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Lynch School Researchers Win Grant for ELL Program

Patrick Proctor
Patrick Proctor (Photo by Caitlin Cunningham)

By Ed Hayward | Chronicle Staff

Published: Oct. 16, 2014

A team led by Lynch School of Education Associate Professor Patrick Proctor has been awarded a three-year, $1.47 million grant from the US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences to develop a program to support Spanish-speaking students as they acquire linguistic awareness and other skills that can help them learn English.

Proctor and colleagues from the University of Maryland will work on refining CLAVES, a curriculum for Spanish-speaking English language learners in the fourth grade. CLAVES stands for Comprehension, Linguistic Awareness, and Vocabulary in English and Spanish.

Linguistic awareness includes knowledge about the components of language, including semantics, morphology and syntax, according to Proctor. Prior studies have shown that linguistic awareness is strongly tied to reading skills and comprehension.

“We’re interested in the practical dimensions,” said Proctor, a specialist in literacy and bilingual education. “This is about developing a focus on the language used to bring students to greater reading comprehension. Students learn a language by using it and understanding its functions and purposes and that’s what we want to leverage in this intervention.”

In addition to Proctor, the team includes University of Maryland researchers Rebecca Silverman and Jeffrey Harring.

The grant follows the team’s recently completed four-year, IES-funded study of vocabulary acquisition in 300 children in grades two through four, both native English speakers and English language learners. The researchers discovered the vocabulary knowledge of Spanish-speaking students was a reliable predictor of their reading performance in English. Additional findings pointed to the role of linguistic awareness and teaching methods in learning a new language.

There are approximately 4.4 million students in the US who are classified as English language learners (ELL). Among this group, students’ linguistic awareness skills typically lag behind their peers who have grown up speaking English, according to Proctor.

The CLAVES approach includes group conversations among students to discuss class readings. These discussions are focused on asking students to take positions on controversial subjects within the readings and then discuss their opinions with their peers.

Teachers will be encouraged to use supportive tools, such as pictures, graphic organizers and multimedia elements to help students access the text. Proctor said the curriculum will include four topical units of four weeks each, requiring four daily 30-minute lessons per week. Two sets of texts suited to students at different skill levels will be available.

Proctor said those discussions are intended to increase the amount of time English learners spend speaking to one another during instructional time. Proctor said this focus on conversation was further reinforced by his work with teachers at the Russell Elementary School in Dorchester, where the Lynch School has been a long-standing educational partner.

“Language is key to the human experience,” said Proctor, “and pushing children to use language in our classrooms is at the center of our work.”  

The curriculum will be aligned with the new, national Common Core State Standards and the World Class Instructional Design and Assessment English Language Proficiency Standards.

Proctor said the research will take place in six urban and suburban schools in Massachusetts and Maryland, each serving between 37 and 60 percent Hispanic students and between 17 and 34 percent English language learners.

The team will spend the first two years drafting, testing and revising CLAVES through work with teachers, students and ELL experts. In the third year, the team will carry out a pilot study to assess how well CLAVES improves linguistic awareness and reading comprehension skills in ELL students. In the end, the team will develop a CLAVES curriculum guide and teacher manual.

He said the project focuses on fourth grade because that is near the intellectual and instructional turning point where elementary school students shift from learning to read and begin reading to learn.

In addition to being among the first researchers to explore linguistic awareness for students learning English, Proctor said the team hopes to put a valuable new set of tools in the hands of teachers who work in the field.