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English Learner Collaborations project to Teach the Language of Social Studies

Published on Mon, 10/04/2021

Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies logo - open book with teachers apple atop stylized like a world globe
In a 10th grade classroom, a newly arrived student from Sudan, a returning student from a migrant worker family, and a student whose family came from Cambodia in the 1970s are among the 25 students in a US History class. These three students have been silent in all previous class discussions. The teacher knows their WIDA English-Language-Development proficiency scores. As their teacher sets them up in groups of five to look at documents from the Rosa Parks collection at the Library of Congress, the teacher provides organizers with grammatical cues for describing, questioning, and adding comments to others’ ideas. In their small groups, the English learners, because what they are looking at is authentic and real, begin to talk, and that conversation helps teach the language they need to be successful. 

How does the teacher choose what to provide to support students? What would pave the way for success in this activity? What else would support language learning using primary sources?

All students should be able to learn about social studies and civics using engaging primary sources, whether those students have limited English or not. And all teachers should have great examples that show them how to use English Proficiency information to construct activities that help students fully participate and strengthen academic English language skills. 

The Library of Congress has funded a project proposed by the Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies to take on this challenge.

Mass Council for the Social Studies Awarded Grant starting October 1, 2021

The Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies (MCSS) has been selected to receive a grant of $85,000 from the Library of Congress Professional Learning and Outreach division. The dates of this grant are October 1, 2021 – September 30, 2022.

The MCSS project, Extending the Reach of Primary Sources – English-Learner Collaborations, will bring together experts on English language development and History and Social Studies leaders. 

Together, experts will work with Massachusetts classroom teachers across grade levels to develop practical examples for History and Social Studies teachers: examples of classroom activities that strengthen language fluency and literacy for all learners, especially multilingual students. MCSS will produce WIDA-compatible examples for teaching social studies at elementary, middle and high school levels, and seeks teachers to pilot test them (click the link and send an email if you are interesting in learning more).

Looking at primary sources, a core element of the History and Social Studies frameworks in Massachusetts, is a prime area for just the kind of classroom conversations that help students most.

WIDA*, a national leader in research-based standards and assessments used by 42 states including Massachusetts to measure academic language development, will be represented in the group of experts. The resources developed will be aligned with the WIDA 2020 framework which emphasizes teaching language in context and recognizing the strengths and “Can Do” abilities of English learners. 

MCSS’s project will provide models that social studies teachers can use to see how to use “proficiency level descriptors” and “language expectations” information provided in annual student assessments to make lively, engaging activities that support and accelerate student learning. 

With this grant, the Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies will become an active member of the national Teaching with Primary Sources Consortium of the Library of Congress, with new reach to bring resources to Massachusetts teachers and to share MCSS member projects with an expanded audience. 

With the possibility of this grant’s renewal for two more years, MCSS has already submitted plans to extend the resources developed to benefit out-of-school youth and students in non-school learning settings, including the Massachusetts Migrant Education Program, and to be used in stand-alone English Language Development classes in Massachusetts and in other states around the country. The grant will fund stipends to teachers that participate in in pilot tests of new material, and in future years, teachers who participate in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) that pair English Language Development teachers with History and Social Studies teachers. 



*The name WIDA originally stood for the three states on the original No Child Left Behind grant proposal that founded the effort to help states track whether multilingual students were making gains in academic English language proficiency: Wisconsin, Delaware and Arkansas. As the program expanded, it was rebranded as World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA). Today, the name WIDA has come to represent a community of member states, territories, federal agencies and international schools.


Alison Noyes

Manager, Emerging America
Alison Noyes is the manager of the Emerging America program at the Collaborative for Educational Services, where she leads the English Learner Collaborations project funded by a Library of Congress grant to the Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies.