At Sugarland Elementary, language lessons are key to all learning

By Caitlin Gibson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010

On a Thursday morning at Sugarland Elementary School in Sterling, fourth-graders watched as their teacher pointed to an illuminated smart board in the darkened classroom. Together, they recited their lesson objective:

"The students will be able to discover artifacts that were used by the original Virginians!"

In the center of each cluster of desks was a plastic container filled with sand that the students would sift through to mimic an archaeological dig for Native American artifacts. But first, their teacher wanted to hear them talk a bit more about some of the important words in the lesson's objective. Hands shot up across the room.

One girl said the word "Virginian" was important. The teacher agreed, and asked her to complete a definition of the word: "People who live in . . . "

"Virginia!" the girl said.

On its surface, it might have seemed like the start of a typical fourth-grade lesson, but the key elements of the activity -- focusing on vocabulary, hands-on interaction and working with partners -- are components of a teaching method known as Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol. SIOP emphasizes language and interactive activities and encourages teachers to build a contextual background before delving into a lesson's content, said Angela Robinson, 46, Sugarland's principal.

The model was developed as a national research project funded by the U.S. Department of Education from 1996 through 2003 to help nonnative English-speaking students succeed in school, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics Web site. Researchers with the Center for Applied Linguistics collaborated with teachers and other researchers to refine the method over several years, the site says.

The research was intended to benefit English-language learners in middle and high schools, said Courtney Jones, 33, a SIOP resource teacher for Loudoun County schools. Six years ago, Jones was one of two third-grade teachers who received training in SIOP and brought it back to Sugarland to adapt the method to the elementary level. One year later, the teachers trained the school's entire staff in SIOP.

Sugarland is the only elementary school in the region to use SIOP schoolwide, and the benefits are clear, Robinson said. She said SIOP has not only helped the students but has also transformed the school staff members.

"Every teacher is a language teacher in this school," Robinson said.

The adaptation was necessary to keep pace with a changing student population at Sugarland. When the school opened in 1975, the student body was almost entirely Caucasian, but it is now 59 percent Hispanic and 81 percent minority overall, Robinson said.

The shift in student diversity has accelerated in the past 10 years, Robinson said. Records show that the number of English-language-learning students in Loudoun surged from 506 in 2000 to 5,191 in 2010. From 2000 to 2001, the number had more than doubled, from 506 to 1,193.

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