All students, including English Learners (ELs), arrive in our schools and classrooms with assets, such as prior experiences, knowledge, and language that should be leveraged as resources for learning. Too often ELs are viewed solely in terms of what they are lacking (e.g., English proficiency, grade-level academic skills taught in US schools, etc.) Thus, professional learning (PL) should challenge the prevalent “deficit perspective” and also model lifting the voices and perspectives of those who have traditionally been marginalized in schools.
“Schema” refers to the frameworks in our minds that help us make sense of new information. Before students engage with text or other activities on the target topic, effective schema building first activates students’ prior knowledge and then fortifies and builds on that foundation for students to acquire new understandings.
It is essential to leverage students’ diverse knowledge and experiences (schemas), to mitigate the cultural bias of classrooms and curriculum that traditionally marginalizes them. By activating students' background knowledge, information is brought to the surface where it is ready to be applied and enables more entry points and access for ELs to make connections. If schema has been sufficiently built, then students are less dependent on the words on the page and can access more linguistically challenging language and more complex concepts than their current proficiency level might otherwise allow.
Read more here about activating background knowledge and why it is important for all students and how it provides particularly crucial support for ELs.
Translanguaging refers to the flexible use of language that enables multilinguals to take full advantage of their linguistic repertoires in order to learn content, make meaning, and communicate effectively. Students are given the opportunity to decide which of their languages they will use for different purposes.
Ample empirical evidence has shown that knowledge or skills built in one language will transfer over time with strategic support to the other (Fillmore & Snow, 2000; García, Johnson, & Seltzer, 2017; Sparks et al., 2009). Opportunities to read and discuss new concepts in the home language build students’ capacity to do academically rigorous work in English as well.
Read more about translanguaging here, why it is important for all students, and how it provides a lifeline for ELs.
In order to work towards having more equitable schooling and to make classrooms reflective, responsive, and ultimately safe for all students, educators need to first get to know their students. This includes knowing their students’ families, communities, and cultures as well. Only then can teachers use students’ backgrounds and knowledge to build bridges to the grade-level content. To do this, educators must create a learning environment in which all students feel represented and valued, bringing their cultures into the classroom in a meaningful way.
Research has demonstrated that classrooms and curricula that reflect the cultures of students have a positive impact on students’ academic engagement, attendance, grade point average, graduation rates, civic engagement, cultural and racial identity, and self-definition. Studies show, for example, that when ELs read texts they can connect to—texts that are culturally relevant to them—they are more engaged and have stronger reading proficiency (Gay, 2013, 2018; Ladson‐Billings, 1994; 2004). Curriculum and instruction that enable ELs to draw upon their background knowledge, or schema, facilitate greater comprehension of the texts and tasks. In addition, knowing more about the languages students speak, their schooling backgrounds, cultural expectations of schooling, and other aspects of their background will help educators to teach explicitly the aspects of language and culture of US schooling that might be unfamiliar and make adjustments to help all students feel safe and respected.
Read more about Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy here, why it is important for all students, and how it is an absolute necessity for ELs.
Language and content are interconnected and mutually reinforcing; one cannot develop without the other. Students who learn to use language for academic purposes use it to gain access to, and communicate their understanding of, disciplinary concepts. Language should not be taught in isolation but in context. In fact, concepts are used as contexts for language development. Language modalities (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) do not develop in isolation; opportunities to practice language and communicate understanding must be integrated (e.g., students should have the opportunity to gain ideas from a listening activity, reading, or discussion before writing about it).
Second language acquisition theories must be the foundation of any high-quality curriculum design and its corresponding instructional practices for ELs. Educators must understand that language is a tool for learning, making meaning, and communicating thinking and knowledge (i.e., language as action vs. language as rules) as opposed to a system of grammar rules and words.
ELs must make meaning from the new language and content they are learning. They need support in connecting what they already know about language and how to deploy it in a second language. In doing so, students will be supported in becoming knowledgeable, flexible, resourceful, and independent thinkers. And, this will empower them to make sense of the world and to appreciate their power to reason, communicate, and create change.
Learn more about the importance of understanding second language acquisition theories and using language development principles here.
