Research and Validity


Inquiry Process and Essential Questions

Essential questions provide a thematic focus and context within which students can better understand instruction in a second language. When students encounter the essential question “How do you keep your body healthy?” they know that each central idea in the book will relate to the body. When students have the big picture, they can make better sense of a chapter in which they are introduced to different body systems or a chapter in which they read about making healthy choices.

Inquiry and essential questions give students a purpose for reading and encourage them to make personal connections with the text. Teachers can look to ELLs to respond to a question such as “How does weather change your world?” ELLs can make important contributions by giving examples from countries where they or their parents have lived. For example, students who have grown up in Canada can share how cold weather or ice and snow affect how Canadians live and work, while students from a tropical country can share their experiences of life in a hot, humid tropical climate. Students can draw on their own background experiences as they learn about habitats and what plants and animals need to survive. The variety of experiences and examples coming from a class with students from different backgrounds expands the curriculum and enriches the learning experience for all students.

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English Language Learners

Even though we refer to all students learning English as an additional language as ELLs, there are significant differences in the backgrounds and educational needs of these learners. When teachers recognize these differences, they can better adjust their teaching to assist these learners and meet their needs.

Some ELLs are newly arrived students with formal schooling. These students come with strong background knowledge in different subject areas even though they may have been taught using a different approach from that used in Canadian schools. They have received a comparable education to their new classmates and they can read and write at grade level in their first languages. These students can understand many basic concepts in different subject areas and can catch up to their native English-speaking peers fairly quickly.

Some ELLs are newly arrived students with limited or interrupted formal schooling. These students may have suffered difficult economic hardships or they may come from countries where their schooling was interrupted by war. Often, they have lived through traumatic experiences. Their families may be struggling to adjust to their new homes, and they may be going through culture shock. In addition, students with limited schooling may have experienced several interruptions in their schooling, and, in some cases, they may continue to experience interruptions as their families are forced to move in order to find jobs. These students may lack the background knowledge of their native English-speaking peers. They may have limited literacy in their first language, and they may be well below grade level in reading and literacy. As a result, they may require special attention and a great deal of scaffolding in instruction in order to succeed in school.

Other ELLs are sometimes referred to as long-term ELLs because they remain behind their peers in academic English over a considerable period of time. These students may have been born in Canada or arrived at an early age. They usually develop fluent conversational proficiency in English, but each year they fall further behind their native English-speaking peers in academic English. These students pose a challenge because, although they speak and understand the English of the playground, they lack the type of English needed for school success.

When teachers are aware of the diversity and different learning needs of the ELLs in their classrooms they can choose effective teaching strategies to meet learners’ needs. For example, for ELLs with adequate formal schooling, teachers can draw on the background knowledge and first language literacy of these learners. On the other hand, teachers need to build background and provide much more scaffolding for ELLs with limited or interrupted schooling. Teachers also need to consider differentiated instructional strategies for students with varying levels of language proficiency. For example, after doing the activities, when students analyze and reflect, teachers could ask a beginner group of ELLs to draw and label, an intermediate group to write short descriptions, and a more advanced group to produce oral or written reports.

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Teaching Academic Vocabulary

In general, we define academic vocabulary as words and phrases that occur frequently in academic texts. Most of these words are derived from Latin and Greek roots. It is useful to further divide academic vocabulary into two types of words: content-specific vocabulary and general academic words. Content-specific vocabulary includes technical words related to a specific academic discipline while general academic vocabulary consists of words that cut across disciplines and appear in different content areas. Examples of content-specific words are “molecules” in science and “community” in social studies. General academic vocabulary includes words like “context,” “therefore,” “hypothesis,” and “analyze.” These words occur in different content areas.

General academic vocabulary is best acquired through classroom discussions and extensive reading. On the other hand, content-specific vocabulary can be taught directly. There are several strategies teachers can use. These include using different types of graphic organizers, visual clues, word-learning strategies, dictionaries, and cognates.

