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Teaching English Language Learners Across the Content Areas

by Judie Haynes and Debbie Zacarian

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Creating an ELL-Friendly Learning Environment

Middle school social studies teacher Ms. Morales was teaching a unit on the settling of Plymouth Colony in the 1620s. She had four ELLs in her class at varying stages of English language acquisition, all of whom had the ability to converse socially with their peers in classroom situations. Ms. Morales wasn't sure why one of her ELLs, Tuan Li, was still in an ESL class, as his oral participation was strong. He spoke well and seemed to follow the lessons.

The goal of the day's lesson was for Ms. Morales's students to be able to demonstrate three differences between the houses of settlers in 1620 and houses in the present-day United States. Ms. Morales wrote this objective on the board. Below it, she also wrote three brief statements about what her students would do during the day's lesson: First, they would take notes about the houses in Plymouth. Second, they would write facts about the houses. Third, they would synthesize their notes and write a paragraph comparing the homes of 1620 with those that exist today.

At the beginning of the lesson, Ms. Morales reviewed the voyage of the Mayflower and the first winter of the new settlers in Plymouth, using pictures to retell the story. She observed that her ELLs were able to participate in this oral review and was pleased with their use of the academic language from the lesson. Ms. Morales then introduced the vocabulary from the text that students would read on the Internet. She used pictures to demonstrate the meanings of the words and phrases that she had identified for this lesson, and showed the students how to use a graphic organizer to take notes. She noted that the ELLs in her class appeared to understand the text and were able to write key words in their organizers. However, when Tuan Li wrote his paragraph, he did not transfer the academic language used in the lesson to his writing. Here is what he wrote:

In Plymouth they have small houses with one big rooms. It was only made from straw for the roof and the wooden board for the down part of the house. Houses in river edge, many of the houses is made of brick. The house is big.

Tuan Li had been in U.S. schools for two years. He spoke English well, volunteered in class, and worked cooperatively with classmates. Ms. Morales was pleased with Tuan Li's participation in the oral part of the lesson and with his understanding of the material that he read online, but she became concerned with his writing. She wondered if he really acquired the academic language and concepts of the lesson. His use of academic vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structure was poor. Ms. Morales thought that Tuan Li had been in the United States long enough to acquire the skills necessary to write in English.

* * *

Teachers of ELLs, such as Ms. Morales, should routinely consider the following questions: How long does it take to learn English? What should we expect during this learning process? What should we do to help students to learn English as they learn content? Title VI of U.S. federal law describes competency in English as the ability to do ordinary classroom work in English and requires schools to provide ELLs with an education that is available to all students in the same system (Alexander & Alexander, 1985). Each state draws from this federal definition to regulate the laws governing the education of ELLs in public schools.

The phrase "ordinary classroom work"—meaning what we expect students to be able to learn in English—is a good starting point for us to think about how to modify classroom instruction. The way we work with ELLs reflects our beliefs about their ability to perform ordinary classroom work. If Ms. Morales mistakenly believes that an ELL is defined as a student who does not speak English, then she might think that Tuan Li is competent in English because his listening and speaking skills are strong. However, the capacity to do ordinary classroom work in English includes the ability to communicate appropriately in social and academic situations by listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

Language Acquisition Versus Language Learning

The term "English language learner" refers to students who have learned a language or languages other than English during their preschool years and are now learning English as an additional language. School-age ELLs like Tuan Li must learn English because they cannot succeed in school without it.

Learning a language is distinct from acquiring it (Krashen, 1982). Consider Tuan Li: He was in the 4th grade when he enrolled in a New Jersey elementary school. He learned English while also learning math, science, social studies, art, music, and physical education. By contrast, he acquired his native language through the process of communicating with his family and community. Acquiring language is an unconscious process, whereas learning a second language is a conscious one (Krashen, 1982). When learning a second language, students must learn about its structure and appropriate use. An ELL whose native language is Spanish, for example, will be accustomed to placing adjectives after nouns, and must learn to do the reverse in English.

Stages of Second-Language Acquisition

Language learning is a developmental process, each stage of which represents growth and expansion of the ability to know, use, and critically think in the new language. The following descriptions of the stages of second-language acquisition are intended to help teachers ensure that their lessons complement the current stage of a student's English learning.

Stage 1: Starting

In this preproduction stage, students are just beginning to acquire a receptive vocabulary. They can listen attentively to explanations supported by visuals, point to correct answers, act out information, draw and label pictures, and understand and duplicate gestures and movements to show comprehension. Some may even be able to copy words from the board. Choral reading and Total Physical Response, a teaching method that encourages ELLs to respond to language with gestures and body language, will work well with students at this stage, who will need much repetition of English words and phrases in context. Students in Stage 1 will also benefit from having a "buddy" who speaks their language. Teachers should focus attention on listening comprehension activities and on helping students to build a receptive vocabulary. It is common for students to listen much more than speak at this stage and to display understanding through body language, such as by pointing to an object. Remember that the school day is exhausting for these newcomers as they are overwhelmed by listening to a new language all day long.

