5 tips for creating an effective literacy program for English learners

We work for the most diverse school district in Michigan—and seventh in the nation. Kentwood Public Schools serves about 9,200 students, 23% of whom are English learners. Another 6% are former ELs, bringing the total multilingual learners to nearly one-third of the district’s total student population.

Within the district, the top spoken, non-English languages are Spanish, Nepali, Vietnamese, Kinyarwanda, Bosnian, Burmese, Swahili, Karen, Hakha Chin and Arabic. Even after students reach proficiency status, the district must monitor them for four years. If they’re not progressing or doing well in general education classes, we’ll look for ways to support those students. And if they have to be pulled back into interventions or additional English language development instruction, we do that too.

Unfortunately, some of our secondary ELs were losing motivation around year three and needed inspiration to stay on task and engaged with our literacy program. For those long-term ELs, we wanted to be able to provide something different than what they’d been learning during the previous two to three years.

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We knew we needed to provide something different in the way of language development and give them other tools to use. We began using Lexia PowerUp Literacy in grades 6 and above. Here are five steps we took to ensure a successful implementation and high usage rates for the literacy program:

1. Keep class sizes small. We try to not exceed 15 students—18 tops—so that teachers can truly do small-group instruction. After the whole group session, classes break into three groups (i.e., software, reading and small group instruction with the teacher) and rotate every 15-20 minutes. Most do this over two days if classes are only 55 minutes long. Small groups with five to six students in each are manageable. Beyond that, it can be a challenge to give the level of support that students need.

Melisa Mulder

2. Utilize paraprofessionals for support. If they’re available, paraprofessional/support staff in the classroom can be incredibly helpful with managing the reading and software groups while the teacher is running small group instruction. Our para pros read with students, help with running reports and monitoring progress, and assist students on the software. They’re a huge backbone to our programming. We also included our paras in our initial training, so they also get an understanding of the programs we use.

3. Don’t neglect your data. Use it to set goals, motivate and celebrate student successes. Students respond very well when they know we’re monitoring their progress and providing incentives for success. Student’s Lexile growth goals are set at the beginning of the year. Each student has a yearly growth goal that’s usually around 50-75 Lexile points and tracked on the reading inventory. Students that are below grade level have more ground to make up, so their individual growth goal could be as high as 250 Lexile points.

Sanela Sprecic
Sanela Sprecic

Then throughout the year, we look at data points, such as average weekly strand minutes, average weeks of use, average weeks meeting usage and average number of activities completed to monitor student progress. The good news is that according to our district’s midyear reading inventory, 46% of students had already hit their end-of-year Lexile growth goal.

4. Don’t just sit, get, and forget. Embedded professional development, like building-in time throughout the school year for follow-up training and time for teachers to collaborate, discuss and problem-solve, is very important. Offer instructional coaching to co-plan, co-teach, observe, provide feedback, and offer learning lab opportunities where teachers can see each other in action and have time to debrief and discuss. Also, use an instructional coach to help oversee, train, support and facilitate.

5. Stay in touch with your teachers. We do learning labs where we coach with teachers, visit their classrooms, and also get them into each other’s classrooms. You have to be in touch with your teachers to know what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. We get some great ideas by just being in teachers’ classrooms, and then we share it with the rest of the instructional team.

Honoring diversity in our literacy program

Our secondary students are working on K-8 standards, and Lexia presents that content in a very engaging way. This literacy program also represents the diversity that we have in our district through the students that we see in the provided videos, for example. That’s important to us. The texts that students read are also engaging and diverse.

We’ve been doing a major overhaul of our secondary classroom libraries for that same reason because we saw our books could better represent our student body. Students aren’t as engaged if they’re not seeing themselves in what they’re reading. That’s something that we’ve been very intentional about with the materials we put in front of our students. We want to respect them, and we want them to be engaged and excited by the literacy program and other materials that we present.

Melisa Mulder and Sanela Sprecic
Melisa Mulder and Sanela Sprecic
Melisa Mulder is the secondary ELA intervention coach and Sanela Sprecic is the EL program director for Kentwood Public Schools in Kentwood, Michigan.

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