Language through music

Bridging the opportunity gap in the American ELD classroom

By Benita Landesman Scheckel | January | February 2020
English Language Learners are the fastest-growing student population in the United States, with 57 percent of adolescent ELLs born in the US. They enter public schools with different levels of English language proficiency and often struggle academically, with 21 percent less likely to graduate from high school in comparison to their native English-speaking peers (National Council of Teachers of English, 2008). Long-term English Language Learners attending public secondary schools in California are required to take a “double block” of English Language Arts and English Language Development instruction to move them toward reclassification from English Language Learners to Fluent English Proficiency status. Because of the classic six-period day and academic requirements that take up the rest of their schedules, LTEL students are part of an opportunity gap, unable to find room in their daily schedules to take an arts elective, thus further marginalizing and depriving them of an organic way to interact with the English language and their English-speaking peers. Through a pilot program, in place of the second hour of ELD instruction, 17 sixth grade LTELs were placed in a middle school choir for one semester in an urban, public 6-12 school, with their ELD teacher working alongside the choir teacher.  A mixed-methods study was conducted to evaluate English language acquisition outcomes and to explore the experiences of long-term English language learners in middle school who participated in a choral music elective course, in which ELD standards were addressed within the course. This study was conducted in a single school within an urban district, and the research questions were centered around two points; how does taking choir instead of a second hour of ELD instruction influence academic achievement of LTELs, and what are their experiences being a part of the class? The pilot program ran from January to May 2018 and was delivered in a one teach-one observe model. The ELD teacher accompanied her 17 sixth-grade LTELs to choir Tuesday-Friday where they became part of the large sixth grade choir class, singing alongside their native English-speaking peers. On Mondays, the ELD teacher met with her students separately to cover any discreet ELD lessons she felt could not be addressed during the choir class time and to pre-teach any musical terminology that the choir teacher would address that week. The ELD coach served as a resource working with both the ELD and choir teachers to ensure they were supported during the study.  For the qualitative portion of the study, all 17 students have interviewed with researchers post-treatment, as were each of their parents, and field notes were collected during each of the class observations that occurred. The teachers kept their own journals and notes to share throughout the process.  For the quantitative portion, pre-English Language Arts grades and CELDT scores were used for both treatment and control groups pre-treatment, and ELPAC scores were used post-treatment. The treatment group consisted of the 17 sixth grade LTELs and there was a control group of 86 sixth-grade LTELs within the participating district from which 17 were matched using propensity score matching with a program called R Matchit. Propensity score matching helps to level the playing field by creating a control group that is as demographically similar as possible to the treatment group. In this case, the variables were: Gender, Ethnicity, Special Education Status, and National School Lunch Program Status.  Steven Krashen’s affective filter hypothesis provided the theoretical framework upon which this study was built. Krashen believed that when people are relaxed and comfortable, their protective filter lowers, allowing for greater intellectual input. (Krashen, 1982) Music has been shown to reduce anxiety and make people feel safer and more connected. My theory was that in second language acquisition there could be greater L2 input because the students would feel less pressure to learn and just let the English language flow through them while singing in a choir with their peers.  Prior research shows that using music as a second language teaching tool is quite prevalent in early childhood programs and adult education, but not much research has been done around using music as a second language teaching tool in the sixth-12th grade school setting. During the post-treatment student interviews, the students shared things like, “I had a lot of fun in the choir room. I learned how to understand ‘do, re, mi, fa, sol,’ and I made a lot of friends. And I just loved the class.” “Choir is better than ELD because you can stand up, not just sitting down the whole day, and there’s different music to sing.” “The negatives for choir is that like choir, or any fun class is that, you’re having fun but at the same time you’re not learning.” “The more I sing, the more words I learn.” 