One strategy for learning individual words is filling in a graphic organizer. Using a Frayer chart, teachers can ask students to fill in four boxes with the definition, characteristics, examples, and non-examples of the word being studied. This simple graphic organizer scaffolds instruction for ELLs and striving readers. These students are supported in their learning by working in small groups to discuss the meanings of words and clarify their understandings with their peers. Another graphic organizer that shows the relationship of words to a central concept is a Venn diagram. This graphic organizer allows students to see the ways in which related concepts are different and the ways in which they are alike.

Marzano and Pickering (2005) point out the importance of having ELLs use a visual clue for key vocabulary they want to learn. However, for some vocabulary items, it may be difficult to create a pictorial or graphic representation. Marzano and Pickering suggest that teachers demonstrate different ways to visually represent words. Teachers can draw the actual thing in some cases. For example, a teacher could draw a rocket leaving Earth or homes beside a river. Drawings can also dramatize words using cartoon bubbles and people’s faces. In some cases, the meaning of a word is best represented by a graphic. Students or teachers may be able to find clip art or a picture from the Internet to represent the meaning of a word.

Word Learning Strategies
According to Graves (2006), in addition to teaching words directly, it is also important to teach word-learning strategies. These strategies include using context clues, word parts, dictionaries, and cognates. Teachers can demonstrate these strategies, and then students can use them as they read independently.

  • Context Clues: All readers use context clues as they read. However, skilled readers make better use of context clues than striving readers. ELLs who read well in their first language can transfer their skills, including using context clues, to a second language. Graves describes a four-step method he developed for helping students use context clues. First, the teacher introduces the idea of using context to infer word meanings. Then the teacher teaches the four steps of the method, comparing each step to using a TV recording device. The teacher puts up a poster with these steps: 1) Play and Question, 2) Slow Advance, 3) Stop and Reverse, and 4) Play and Question. In Step 1, students learn to read carefully. As they read, they ask themselves, “Does this make sense?” Step 2 occurs when students come across a word they are unsure of. They slow down and reread the sentence, looking for meaning clues. If this doesn’t work, students go on to Step 3. They go back to the previous sentence and reread both sentences to find clues to meaning. In Step 4, students guess what the word might mean. They substitute their guess to see if it makes sense. If it does, they keep reading. If not, they go back, reread, and try another guess. This process provides a structured way to help ELLs understand how to use context to infer meanings of unknown words.
  • Word Parts: Another word-learning strategy is to use word parts to determine a word’s meaning. Many academic words have prefixes and suffixes as well as a recognizable English base. For example, in the word sociology, the suffix -logy means “the study of.” If students relate the root of the word to other words, like social, they can figure out the word’s meaning. Suffixes often indicate the part of speech of a word. For example, -tion signals that the word is a noun. Prefixes often provide even more useful clues for understanding complex words. White, Sowell, and Yanagihara (1989) analyzed words taken from a word-frequency list in school texts for grades 3 – 9. They found that four prefixes accounted for 58 percent of the prefixes in their data: un, re, in, and dis. They recommend teaching these four prefixes first. Teachers can begin by listing these four prefixes on a chart and asking students to find words with the prefixes as they read and add them to the chart. Then using these lists of words, the students and teacher can discuss the meaning of each prefix. Students might notice that “in” means “not” in a word like “ineligible,” but means “in” for a word like “inside.” The teacher can suggest that students try each meaning to see which one makes sense for a particular word and context.
  • Dictionaries: ELLs also benefit when the teacher provides instruction on how to use different kinds of dictionaries. Students need to learn how to find a word and then to find a definition that fits the context. The teacher can provide students with practice in doing this. A good way to help students use dictionaries effectively is for the teacher to think aloud as he or she looks up a word so that students can “hear” the teacher’s thinking during the process. For example, the teacher could read a page from a book aloud. When the teacher reaches a word that may cause students difficulty, such as “The International Space Station ‘orbits’ the Earth every 90 minutes,” he or she might stop and think aloud, “I can’t remember what ‘orbits’ means, so I think I will look it up in the dictionary.” The teacher then demonstrates how to find “orbits” and asks students to follow along using a classroom dictionary. Once the teacher and the students find the word, they can decide together which meaning best fits the context of the original passage.

