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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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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 8, 2016, p. 1-36
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21363, Date Accessed: 10/22/2017 5:07:26 PM

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About the Author
  • Tina Heafner
    University of North Carolina at Charlotte
    E-mail Author
    TINA L. HEAFNER is Professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary, and K–12 Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where she also serves as the Coordinator of the M.Ed. and Minor in Secondary Education programs. Her research interests include social studies marginalization and policy, teacher autonomy and praxis, online and technology mediated learning, and social studies literacy. Selected recent publications include: Fitchett, P. G., Heafner, T. L., & Lambert, R. (2014). Examining social studies marginalization: A multilevel analysis. Educational Policy, 28(1), 40–68. Heafner, T., McIntyre, E., & Spooner, M. (2014). The CAEP standards and research on educator preparation programs: Linking clinical partnerships with program impact. Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, 89(4), 516–532.
  • Michelle Plaisance
    Greensboro College
    E-mail Author
    MICHELLE PLAISANCE is Assistant Professor of English and TESOL at Greensboro College in Greensboro, North Carolina. She teaches graduate courses in pedagogy and theory related to second language acquisition and English learners in U.S. schools. Her research interests include the social context of learning English as a second language and the educational experiences of language minorities in monolingual classrooms in the New South. Selected recent publications include: Plaisance, M. Shockey, L., & McDaniel, P. (2015). From black and white to technicolor: Demographic change in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. In R. Mickelson, S. Smith, & A. Nelson (Eds.), Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: School Desegregation and Resegregation in Charlotte (pp. 119-136). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press. Heafner, T. L., & Plaisance, M. (2014). Exploring synchronous text chat in remotely-delivered early field experiences. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 25(3), 327–352.
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