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October 1, 2009

Making Challenges Meaningful for English Language Learners

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English language learners (ELLs) face a variety of linguistic challenges during the school day, from bantering with their peers on the playground to understanding the academic language teachers use in the classroom. In the new ASCD book The Language-Rich Classroom, authors Pérsida and William "Bill" Himmele give teachers a range of effective, research-based strategies to help ELLs develop their language skills, feel confident in using new vocabulary, and communicate successfully in school.
Q: What do you see as the most crucial issues for schools serving the needs of a wide range of ELLs?
Pérsida: Probably the most crucial issues are those of a shared vision and a shared responsibility in schools. Supporting ELLs has to be a schoolwide effort. If we're hoping that the needs of ELLs and those of disadvantaged youth can be taken care of solely by specialists who see students for only a small fraction of the day, we will never make a dent in the achievement gap that currently exists and continues to widen the longer ELLs are in school.
Bill: Improving teaching and learning for ELLs is everybody's responsibility. Once we approach it with a shared vision, with something like the CHATS framework [see definition below], it allows teachers and administrators to speak the same language and not only plan more effectively, but also evaluate teaching and student learning more effectively. Plus, the CHATS framework supports all learners, not just ELLs. It supports gifted students, students with special needs, ELLs, your disengaged students, your students used to talking—everybody.
Q: In The Language-Rich Classroom, your acronym CHATS outlines five strategic focal points for teachers to use with ELLs. Can you explain how these elements combine to help students gain a deeper understanding of learning?
Bill: The CHATS framework is based on research on effective strategies for teaching ELLs. We have a chapter on each component with specific strategies for using them. As mentioned before, CHATS helps all students by increasing engagement and deeper thinking.
Pérsida: The C stands for content reading strategies. This chapter is divided into teacher-mediated comprehension of text and student-mediated comprehension of text.
The book showcases strategies that can really enhance content learning for students. These same strategies also support ELL students in their acquisition of academic language, which is so necessary for school success but is the very thing that had often tripped them up in their past reading of texts. We want the texts to be a useful tool in the acquisition of academic vocabulary, but teachers have to first provide students with access to comprehension of the text. They can do that by using the right strategies.
Bill: The H stands for access to higher-order thinking skills. Too many times in today's classroom, ELLs do not get the same opportunities to develop those higher-order thinking skills as do the native English speakers. Teachers might have had initial experiences where the ELL or struggling student did not answer those comprehension questions well, and the student became anxious and unable to participate. ELLs need the same opportunities to develop higher-order thinking skills as native English speakers. The CHATS framework gives teachers a number of ways to ensure that all students in their classroom have meaningful access to such opportunities.
The A stands for assessments. In the book, we have detailed two methods (a K–12 second-language acquisition rubric and a first-language assessment tool) so that classroom teachers—even if they don't speak a word of a second language or have never taken a class in working with ELLs—can make insightful determinations regarding students' proficiency in both their first and second languages. This information will assist the teachers in ensuring that they are consistently meeting students' needs.
The T stands for total participation techniques (TPTs). The chapter explains how teachers can ensure that all their students are participating during a lesson. Every teacher should be able to determine which students are comprehending the lesson and are engaged. If teachers use TPTs, not only will each student's participation increase, but there also tends to be far fewer classroom disruptions because students engage more effectively with content and learning.
The S stands for scaffolding strategies. Scaffolding makes use of visuals and other strategies to support interest, engagement, and understanding.
Q: What is "student-mediated comprehension"?
Bill: One of the most important things that students need to know is that intelligence is malleable; students can actually control their own learning. Research demonstrates that the extent to which students understand this can have dramatic effects on motivation and learning. So student-mediated comprehension refers to the strategies that teachers use and the questions they ask that help students come to a deeper understanding of the power of their own ability to control their learning.
Q: You have a great discussion about a kind of misplaced empathy that teachers may have for their ELLs, especially when it comes to involving them in class discussions. Empathy's a good thing, right? When can it be problematic?
Pérsida: Empathy is a great thing! But instead of leading teachers to avoid discomfort by not exposing students to the rigor, challenges, and opportunities to learn at deeper levels, empathy ought to lead teachers to properly plan for scaffolds that will provide students with access to complex and meaningful learning. Research, which we describe in the book, demonstrates that the opposite is happening. ELLs aren't given the same rich opportunities to answer questions aimed at higher-order thinking as their English-only peers are given. When you dig deeper, you find that it is often due to this misplaced empathy.
Q: You write that using TPTs ought to be a mind-set for teachers. Total participation sounds kind of daunting! Can you give some examples and explain why it's so crucial for ELLs?
Pérsida: TPTs are the show-me piece that ought to be present in every lesson, whether the teacher is working with ELLs or not. They are especially important for ELLs, because it is so difficult to actively listen in one's weaker language. TPTs provide teachers with evidence that students are interacting with the content and with each other—and evidence of their understanding. TPTs can be as simple as a quickwrite or a pair-share. In the T chapter, we provide other examples, some of which require a little more planning on the teacher's part.
Q: Your book concisely lays out numerous classroom strategies to use with ELLs. Ideally, how do you envision teachers using your book?
Bill: We've had quite a bit of experience conducting workshops for teachers and administrators. While we can, and have, laid out the research and theories behind what works with ELLs, teachers always want the how-to. By including the how-tos, we hope that teachers can use the book as a resource to aid them in their planning. The book concludes with a planning template that has helpful prompts for coplanning and coteaching.

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