At Sugarland Elementary, language lessons are key to all learning

By Caitlin Gibson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010; LZ18

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.

"Native English speakers are now a minority in the school," she said.

When Sugarland implemented SIOP schoolwide, it became clear that the benefits of the protocol applied to all students, not just English learners, Robinson said.

"My gifted-and-talented kids are doing better, too; my English language speakers are doing better," she said. "We started to see all kids do better."

The improvement is not surprising, Jones said, because the core principles of SIOP are synonymous with good teaching. "It isn't about redefining teaching methods, just refining them," she said.

Lessons such as the fourth-grade classroom's archaeological dig are perfect examples, Robinson said. "You're using 3-D models that kids can touch, feel and be a part of, not one-dimensional, flat visuals," she said.

That type of interaction -- using a real experience instead of a description or a flat image -- is far more effective at helping kids retain information, because words are connected to something meaningful and memorable, Robinson said.

"If I don't know what a pumpkin patch is because I just moved here from El Salvador, you can describe it all day long and it won't mean anything to me," she said.

The impact of SIOP is somewhat hard to track, Robinson said, because the student body changes each year, and some of the protocol's benefits aren't necessarily reflected on standardized tests. But the teachers have seen students become more actively engaged, and some of the Standards of Learning tests do reflect improvements.

"We've seen some of our targeted groups make big gains," Robinson said. "We see kids retaining the information better than they were before. We see them really connecting lessons to prior learning. Their writing is better; they are using the language more."

Last year, 91 percent of Hispanic third-grade English-learning students passed their history SOL test, Robinson said. The year before, the pass rate for Hispanic third-grade English-learning student was 78 percent.

"It's not the same kids, but it shows the impact of the teaching over time," Robinson said.

The program is in its sixth year and still evolving, she said. This year, teachers are focusing on incorporating assessments into their daily lessons to better understand whether the students are absorbing information as it's being taught. For example, students are asked to give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down to indicate whether they feel sure about the answer to a particular question. It's a good way for teachers to have a sense of what knowledge the children are taking away at the end of a class, Robinson said, rather than waiting for a quiz or a test to realize that some might not have understood the material.

"This way you can know that same day that the learning took place, not that Friday or sometime that month," she said.

Robinson and staff members will share their experiences and expertise with SIOP in a presentation at the National Staff Development Council's annual conference in December, she said.

Each refinement to the protocol makes a big difference, especially for students who had felt excluded because they couldn't follow what was being said in the classroom, Robinson said.

"I thought the attention spans were horrible when I first got here," she said. "I saw SIOP transform that. . . . These kids are not without knowledge; they're just without language."

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