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Helping ELLs Excel
February 25, 2016 | Volume 11 | Issue 12
Table of Contents
Seven Ways to Scaffold Instruction for English Learners
As a speech-language pathologist, I often get questions about instructional strategies for English learners. While these strategies are quite broad in scope, they have helped my students grow over the years. I hope that you, too, will find them useful.
Understand L1 Syntax
Understanding first language (L1) syntax allows the teacher to determine if the first language is affecting production of the second language (L2). Knowing the structure of L1 provides teachers with quick, concrete information regarding developmental patterns of sentence structure for English. If the student creates a sentence in English using the patterns of her first language, then this disconnect will gradually resolve as the student becomes more proficient in English. Simply pointing out the difference can correct the problem. A universal screening assessment, such as Measures of Academic Progress, can help identify areas where scaffolded instruction would benefit the student.
Identify Cognates and False Cognates
Teachers need a basic understanding of cognates and false cognates to determine the effect that the student's L1 has on creating or understanding meaning in L2. Cognates are words that are similar or identical in both languages. False cognates are words that have similar spellings or sounds but different meanings. This is where many L2 learners make comprehension mistakes; they apply the wrong meaning of the word to the new context. A familiarity with cognates and false cognates shared between L1 and L2 can help teachers plan their vocabulary lessons appropriately. A skills-inventory assessment focused on phonemic awareness or vocabulary is a good tool for identifying needs and checking for mastery.
Frontload Critical Vocabulary
When students' grasp of a concept depends on understanding specific terminology, teach the vocabulary as a prerequisite to learning the content. Sending students to the dictionary for every word they don't understand just slows their interpretation of text. If the vocabulary is a critical component to of the instruction, then teach it outright. This strategy allows students to think about the learning objective instead of minute details that hinder their access to the content.
Design Tasks Aligned to Student Proficiency
To align instruction to students' English proficiency, teachers can provide students with structured responses, pictorial choices, or concrete manipulatives to participate in the instruction. Formative assessment tools, such as sentence starters, graphic organizers, charts, and multiple-choice questions, can be useful at this stage of instruction. As the students' English improves, teachers can reduce or even remove these supports. Providing these supports allows students to understand academic content while they are learning English.
Engage in Academic Discourse
Establishing a safe environment for students to engage in academic discourse with peers and teachers not only builds English oral skills but also provides the opportunity to practice academic language. Because academic language develops more slowly, students need to practice using it in structured ways. It is a misconception that students can't participate in L2 discussions using academic language without a strong background in L2 social language. Students can learn academic language, both structure and vocabulary, at the same time they are learning social language.
Teach Transition Words
One major difference between social language and academic language is the use of transition words and phrases (e.g., therefore, because, in conclusion, and although). Transition words help listeners or readers follow the author's argument, thus making communication more effective. This means that the teacher may need to focus a lesson on transition words or provide a structured format for a brief conversation, such as an outline with sentence starters, to help English learners understand and incorporate such words into their writing and speaking.
Preteach Abstract Language
English learners often need to have abstract language, such as idioms, metaphors, similes, or slang terms, explained prior to engaging in a discussion or reading text that includes these language forms. Teachers should directly review with students the meaning of abstract language before introducing the content. This preteaching strategy helps students to understand the meaning of content without struggling with syntax and vocabulary that have alternate meanings. These techniques can help English learners thrive in your school and experience the academic growth that every student deserves.
Virginia "Jenny" Williams has held a variety of positions within education including speech-language pathologist, lead teacher, literacy coach, assistant special education director, program specialist for a regional education service agency, and college professor. Williams has provided professional development to teachers for the past eight years and has recently joined NWEA, where she facilitates professional development programs with schools and districts in the Northwestern United States.
ASCD Express, Vol. 11, No. 12. Copyright 2016 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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