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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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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