REALL Makes Real Learning Possible For ELLs

Eliana Rojas (pictured on the left) discusses the progress of the REALL program with Mary Doyle, head of the Curriculum and Instruction Department.
Eliana Rojas (pictured on the left) discusses the progress of the REALL program with Mary Anne Doyle, head of the Curriculum and Instruction Department.

It didn’t take long for New Britain fifth-grade teacher Kim Rosa Gionfriddo to realize the strategies she learned as a Neag School of Education REALL fellow to better teach students with limited English proficiency could  benefit native English-speaking students, too.

“It’s a simple thing, but just by being more explicit and taking time to define terms—reminding students, for example, the difference between a product and a quotient—can help keep them focused and ensure they keep up with the lesson, rather than wonder, become confused or fall behind,” said Gionfriddo, one of 45 Connecticut teachers accepted into the graduate-level Raising Expectations for All English Language Learners (REALL) program.

Developed in 2007 by Neag Assistant Professor Eliana D. Rojas, Ph.D., and funded with a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the REALL program graduated its final fellow this past May. Experts, however, expect the skills and strategies fellows learned to improve ELLs’ academic achievement will have long-term and far-reaching effects.

Focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teachers working toward their master’s or Sixth Year degrees, the program was designed to contribute to efforts to close Connecticut’s achievement gap. Perhaps more importantly, it was also designed to give teachers the ability to show Latino and other ELL students they aren’t the “failures” standardized tests and assessments say they are.

“ELL students deserve the same opportunities for academic achievement as their English-speaking peers. They have just as many abilities, but many need to be taught differently,” Rojas said. “Similar to students with physical disabilities, ELLs have special needs to be accommodated, and it’s our job as educators to find best practices to do that—to make these students feel passionate about learning, rather than to make the experience of learning frustrating, or to make them feel like failures.”

Emphasizing math, REALL provided fellows with proven ELL teaching models. Strategies and tools for better cross-cultural communications and building a more culturally responsive learning environment were stressed, including web-based technology that allows ELLs to work on their individual challenges. Bilingual math teachers were taught a proven intermediate algebra/pre-calculus teaching model.

REALL fellow Andrea Handler-Ruiz, a science teacher in the Arts & Humanities Academy at Windham High School in Willimantic, walked away from the program with not just more effective teaching strategies, but a “fortified” belief that great teaching is not just about providing an effective education, but an equal education.

“The importance of programs like REALL cannot be overlooked,” Handler-Ruiz said. “The readings and dialogues we took part in showed us how to embrace diversity in the classroom, as well as solidly argue in favor of integrated teaching approaches that best serve multicultural students.”

Rojas, whose continued dedication to strengthening the abilities of ELL educators has made the Neag School of Education a leader in the field, echoed Handler-Ruiz’s beliefs: “How do we target students who face the biggest challenges, without diluting expectations? Materials and standards don’t need to be ‘dumbed down’ for ELLs, but presented differently. REALL gave educators the tools to do the important work they are committed to. And the benefits? The results we’ve seen are that everyone wins.”


10 thoughts on “REALL Makes Real Learning Possible For ELLs

  1. Thanks so much to Eliana Rojas and the Neag School for your work on this important issue. It looks like Connecticut is leading in the development of ELL programs for our school children. We must continue this great work! Thanks for all you do. Best, Rep. Johnson

  2. As a graduate of the REALL program I too am excited to get back into my classroom and become an advocate for my students! It is important to realize that teachers are the “change-makers” and no matter what is going on politically in our districts or state our first responsibility is to our students. I finally feel prepared to impart an equal education to all my students! Thanks to the NEAG school and all my wonderful professors in particular Dr. Rojas and Dr. Reyes, I carry your passion and commitment into my classroom.

  3. As a recent graduate of the REAL program I can attest to the enormous impact the program has had on me as an educator, the school I work for and the students I serve. As a result of being a fellow I was equipped with the information and tools needed to implement an effective ESL program at my school. Prior to starting the program there was little support and no programming at my school to support English Language Learners and due to the increase of this student population it was necessary that a program be implemented. The vision of Dr. Rojas and the REAL program inspired and allowed me to become an advocate for English Language Learners in my school and become a leader to carry on the mission. Even after just one year we have seen significant progress in all areas among ELLs due to the work I was empowered to do through the program. It’s a honor to be able to equal the playing field for all students and I am forever grateful to all of my amazing professors, especially Dr. Rojas and Dr. Reyes for imparting their passion, knowledge and wisdom to bring about the needed change in our education system.

  4. I teach in Bridgeport and 65% of the students in my district are English Language Learners. What I have learned about sheltered instruction through the REALL program has greatly improved my teaching. Most importantly, all of my students, ELL or otherwise, benefit from what I have learned. I am grateful for the gifts, hard work and passion of Dr. Rojas.

  5. En Hora Buena! My sincere congratulations to Dr. Rojas and Dr. Reyes for their advocacy for ELL students and their families. The work that REALL has engaged in continues to position CT at the forefront of research in modeling effective teaching strategies for ALL students. Through the years, REALL has created a sound cohort of talented teachers across the state and they are now empowered to continue this good work and provide equity in education for ELLs and all students.

  6. The knowledge I acquired, the research I conducted, and the guidance and support I received from Dra. Rojas and Dra. Reyes, during and after my completion of the REALL program, have been invaluable to me as an educator. Applying the strategies I learned has been beneficial to all my students, not only ELLs. Dra. Rojas, thank you for your continued dedication to this growing and underrepresented group (ELLs), and helping educators feel empowered through knowledge and research (even when not all districts embrace these proven strategies). I feel hopeful knowing that you will continue to be a dedicated and supportive advocate. Mil gracias, and congratulations!

  7. I am excited to see the outstanding work from the REALL grant being recognized. I recently participated as a summer fellow in the LEAD program that Dr. Rojas also runs. Both Dr. Rojas and Dr. Reyes conscientiously share their expertise and commitment to education and our Connecticut students. Scholarship is not just encouraged, it is expected. Educators are instilled the value of advocacy through informed and sound decision making. I am very grateful for their efforts.

  8. REALL addresses an important need in our community. English Learners deserve well-prepared teachers, who respond to their educational needs. Congratulations, Dr. Rojas!

  9. Communities across the United States are becoming more diverse. In turn, teachers’ responsibilities include teaching both academic content and language skills to English Language Learners without sacrificing the quality of instruction or depth of comprehension in the process. It seems REALL does the work! It is the greatest gift that any teacher could have. Thanks to Dr.Rojas and Neag School of Education to make this happen!

  10. Being part of the REALL program truly changed my career as an educator and advocate for ELLs. The training, the research, and the discourse in my classes and at other REALL-sponsored events provided me with the foundation, enthusiasm, and confidence to become a better teacher and instruct my colleagues on how to support culturally and linguistically diverse students. I have been fortunate that my school’s administration has supported many proposals I have put forth to improve our ELL program (developing new courses, revising curriculum, streamlining assessments, providing professional development, etc.), and I am certain that their faith in me is due to their faith in UConn, Neag, and REALL. Thank you, Eliana Rojas and REALL, for changing the way I think and I teach.

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