Music has been shown to reduce anxiety and make people feel safer and more connected.
It was interesting to speak with the students because although their academic data showed they made gains, their perception was that they did not learn anything in the choir. They talked a lot about making more friends, having fun and getting to move around, and not being bored by having to sit at a desk. When I asked them if they sang in other languages, they said, “Oh, yes, we sang in English, Latin and even in Sign Language.” When I asked them if they learned the Kodaly hand signs they shared, yes they had, and they were able to demonstrate for me. The students also talked a lot about their public performances and how scared they were, but also how proud and elated they felt when the concerts were over. My takeaway from the interviews was that students have a very narrow paradigm around learning. They have surmised that you only learn at school by sitting at a desk and listening to the teacher. They could not imagine that choir was a place they could learn because it was fun, and learning is not supposed to be fun. Their mothers talked a lot about pride in seeing their children participate in choir and in watching them perform. “Well, it has been a great experience for my son. I, myself, had a great time, as well, seeing him sing when he had a concert here at school, and also when he had a concert at the church. I liked it very much.”  When asked what they thought about giving ELLs access to arts electives with ELD standards embedded they shared, “For him to be in a class where he has access to ELD but also art or music or theater, I like that idea very much.” One mother felt the combination of choir with ELD was a powerful one for her daughter. “She has spent many years trying to reclassify. I feel that the combination made a big difference for my daughter.” Many of the moms teared up as they explained in Spanish, “I would keep the... I mean I wouldn’t change it, but I would keep the music. Don’t take it away.” As a musician and former music teacher, I was not surprised by the visceral, positive emotional response from the students and their parents around participation in choir. Music is powerful and transformative. But for districts to make policy changes in how they deliver supports to ELLs, the quantitative results needed to be significant as well.  In looking at the control and treatment group’s pre-ELA grades, there was a large gap. Both treatment and control groups had lower mean ELA grades post-treatment in comparison to their mean pre-treatment grades; however, the drop for the treatment group was less than that of the control group. For the treatment group, the mean grade was 1.76, while the post-ELA mean was 1.64, indicating a drop of .12 in mean ELA grades between semester one and semester two. For the propensity-matched control group, the difference in means was greater: mean pre-ELA grades were 1.81 and mean post-ELA grades were 1.12, indicating a drop of .69 in mean ELA grades between semester one and semester two. Though the differences were not statistically significant, the fact that the drop in the mean grade of the treatment group was less than the control group suggests a possible narrowing of the achievement gap, as the treatment group was able to hold its grades more steadily than the control group. This narrowing of the achievement gap is promising. It speaks to motivation and the students’ desire to do well when their learning environment is engaging.  Additionally, a series of ANCOVA tests were run to test the main effect of the treatment on the group of students who took choir, instead of a second hour of ELD instruction in spring 2018, by comparing their outcomes to those of the propensity-matched control group using a statistical software program, SPSS. These tests were the most robust, as there were two layers of control inherent to the tests; one layer involved the use of a control group that had been matched on demographic variables to the treatment group, and the other layer involved the use of the covariate to control for prior English language, again using Fall 2017 ELA grades and CELDT scores from the prior academic year (2016-2017).  Key quantitative findings: The key findings were students in the treatment group significantly outperformed their peers in the control group in three areas: 
  • ELPAC overall score was higher.
  • ELPAC Oral Score was higher.
  • ELPAC Oral Score was higher than their CELDT speaking score pre-treatment.
The results are particularly promising considering the low N of the treatment group.
The teachers who participated in the treatment unanimously agreed that having students receive some traditional classroom ELD weekly instruction along with their arts elective would be the most beneficial model for student success. The ELD teacher suggested an A/B model, wherein the students would rotate. In essence, the choir teacher would have two choirs at the same time. The A choir would meet Monday, Wednesday, and Friday with those students going to a different class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. ELLs would go to an ELD classroom, while other students go to another academic support class or perhaps a different elective. And then the same format would follow for the B Choir that meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This would be an excellent solution for students who require academic interventions in Math, Science, English, or Social Studies. This could also be a time for those students who do not require academic intervention to participate in a restorative justice club or another type of student leadership group.  