Sheltered English Instruction


Since the early 1980's content-area teachers have looked to sheltered English instruction as a way to make content comprehensible for the English language learners (ELLs) in their classrooms. In the days when the term was first used in connection with ELLs, students were considered "sheltered" because they studied in classes separate from "the mainstream" and did not compete academically with native English speaking students (Freeman & Freeman, 1988). Today, the majority of ELLs study alongside their English-speaking peers, are held accountable to the same curriculum standards, and take the same high-stakes tests. Sheltered English instruction has come to mean a set of practices valuable to all teachers in helping ELLs learn English and, at the same time, learn content material in English. Questions frequently raised about sheltered English instruction are answered below.


What is sheltered English instruction?

Sheltered English instruction is an instructional approach that engages ELLs above the beginner level in developing grade-level content-area knowledge, academic skills, and increased English proficiency. In sheltered English classes, teachers use clear, direct, simple English and a wide range of scaffolding strategies to communicate meaningful input in the content area to students. Learning activities that connect new content to students' prior knowledge, that require collaboration among students, and that spiral through curriculum material, offer ELLs the grade-level content instruction of their English-speaking peers, while adapting lesson delivery to suit their English proficiency level.


Where is sheltered instruction used and by whom?

Sheltered English instruction is used in English as a second language (ESL) programs with sheltered content courses (e.g., sheltered chemistry, sheltered U. S. history), newcomer programs, transitional bilingual education, developmental bilingual education, dual-language programs, and two-way immersion programs. Sheltered instruction appears in classes that consist of only English language learners and in classes of both ELLs and native English speaking students. The sheltered approach is also used in many foreign language classes in the United States.


Who is qualified to teach sheltered English instruction?

Content-area teachers can acquire the skills necessary for sheltered English instruction and may already practice many of the instructional strategies involved. Essential to sheltered instruction are teacher willingness and capacity to learn about and incorporate the prior knowledge of ELLs into instruction, to understand second language acquisition and address the linguistic needs of ELLs, to deliver comprehensible yet rigorous input, and to use spiraling and scaffolding techniques whereby every piece of information learned and every skill acquired provides the next-level substructure for building higher-order knowledge. To the extent possible, teachers also need to learn about students' culture and community and how these contexts affect students' ways of learning.


Is sheltered English instruction effective?

The success of sheltered English instruction depends largely on two integrated factors. First, the teacher must provide modified instruction in English without oversimplifying the content. All students, including ELLs, are held to the same high expectations of achievement and must demonstrate that they meet content standards. Second, to avoid fossilization of language skills at the conversation level, the teacher must engage the student in a constant, concerted effort to develop and enhance academic language. In other words, teachers must first simplify their discourse to make class content comprehensible and then gradually make their language more complex, without sacrificing the quality of instruction or depth of comprehension in the process.

Research conducted in 1997-98 and again in 1998-99 showed that English language learners in classes with teachers who had been trained in sheltered instruction under the SIOP model outperformed similar students in control classes (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2004).


How does sheltered English instruction intersect with school initiatives, curricular programs, and professional development plans?

Sheltered instruction is an approach to teaching English language learners. While not a program in itself, sheltered instruction extends the time in which students participate in instruction that explicitly provides language support as well as standards-based content instruction. Sheltered instruction also teaches ELLs how to perform academic tasks, such as writing outlines and making presentations. This focus on building knowledge of academic language, content, and performance helps prepare English language learners for non-sheltered classes, in which they will be expected to achieve to high academic standards alongside their English-speaking peers.

The SIOP Observation Protocol provides teachers with a model of sheltered instruction designed to enhance teachers' practice. The SIOP may be used to enhance other initiatives supporting ELLs or all students. It has become the basis of professional development efforts for teachers of ELLs across the United States. To prepare ELLs fully for academic success, sheltered instruction must be part of a broad school- or district-wide initiative that takes into account many elements of good teaching practice, including culturally responsive teaching; multicultural, theme-based curriculum; effective classroom management; appropriate grading; and meaningful, collaborative involvement of parents.


What are the components of sheltered English instruction?

While teachers of ELLs have used sheltered English instruction for many years, a consistent understanding of the components of sheltered instruction has emerged only within the past five years. In 1999 the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) was developed following intensive observation of sheltered English teaching across the United States (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2004). The SIOP identifies 30 important elements of sheltered instruction under eight broad categories:

  • Preparation
  • Building Background
  • Comprehensible Input
  • Strategies
  • Interaction
  • Practice/Application
  • Lesson Delivery
  • Review and Assessment

Critical to effective sheltered instruction is the preparation of learning objectives for every lesson. These include content objectives, aligned with state and local content-area standards, and language objectives, aligned with state language proficiency benchmarks or language arts standards, or the national TESOL standards. Teachers communicate content and language objectives to students, design activities to achieve objectives throughout the lesson, and assess progress toward objectives by the end of the lesson. In this way learning, teaching and assessment are integrated into an ongoing process that provides feedback to students and informs future instruction.

Within each sheltered lesson the teacher seeks to ensure that students have sufficient background knowledge to tackle new curriculum material. Teachers modify their speech and, when necessary and feasible, content text so that English language learners can grasp important content concepts, facts, and questions. Teachers explicitly teach learning strategies – from teacher-centered to peer-supported to student centered – so that students develop a toolkit for accomplishing difficult learning tasks. Teachers also provide ample opportunities for students to interact in the target language around purposeful tasks that are meaningful to them.

Ever mindful of the lesson's framing objectives, sheltering teachers are careful to integrate listening, speaking, reading and writing skills into each lesson. They provide opportunities for students to apply their new knowledge through tasks that involve concepts and skills students have learned. Sheltering teachers work to engage all students at least 95% of the time in instructional activity, at the same time paying attention to pacing, so that no student is left behind.