Stage 2: Emerging

Students enter this early production stage when they have been learning English for about six months to a year and are beginning to produce language. During this stage, students can usually speak in one- or two-word phrases, learn new academic vocabulary with visual support, answer yes/no or either/ or questions, provide names of items, categorize information, make lists, and write very simple sentences to go with pictures. Students in Stage 2 should begin to participate in whole-class activities. Teachers should aid learning with graphic organizers, charts, and graphs and begin to foster writing in English through labeling and composing short sentences.

Stage 3: Developing

At this stage, ELLs will begin to communicate using short phrases, understand modified content material, match content area vocabulary to definitions, and comprehend their teacher's clearly articulated explanations and directions. They also may begin to initiate social conversations with classmates. Students in Stage 3 will benefit from the use of flashcards and duet and choral reading activities.

Stage 4: Expanding

English language learners at this stage are becoming more fluent. They can highlight important information in a text, use graphic organizers independently, and skim material for specific information; they are also able to analyze, create, debate, predict, and hypothesize in English. However, the writing of ELLs in Stage 4 will still have many errors as the students continue trying to master the complexity of English grammar and sentence structure. The teacher's focus at this stage should be on student comprehension and writing.

Stage 5: Bridging

At this stage, ELLs can perform in all areas close to the level of their native English-speaking classmates. However, they will continue to need teacher support with oral and written use of more complex vocabulary and sentence structure, and may also need support developing learning strategies and study skills. It is important to remember that although students at this stage are no longer in ESL programs, they will still be learning English for years to come.

Building Connections

In the mid–20th century, several scholars contributed to what we know about how languages are learned in the classroom. Current theories pay particular attention to what occurs in the brain during the learning process; see, for example, Sylwester and Cho (1992), Caine and Caine (1991), and Diaz Rico and Weed (2006). Most researchers on the subject believe that the primary function of the brain is to build connections between new information and what it already knows. This biological process is the cornerstone of our knowledge about second-language learning. It suggests that students are not empty vessels of knowledge; rather, they come to class with a body of knowledge that is based on their personal, cultural, linguistic, social, and academic knowledge. When students are engaged in an atmosphere that helps them to build connections to their varied backgrounds across the curriculum and in a welcoming, nonthreatening way, learning is optimized.

According to Krashen (1981, 1982), learning a second language requires the following three core elements:

  1. A comfortable learning environment with a low threshold for anxiety
  2. Meaningful tasks that purposely engage students to learn how to speak, listen, read, and write in the new language
  3. Engagement in tasks that are just a bit beyond the students' current ability

Language Learning and Culture

Learning a language also involves learning the norms of the culture in which the language is used. Routine tasks can pose unique challenges for ELLs if they have not learned these norms. For example, in many U.S. public high schools, students elect class officers—a democratic process. The act of voting in a school election requires students to understand the principles of democracy and elections, as well as what role each class officer plays. Teachers must provide explicit instruction for ELLs to actively understand what it means to be a learner in the classroom community and to participate meaningfully in it.

Social Language Versus Academic Language

Jim Cummins, a renowned scholar of second-language development, believes that language learners engage in social conversational skills before they engage in academic skills (1981, 1984). He posits that students develop basic interpersonal communicative skills through the process of engaging in informal settings such as the school playground or cafeteria. However, to perform successfully in school, students must also attain cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP)—that is, the ability to manipulate language for academic purposes. The amount of time it takes for students to become proficient in a language depends on their backgrounds. Students who have had prior schooling and rich literacy experiences (including a literacy-rich home environment) tend to become communicatively competent in three to five years, whereas those who have previously had limited or interrupted instruction or a radically different type of schooling may take five years or more. Learners who are not fully literate in their native language will take even longer to acquire CALP in the second language.

We do not believe that students learn social language before academic language, as this would imply that learning is a linear process. Both types of learning are optimized when teachers connect new information to students' personal, cultural, linguistic, social, and academic backgrounds (Diaz Rico & Weed, 2006; Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2008).

