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February 2016 | Volume 73 | Number 5
Helping ELLs Excel
According to the Migration Policy Institute, 10 percent of students in the United States are English language
learners. Although strategies that are good for any students are generally good for ELLs, too, certain practices
that are especially helpful for this population. Articles in this issue present diverse perspectives and
strategies for helping English language learners meet high academic standards.
Encouraging students to talk together more may be the last thing you think you should do in your classroom.
But more talking in English—especially about meaningful matters or academic ideas—may be what your
English language learning students need most to make real progress in their academic reading and writing.
As Wayne Wright explains in his article "Let Them Talk!," the
National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth has concluded that although many ELLs learn
word-level skills in literacy (such as decoding) well, they lag in "text-level skills" like reading
comprehension and writing. Quoting from the panel's report, Wright notes,
Language minority students rarely approach the same levels of proficiency in text-level skills
achieved by native English speakers. The research suggests that the reason for the disparity … is oral
If the panel's conclusion is correct, many ELLs may appear to be good readers,
able to get through a grade-level book or read aloud from it smoothly, but in reality be getting little out of
what they read. They may be held back in terms of writing something on texts they're
Wright notes that getting ELLs talking with one another about their reading and ideas is the cure for
"barking at print"—decoding but not really reading. Providing open-ended but short questions
followed by wait time will get more students, even those of lower English ability, talking.
Jane Hill ("Engaging Your Beginners,") recommends using targeted
questions as a way to bring out the voices of more English language learners, even beginning ones. The key is to
match the language of the questions—and the verbal demands of the response requested—to the
student's level of language acquisition. At the same time, the thinking asked for by the question should,
at least sometimes, be at high levels on Bloom's taxonomy for any student you
This "tiered questioning" requires pre-planning and differentiating. Read over the extended example
and useful figure on pp. 21–22. Notice how the hypothetical teacher asks questions in different ways for
students at varied stages of Krashen and Terrell's language acquisition progression—with all
questions connected to the same science content.
Bryan Goodwin's "Research Says" column in this issue notes
that ELLs' apparent fluency in social English can "mask a lack of academic command of their second
language—that is the ability to engage with complex classroom content." Building vocabulary is a key
to helping ELLs master complex content, Goodwin asserts, and talking together should be part of vocabulary
Building academic vocabulary requires not just having students memorize word lists, but also giving them
opportunities to practice structured classroom dialogue and to think about and clarify word meanings.
Discuss how you do vocabulary instruction. Do your students speak together—or do any talking—as
they learn vocabulary? How might you bring "structured dialogue" and other oral activities into your
Jane Hill lists this key "don't" for teaching ELLs: "Don't
assess language when you want to assess content knowledge."
Kristina Robertson ("A Lesson in Taking Flight,") recommends that
teachers focus formative assessment on the specific language needs of ELLs. This involves assessing student work
and giving feedback that addresses a student's language performance, not content
knowledge. She mentions the WIDA Performance Definitions tool, two rubrics outlining what students at different
stages of learning English should be able to do in terms of using language in their speaking and writing and in
their receptive language. Review Robertson's description of this tool, and the rubrics. Could this tool help you assess the
language skills in students' work and give them helpful feedback?
Many articles mention how important it is to modify "teacher talk" so we can provide English
language learners more "comprehensible input" to build their understanding and their vocabulary. Look
over the suggestions Wayne Wright makes for adjusting the way we talk with students who are learning
English. Which of these strategies might you try? How can you remind yourself to practice it?
Use these ASCD resources to learn more about teaching English language learners to high standards.
Copyright © 2016 by ASCD
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