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Aurora Institute

Equity for ELs: Learning English in a Competency-Based System

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Laureen Avery

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

Laureen Avery

Across the country, educators and policymakers are coming to the same conclusion: the structure of the traditional system is a barrier. The premise of competency education is that the traditional education structure, which is designed to sort students, can be replaced with one that is designed for every student to succeed. When we design for ensuring mastery, we have to build around equity and draw upon the research that informs us about how students learn best.

Chris Sturgis, 2017. In Pursuit of Equality: A Framework for Equity Strategies in Competency- Based Education.

Public education (and public educators) has made a promise that every student will have the opportunity to learn and develop the skills and competencies needed for success beyond high school. It is clear that traditional, established structures have broken this promise for many students, and it is imperative that the developing models of education address these past inequities as core elements in their fundamental structures and design.

English learners (ELs) are one of the groups that fared poorly under the traditional models. Next generation education models (personalized learning, blended learning, competency-based education, and others) are slowly developing an understanding of how to translate beliefs and values into actual practices that transform the core experience of education for English learners. Creating new models that work for English learners must move beyond the need for cultural awareness and into a deep knowledge of how to nurture proficiency in academic language.

iNACOL recently published the results of a broad-based information collection activity in “Next Generation Learning Models For English Language Learners” (Natalie Truong, June 2017). One of the promising practices highlighted was the use of language progressions to support students in a personalized, competency-based system.

Language progressions were developed to describe student performance in their use of academic language and are intended as an integrated assessment of language and content development. Why is that important? Because that is how people learn, and the only way we can share and assess knowledge is through communication.

Let’s dip into the ‘common wisdom’ of English learners and mathematics. An oft-repeated tale is that ELs do much better in math than in ELA because they are familiar with the numbers. No translation needed! It is very likely that some ELs will have advanced computational skills, but recognizing numbers is not of any help in explaining your work or deciphering a word problem. It is much more likely that some math teachers have highly developed instructional approaches to teaching the language of mathematics and all students are benefitting from that.

Most schools provide certified English as a Second Language (ESL) instructors for ELs, along with a required curriculum and set of annual assessments. Even in schools well staffed with ESL instructors and supportive aides, the average EL student spends less than forty minutes per day engaged in English language instruction. That means most of their time is spent in the mainstream, with well-intentioned, hard-working teachers who know their subject area well, but who know little or nothing about how to scaffold their academic content so ELs can make sense of it. Some states (like New York) now mandate co-teaching models where ESL teachers ‘push in’ to ELA or other content area classrooms. This is an important structural change, yet true integration of content and language instruction remains rare. For students who are dually challenged with learning new concepts AND new language, this context often results in a cycle of lagging achievement, failure, and remediation. By middle and high school, many of the EL students have been caught up in this downward spiral for six, eight, or ten years, most of their educational careers.

The traditional system of separating the instruction and assessment of language development from content development works against student growth. In a competency-based system, language development is embedded in content. Instruction and assessment must be integrated. Language progressions are the key to pulling these elements together in a system designed to personalize instruction for ELs.

ExcEL schools assemble collaborative teams that include ESL and mainstream teachers. Content area or mainstream classroom teachers use language progressions as formative assessments with their students. Student work is recorded or captured (see Figure 1) and discussed with team members for the purpose of creating personalized instructional responses for each student.

In this example, the teachers noted the student is using mostly simple sentences to express unconnected thoughts, and her language would be strengthened through the incorporation of more complex structures. The group brainstormed specific instructional approaches and the teacher opted for a one-on-one discussion with the student where she would review the sample with the student and model a complex sentence: “Young men had to be strong and brave to play lacrosse, because the games could last for days.” In a short time they would discuss the structure of complex sentences and how to use language to create coherence and cohesion between ideas. Teachers go back to their classroom, try new strategies, assess and come back to the group to review.

I’ve been working with teachers who work with English learners for a long time, and I frequently ask groups about their biggest instructional challenges. The overwhelming response is always ‘vocabulary.’ Yet my own eyes and ears tell me something different. Most teachers spend a lot of time teaching vocabulary, and most of them do it well. In the student work example above, there’s lots of strong vocabulary in that paragraph, and it is used correctly. What teachers really mean, and where students really need support, is in the use of language to communicate effectively and eloquently. They need to know how and when to join ideas in sentences and paragraphs. Grappling with complex ideas requires complex language.

The language progressions add concrete, observable, measurable competencies to this familiar process, and give every teacher the tools and impetus to help their students improve their communication skills. Progressions inherently shift instruction and assessment of ELs from a fragmented to a holistic approach that places equity at the center of instruction.

To learn more about Project ExcEL and how ELs are learning English in a competency-based system, check out For more detailed information on the Dynamic Language Learning Progressions see

See also:

Laureen Avery is the Director of the Northeast Regional Office of UCLA’s Center X, the home of Project ExcEL. She provides technical assistance, coaching and research services to public school districts in New England, with a focus on improving outcomes for English learners in high-poverty schools. You can reach her at [email protected], or @uclaEXCEL.