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Aurora Institute

Personalized, Competency-Based Education for English Language Learners

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Natalie Truong

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

Designing new learning environments based on ensuring every student reaches mastery of the knowledge, skills and dispositions is critical. What is competency-based education and why does it matter for rethinking instruction to better serve all students?

The previous blog examined the challenges to the traditional one-size-fits-all education system for English Language Learners (ELL) in comparison to the core principles in next generation learning models that can provide ELL students with positive, learner-centered environments rooted in best practices for teaching and learning. This post will examine how personalized, competency-based education, with considerations for best practices for teaching ELL students, can design learning environments that promote success for all students.

A competency-based education system holds profound possibilities for transforming learning for ELL students. Competency-based education seeks to meet students where they are, which requires a reconfiguration of old education systems and practices to put students at the center of the learning process. For ELL students, this means factors such as their cultures, backgrounds, languages, prior knowledge and developmental needs are used to inform pedagogy. Educators must understand where students are coming from, both culturally and academically, in order to provide the instruction and support these students need.

Competency-based education is a structural change from fixed mindset to growth mindset. It is time-based and is organized to focus on delivering content. Traditional grading systems depend on extrinsic motivation and have high variability in how teachers determine proficiency. In contrast, competency-based education is designed to help students successfully master skills at every step, year after year, by ensuring they advance after they demonstrate proficiency. In competency-based systems, students develop and apply a broad set of skills and dispositions and build intrinsic motivation to always give their best efforts.

This definition of competency-based education refers to a systems model in which teaching and learning designed to ensure students become proficient by advancing on demonstrated mastery and that schools designed to provide differentiated supports to meet the needs of every student. It is valuable to determine how competency-based education can transform the learning environment and expectations for ELL students.

Competency-Based Education for English Language Learners

Personalized Learning to Support ELL Students in a Competency-Based Education System

Personalized learning “is tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs, and interests – including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when, and where they learn – to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible.”

In a personalized learning environment, learners have agency to set their own goals for learning, create a reflective process during their journey to attain those goals, and be flexible enough to take their learning outside the confines of the traditional classroom.

Personalized learning can serve as a powerful and crucial pedagogical approach to realize the potential of providing teaching and learning based on learning sciences research for how students learn best. Competency-based education is an undergirding structure to help assure that education programs will focus on mastery and provide interventions and supports for ensuring students reach proficiency and mastery; and, personalized learning is built on competency-based progressions as an overall approach on how to best meet each student’s needs and meet students where they are. Personalized learning allows students to experience the personalized instructional approaches based on how, when and where they learn best and to have multiple pathways to make progress on learning goals “per person” – with the same high standards and expectations for all students to ensure equity.

Personalized learning focuses on meeting students where they are and providing the individualized supports and strategies each student needs to progress to the next learning objective. In schools using personalized learning, students are active learners in choosing how they learn and have voice to co-create learning experiences, personalize their learning pathways, and develop the lifelong learning skills they need to be self-directed learners.

In competency-based education systems for ELL students, personalized learning caters to the learning needs of each student with respect to their background and entry points in English and content standards. In part, this includes the need to identify the English language development level of the ELL student and then focus on providing targeted instruction and assessment based on the student’s background, proficiency levels, learning preferences and learning goals. Education programs can co-create learning pathways for ELL students that take into consideration student background, literacy and language development levels, content knowledge and other factors. It is important all students are held to the same high standards and expectations to ensure equity and rigor.

This is the fifth blog post 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. The next few posts will highlight case studies in personalized learning and competency-based education for ELL students.

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