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October 1, 2014
Vol. 56
No. 10

Setting ELLs Up for Success

Never underestimate the capabilities of English language learners (ELLs). By providing a balance of scaffolding, support, and access, teachers can help ELLs thrive in the mainstream classroom.

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Head roughly 30 miles northwest of Chicago and you'll find a K–8 school district that shares a demographic reality with so many other districts across the United States. In Community Consolidated School District 15 (CCSD15), one in every five students is an English language learner. "We have 77 languages spoken in our schools," says Chery Wolfel, the district's director of Second Language Programs. Spanish is the predominant language, with Polish, Japanese, Mandarin, and Urdu rounding out the top five. "We have families and newcomers from all over the world. It's a wonderful reflection of our global society."
As much as she embraces this diversity, Wolfel acknowledges that some teachers in her district find it challenging to address the learning needs of ELLs, and that those students have the doubly demanding task of learning English while mastering academic content. She believes, however, that when mainstream and language teachers collaborate and shoulder instructional demands together, all students have opportunities to succeed.

Good Instruction and High Expectations

English language learners "belong to all of us," agrees Virginia Rojas, an ASCD faculty member who conducts workshops in effective ELL instruction and assessment. When she meets with K–12 educators, she reiterates that mainstream classroom teachers can't put learning on hold and "wait for the ESL specialist" to work with second language learners. Instead, Rojas says, these teachers must learn how to extend the good practices they already use to give ELLs "pathways to understanding." Rojas's approach, as outlined in her workshop materials, rings familiar to those well-versed in standards-based education models:
  • Identify what we want students to know and do (expectations).
  • Identify how we can determine what students know and can do (assessment).
  • Identify the learning experiences that can help students gain this knowledge (instruction).
For Rojas, having the same high expectations for ELLs and their English-speaking peers is an important first step. For too long, teachers have treated a communications issue as a cognitive one. "Just because you don't speak English doesn't mean you can't think," she asserts. Rather than modifying curricular materials from the outset—such as offering ELLs easier books to read—teachers should first scaffold the lesson by meeting all students at their level of English language expertise and then providing activities to help the students complete the learning task. By accommodating students first, modifications may not be necessary.
Think of 9th graders reading Shakespeare, says Rojas. If a student can read Romeo and Juliet in his own language, "he has the ability to read it in any language." In this case, the teacher could let the student "shadow read" (read the play in his native language) and then read the play to him in English. The student could then watch a movie based on the book. This combination of learning activities helps the student experience the English language through a story he already knows, Rojas explains. What's more, the student is reading the same grade-level texts as his English-speaking peers.

Wanting to Engage

Such a high-quality learning experience demands an equally meaningful assessment, Jeff Zwiers states. A senior researcher at Stanford University's Center to Support Excellence in Teaching, Zwiers believes that what a student knows is often revealed through "academic interactions," a term he uses to describe what happens when students are asked to talk with one another about content.
Discussing a key concept can teach students how to create, clarify, fortify, and negotiate what they think about the concept, Zwiers explains. In these "constructive conversations," students learn to prompt their peers, asking them to support and clarify the ideas they've shared. Students then respond, in kind, when they are prompted.
Students also learn the delicate dance of negotiation, which "is when the engagement happens," according to Zwiers. When students negotiate, "they aren't just clarifying an idea—they are comparing one idea with another. They have to look at the criteria and evaluate the pieces of evidence" provided for each idea. Students then have to make choices. In a history class, for example, instructors could ask students to determine if a primary source is valid. In math courses, students could identify two solution paths to a problem and then decide which is better. Through negotiation lessons, students develop a mind-set that allows them to objectively weigh all perspectives. What is heartening, Zwiers adds, is that students also acquire "the humility they need to be able to say, 'I'm willing to be convinced.'"
While these important conversations are taking place, teachers must become "really good observers of thinking" and guard against equating understanding with language accuracy. "A child may have imperfect language, but may be able, with assistance, to get his point across," thus demonstrating his understanding, Zwiers explains. "What we ultimately want are students who are interested enough to try to communicate. We want them to be so engaged that they don't realize that they are challenging themselves linguistically."
These are skills that all students—especially ELLs—need "but have been denied the opportunity to develop in schools," says Zwiers, because the focus for a century or more has been on reciting facts, identifying nouns and verbs in a sentence, and matching vocabulary words with their definitions.
According to Rojas, the Common Core standards support the approaches Zwiers describes. "The premise is that language development will happen with good instruction," she says. ELLs need to productively struggle; they need to receive "enough, but not too much" support.
One means of support is to provide students with language translation tools (apps or other programs) to aid in the communication process, Rojas advises. "Some teachers are afraid to use these programs. They'll say, 'Well, it's not 100 percent accurate.' To which I respond, 'It's 80 percent accurate. Isn't that better than no understanding at all?' "
When students are given ways to express their thoughts, "language isn't the focus anymore," says Rojas. "Students will want to express themselves. What we are doing is giving these students their voice. Once students have a voice, they will learn to read and write."

