Leveraging Cultural Assets to Accelerate Literacy Growth

Many English Language Learners (ELLs) remain stuck in academically segregated programs where they fall behind in basic subjects. Only 63 percent of ELLs graduate from high school, compared with the overall national rate of 82 percent. As an instructional coach, I work alongside teachers to build affirming classroom communities that value cultural and linguistic diversity in order to support student success. Sarah Mireles is one of those teachers. She works as a literacy interventionist at Maplewood Elementary School in Greeley, Colorado, to support NEP (non-English proficient) and newcomer students. Sarah has embraced SIPPS Plus, using it with 5th grade students as a springboard for teaching not only reading, but also academic discourse tied to text and intentional writing.

Our students come from Ethiopia, Somalia, Myanmar, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Rwanda. The students use their SIPPS Plus lessons and the text Dreams on Wheels to engage in high-yield pedagogical practices that help students to learn language through content and content through language. It is such a pleasure to see students’ faces light up as they engage with Dreams on Wheels, because the book respects them as intermediate level learners!

Valuing cultural and linguistic diversity is key when it comes to equity, but diversity is not enough. My colleague Sarah and I believe that equity involves teaching students to comprehend what they read, decode words at advanced levels, and read with a critical eye. How do we teach students to be thoughtful consumers of information and give voice to their own viewpoints in meaningful ways? To answer this question, we have combined the Teaching and Learning Cycle (TLC) approach with the literacy-growth strategies in Collaborative Classroom’s SIPPS Plus program. The professional development around the TLC in our district has been provided by WestEd, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research, development and service agency. WestEd’s approach implements TLC’s five stages of learning: (1) building content knowledge through language-rich experiences (2) learning about the language of text types, (3) jointly constructing texts, (4) constructing texts independently, and (5) reflecting on one’s writing.

We use TLC as a framework for scaffolding oral language development and emergent academic reading and writing by weaving together content, language, and literacy. This approach uses interactive reading, text-based discussions, and language awareness designed to engage all students, including EL students. The intention is to provide equitable opportunities so that all students access language through content and content through language (Gibbons 2015, 109).

Let’s take a look at how Sarah merges the TLC and SIPPS Plus instruction around a nonfiction text on the topic of birds in the accessible text Dreams on Wheels. Before beginning a cycle of the TLC, Sarah teaches SIPPS Plus lessons as written in the manual at a separate time in the day. Leveraging the text in Dreams on Wheels, Sarah begins Stage 1 with a series of tasks around the topic of birds that clearly shows students the way explanatory text can be organized. After reading aloud and analyzing the texts about birds, Sarah has completed the first stage, which is to “build the field” so that the students are equipped with enough background knowledge and vocabulary about the topic to engage beyond the surface level of the text. Part of this stage is a collaborative reconstruction task in which the students sequence a deconstructed paragraph that has been cut up into sentence strips to focus their attention on the structure and language used in this specific genre: explanatory text.

Stage 1 of the TLC: Building the Field – “Collaborative Text Reconstruction”

Stage two in the TLC explores the language of text types. Within this stage, sentence unpacking helps students examine individual sentences for language features and structure so that they are able to replicate these types of sentences in their own writing.

The students huddle together around an excerpt from Dreams on Wheels: “Birds That Can’t Fly, Part 1: The Penguin,” which Sarah has written on chart paper. Sarah starts by chorally reading the following sentences with the students:

After 65 days, the egg hatches. The mother comes back from the sea with food inside her for the chick. The chick puts its bill into the mother’s bill to get the food, which she spits up.

She asks the students, “What makes these sentences tricky to understand?” The students discuss their ideas with a partner and Sarah learns they are not sure about the meaning of “hatches.” Together, they define the word “hatches” using the context clue “egg,” and then acting it out with their hands. Sarah cups one hand and then wriggles the finger of the other hand through the cupped hand to mimic a chick hatching from an egg. Not surprisingly, some students are also wondering about the second sentence:

“How does the mom come [back] from the sea with food inside her?” One student points to her own back, knitting her eyebrows together, asking, “back?” Realizing that this word has multiple meanings, other students are quick to jump in and explain, “No. It means go back or return.” Sarah writes “return above the word “back” and sketches a return arrow in the margin. The students excitedly exclaim that they know a symbol at the end of the sentence that is called a “decimal” in math; they struggle for a few moments to remember it is also called a “period.” Sarah jots down “decimal in math” and the word “period” beside this punctuation mark. The group continues unpacking the remaining sentences until Sarah is sure that the students understand the text at the sentence level.

Stage 2 of the TLC: Exploring the Language of Text Types—“Sentence Unpacking”

In Stage 3 of the TLC, after they have had the complete SIPPS Plus lessons that use the “Birds that Cannot Fly” stories, the students collaboratively deconstruct and then reconstruct a few additional paragraphs to increase awareness of the text structure and overall organization. Next, Sarah helps them explore the similarities and differences between ostriches and penguins and they jointly construct their own text within the explanatory text genre.

Stage 3 of the TLC: “Jointly Constructing Texts”










Sarah focuses on analyzing and evaluating writing in a variety of genres so that she may be more explicit in teaching students the power of codes within the English language.

After building the necessary background knowledge, exploring the language of the explanatory text type, jointly constructing paragraphs comparing penguins and ostriches, the students begin Stage 4 as they are finally ready to construct their own texts independent of the teacher.

Stage 4 of the TLC: “Independently Constructing Texts”

Finally, Sarah closes out the bird unit with Stage 5 of the TLC: “Reflecting on One’s Writing” in which the students use success criteria to give input and provide feedback to peers to revise their writing.

In our work, Sarah and I have realized that by deconstructing and reconstructing text, we demystify the writing process, as we teach the purpose, text structure, and language features specific to different genres.

The goal of SIPPS Plus is for students to become fluent readers as efficiently as possible so they can concentrate on comprehending academic content. The TLC complements SIPPS, providing abundant encouragement for students to think, talk, and write as they develop content knowledge. By combining the SIPPS program and the TLC, we empower students to access rigorous content and use their critical thinking skills to increase their English proficiency.



Gibbons, Pauline. Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning: Teaching English Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom. 2nd ed., Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2015.