Equipping state's K-12 teachers for diverse classrooms

In California public schools, teachers are grappling with how to effectively teach the 25 percent of students who do not speak English as their first language.

Photo of Assistant Professor of Elementary Education Marco Bravo

It is a dilemma that will only grow more pressing, says Assistant Professor of Elementary Education Marco Bravo, since people who are learning English are the fastest growing segment of the nation's population.

"If you pull English language learners out of the classroom for extra help they often fall behind in other subjects like math and science," Bravo said. "But if they only receive regular instruction you're doing these students a disservice. They won't be able to understand the content."

What if there was a way to help students improve their English during the teaching of other subjects such as science or history? That is the focus of Bravo's research.

"We've found viable ways to sharpen students' language and literacy skills while promoting knowledge of math, science and other content areas," Bravo said.

His research has uncovered ways that teachers can help students who are not proficient in English through subtle tweaks to the curriculum. For example, during a science lesson a teacher could help Spanish-speaking students connect new vocabulary to words they might already know in their native language, such as the word lunar (moon in Spanish) or solar (related to sun in Spanish), helping them remember the meaning and spelling.

With a new grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Bravo and colleagues will share such techniques with educators through a five-year professional development program.

"We're trying a cascade approach," Bravo said. "We'll work with faculty who teach math, science and social studies courses to prospective teachers in our credential programs. The idea is that the faculty will pass this knowledge on to the student teachers, who will then use the techniques in their own classrooms once they graduate." 

The English Language and Literacy Integration in Subject Areas Project (ELLISA) is a joint venture between Bravo and researchers at University of California, Santa Cruz and San Jose State University.

Bravo brings to the consortium expertise on teaching science to diverse learners. Starting this summer, he will work with elementary education faculty at the three universities, helping them fold language and literacy into courses on science teaching. The researchers will also host professional development sessions for public school teachers who supervise credential students during their teaching placements.

-- Elaine Bible