Supporting English Learners through Open Educational Resources

Blog Post
Dec. 6, 2018

In San Diego County, Grossmont Union High School District science teachers are tapping into the potential of educational resources (OER). These resources, which are free and openly licensed, are helping teachers meet their students’ unique needs, including those of English learners (ELs).

“Our approach to OER development is to provide teachers with flexible content options,” says Dan McDowell, Director of Instructional Technology for the Grossmont Union High School District.

The district has, indeed, provided teachers with plenty of content options. Since signing onto the U.S. Department of Education’s #GoOpen initiative in 2015, when the district committed to replacing one traditional textbook in one grade level and content area with OER, the district has developed complete curriculum collections for Space and Earth Science and Biology, which were approved by the GUHSD Governing Board earlier this year. The school is now developing three additional collections. These comprehensive collections provide scoped and sequenced core content materials (e.g., digital textbooks), supplemental materials (e.g., articles, videos, animations), and teacher materials (e.g., pacing guides, lesson plans, student activities).

Now the district is exploring the unique benefits OER can bring for English learners and their teachers. “Our district-wide philosophical approach is to create rigorous grade-level instructional practices that include scaffolds and supports for struggling students, special education students, and ELs,“ says Dan. “We have identified a few ways where we can help struggling students, special education students, and ELs specifically in our OER work.”

As the district is discovering, there are many advantages of OER for ELs, who currently comprise ten percent of students enrolled in the district. For one, openly-licensed resources are editable, which allows teachers to modify and embed research-based supports for students with varying language proficiencies. For example, teachers can highlight academically useful words or cognates (words in two languages that share a similar in spelling, pronunciation, and meaning) in different texts to reinforce vocabulary learning. Teachers can also add visual tools such as graphic organizers, photographs, or diagrams that help ELs organize new information. These resources can also be translated into different languages, something that cannot be done with traditional instructional resources due to copyright protections.

In Grossmont, teachers receive professional development where they learn to modify core content and access built-in supports for digital textbooks, including translations and text-to-speech—supports that are also unavailable with traditional textbooks.

For many teachers of ELs, finding the right instructional resources that infuse students’ first language and home culture can be a costly and time-consuming endeavor. These teachers, especially those who work in less-resourced schools, may spend hours piecing together resources from sites like Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers. Having access to a repository of free, openly licensed materials made with ELs in mind could, therefore, be a game changer for the many teachers who teach 4.8 million ELs across the country.

The good news is San Diego is not the first place to offer OER for ELs. Illinois, another #GoOpen participant, has curated a number of resources for English Learners in their open educational resources repository, which allows educators to discover resources created by teachers or contribute their own. Similarly, the first comprehensive openly-licensed curricula developed by the New York Department of Education, EngageNY, offers a number of resources for ELs. The state developed resource guides on how to support English learners while using the curricula, including research-based strategies for individual lessons.

While teachers of ELs can—and should—tap into existing openly-licensed resources and repositories, more work is needed to create and curate OER that attend to the needs of ELs. The OER movement in PreK-12 is still in its infancy and many openly licensed resources do not yet include modifications and considerations for ELs. Nor are many resources available in languages other than English. States and districts can play a big role in investing in OER for ELs to ensure these learners have access to quality resources and their teachers are able to save money and time.

Related Topics
Culturally Responsive Education English Learners Open Educational Resources Open Learning