Teachers of ELLs should be attracted to working with such students and create an environment in which students' personal, cultural, linguistic, social, and academic experiences are seen as rich resources. Similarly, ELLs must be attracted to learning in their new environment and interested in learning about the culture in which they now find themselves. Consider the example of Dmitry, a brilliant student who had been at the top of his class in Russia. When his parents decided to come to the United States, he felt very angry about the decision but had no way to express this anger directly to his parents. Instead, he simply refused to try to learn in school. When pressured, he had a cousin do his homework. In short, by refusing to open up to the new language and culture, Dmitry lost a whole year of English language acquisition when he first came to the United States.

Designing Socially Relevant Learning Activities

We believe that students learn best when the curriculum is socially relevant and when students are given opportunities to examine their world, such as in the earlier example of Ms. Morales engaging her students in comparing their lives to the lives of children from the 1620s. Socially relevant curriculum has been found to be an important element for learning (Luke, 1994; Vasquez, Muise, Adamson, & Heffernan, 2003). Lessons that allow ELLs to participate more fully in their schools and communities should be at the heart of the work of teaching.

Let us return to the example of Ms. Morales's class. Once Ms. Morales began to understand more about the sociocultural realities of her ELLs as well as their language and content learning needs, she adjusted her lessons. Most of Ms. Morales's students played in community baseball games after school. Because she knew that her ELLs were not familiar with baseball and were not being included in the games, she decided to expand the study of the Plymouth settlers to include a comparison of popular games in the colonial United States with those that are popular today. She posted the objectives of the lesson on the board, used a graphic organizer to support her students' learning, and engaged her students in a variety of paired discussions about the two time periods. She also used class time to ask her English-fluent students to encourage ELLs to participate in baseball games after school and to support them when they did.

Characteristics of an Effective Learning Environment

Learning activities must be based on deliberate and explicit instruction that allows multiple opportunities for

  • Student understanding of the lesson's key content goals and activities;
  • Teacher modeling of activities before students engage in them;
  • Frequent opportunities for students to practice activities comfortably; and
  • Multiple and repeated connections to student's personal, cultural, linguistic, social, and academic experiences.

Posting Core Content Ideas

As Wiggins and McTighe (2005) note, it is important to plan learning experiences that are based on the core content ideas that we want our students to learn. It is very helpful to post these ideas on the board for student reference, as they not only can provide an anchor for students throughout the course of a unit but also provide teachers with an important reference point when designing and delivering lessons. Posting core content ideas in the form of questions can be particularly helpful, furthering students' interest by encouraging them to seek answers.

Thinking that the terms "reflect" and "belief system" would be difficult for students to understand, Ms. Morales revised her core question to read, "How did the everyday activities of the settlers show what they believed?" She thought that this core question would be more easily understood by all of her students and serve as an important reference point for learning the core concepts.

Posting Daily Content and Language Objectives

The Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol, also known as the SIOP model (Echevarria et al., 2008), points to the importance of posting daily content and language objectives for our students. Teachers should inform students of the lesson's purpose by sharing with them what material they hope they will learn and what they will be expected to do to learn it.

Teachers should inform students of the lesson's purpose by posting one or two short, student-friendly statements or questions (e.g., "What games did the settlers play in 1620, and what games do we play today? How are they the same and different?"). These statements are intended to focus student attention on the content to be learned and its connection to the overarching unit objective.

Teachers should also provide a list of the key activities that students will do in class that will require them to listen, speak, read, and write. We suggest that these activities be described using action verbs (e.g., "Identify four games that settlers played"). Suggested action verbs for describing listening, speaking, reading, and writing activities may be found in Appendix 1. Activities should be listed in the sequence in which they are to be performed. No more than four key activities should be included.

Ms. Morales began posting her daily content and language objectives on the board before each lesson and read them aloud to her students. She also referred to them throughout the lesson. Presenting objectives visually is essential when teaching ELLs.

Teaching Vocabulary Explicitly

Every subject has its own language and includes thousands of words that are specific to it (Marzano & Pickering, 2005). In science class, for example, an experiment involves making and testing a hypothesis, observing the test, and collecting and analyzing data. Students must learn the academic vocabulary that is required for each subject. Teachers must explicitly teach and display vocabulary in class, as well as identify key terms, words, idioms, and phrases (Debbie calls them TWIPs) that are needed to learn and engage with the subject matter.

Implementing Participation Structures That Support High-Level Active Learning

Learning occurs best when teachers provide students with frequent opportunities to participate and interact with others (Cohen, 1994; Echevarria et al., 2008; Faltis & Hudelson, 1998). Paired work and group work are the most effective methods for engaging students in using language, as they allow students to practice using new content vocabulary in the safety of a small learning community.

In this chapter, we described an effective learning environment for ELLs. We discussed the ability to do ordinary classroom work and outlined the states of English language acquisition. In the next chapter, we will investigate how teachers can plan lessons that will optimally engage ELLs.


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