ELLs may also benefit from using picture dictionaries, bilingual dictionaries, and electronic translators. It is helpful if the teacher spends time working with the students to identify good online dictionaries that they can access. Although dictionaries are very helpful, some ELLs rely on them too heavily and look up too many words. Over-reliance on a dictionary may slow the reading rate and make it impossible for ELLs to finish their assignments. In addition, by the time they look up a word, they may forget the main idea of the passage they were reading. For these reasons, it is good for the teacher to monitor dictionary usage and caution ELLs against translating every word they don’t know. Too much reliance on a dictionary may keep a student from using context clues, word parts, or picture clues.

  • Cognates: An additional word-learning strategy that ELLs can use to build their academic vocabulary is to draw on cognates. While not all languages are related to English, cognates are words in different languages that come from the same root, literally “born together.” Teachers can help students access cognates by engaging them in activities that increase their awareness of similar words across languages. Williams (2001) lists several strategies teachers can use. For example, a teacher might begin by putting book pages on an overhead transparency and having students identify cognates as a group. Students can also work in pairs to identify cognates. The teacher can put a chart up in the classroom and ask students to list cognates they identify on the chart. This activity to extend throughout a unit of study, with students listing as many cognates as possible that are related to the topic. They may find both general academic and content-specific words. For example, a Spanish-speaking student could make the link from análsis to analysis (general) or from society to sociedad (content-specific). Students can also develop a cognate dictionary using words on the cognate chart.

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Teaching Academic Language

Academic language extends beyond the word level. Sentences in academic writing are different from those in everyday writing and speech. Generally, sentences in academic writing and speech are longer and more complex. Complex sentences carry more information by embedding ideas into dependent clauses. Yet not all ideas in a complex sentence are equally important. The challenge for an ELL is deciding how the ideas are related and which idea, or ideas, is the most important.

The best way for students to develop the ability to comprehend complex sentences is through engagement with academic texts. If students read extensively in different content areas, they learn academic vocabulary and more complex sentence structures. In addition to extensive reading, ELLs benefit from some specific instruction on the sentence structure of academic texts. One good activity is a sentence combining exercise. Students take a series of simple sentences and combine them into a more complex sentence. The writing in Big Idea is accessible to ELLs and striving readers. Short sentences, simple sentence structures, and attractive, relevant visuals offer built-in support to motivate reading and learning. Teachers can use sentences from the books to show students how they can combine them in different ways. As students learn to combine simple sentences in different ways to produce writing, they learn to develop a repertoire of words and phrases to connect clauses. One way to help students move past this early stage is to build their vocabulary by introducing more precise words to show the relationships between ideas. These transition words are often referred to as signal words because they signal to the reader how two ideas are related. Signal words may connect ideas within a sentence or across sentences. Fisher, Rothenberg, and Frey (2007) explain how teachers can help their students develop vocabulary to link ideas. The teachers they worked with examined student writing and found that their ELLs often left out transitions. The teachers found a word list that grouped signal words by function. The functions included “addition,” “example,” “comparison,” “contrast,” “cause and effect,” “concession,” and “conclusion.” For each function, several words were listed. For “addition,” the list included words like “also,” “and,” “besides,” “furthermore,” “in addition,” “indeed,” “in fact,” “moreover,” “so,” and “too.” The teachers posted this list in their rooms on a word wall.

They took time on a regular basis to review the words with their students. As they read aloud to their students, they made a point of emphasizing words in the texts that were on the list. According to Fisher and his colleagues, “Over time, students started to notice the terms in their reading and began incorporating them into their writing.”

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Making Content Comprehensible

Krashen (2003) cites research that the key to acquiring a second language is to receive what he calls comprehensible input. When ELLs receive messages in English that they understand, they develop proficiency in English. If they are in a setting where the new language is just incomprehensible noise, then they do not develop proficiency in the language no matter how much they are exposed to it.

