Exploring How Institutional Structures and Practices Influence English Learners’ Opportunity to Learn Social Studies
by Tina L. Heafner & Michelle Plaisance — 2016
Background/Context: Current research addresses the marginalization of social studies and trends in teaching English learners (ELs) in monolingual schools; however, few studies have examined the way in which support services provided to ELs impact their exposure to social studies instruction.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Social studies is a difficult content area for ELs, as they grapple with culturally specific concepts in addition to language barriers. School structures and institutional practices sometimes result in less access to social studies instruction for ELs than their English-speaking peers. We sought to describe ELs’ opportunities to learn social studies in the face of educational reforms designed to increase accountability. We also examined how institutional structures, such as ESL programs, influenced ELs’ exposure to the social studies curriculum.
Setting: The study took place in a suburban elementary school with a moderate population of ELs, situated within a large, urban school district in the southeastern United States.
Participants: Six classroom teachers, three instructional specialists and one administrator participated.
Research Design: We present a qualitative participatory inquiry that was guided by an opportunity to learn theoretical framework, in addition to research that suggests an important relationship between the quality and intensity of classroom instruction and students’ academic success.
Data Collection and Analysis: Data were collected across one academic year and included transcribed interviews, field notes from observations, classroom artifacts, teacher journals, and district resources. We employed a multitiered inductive analysis using a three-phase coding process.
Findings/Results: Our findings suggest that ELs do not receive an equitable opportunity to learn social studies. Factors included variance in social studies time, instructional schedule design, the ESL program structure, and communication/collaboration gaps. Additionally, we found disparities between the type and general overall quality of social studies for these linguistically diverse learners and their native speaking peers.
Conclusions/Recommendations: We recommend the inclusion of instructional specialists, such as the ESL teacher, in planning, professional development, and decision making. Furthermore, we advocate for flexible, yet monitored scheduling of special services to ensure curricular access to all content areas. Furthermore, we emphasize that administrators must have a clear understanding of the needs of their ELs and that they must adopt a long-term vision for these students that includes simultaneous support for their content and language development.
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