English Language Learner ELL Student in Hartford

Hartford Public Schools Case Study

Hartford Public Schools has teamed up with Middlebury Interactive Languages to develop a new curriculum for English Language Learners.

Connecticut’s Hartford Public Schools has the largest percentage of English language learners in the state, with close to 20 percent of its students learning English as a second language.

These 3,800 students come from very diverse backgrounds and speak more than 80 different languages, and they are often a very transient student population—which creates a significant challenge for the district, said Monica Quinones, director of ELL services.

“We wanted a solution that could help meet the needs of our most challenging ELL students with a curriculum that was delivered on grade level, and not watered down,” Quinones said. “We also wanted to take a blended-learning approach that would offer content in different modalities, while giving students the flexibility to work at their own pace.”

To develop such a solution, district leaders turned to Middlebury Interactive Languages, a company with a proven record of success in delivering a blend of online and face-to-face instruction in world languages.

In collaboration with Hartford teachers and ELL coordinators, Middlebury Interactive developed a series of supplemental online modules for ELL students in grades 4-8, and Hartford teachers are piloting the new content in eight middle schools this year. The pilot program also includes significant professional development for participating ELL teachers.

The curriculum aligns with content areas the students already are studying, as well as the Common Core standards. The content addresses one of five themes in grades 4-5 and a different set of themes in grades 6-8, such as habitats and environments, inventions, natural disasters, and mythology. Each unit includes project-based activities to build students’ vocabulary and skills in four key areas: reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

“We wanted to ensure that students were learning by doing,” said Aline Germain-Rutherford, Ph.D., chief academic officer for Middlebury Interactive and a tenured linguistics professor at Middlebury College. “And we’ve tried to scaffold the activities so they can adapt to students at different levels.”

The modules focus on helping students develop the academic English they’ll need to succeed in school. Research suggests that ELL students have the most success when they see their cultural identity affirmed and can relate their own experiences to the curriculum—and this idea is reflected in the content as well.

As students progress through the units of study, they are accompanied by a virtual companion who encourages them, suggests learning strategies, and offers support. Students can choose their virtual companion from a range of ethnically diverse characters.

In addition, Middlebury Interactive has recorded ELL students from Hartford schools as they introduce themselves and tell their own stories. “We use these videos to develop students’ listening comprehension skills,” Germain-Rutherford said, “but also as a way to show students their peers within the modules, people like them.”

Middlebury Interactive is now making this ELL curriculum available to other schools nationwide.

Though the curriculum has been in place for less than a year, Hartford teachers already are seeing encouraging results.

“The feedback we’ve gotten from teachers is that the students are more engaged, and the online component allows them to learn at their own pace,” said Mary-Beth Russo, an ELL coach for the district.

Quinones said the district has seen growth in all four skills areas, but especially writing. “We often talk about high rates of absenteeism among ELL students,” she said, “but what we’ve noticed in the eight pilot schools is excellent attendance—near 100 percent. That’s telling. It suggests a high level of engagement.”

She added, “The discourse that happens in the classroom is noticeably better. The students are verbalizing more than they did before. This is speeding up the pace of their language acquisition.”