Consequently, the teacher’s job is to make academic content comprehensible. When teachers teach both language and content, organize around themes, and include specific techniques to teach academic vocabulary and sentence structure, their students who are ELLs will gradually learn both the academic content and the academic language they need for school success. The following are specific strategies teachers can use with ELLs.

Strategies for Teaching ELLs

  • Use visuals and realia (real things). Try always to move from the concrete to the abstract. For students who are not proficient in English, it is crucial that they see the ideas being presented rather than just hearing them. There are many kinds of visuals that teachers can use. These include graphic organizers such as charts, graphs, and tables; visual images, such as pictures from the Internet, clip art, videos; or models that students can see and manipulate. All of these nonlinguistic supports help make the language more comprehensible and scaffold instruction.
  • Use gestures and body language. We get a great deal of information from the speaker’s tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures. Teachers can point to specific things that students should attend to. They can raise or lower their voice to indicate what is important. They can use gestures that reinforce the ideas being presented.
  • Speak clearly and pause often, but don’t slow speech down unnaturally. It is not necessary to raise the volume of delivery, but it is important for all students to hear what teachers are saying. When teachers pause between sentences or key ideas, it gives an ELL time to process the language and catch up.
  • Say the same thing in different ways (paraphrase). It is not necessary for teachers to repeat exactly the same things or to have students repeat after them, but it is very helpful if teachers can find different ways to say the same things. Good teachers know the importance of coming back to key ideas several times during a lesson so that students have several chances to pick up key concepts and to hear important vocabulary in slightly different contexts.
  • Write down key words and ideas. Writing things down slows down the language. Teachers can also underline or bold key terms.
  • Use media, PowerPoint, overheads, and charts whenever possible. It is important to limit the words on a PowerPoint slide and overheads and to go through them slowly. If too much information is presented in a short time, ELLs may not be able to absorb it all.
  • Make frequent comprehension checks. ELLs often try to become invisible. They don’t want to show teachers or classmates that they are confused or lost during a lesson. For that reason, it is important for teachers to check comprehension. This can be done in different ways. Generally, as teachers present material, they can observe the students to see if they are following along. In addition, teachers can ask questions. However, ELLs need more time to answer than native speakers of English. Techniques such as quick writes or think, pair, share can provide the time ELLs need to formulate an answer. For a quick write, the teacher asks a question and then asks the students to jot down their answer in 1-2 minutes. As the students write, teachers can circulate around the class and clarify individual questions. Then they can ask two or three students to read their answers. Think, pair, share is one of several collaborative learning techniques that give ELLs time to plan how they will answer a question. After asking a question, teachers can ask students to think quietly about their answer for a minute or so. Then students work with a partner to share their answers with each other, sometimes in their first languages. After this, teachers can ask several pairs to share their answers with the class. This and other collaborative activities should be part of the routine in classes with ELLs because it gives them time and support to process key ideas.
  • Above all, keep oral presentations and reading assignments short. Collaborative activities are more effective than lectures or assigned readings. Hands-on activities and collaborative work benefit all students, and especially ELLs. It is difficult for an ELL to listen to a long lecture without visual supports or to read long texts without scaffolding. The Big Idea books are especially designed for ELLs. As teachers use these books, they should incorporate as many collaborative and hands-on activities as possible to keep the ELLs in their class engaged.

Using First Language to Support Learning
ELLs come to school with a first language and background knowledge. It is important to consider the role of students’ first languages, cultures, and past experiences and how to best draw on the strengths these students bring to the classroom.
The following are strategies that teachers have used to support their students’ first languages and draw on their students’ experiences. These strategies can work in classes with ELLs from one or several language backgrounds, and they can work whether or not teachers speak the students’ first languages.

