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Helping English-Language Learners Adapt Under the Common Core

By Wendi Pillars — January 07, 2014 6 min read
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The Common Core State Standards can be intimidating for those of us who teach students who are English-language learners or have special needs. How can we get a jump-start on preparing our students to succeed?

The first step: reflect on the subject’s specific language strands. In what ways should students be able to communicate their knowledge? What language is most critical for their success with this content area, not only in the classroom but in the world? Which linguistic tools and resources do students need to be able to access to extend their knowledge? These are tough questions, and ones we should all consider daily—no matter who our students are.

Next, consider these three strategies to help diverse learners face a new set of standards. You can adjust each strategy to meet individual students where they are.

Motivating Learners With a Purpose

More than 17 years of teaching ELLs (including those with special needs) leads me to believe that students benefit from demonstrating their learning in purposeful, tangible ways. When designing my instruction, I ensure that students’ use of language has a function, an outcome, or a result. For the student, the focus is not on “learning the language” but on solving a problem or sharing information.

I’ve been teaching this way for a long time. But it’s a perfect pedagogical fit for the common standards, which posit that learning is not only about what you know, but about how you communicate that knowledge to others. When I ask students to use language purposefully, they begin to own the words they say and write.

Whether my students are writing or preparing a presentation, and whether they are working collaboratively or individually, I make sure that the outcome and expectations are explicit. I break down multi-step directions, present a model of the expected outcome, and use tangible objectives. For example, rather than asking students to “explain why Blackbeard was a fearsome pirate,” I direct them to “explain orally and in writing why Blackbeard was a fearsome pirate, using three facts from the text and one opinion statement.”

I seek projects that ask students to share their writing or speaking with others. In the past year, my students have blogged, partnered with other classrooms on Twitter, taken part in Global Read Alouds, produced Flick-it videos, and connected with old-fashioned snail-mail pen pals. Real-world communication among adults can involve anything from a tweet to an email to a research brief—so it makes sense for students to have a range of experiences.

I provide learners with support to take risks and recover from mistakes in a safe yet authentic environment. For example, my students might Skype with peers in a classroom across the world. I can help them “troubleshoot” nervousness, simple conversational misunderstandings, and ways to continue exchanging information even if we lose sound. The bonus for students? Developing global competencies even as they master the common-core standards.

Guiding Students to Discover, Revisit, and Use New Words

English-language learners come equipped with some mighty skills and knowledge, but their academic vocabulary is usually not an initial strength. And one of teachers’ most important tasks is to help students “make words stick.”

As much as possible, spiral students’ exposure to new academic language over days, weeks, and months. The more they see, hear, and are expected to use the vocabulary, the greater the “sticking power.” I create opportunities to revisit vocabulary several times over the course of 4-5 days, without resorting to rote exercises. For example, we might talk about an “array” of books displayed on a bookshelf and later interview the cafeteria staff about the “array” of vegetables on the lunch menu.

Read aloud to students occasionally—no matter their age, or your content area. In a ten-minute span, you can expose students to academic language above their reading level and vocabulary words used in novel ways. You can then use the vocabulary from read alouds to catalyze discussions, stir imaginations, and elucidate more difficult texts.

Be choosy about vocabulary to emphasize. Select words that can be used in multiple content areas, have common derivatives or roots, can help students describe the gist of what they are reading/doing, and will be (in your professional opinion) most useful. Teach students about Tier I, II, and III words, then guide them to classify words themselves as familiar, high-utility, and/or absolutely new to them. This will help them channel their learning efforts efficiently when they face an onslaught of vocabulary terms.

Listening and Conversing to Learn From Each Other

I used to focus on my questioning techniques to spur critical thinking and “discussion.” I prided myself on asking questions that required more than a “yes” or “no” answer.

But then I realized something important. The question-and-answer format was still pigeonholing students, encouraging them to toss single-phrase or -sentence responses back at me. The message was clear if unintentional: Answer the question so we can get on to the next question.

So I’ve stepped up my game to spark conversation (rather than back-and-forth quiz show dialogue). I will admit it’s difficult to craft prompts and tasks to provoke discussion among students—to push them to clarify concepts, fortify an argument, or negotiate a stance. But doing this has opened my eyes: I never realized how many opportunities for interaction I was neglecting for the sake of expediency.

When setting up conversation challenges, I consider students’ content knowledge, comfort with vocabulary, and listening skills. I think about the degree to which they’ve mastered the conversational etiquette of taking turns—listening to “build upon” one another’s ideas rather than to merely “have their say.”

Here are some of the key techniques I use:

Model. For example, I sometimes pause to rethink (out loud) what I just said, or search for the right word rather than be content with my first thoughts. Did I build upon someone’s comment—or at least acknowledge it—first, before adding my thoughts?

Listen closely and intervene to prevent the default to non-complex language. For example, I might think aloud, “Wait, we just learned how to say that differently. I think it sounds smarter when I say it like this.”

Rely on the sense of community that I build in my classroom from day one. When students understand norms and are accustomed to interacting respectfully, they can better grasp the value of wait time, taking risks, and listening to learn from one another.

Share feedback. It can be fun to examine conversational practices in a fishbowl set-up—with the teacher sitting in the middle, demonstrating a “non-example.” My students enjoy picking out what I’m doing wrong, and I can later reference that example to make feedback easier (and more concrete).

Offer language supports as needed—but remove them ASAP. I might use sentence or question prompts to get students started or help them when they get stuck. As I encourage students to refer to textual evidence for their argument, I might initially provide a specific page or paragraph number so they can focus on the information without the distraction of the hunt. But I don’t want students to rely too much on these scaffolds, so I omit them as soon as I can.

How are you helping students meet the linguistic rigors of the common standards? How do you create opportunities during instruction to help students focus on what they want to say, using original combinations of core vocabulary and personal understanding?

I’d love to learn from your struggles and successes.

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