Instructional Strategies for ELLs in Mainstream Classrooms
It's not easy being an English learner in the U.S. school system. A persistent achievement gap, political intrusion, and weak classroom pedagogy all cast lingering shadows across efforts to maximize learning opportunities for students hampered with learning content skills at the same time they are learning the vocabulary and syntax of a second language.
In English-medium classrooms, direct instruction takes place in English. For most U.S. classrooms, the reality is that the majority of English learners will have to learn these skills and English with, at best, minimal support in their natal language.
However, in 15 years working with elementary school English language learners (ELLs) in California, I have seen English learners thrive in English-medium classrooms where teachers habitually frontload vocabulary instruction, provide nonlinguistic support during direct instruction, and allow students time to practice oral use of academic language before moving onto reading and writing activities.
Frontloading Vocabulary Instruction
Background knowledge plays a key role in a student's ability to learn new information, and vocabulary is a key component to accessing background knowledge. The words students have to describe their experiences with a concept will give teachers great insight into what students actually know before the lesson starts.
For example, I recently worked with a group of 3rd grade English learners who were studying elements of a narrative in folktales. We were planning on reading a story about a family's supply of bread flour being blown away by the north wind. I knew most of my ELLs were unlikely to have seen bread flour in their homes, which meant that they might not understand the effect of the wind blowing it away.
The first day I worked with this group, we went outside to the playground and I passed around a small container of bread flour, letting students touch it while I talked about how flour is used in baking. Then I threw a small amount up in the air so that students could see how it scattered.
Teachers of English learners must set aside time to present upcoming vocabulary before students encounter it in text. Not all words need to be pretaught, though; a teacher must judge which words will be crucial to the concept. In the example above, students were being asked to identify conflict within the story. By seeing, touching, and scattering the bread flour in the air, the group easily identified the loss of the flour as a conflict and could explain why that conflict caused the main character's next action.
I don't recall whether the teacher's guide listed flour as key vocabulary to the reading selection. Probably not, but I have learned over the years to be very cautious about accepting what a publisher provides as "key vocabulary" and assuming students have prior experience with any given topic.
Nonlinguistic Support During Direct Instruction
For ELLs in classrooms where direct instruction takes place in English, the amount of visual support provided during direct instruction often determines whether students will learn anything from instruction.
Nonlinguistic support includes graphic organizers used to sort and classify information, realia images, clip art, sketches, and whole-body movements. Note that nonlinguistic support means more than just providing students with an outline of lecture notes. Moreover, there's a good chance that even English-only students will benefit from the visual support during direct instruction.
One technique I have used with great success at the elementary level is lecture pictorial. This comes from Project GLAD, an English language development model developed in southern California. A pictorial is simply a key graphic from the lesson. In language arts, this could be a sketch of the main character. In science, it could be the water cycle. In math, it might be images of sides and angles in polygons.
Before the lecture, the teacher selects the graphic and sketches it lightly on a large piece of butcher paper. During the lecture, the teacher uses markers to outline the shape and label key vocabulary, and images and clip art can also be added. All students find it fascinating to watch as the image is revealed to them over the course of the lecture, and the pictorial is left up during the unit of study for students to refer to and use in their note taking.
Interactive whiteboards coupled with Internet resources also provide excellent nonlinguistic support for direct instruction. Interactive games, online field trips, animated clips, video clips, and other visual applications add interest and academic support for English learners. And when a teacher realizes that students are struggling with a concept and need more visual support, search engines make it possible to quickly access images.
Oral Language Practice
Interpersonal communication skills come much easier to children, in my experience, than using language related to the concepts and skills they are studying. The language of the classroom includes word knowledge (vocabulary) as well as the ability to use word knowledge correctly in describing and explaining. Unfortunately, I often see teachers move straight from direct instruction to paper-and-pencil activities without providing students time to orally process information with their peers.
To provide time for students to work together to use academic language, consider structuring cooperative discussion opportunities throughout the day. Good cooperative discussions focus on key concepts within a lesson or unit and involve language input from each member of the group. Ideally, cooperative discussion groups should be no more than four students to help ensure that each student participates.
Start by breaking up direct instruction into 8- to 10-minute chunks. After each chunk, require students to talk to one another in partners or small groups, giving them something to discuss related to your lecture. For example, if you are talking about community helpers with kindergarteners, have the students talk to a partner about a time they saw a community helper. Students with limited vocabulary in English can, and perhaps should, use their primary language during the discussion. This technique is about processing new information, not about perfecting a language structure.
When checking for understanding during a lesson, have groups work together to prepare a response, then randomly call on one member of the team. This boosts accountability (everyone needs an answer) but also reduces anxiety because the team comes up with the response together. During guided practice, have students in groups or with partners take turns explaining how they arrived at an answer.
Using language frames is another way to support English learners during oral language practice. These sentence starters help students understand how to organize their thoughts and help them successfully generate standard English grammar. Common language frames include teaching students how to sequence an answer, summarize a main idea, find cause-effect relationships, and describe characteristics. When students understand how to structure a response, they feel more successful as they discuss academic language with one another.
Vocabulary frontloading, nonlinguistic support during direct instruction, and oral language practice are excellent instructional tools that increase English learners' success with grade-level concepts and skills presented in English-medium classrooms.
These practices alone, however, will not completely meet the needs of all English learners. Most will need additional small-group instruction, differentiated assignments, and targeted English language development lessons. But improving whole-group instruction is the first step in guaranteeing that English learners have the best possible opportunity to master grade-level standards while acquiring oral English fluency.
Brechtel, M. (2005). Bringing it all together: An integrated whole language approach for the multilingual classroom. Parsippany, NJ: Dominie Press.
California Department of Education. (2010). Improving education for English learners: Research-based approaches. Sacramento, CA: California Department of Education
Dolson, D. P., & Burnham-Massey, L. (2011). Redesigning English-medium classrooms: Using research to enhance English learner achievement. Covina, CA: California Association for Bilingual Education.
Marzano, R., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J. E. (2004). Classroom instruction that works. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Heather Haggart is a teacher on special assignment at Newhall School District in Newhall, Calif.
ASCD Express, Vol. 7, No. 17. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.