I was recently invited to observe a teacher working with his sixth-grade English Language Development class. All students in this class have been in U.S. schools for at least three years, and many have attended school in the U.S. since preschool or kindergarten, making them Long-Term ELs. This sixth-grade teacher has the same students for two additional periods during the day (ELA and History). In their ELA class, the students were completing a unit on bullying. As part of the unit, students had to write persuasive essays stating and supporting their opinions on whether or not parents should be held responsible when their child bullies someone at school.
I happened to visit the ELD class on a day when the teacher introduced an article about a girl who was bullied at school because of her skin condition. The article shared the point of view of the girl and her family, and it described in detail what happened to her. After reading and discussing the article, the teacher asked the class whether the parents of the students who bullied this girl should be held accountable for their children’s behavior. Students were instructed to take a stance based on what they had written in their essays, and the teacher divided the class into two groups—those who saw the parents as accountable and those who did not. The two groups moved to opposite sides of the classroom.
Up until this point, the lesson was going very well; the students had no difficulty understanding the article or the issues. However, issues arose when the teacher began calling on students from both groups to defend their opinions about parental responsibility. The students’ justifications were weak at best, sometimes sounding as if they were supporting the opposite point of view. Remember—these students had just finished a unit of study and composed an essay about this very issue, but they still struggled with giving quality impromptu spoken responses.
After class, the teacher asked me for feedback. We started by discussing his expectations. Not surprisingly, he shared his disappointment: he expected students to be able to support their opinions after all the work they had done prior to this lesson. We talked about how it was clear that students had a good grasp of the content but that the content wasn’t the problem: it was a matter of the students’ language abilities presenting a barrier. When students were asked to articulate an unplanned response, they had ideas, but they were not communicating those ideas clearly. This speaking opportunity was not a part of the original lesson that accompanied the article—the teacher added it because he recognizes that his ELs need speaking practice. His assessment of this need is consistent with ELSF ELA Guideline 1, which encourages “interactive oral language development activities (including speaking and listening) [that] build opportunities for students to engage with grade-level content and to develop disciplinary practices and knowledge of the subject matter.” But he was eager for suggestions on how to make the activity more successful.
I shared the following ideas that could have yielded better responses from the students:
Although the teacher had the students grouped effectively for discussion as outlined in Specification 3a (grouping of students for productive discussions about complex texts), he missed the opportunity to provide the benefits of discussing their reasons with classmates in their particular groups, which would have allowed them to “hear and imitate more fluent others as they build their abilities to develop and challenge ideas using evidence-based reasoning.” (Specification 1a)
The students were trying to mentally juggle their ideas and the “ways that language choices relate to the purpose…and the intended audience (meta-awareness). This includes explicitly pointing to the linguistic and rhetorical patterns.…” (Specification 9a). In this case, the students’ ideas needed to fit into the linguistic patterns of argumentation. It was an overwhelming mental task that could have been scaffolded with visuals for those who needed them to produce better oral responses. Specification 13a identifies this need for “scaffolds designed to foster student independence by providing support when needed and removed when the student can access disciplinary concepts or perform disciplinary skills independently.” Offering a place to jot down notes or ideas provides students with a visual reference for support when they are called on to speak.
Should the parents of the students who bullied this girl be held responsible? is a big, broad question if you expect justification for the simple yes/no answer. (Remember, these were sixth graders!) Giving more precise questions would allow the students to formulate questions into answers (a skill they already have), guide their thinking to be more specific, encourage the use of academic language in their replies, and allow the teacher to plan some appropriate sentence frames for the students’ responses if necessary. For example, the teacher could have asked, Why should parents be held responsible/not be responsible? What would be an appropriate consequence for parents/students? Who should make the decision about the consequences? If sentence frames are too simplistic for some students, then the teacher could require the student to use certain academic words or phrases as an alternative (i.e., In my opinion, One reason why, Responsible/Responsibility, Accountable/Accountability, Consequence) as they respond.
For students who are comfortable using English socially and contributing meaningfully to classroom discussion, it is imperative that instructional activities build and support their ability to convey those ideas using academic language. Once students can orally produce the appropriate language for an academic task, they will use that language in their writing more readily and recognize it in their reading across content areas.