion. Other education programs that rely on software too heavily have found that many tools fall short in providing the appropriate scaffolds, instruction, academic vocabulary or content integration ELL students need. Many programs still need to provide significant investment in educator training and preparation in personalizing instruction for ELL students.

This blog highlights the lessons learned from schools that are implementing next generation learning models for ELL students and recommendations for educators and education leaders interested in designing personalized, competency-based learning in their schools.

Lessons Learned

The case studies in the previous section have undertaken the examination of new models and redesign efforts to provide personalized learning environments. These schools have made changes in focusing on school climate and culture, redefining learning goals for their ELL students, updating their professional development needs and addressing system- and school-level barriers to implementation. The following are key lessons learned that these case studies demonstrate.

Create a culture and climate dedicated to continuous improvement: Transitioning to a competency-based education system takes years, and education programs are involved in continuously improving the design and implementation of the system. In addition, many education programs are relatively new to incorporating the specific needs of ELL students in a personalized, competency-based system. Education programs need to acquire feedback from educators, students and parents on what works and cultivate a culture of growth mindset to improve on designing services that work for ELL students.

For example, Cesar Chavez has modified its school design over the past decade to better serve its students. Chavez began with providing extended after-school tutoring and discovered that ELL students needed more supports beyond what the school was offering, including scaffolds and explicit academic language instruction. From starting with a blended learning program to increasing personalized learning approaches to eventually moving to competency-based progressions, Chavez has been working on designing a more flexible, student-centered learning model to meet the needs of ELL students.

International Schools began with 30 educators working together to design learning strategies for ELL students. They collaborated to create a new school model that specializes in meeting the specific learning needs of ELL students and defined the skills and knowledge ELL students should have at each stage of their learning to reach success. Each International School today is designed in cooperation with district leaders, community members and educators.

Examine, update and build educator capacity and professional development needs: Teaching in a personalized, student-centered learning system with effective pedagogical approaches for ELL students requires the development of new skills among teachers and school leaders. Beginning with teaching as inquiry, focusing on research and evidence-based practices, and having a collaborative community of practice sharing strategies and methods across the school are important ways to build educator capacity and provide embedded opportunities for professional development.

For example, International Schools has monthly meetings where teachers from different campuses watch their peers in practice, provide feedback and discuss ways the school and staff can improve. They also have weekly conferences on ELL student progress and what interventions or acceleration strategies should be employed to support these students. Additionally, International Schools holds professional development meetings weekly during which educators receive personalized and targeted feedback and support from instructional coaches.


Personalized, competency-based education can meet the needs of ELL students and provide an ideal learning environment that embraces the diversity of backgrounds and prior learning experiences of these students. Educational programs should consider incorporating the following recommendations to design a personalized, competency-based education system that can move ELL students to success.

Comprehensive definition of success for ELL students: Education programs should consider broadening their scope beyond the narrow goal of rapidly transitioning ELL students toward reclassification as English proficient. Education programs should consider putting greater emphasis on engaging communities in the conversations around what is necessary for redefining student success to include academic competencies, social-emotional competencies, skills and dispositions with a holistic focus for the whole child, a well-rounded education and the integration of language, literacy and academic content for ELL students.

Assessments of and for learning for ELL students: Programs can integrate and align language and academic standards to assessments and provide ongoing formative assessments. The goals of assessments in a competency-based education system should be to inform student learning and next steps for students and educators. Students are provided with multiple opportunities and pathways to demonstrate learning. This could include but is not limited to performance assessments, scaffolded bilingual expressions and explanations, using keywords, drawing and collaborative projects. Education programs need to ensure that multiple pathways don’t mean holding ELL students to different standards or lower expectations. To protect rigor and ensure quality, all students should be held to the same high, world-class expectations. To do performance assessments well requires significant investments in building educator capacity to judge proficiency reliably and grade student work with common rubrics. Data from assessments offers transparency for where a student is along their learning trajectory. Data-driven practice enables purposeful, meaningful and evidence-based interventions to ensure our students are moving toward reaching student learning goals and targets on time and on pace.

