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UGA researchers seek to improve English language learners’ achievement with $2.9 million grant

Athens, Ga. – University of Georgia education researchers have received a $2.9 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences to examine the effectiveness of a teaching method based on small-group dialogue in improving the academic achievement of English language learners in upper elementary grades.

Positive results could have huge implications for educational policy and practice in Georgia and across the nation, they say.

“Current instruction often fails to connect with immigrant children’s learning potential and does not make the most of the cultural capital these children bring to our educational system,” said Pedro Portes, The Goizueta Foundation Distinguished Chair of Latino Teacher Education and executive director of the College of Education’s Center for Latino Achievement and Success in Education. “The Instructional Conversation pedagogy that is the focus of this research makes those connections and in doing so provides a richer learning environment for all students.”

Latino students, who make up 80 percent of ELLs, are three times more likely than non-Hispanic white students to come from homes in poverty. Each year they move through school they fall further behind so that by high school they have the highest dropout rate of any category of students, said Portes, the principal investigator of the study.

Middle class ELLs generally do not fall behind and they avoid high poverty schools. Thus, the interaction among poverty, teacher preparation and underfunded schools, in addition to the time required to achieve English proficiency, creates a dangerous cycle for future generations, he said.

There are many instructional models currently used, including the Cemetery model, in which students sit in rows and listen to the teacher/expert speak, and the Cooperative Learning model, in which students in heterogeneous groups learn from each other as well as the teacher. These models do not purposefully capitalize on the cultural assets of all learners, Portes said.

The IC model is a regularly-scheduled, teacher-led event with small groups of students with a clear instructional goal. It provides intensive, differentiated experiences for students in key areas for second language acquisition and academic development by increasing the rate and intensity of vigorous interactions with peers and expert teachers. In previous quasi-experimental studies, IC has been found to improve the academic achievement of both ELLs and native-English speaking students but has never been evaluated using a randomized controlled trial, said Karen Samuelsen, an assistant professor in the department of educational psychology and instructional technology and co-principal investigator of the study.

The four-year UGA study will involve some 1,152 predominantly Latino third- and fifth-grade students, 144 teachers and 12 coaches from several high-poverty elementary schools in northeast Georgia. Teachers from participating schools who commit to the project will be randomly assigned to either the treatment or control condition. Teachers in the treatment condition will receive training during the summer in the IC model and weekly coaching and support for a full year to master this pedagogy.

Researchers will assess students’ English language proficiency, affective skills, reasoning and problem solving, and reading.They also will examine whether the level of English language proficiency moderates the effect of IC on the academic outcomes.

Academic progress will be measured by examining results on a standardized test such as the Georgia CRCT. The English proficiency measure collected by the state (ACCESS) will be used to assess the intervention’s impact. Proximal measures cognitive and affective development also will be employed, as will students’ verbalization and other in-class products.

The UGA researchers said they believe the study will show a significant increase in ELL achievement by students using the approach. And if so, the implications for educational policy and practice are huge. Teacher education programs could be improved and the new teaching approach would raise learning outcomes for all students, even in high poverty schools, through better teacher preparation.