What Makes an Exemplary Curriculum for Language Learners?

The success of linguistically and culturally diverse students has become a shared goal for educators and policy-makers across both political lines because there are now over 5 million students from homes where a language other than English is spoken.   The impact of this fast paced-growth began with grants, funding sources, and other program level compliances.  However, the consistent failure to see achievement and growth in both language and content, has created a shift in the conversation from minutes of instruction to what educators are teaching and what they are doing to change the consistent failure. It is a conversation that inevitably leads to curriculum. Is there a curriculum that is best for language learners?   Is there one that is better for dual language programs, versus bilingual programs, versus ESL programs?  And while I have my own views on whether curriculum should be the focus of the conversation, here is the short answer from an article I am in the process of submitting.

Curriculum that have historically served language learners have consistently been characterized by learning that is less challenging, more repetitive, more focused on skills that require low levels of thinking and denies students the opportunity to engage in any type of productive struggle.  It is, in short, a curriculum that ensures language learners do not grow and remain uninspired to move beyond their current possibility in life.

How do you know if you have this type of curriculum?  Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Does the teacher do most of the thinking?
  2. Do the lessons leave students unsure of what to do with new learning after the lesson?
  3. Does the curriculum allow students to sit passively and “stay under the radar”?

These remedial-mentality curriculum leave learners with little opportunity for achievement.  On the contrary, any curriculum that can reach the level of being exemplary must provide content, concepts, language, and meaningful opportunities to create knowledge that is worth learning within a context that allows every student to be a part of the larger community regardless of their language proficiency.  In thinking about curriculum in this way, there is no perfect curriculum.  Rather, the perfect curriculum comes from knowing who each and every child is, and using that knowledge to adapt the materials’ ability to help each child make meaning, seek the answers to real questions, and develop more complex ways to communicate their truth within the world.

Even still, there are some criteria that must be part of how we evaluate the efficacy of our curriculum for our language learners. The following are not the only criteria that should be used to evaluate curriculum.  However, if you are looking to evaluate your current curriculum materials, or looking to adopt a new one, these three criteria should top your “look for’s”:

  1. The curriculum affirms the identity of the students that are meant its beneficiaries: meaning it provide content, concepts, and creation of knowledge (pedagogy) worth learning, and that it honors the life experiences that have shaped the individuals they are and will choose to become.
  2. Provides modeling, shared practice, oracy, and independent learning experiences that include variety and choice in how they apply that learning and challenge the way they look at things.
  3. Allows for authentic and high-quality pedagogy for the language of instruction, and authentic and worthy tasks/artifacts to support the access and achievement of each diverse learner.


These three criteria are critical.  If we cannot, at a bare minimum, say that our curriculum affirms the learners who it was purchased for, that there are a range of paths for students to apply that learning, and that the pedagogy is authentic, we cannot expect to have different outcomes.  So, what will you do to ensure that your curriculum doesn’t work against your goals?