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June 1, 2012
Vol. 69
No. 9

Cross-Discipline Teaching for English Learners

Units that teach core content across all disciplines give English language learners many opportunities to build understanding and skill with academic language.

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My day begins in a classroom filled with chatter in more than one language. As kids put their homework away and find their seats, they talk about their adventures the night before. Some interact in Spanish, some in English, and one pair of friends speaks both Italian and Spanish to each other. My class is a community of multilingual learners.
I work as a biliteracy teacher in a bilingual school that serves students from K-5th grade. My coteacher and I provide instruction in both English and Spanish to 4th and 5th graders. We have two language arts blocks so that students receive literacy instruction in both their native and second languages, and we teach math, social studies, and science in English. My teammate, Jeanette Scotti, and I strive to deliver comprehensible, meaningful instruction to all students. Rather than using a pull out or "push in" model, we create an environment that supports all learners all day. It's a challenge, but one I take on every day because I believe my students have much to offer.

Toward Enduring Understandings

Imagine being expected to learn everything in a language you aren't familiar with. You might have a wealth of knowledge inside your brain, but you cannot express that knowledge. It's my job to help my Spanish-speaking students transfer their knowledge from their home language to English and feel safe and strong expressing themselves
It's also the job of teachers who work with second language learners to help them gain content knowledge and work with it in their second language. Nancy Commins (2011) puts it well:
As educators, our job is not just to teach students to read and write well, but rather to fill the conceptual reservoir as deeply as possible, whether students can read and write—or not. Reading and writing are simply a means to the end of conceptual development. (p. 96)
Bilingual and multilingual students have a plethora of tools they can use to fill this conceptual reservoir. Teachers need to create a structure in which students can use those tools to strengthen their literacy skills and blossom. One planning structure that works well for this is thematic units. Integrated thematic units focus on core content that teachers teach across disciplines throughout the day. If outer space is the core content for the unit, I don't just teach about space during my science block, I also plan lessons in language arts, social studies, and even math that focus on space while developing skills in those disciplines. Making connections throughout the day gives English language learners multiple opportunities to acquire meaningful language and content that's both academically and linguistically useful.
To plan a solid thematic unit, teachers must ensure that the theme, content, and activities have authenticity. Kucer, Silva, and Delgado-Larocco (1995), list four dimensions of thematic authenticity: linguistic, cognitive, sociocultural, and developmental. I keep all these dimensions in the back of my mind when I teach, asking myself questions like, What linguistic objectives should I set for each of my students so they participate in higher-level thinking and communicating? How can I scaffold ELLs' learning to make it cognitively challenging? What implications does my teaching have for each student, considering his or her cultural background?
Teaching a thematic unit means establishing a big picture for the unit, identifying overarching goals, and then focusing on explicitly teaching skills and concepts that contribute to a holistic view of the subject. Let's look at how my coteacher and I considered the big ideas and then broke them down in planning one particular unit. We started by looking at our science standards and developing "enduring understandings"—big ideas that will stay with students throughout their lives and skill sets they can transfer to other areas of learning.
For example, the unit we're now teaching on the solar system has as an enduring understanding that scientific inquiry involves asking scientifically oriented questions, collecting evidence, forming explanations, connecting explanations to scientific knowledge and theory, and communicating and justifying those explanations. As we teach this unit, we are posing three general "essential questions"—How do people use the process of science to investigate questions about the natural world? What constitutes evidence? How can people make scientific investigations as safe as possible?—and two questions specific to the topic of space—What components make up the solar system? And What causes cycles of day and night and the seasons?
During our one-hour science block, students engage in activities to explore these questions, such as documenting the movement of the sun and investigating how shadows can help us understand the sun's position. First, we build their background knowledge and essential vocabulary. Students make models that show how the earth rotates on its axis, causing day and night. We also chart the distance of the planets from one another down our school's long hallway.

Keeping It Comprehensible

I write each lesson's objective on the board in kid-friendly language: "We are learning where and why the sun rises and sets and how shadows help us know the time of day on Earth." During each step of a lesson or activity, I use visuals (such as a model showing the earth's position relative to the sun), label any charts or drawings with clear writing, and speak clearly and concisely.
Making all communication as clear as possible is key. As we teach for enduring understandings, we must keep in mind whether we're presenting information in a way that's comprehensible for English language learners. Keeping this concept of comprehensible input in mind helps me understand the kinds of language development and scaffolding a student needs.
During our second language literacy block, which we call language development time, we explicitly instruct students in oracy—the language skills that allow students to successfully engage in complex literacy tasks (Escamilla et al., 2009). This kind of instruction supports English learners in developing the register they need to use in academia as well as in acquiring everyday language. Presenting these language structures and grammar lessons within content lessons helps students make connections between the content they're learning and the language they're using.
Newcomers to English will need lots of vocabulary development and oracy practice around any given concept. While studying planets, we start by reviewing the names of the planets and playing a bingo game laden with images of the planets, their names, and a phrase that describes each one. We then move into practicing how to describe the planets, using simple language frames such as "Jupiter is _______," and "Saturn is __________" and then more sophisticated ones, such as "Jupiter has _______moons, whereas Saturn has ___________." Meanwhile, an advanced speaker of English, who doesn't need as much vocabulary work, may be working on how to compare and contrast different planets and how to present this information clearly, using language that indicates comparison. A lesson on how to set up Venn Diagrams or T-Charts gives students an opportunity to learn structures they can use as they work in other disciplines throughout the day.
Relating lessons in language and comparison strategies to thematic content—in this case, space—gives learners a sense of connectedness they might not have if they compared fruit, for instance. It allows them to discuss content in a safe environment and to orally rehearse key language structures before using them in a whole-group setting. Language practice time isn't just about building vocabulary. It's about building linguistic skill sets that help students function in the real world.