Students use language as a thinking tool to comprehend the content demands of an academic task/assignments and to communicate an understanding of it. Additionally, each discipline has critical disciplinary practices and ways of thinking that also require different types of academic language. Although arguing from evidence is a practice at the intersection of math, science, ELA, HSS, etc., the way one uses evidence in mathematics to make an argument is different from how evidence from literature is used to argue about an author’s intent. Therefore, it is necessary to identify the language demands of tasks and assignments and the specific disciplinary practices for using language. “Language demands” refer to the receptive and productive language functions students are required to use to make sense of a task, complete an assignment, or participate in an activity. Teachers can then prioritize these demands, transform them into the language objectives (that align with and reinforce the content objectives for that task), and guide curricular design/planning.
All students must learn to use language for a variety of academic purposes and with different audiences. We must teach students explicitly to do that and to amplify (not simplify) language, particularly when used for academic purposes. Developing the ability to recognize and identify these demands in texts and tasks enables teachers to plan intentionally for the teaching of language in such a way that it both reinforces content understanding and builds students’ academic language in all four modalities. Providing explicit and multiple opportunities to practice the academic language in all four language modalities in the context of a rigorous and grade-level task provides ELs greater access to content understanding and results in greater language growth. Proficient learners see the interconnectedness of language and content and use that understanding to gain access to both language and content.
Read more here about what language and content integration is and why the intentional planning for it and explicit teaching of academic language in support of content is important for all students yet provides ELs the timely and specific support they need.
All students should develop a deep understanding of content through activities that require complex thinking. Students need to be engaged in rigorous and grade-level content from day one, regardless of their proficiency level in English. This is most effectively achieved through extended units—where depth is prioritized over breadth—that culminate in tasks that require students to synthesize and apply their learning to topics that are meaningful and relevant to them. If effectively sequenced and scaffolded, such units enable the spiraling and positive redundancy of concepts and new language that afford greater access to ever higher levels of texts and tasks. In well-designed units, formative assessment used continuously informs adjustments that teachers must make to their curriculum and instruction. This ensures that students are acquiring the content knowledge, academic language, and skills they need to be able to access increasingly complex material and the culminating task.
Culminating tasks are those that complete a unit of study by requiring students to synthesize their learning of the content, language, and skills they have been working on throughout the unit. Well-designed culminating tasks are those that:
The activities leading up to these tasks often stretch over multiple class periods (and even multiple weeks) as students gradually go deeper into the content, thinking, skills, and academic language needed to demonstrate their understanding.
Extended units that allow students to have multiple exposures to the concepts, vocabulary and skills required to meet the standards provide ELs with the kind of positive redundancy they need (Facella, Rampino & Shea, 2005; Peregoy & Boyle, 2017,). Research has shown, for example, that students need 12-15 exposures to a Tier 2 or Tier 3 vocabulary word to internalize it and be able to use it correctly in their own speech or writing (August, Carlo, Dressler, & Snow, 2005; Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2002; Sibold, 2011). Similarly, engaging in extended units allows students to stretch their reading levels because they are able to bring background knowledge and familiar vocabulary (the two biggest hindrances to accessing text) to bear on accessing a challenging text (Peregoy & Boyle, 2017, Shanahan, 1997). Most importantly, students are more engaged when they are able to wrestle with important and challenging questions, form their own opinions, and express their views on a topic. Engaging these processes leads students to use language actively in all modalities, thereby leading to greater language growth.
Read more here about why organizing curriculum and instruction through thematic units that center on an engaging culminating task requiring higher-order thinking is important for all students and crucial for ELs.
A goal for scaffolding curriculum and instruction for ELs is to amplify and not simplify (Alvarez, Ananda, Walqui, Sato, & Rabinowitz, 2014). The term amplification not only refers to the additional scaffolds (e.g., visuals, sentence frames, chunking, models) that ELs might need in order to access the same text and task as their more fluent English-speaking peers, but also to additional, low-stakes opportunities to interact with and process new content, academic language, and skills.