In creating such courses as the one piloted for this study, it is important to bring arts elective teaching experts together with ELD teachers and instructional coaches to design a program that integrates VAPA standards with ELD core standards, as they are experts in their respective fields. The choral music teacher and the ELD teacher should have planning time over the summer so that the music teacher can create lessons that address more of the ELD standards. More writing assignments and opportunities for reading and research could be incorporated into the choral music class. The ELD teacher could continue to teach in a discreet ELD classroom with the students one day a week, as was the case in this study, to pre-teach musical concepts and academic language. Our English language learners need not be further marginalized and kept out of organic opportunities to interact with the English language and their native English-speaking peers in order to reclassify. In fact, by giving them opportunities to sing, dance and play instruments, we are actually creating more well-rounded, happier students who experience a deeper connection to learning and to their whole school community. The research shows the longer an ELL remains unreclassified, the more disenfranchised they become, and the less likely they are to graduate from high school and go on to college. Our ELLs do not enter school expecting to fall further and further behind academically. They come to us optimistic and primed for the rigors of additive language instruction. However, what the California public school system offers is subtractive language instruction, insisting second language learners think, read, and write in English only. Further, these students do not know that, down the line, they will be denied access to electives and become marginalized members of their public-school community.  Narrowing the achievement gap and meeting the needs of all learners in our schools cannot be accomplished by a broad stroke, one-size-fits-all approach. Educators are innovators and they need to be brought to the table to create meaningful solutions to complex problems. The performing arts have always been the original PBL. Students must collaborate, communicate, use critical thinking, and be creative in order to perform— whether it be in a choir, an orchestra, a theatre class, or in a dance ensemble. The teachers in this study were clear. They need more time to collaborate. Arts teachers want to know how better to educate their ELLs and ELD teachers are motivated to give their students rich arts experiences. The ELD teacher, (who was quite skeptical at the beginning of this study) shared the following about one of her students: “He really needed that outlet, that opportunity to just express himself through music. He actually was very motivated to get out of his ELD class. He was so motivated that he said, ‘Miss, let me take that reading test. I know I passed it. Check please because I want to be in an elective.’” Resources Austin, P. C., & Stuart, E. A. (2017). The performance of inverse probability of treatment weighting and full matching on the propensity score in the presence of model misspecification when estimating the effect of treatment on survival outcomes. Statistical Methods in Medical Research, 26(4), 1654-1670. doi: 10.1177/0962280215584401 California Senate Bill 463, 2017-2018 Regular session. An act to amend Section 313 of, and to repeal and add Section 313.5 of the Education Code, relating to English learners. Retrieved from B463 Heath, S. B. (1982). What no bedtime story means: Narrative skills at home and school. Language in Society, 11(1), 49-76. Retrieved from ERIC database (EJ263237) Krashen, S. D. (1982). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. New York, NY: Alemany Press. Krashen, S. (1989). We acquire vocabulary and spelling by reading: Additional evidence for the input hypothesis. Modern Language Journal, 73(4), 440-464. doi: 10.2307/326879 Ludke, K. M., Ferreira, F., & Overy, K. (2014). Singing can facilitate foreign language learning. Memory & Cognition, 42(1), 41-52. doi: 10.3758/s13421-013-0342-5 Medina, S. L. (2002). Using music to enhance second language acquisition: From theory to practice. In J. Lalas & S. Lee (Eds.), Language literacy, and academic development for English language learners. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Educational Publishing. National Center for Educational Statistics [NCES]. (2004). Language minorities and their educational and labor market indicators—Recent trends, NCES 2004–09. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics [NCES]. (2005). The nation’s report card: Reading 2005. Retrieved from National Center for Education Statistics [NCES]. (2016). The condition of education 2016. Retrieved from National Center for Education Statistics [NCES]. (2017). English language learners in public schools. Retrieved from National Council of Teachers of English [NCTE]. (2008). English language learners: A policy research brief produced by the National Council of Teachers of English. Retrieved from Brief.pdf Olsen, L. (2010). Reparable harm: Fulfilling the unkept promise of educational opportunity for California’s long term English learners. Long Beach, CA: Californians Together.

Benita Landesman Scheckel is the principal of Altadena Arts Magnet School in the Pasadena Unified School District.

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