Why Science Is Golden

Science lends itself to positive, engaging learning for English language learners. Teachers tend to present science content in a way that promotes vocabulary and lets students explore topics through various learning modes, such as conducting experiments, interacting with one another, reading and writing about different texts, watching videos, working outdoors, and handling interesting materials. English language learners need venues in which content comes alive for them so that abstract concepts become real. Science is one of these venues.
Imagine how often we might bring science-related content into language arts. Language arts is a time to develop readers and writers who can discuss, write, ask questions, compare and contrast, synthesize, infer, and analyze texts they read. Why not practice developing these skills using content connected to science?
For example, my students are now learning how to take notes and differentiate between facts and inferences. Magazines such as National Geographic Kids or Time for Kids, offer appropriate articles about topics like space. We read a relevant article together, then use a highlighter to mark it up, noting important information, facts, and things that make us say, "Wow—I didn't know that!" We discuss how to review this marked-up article, summarize the important information, and reflect on what that information means. Students learn note taking, marking up texts, determining meaning, and inferring—all within the context of an article about geographic landforms on Mars.
I also use the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2004) model to scaffold lessons. This model gives me a framework for making content meaningful to students. Before every lesson, I preview with English learners the vocabulary, texts, language structures, and ideas that students will see during the whole-group lesson. I often need to build more background knowledge about the topic. For example, while teaching the solar system, we study the geographic features and landforms of each planet and how these compare to geographic features on Earth. This can quickly turn into a laundry list of information for a student who doesn't understand vocabulary—or even why we're exploring information about volcanoes and water forms. So before even starting these lessons, I build my English learners' knowledge about landforms on Earth by creating a "content landscape" with them. These are like huge murals that depict the content being studied visually, using drawings, photos, maps, diagrams, and more. The content landscape hangs on a wall where everyone can see it. Each image is accompanied by text, both simple words (ocean, mountain, and volcano) and more complex sentence structures ("The planet earth is made up of 70 percent water. No other planet has this much water."). Students later use these content landscapes in their science work.
Multimode teaching is important because not everyone learns in the same way. The ability to transfer thinking from one mode of expression to another promotes language development by giving students context cues to understand oral and written language that are not language based. When studying the solar system, for example, selected materials help students understand different visual and auditory clues. I set an object in the middle of the classroom to represent the sun and assign students to be different planets and "orbit the sun." This gives students a visual understanding that a book might not. "What's the difference between orbiting and rotating?" I ask. The kids move carefully around the sun while spinning with their arms outstretched. Feeling the movement of orbiting and rotating helps students transfer this concept to the abstract situation of planetary orbiting.
It's important to create alternative forms of assessments that help English learners show what they know. One student painted an exquisite mural of the different landforms on Mars. Using an iPod, he reviewed the material in his mural and explained what he'd learned about landforms on the red planet. He did this by himself, in an environment that was comfortable for him, using language he'd practiced that was at his stage of development. He might not have been able to say as much in a traditional presentation, standing in front of 25 other students. His affective filter—that self-checking mechanism we all have that we must drop to feel comfortable enough to communicate and learn—went down while he reviewed his mural and talked into a recorder.
I think of teaching content to English learners like sewing a quilt. Many intricate pieces go into creating a full picture of a unit's content, concepts, and accompanying skills. It doesn't make sense to present each part in isolation. Embedding rich language experiences within content instruction helps my students participate in meaningful ways and gives them access to the words they need to share their inner thinking—in either language.

Commins, N. (2011). Comprehension going forward. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M. E., & Short, D. (2004). Making content comprehensible for English language learners: The SIOP model (2nd Ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Escamilla, K., Ruiz-Figueroa, O., Hopewell, S., Butvilofsky, S., & Sparrow, W. (2009). Transitions to biliteracy: Literacy squared. Boulder: University of Colorado BUENO Center.

Kucer, S. B., Silva, C., & Delgado-Larocco, E. (1995). Curricular conversations, Themes in multilingual and monolingual classrooms. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

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