  • Ensure that environmental print in the classroom reflects students’ first languages. Create multilingual word walls with key vocabulary in English and students’ first languages. Students are always interested in seeing the words for an idea or concept in the different languages of their classmates. Having students provide the word for a concept in their first language builds their self-esteem and activates their background knowledge. In addition, students will begin to identify cognates.
  • Supply school and classroom libraries with books, magazines, and other resources in languages other than English. These resources should support the content being taught.
  • Have ELLs read, write, and discuss content with tutors, parents, or other students who speak their first language. The important thing is for students to develop the academic content. Once they achieve a sufficient level of English proficiency, the knowledge they build in their first languages will transfer to the English language they are learning.
  • On a regular basis during a unit of study, have students work in same first language pairs. Usually, one student is stronger in English, but even when both students struggle with English, they can help each other make sense of the English content by using their first language.
  • Encourage ELLs to write reports and share their own experiences in languages other than English or produce bilingual reports in English and their first languages.
  • Allow ELLs to respond in their first languages to demonstrate comprehension of content taught in English. Even if teachers can’t read what students write in their first languages, they can see that the students are able to respond. Teachers will also get a general idea of the students’ writing ability. When students are allowed to respond in their first languages to a lesson taught in English, the students stay more engaged in the lesson.
  • Use DVDs or videotapes in other languages produced professionally or by the students to support academic learning and raise self-esteem.
  • Use the preview, view, review strategy to draw on students’ first languages. If a teacher, a bilingual peer, a bilingual tutor, a bilingual aide, or a parent can simply tell ELLs in their first languages what the upcoming lesson is about, the students are provided with a preview. During the view, the teacher conducts the lesson in English using strategies and materials to make the input comprehensible. With the help of the preview, the students can follow the English better and acquire both English and academic content. Finally, it is good to have a short time of review during which students use their first language. For example, students who speak the same first language could meet in groups to review the main ideas of the lesson using their first language and then report back in English. The preview, view, review strategy provides a structured way to alternate instruction in English and first-languages. This technique motivates students to stay engaged in the lesson.

Listening to a second language is more tiring than listening to one’s first language. ELLs may appear to have shorter attention spans than native English speakers, but in reality those students may be suffering from the fatigue of trying to make sense out of a new language. Sometimes teachers complain that their ELLs misbehave and don’t pay attention, or they think their ELLs may have learning problems because they do not seem to be learning. The first language preview, view, review can help ELLs understand and stay engaged.
All of the above strategies draw on students’ first languages and backgrounds and can be used even if teachers do not speak the first languages of all of their students. When teachers use these strategies, the ELLs in their classes become more engaged and experience greater academic success.

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All students need to develop academic language to succeed in school. This is an especially difficult task for ELLs, and it takes time for them to develop academic language to the same level as their native English-speaking classmates. However, with well-designed materials and teacher support, students can succeed. When teachers differentiate instruction for the different types of ELLs, teach language through content, organize around big questions, focus on teaching academic language, use a variety of strategies for making academic content comprehensible, and draw on ELLs’ first languages and cultures, they provide their students with many opportunities to develop both academic knowledge and the language they need to read, discuss, and write about the academic subjects.

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Cummins, J. (2011). Literacy engagement—Fueling academic growth for English language learners. The Reading Teacher, 65(2), 142-146.
Fisher, D., Rothenberg, C., & Frey, N. (2007). Language learners in the English classroom. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Goldenberg, C. (2008). Teaching English language learners: What the research does—and does not—say. American Educator, 8-44.
Gottlieb, M. (2006). Assessing English language learners: Bridges from language proficiency to academic achievement. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Graves, M. (2006). The vocabulary book: Learning and instruction. New York: Teachers College Press.
Krashen, S. (2003). Explorations in language acquisition and use. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Marzano, R. & Pickering, D. (2005). Building academic vocabulary: Teacher’s manual. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Rodríguez, T.A. (2001). From the known to the unknown: Using cognates to teach English to Spanish-speaking literates. The Reading Teacher, 54(8), 744-746.
Whitaker, S. (2008). Word play: Building vocabulary across texts and disciplines grades 6-12. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
White, T., Sowell, J., & Yanagihara, A. (1989). Teaching elementary students to use word-part clues. The Reading Teacher, 42(4), 302-308.
Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2000). Understanding by design. New York: Prentice Hall.
Williams, J. (2001). Classroom conversations: Opportunities to learn for ESL students in mainstream classrooms. The Reading Teacher, 54(8), 750-757.

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