Personalized approaches focus on educating the whole child: Personalized learning approaches in programs can provide differentiated pathways for ELL students to access opportunities and advance based on their own real-time needs and goals. The following are examples of personalized approaches and strategies that programs, educators and education leaders can consider when teaching and working with ELL students:

  • Provide assessments in students’ primary language and English: Assessments in primary and English languages can help determine what ELL students know and can do.
  • Provide differentiated instructional strategies to access language: This could include instructional strategies, such as using prompts in students’ primary language and English, previewing vocabulary and explicitly teaching academic language.
  • Provide targeted supports and feedback based on students’ strengths and areas for growth: Programs can create strategic cooperative groupings based on students’ learning levels in language and content and provide personalized individual feedback on students’ learning objectives.
  • Meet learners where they are: Education programs and educators can use assessments to determine students’ proficiency levels in language and academic content areas and then develop personalized learning plans and instructional strategies and supports and map students’ learning goals as well as use data to monitor student growth. Meeting students where they are means educators can use learning progressions to identify where ELL students are in the language development level and content level within their learning, are clear about the learning targets, and are able to design or chart each student’s unique developmental path toward college and career readiness. This includes providing flexible pacing for students to accelerate or receive additional supports as needed. Outside of academic supports, programs meeting students where they are may include providing wraparound services for students and parents.
  • Maximize learning through personalized learning tools: One of the greatest challenges for any school is addressing the diverse needs of students who enter with a range of skills, with some students having significant learning gaps. When coupled with instructional supports from educators, adaptive technologies can add capacity to respond to students’ needs and target specific learning gaps. Software such as Lexia Learning and Ellevation provide tools teachers need for personalizing approaches with differentiated instruction, interventions, and formative assessments specifically for ELL students. For example, Lexia Learning provides both language development and literacy content for ELL students, ranging from phonological awareness to challenging narrative texts. The texts and assignments are scaffolded based on students’ language development levels, age and grade levels. When students are struggling on specific concepts, educators are notified with information on each student’s trends and provided with supplementary material for interventions. And when students are demonstrating mastery on their language development and literacy exercises, they are able to accelerate to deeper, more challenging material. Ellevation also differentiates instruction for diverse student groups and aligns individualized learning plans to language proficiency and academic content standards. Additionally, educators can use tools such as Ellevation to analyze ELP assessments, provide rapid feedback to students, and help students set and track learning goals. Adaptive technologies combined with competency-based progressions prove fundamental to personalizing education for all students and meeting ELL students’ unique needs.
  • Provide additional supports, as needed: Education programs need to offer supports for the whole child, including explicitly teaching habits and mindsets and social-emotional learning. Education programs can also provide extending learning opportunities beyond the program to include enrichment activities and experiential learning activities.

Building educator role and capacity: For next generation learning models, it is essential to invest in the capacity of educators with the skills and competencies needed to teach in competency-based education and personalized learning environments. Educators need to believe that all students can learn and succeed to support these students toward mastery of their learning goals and objectives. Educators must practice culturally responsive teaching and view ELL students’ bilingualism as an asset in learning.

  • Instruction: Education programs can provide tools and strategies for educators to support ELL students access English and increase literacy. For example, Dynamic Language Learning Progressions and other language and learning progression tools and rubrics can help educators learn how to respond to student responses and determine what specific language or content learning objective students may be struggling with.
  • Attitudes and beliefs: Language is a major barrier for ELL students in terms of being able to express themselves as individuals and learners. ELL students can be overlooked in their ability to answer a question or display their knowledge in the language and manner that may be expected by educators. Educators can support ELL students by encouraging these students and being sensitive to their struggles of learning a new language. Educators need to believe that all students can learn and succeed to support these students toward mastery of their learning goals and objectives. Educators must practice culturally responsive teaching and view ELL students’ bilingualism as an asset in learning.
  • Collaboration between general-subject educators and ELL educators: By using tools and strategies to help ELL students access the content in the general curriculum, all educators in a school play an important role in continuing language access and acquisition and increasing literacy for ELL students while simultaneously learning academic content. Educators must work with ELL specialists to create appropriate scaffolds and assessments to best serve the learning needs of ELL students.

This is the twelfth and final blog in a series that explores how personalized, competency-based education can advance learning for English Language Learners from iNACOL’s report, Next Generation Learning Models for English Language Learners: Promising Practices and Considerations for Teaching and Learning.

Visit this blog series for key insights on promising practices for ELL students: