Sobrato Early Academic Language (SEAL) Provides Dual Language Learners with a Strong Start

Blog Post
Feb. 20, 2015
In a recent post on the growing media attention towards multilingualism, Lara Burt highlighted California’s paradoxical English-only approach to serving Dual Language Learners (DLLs). Yes, that’s right, the state with the largest population of DLLs in the nation mandates English immersion language instruction.

The impact of Proposition 227 (the ballot measure that made California an English-only state) on the educational achievement of DLLs in California has been uneven at best. Available evidence suggests the policy has done little to close achievement gaps, caused a sharp reduction in the number of bilingual educators in the state, and further segregated language learners into the poorest and lowest performing schools. And with higher academic expectations arriving via the Common Core State Standards, observers would be right to wonder if it’s time to abandon this ineffective set of policies.

Despite this dispiriting policy context, there are pockets of innovation around how to best educate and serve these students. The Sobrato Early Academic Language (SEAL) program is emblematic of this sort of creativity. SEAL is a research-based PreK-3rd grade program designed to develop the language and literacy skills of DLLs and to close the achievement gap between language learners and their native-English speaking peers by 4th grade. The program has been implemented in 31 Silicon Valley schools; evaluation results suggest that SEAL is having a measurable impact on students’ academic growth and achievement.

SEAL was developed by Dr. Laurie Olsen with input from a national advisory committee. Olsen designed the program using research on effective practices for DLLs and with an eye towards reversing practices proven to be detrimental for these students. That is, the program prioritizes practices that help prevent “the creation of long term English learners.”

SEAL is built on four pillars. First, the program places strong focus on academic language. It emphasizes the development of oral language, which is essential for literacy and language development. Given the dearth of oral language instruction in most classrooms—and its importance for DLLs’ development—this is an extremely important strategy. Writing about a SEAL program in San Jose, Education Week’s Lesli Maxwell noted that the “hallmark of the classrooms [...] was language, language, language. Talking, talking, talking."

The second pillar is the creation of an affirming environment that supports students’ social-emotional development. In other words, SEAL classrooms implement strategies to help students develop their “self-identity and skills for social interaction” and learn “appropriate school behavior.” ((Sobrato Early Academic Language. “The SEAL Model: Powerful Language Learning.” Cupertino, CA: Sobrato Family Foundation, n.d., p.14))  These include class meetings to discuss student’s concerns or teaching students how to express their feelings through language and problem-solving with peers.

Third, SEAL offers careful alignment across  the PreK-3rd grades. Such alignment allows for much-needed consistency in standards and curriculum “around a shared vision of early language development.” ((Sobrato Early Academic Language. “The SEAL Model: Powerful Language Learning," p. 15.)) Too often, early childhood programs operate in isolation from the rest of the PreK-12 system; SEAL builds in shared professional development for Pre-K and kindergarten teachers and cross-grade discussions to share on curriculum and instruction. Moreover, students participate in Summer Bridge programs to ease the transition from one school system to another.

Finally, families and teachers partner together to support students’ learning. Family engagement has been shown to promote academic achievement and schools must be creative in their approaches to cultivating robust engagement. SEAL program sites provide: ESL classes for families, workshops for families on supporting their children’s development, multiple methods of family-teacher communication, and books for children to borrow and read at home with their parents.

Here’s an example of how SEAL improves instruction for DLLs: these students often are subjected to “narrowed curriculum that does not provide social studies or science [...]” ((Sobrato Early Academic Language. “The SEAL Model: Powerful Language Learning," p. 4.))  or are educated in settings that completely ignore their home language. SEAL flips these patterns by integrating language and literacy development within science and social studies instruction and providing either bilingual instruction or home language support. By embedding language instruction into these content areas, SEAL programs help DLLs broaden their academic vocabulary. Given the state’s English-only rules, not all SEAL classrooms can offer bilingual instruction, but even in these English dominant settings, teachers provide students with homework in both languages and share strategies with parents on how to support language and literacy development in their home language.

SEAL is not only built on a strong structure; implementation is slow and deliberate. Teachers receive robust professional development, including a coach who provides teachers with demonstrations and modeling of SEAL strategies, and feedback on their classroom usage. Coaches also facilitate curriculum planning sessions for SEAL instructors.

All in all, SEAL is well matched to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and provides a research-based program model for how to implement these standards effectively for DLLs. A longitudinal evaluation of SEAL is currently underway. Initial results suggest that the program is having a positive impact on parent and child literacy activities at home, as well as students’ growth and development in language, literacy, cognition and academic achievement. For example, students in the SEAL program exceeded state targets for growth towards English proficiency.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Common Core could be a tough lift for educators of DLLs. But Sobrato Early Academic Language (SEAL) is proof that intentional, well designed, research-based instructional programs can make a huge difference. Better yet, the program looks to be replicable. While many districts have limited resources and capacity, Olsen told me that SEAL has been designed, piloted and scaled up with a $7.3 million investment from the Sobrato Family Foundation. Participating school districts have taken on the costs of paying for teacher release time, SEAL coaches, and other components of the program. In the end, districts pay $4 for every $1 they receive in philanthropic donations. That’s hardly an unreasonable investment given that DLLs will make up a significant share of the workforce in future years.

Note: This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learner National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work."