ELs should have access to the same rich content and tasks that their fluent English-speaking peers are given. It is essential for educators to understand that the challenges ELs encounter in accessing curriculum stem from linguistic barriers and sometimes differences in academic backgrounds, but not cognitive ones. Therefore, scaffolds must be used in a way that makes the task accessible and yet still preserves its complexity. ELs’ need for amplification and multiple opportunities to practice in order to gain competence, usually results in needing more time than their fluent English speaking peers (Walqui, A., 2006). Research has shown that it takes 5-7 years for ELs to acquire academic English at grade level (Hakuta, Butler, & Witt, 2000).
Read more here about why scaffolding is important for ELs and different types of scaffolding that can be implemented.
Formative assessment integrates instruction and assessment of content understandings with the language needed to participate meaningfully in content learning. It involves a continuous cycle of teaching content and language, gathering evidence of language development and content learning through low-stakes interactive learning activities that allow a teacher to understand student progress, provide immediate and targeted feedback to students, and inform their instructional design. Formative assessments can be “on-the-fly,” “planned-for interaction,” or “curriculum-embedded” (Shavelson, 2008). If units are backwards-designed with specific content and language learning goals clearly outlined for teachers and students, formative assessment practices can strategically support student learning progression towards those goals.
While ongoing formative assessment is important for all students, it can be even more crucial for ELs. Because ELs are learning content, skills, and academic language simultaneously in a language they are not yet proficient in, they are, therefore, more likely to develop misconceptions as they are exposed to this new learning ( Alvarez, L. et. al, 2014). These misconceptions need to be corrected early on in order for learning to progress (Abedi, 2011 and Bailey et. al., 2010 cited in Alvarez, L. et. al, 2014). Teachers need the insight into ELs’ content and language learning that frequent formative assessment provides to then be able to offer the right kinds of supports to enable these students to learn most effectively and efficiently (Alvarez, L. et. al, 2014).
Read more here about how formative assessment enhances instructional practices and learning of both content and language and the special considerations that need to be made when designing effective formative assessments for ELs so that the language demands of a task are taken into account.
Research has emphasized the critical roles that social interaction and active construction of knowledge play in students’ access to content and in their language learning. A student-centered classroom is one where meaning is constructed by students working collaboratively to support each other’s growth. This enables teachers to differentiate instruction and provide targeted support to students who need it. When students create meaning collaboratively, they get the opportunity to practice social as well as new academic language with their peers. Collaboration also creates greater access, as students can use oral language (both English and the home language) to build their understanding and bridge towards higher levels of academic language and literacy.
Classrooms that are collaborative are those in which students interact with one another frequently to solve problems and negotiate meaning from texts. The teacher takes on the role of a facilitator; circulating and listening in on conversations, actively providing feedback, and monitoring misconceptions as well as new learning.
There is extensive research supporting the need for interaction in acquiring a second language (Collaborative Learning for English Language Learners, 2014; McGroarty, 1989). Collaborative classrooms in which students have the opportunity to engage with one another allow for greater language input, higher levels of interaction, and higher contextualization of knowledge—3 factors that are key for language learning to take place. Collaboration also provides opportunities for translanguaging (see Core Belief #1) to occur, as students can be grouped strategically with others who speak their home language yet also have higher proficiency in English. Strategically grouping students so that they can use home language provides greater access to tasks and allows those newer to English to express their ideas and have their voices heard. The opportunity for students to discuss ideas (in any language they wish) builds a bridge to literacy and the use of academic language. When students have already negotiated their ideas and understanding of a topic or interacted around a text, they are better able to write about that topic or text, or engage in a more formal, academic discussion.
Read more here about why student collaboration is helpful for all students and particularly useful for ELs.
Student agency provides students with a voice in what they are learning and tasks are open-ended, allowing students to dive more deeply into aspects of the content based on their interests and motivations. When students are given the opportunity to discuss the ideas of the lesson, to build on others’ ideas and have others build on theirs, they develop agency (the willingness to engage), ownership over the content, and a positive identity as thinkers and learners.
Student agency focuses on the contributions and actions of learners. For ELs, this provides an opportunity for students to bring their culture, language and experiences into the classroom. When student-centered learning is done well, students should feel that their input is driving the class.
Read more here about why student agency is important for ELs and the specific structures within classrooms and schools affect EL students’ agency.