More than Just a Set of Skills

In Wolfel's district, Rojas's assertion has been vividly affirmed through a unique language arts class that was designed with disengaged ELLs in mind. "Three years ago, we wanted to find a way to reach junior high school boys, mostly Hispanic, who didn't like school, had been in many remedial programs, but whose fluency in English was still very low," Wolfel explains. She approached her colleagues with the idea to create a gender-based class, Reading and Identity, featuring books that might interest these students. Despite the evidence to suggest otherwise, from the beginning "we decided to just assume that these students could read more," she says.
As they dug into such books as The West: Encounters & Transformations and Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491, their teacher, a native Spanish speaker, facilitated classroom discussions using the Socratic Seminar model. The boys grappled with open-ended questions and had to find evidence from their texts to support their answers.
"When I went into the classroom, it was wonderful to see students so excited about reading, talking, and discussing their ideas," Wolfel says. The class became a safe place for these once indifferent students. They learned that they could "do school," and they learned how to respectfully consider different points of view. The class was such a success that girls in the district lobbied for their own class and parents of ELLs clamored for the opportunity to read the books as well.
"Literacy is more than just a set of skills," Wolfel states. "Literacy is socially and culturally situated." Through the carefully selected texts and the instructional approach, "students are learning about the world and how they fit in."
That sense of identity stays with the students as they move into their mainstream classes. "These students now see themselves as learners. They don't see themselves as 'I'm different.' " And teachers, Wolfel reports, no longer see them as "different" either.
Still, challenges remain. Within the Reading and Identity class, Wolfel would like to see more of the interaction that Zwiers espouses. "I would like to see more cooperative learning strategies. I would like to have students turn to their peers and discuss their ideas. I would like to give our quieter students more opportunities to engage."
Wolfel has some spadework to do within the educator community as well. When she and some colleagues presented at a conference in Illinois, some teachers "could not get beyond" the observation that students in the Reading and Identity class lacked reading skills. These teachers wanted to know, if these students were not literate, how did they read the books? Exasperated, Wolfel explained that was the point. "The students could read; they just chose not to. Literacy opened up their worlds."

Building Academic Capital

It's a fact that some students know how to "do school;" others, especially many ELLs, don't. As Stanford educator Jeff Zwiers has pointed out, many ELLs have not built up the "academic capital" they need to perform as expected in school. Teachers, therefore, must take time to explain the language of schooling, Zwiers contends.

Zwiers identifies habits that will help students learn this academic language in the Educational Leadership article, "The Third Language of Academic English." Among other things, Zwiers suggests teachers should help students:

• Look for context clues. When students see an unfamiliar word, teach them to do a scan of the surrounding words in the passage. Can they make out the meaning of the word by getting a sense of what the sentence or paragraph is about? Zwiers explains in the article how he models this process. "When I find a word I don't know, I look at the words around it. I take out the unknown word and try replacing it with words I do know that would make sense." He then asks students to try this approach with their own texts.

• Analyze thinking skills words. Although seemingly easy to comprehend, some students need to learn what to do when they are asked to compare, analyze, evaluate, synthesize, and persuade. For example, Zwiers recommends highlighting synonyms, such as likewise, similarly, on the other hand, and so on when asking students to compare items to help them build an understanding of what it means to compare.

Helping ELLs learn how to "do school" can be time-consuming and require additional planning, but it is so essential, Zwiers states. Without a solid understanding of academic language, "students miss out on a lot in the classroom."

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