Classroom Qualities for English Language Learners in Language Arts Instruction

With more than five-million English-language learners in U.S. schools, a research-based consensus is needed to assess classroom practices that promote their school achievement. Classroom Qualities for English Language Learners in Language Arts Instruction (CQELL) is an observation tool that can help define and identify effective language instruction in elementary schools.

English-language learners (ELLs) represent over 10% of the public K-12 population in the U.S. These students face a number of challenges and as a result have lower levels of academic achievement than many of their English-proficient peers. They must learn academic content, which all students must learn, while simultaneously learning the language in which the content is being taught. This is a formidable challenge for both students and teachers. While there is a growing literature attempting to define classroom practices potentially helpful for promoting ELLs’ achievement, there is scant research on the effects of most of these practices. Part of the problem might be that there are no generally shared definitions of what these practices are and what they look like.

The CQELL is an observation tool, developed primarily for research applications, to further the understanding of effective English language arts instruction for elementary school ELLs. The CQELL does not identify a set of “proven” practices; much less does it constitute a lesson design or teacher evaluation model. It can be used to illustrate, help define, and discuss common practices associated with the education of ELLs, but it would be inappropriate to use the CQELL to evaluate teachers. It is our hope that the CQELL will help clarify and illustrate instructional practices for ELLs so that their effects on learning can be more carefully studied.

The CQELL includes two basic types of instructional elements: “Generic” elements that have been shown to be effective with learners generally and “ELL-specific” elements that researchers and educators have suggested contribute to effective classrooms for ELLs specifically. Examples of “generic” elements are teachers’ use of learning objectives and assessment as a part of instruction. Examples of “ELL-specific” elements are the use of language objectives as well as content objectives and providing students with ample opportunities to use English in different classroom contexts. Although the meaning of each of these might appear to be straightforward, in fact there can be considerable ambiguity and variability when observers independently rate the same lesson or observe the same teacher on different occasions.

The CQELL grew out of a need for a new generation of reliable and valid classroom-level assessment tools to characterize more fully the kinds of classrooms in which English learners can reach their full potential. The earliest version of the CQELL was developed in 2006 as an evaluation tool for the Standards Based Differentiated Instruction for English Learners professional development program developed at the Center for Language Minority Education and Research at California State University, Long Beach. Since then, we have put the CQELL and its predecessors to the test by training classroom observers to use it to observe and rate English Language Arts (ELA) instruction. By training CQELL users and using the CQELL to observe real-time ELA instruction, we have been gradually able to improve and document the reliability of the CQELL. In addition to undergoing cycles of training and CQELL observations, we have also sought feedback from trained CQELL users, school administrators, and members of the research community. As a result of this ongoing feedback, the CQELL has undergone numerous revisions that have led to its present form.

Measuring classroom environments, and teaching in particular, turns out to be much more difficult than many people realize. Two individuals looking at the same classroom at the same time can come to rather different conclusions about the presence of various instructional features. Is the teacher drawing on students’ background and experience? If so, to what extent? Is the teacher providing sufficient input and modeling? Are students provided ample opportunities to use the language of content they are being taught? Are the opportunities open-ended or constrained? To what extent are students engaged in ongoing classroom activities? Are visuals being used to clarify and illustrate concepts?

The task might be especially challenging when it comes to judging classrooms with ELLs, since our knowledge base about effective practices is surprisingly sparse, making judgments about classroom features for these students that much more problematic. Nevertheless, the CQELL reliabilities compare favorably with those of other established classroom observation tools, which suggest its potential for helping establish the utility of a wide range of practices intended to improve the achievement of ELLs.


Claude Goldenberg is the Nomellini & Olivier professor of education in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University.
Rhoda Coleman is a senior research fellow and professional development specialist at the Center for Language Minority Education and Research at California State University–Long Beach.

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