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Helping English-Learners Break Through Language Plateaus

By Wendi Pillars — December 19, 2016 6 min read
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Moses is a charmer. He wears a perma-smile to match his unflappable sense of humor, is a smooth talker, and a great sport with adults. He speaks English colloquially with absolute savviness, much to the chagrin of many of his teachers, since much of his conversational energy is directed at friends, girls, and racking up cool points as he aims for social capital.

However, give him a diagram to label, a writing assignment to complete, a reading passage to summarize, and vocabulary to memorize, and it’s readily apparent that his social language savvy does not equate to sophisticated academic language proficiency.

At 16, he is considered a long-term English-language learner (LTEL), although he has lived in the United States since he was 1 year old. LTELs are students who have been classified as English-language learners (ELLs) for more than six years, are verbally bilingual, are below grade-level in reading and writing, and are at high-risk for dropping out. Although there is no national data on LTELs, a high percentage of our secondary schools’ ELLs is considered long-term, with a myriad of literacy needs, including mitigating their fossilized language habits.

Three Areas of Language Proficiency

Academic language is an area teachers must target to help LTELs break through their plateaus. It is worthwhile to note, however, that all learners are technically academic language learners; teaching our content-area discourse patterns, vocabulary, and structures will be “new” language if we aim for our students to speak like historians, scientists, musicians, and other professionals.

When measuring the growth of my English learners’ language proficiency, using the WIDA Performance Definitions and rubrics for speaking and writing has helped me set goals and refine my focus and expectations:

Vocabulary usage refers to what many call “academic language” or “accountable talk,” the specificity of words for a given content area or context. A critical combination includes precise words (example or experience versus idea) and high-utility words such as “consequence,” “issue,” or “justification.”

Linguistic complexity refers to language production, the amount and quality of both oral and written language, including organization and the use of increasingly complex grammatical structures.

Language control refers to the level of comprehensibility of the language used, the errors made, and the extent to which those errors impact meaning. Control can include rate of speech, grammatical constructs, accent, and choice of vocabulary.

Let’s look at some ideas to address each of these performance areas, but notice, their use must be interwoven with purpose into conversations and opportunities to co-construct knowledge. Assessing growth in these areas requires authentic use, within academic conversation.

1. Vocabulary Usage

• When determining key vocabulary, divide words into content and technical terms, by word parts, and general academic processes we may take for granted. High-utility words are those used for instructions or prompts that you sense may negate a student’s understanding when it’s really the question he cannot understand (i.e., describe, define, identify, manipulate, analyze, complete). (Check out learning and memory specialist Marilee Sprenger’s 55 critical words, her 10-Minute Vocabulary, or the Institute of Education Sciences’ strategies on developing ELLs’ academic vocabulary.)

• Model how words are used within sentence structures, especially common collocations, then maintain explicit expectations until students can produce the expected level independently. Collocations are words commonly used together in English, but can be difficult to translate, such as “catch a cold” or “catch someone’s eye,” phrasal verbs like “dress up,” or idioms like “pay an arm and a leg.”

• Do your students a favor and teach them about code-switching or linguistic register, or how to adapt their use of language to conform to the standards in any given professional or social situation. To demonstrate how audience impacts both oral and written language, have them “text” what they learned to a friend, create a lesson about it for kindergartners, and then write a summary for the principal’s eyes. This lends credence to their own register, while highlighting the routine code-switching we do daily. Academic language is a more formal register which can provide them with intellectual and linguistic power.

• Highlight affixes, root words, and cognates within texts, display them on word walls, use in discussions, and create expectations of their use to enhance students’ metalinguistic awareness. Puns, wordplay, and words that have multiple meanings are also fun tools for boosting intellectual curiosity.

2. Linguistic Complexity

• Reading and writing must be combined with explicit practice in listening along with various oral opportunities to use new vocabulary and increasingly complex grammar. Provide experiences for students to share ideas, co-construct new knowledge, and use vocabulary to communicate big ideas and deeper thinking rather than filling in blanks. Plus, if they can say it, you can be sure it helps them write it.

• Using conversation skills not only helps clarify ideas, but also helps develop an understanding of grammar and word combinations. Students develop conversational pragmatics, those hidden social norms of conversation including turn-taking, respecting physical space, picking up on paralinguistic cues, and appropriate ways to agree, disagree, and build upon each other’s thoughts, in a variety of realistic situations.

• I’ve learned the hard way that rich contexts are imperative for students to want to negotiate meaning, think critically, and co-construct meaningful ideas during partner or group interactions. Provide information gaps, jigsaw readings, and provocative essential questions, because we want students to understand that conversations are multi-sided, a tool for learning, and vital for navigating larger tasks. Monitor structured partner interactions in every lesson, using them as formative assessments, with consistent expectations of precise language and grammar usage.

3. Language Control

• Using strategic sentence frames helps develop more complex student interactions, jump-starts thinking, models correct use of new vocabulary, and provides specific grammatical practice. When frames aren’t enough, model again and provide word banks with vocabulary phrases to extend responses (See teacher educator Kate Kinsella’s resources for more on this.)

• Bring attention to differences between written and spoken discourse and common usage in different content areas, such as the use of passive tense in history and science (“it was written”) and nominalization where verbs or adjectives become noun forms (“they destroyed it” versus “resulted in the destruction of”).

Students like Moses need appropriate language targets with multiple and wide-ranging opportunities to use language to demonstrate their understanding and knowledge. School is the only place many of our students are likely to hear, use, or produce academic language, and to learn how context brings meaning to language.

When we use language, we make choices based on connections and power relationships with others, formal versus informal needs, and the intended outcome of the interaction. It’s worth our time to explain this to students, and to explain further that societal assumptions are made based upon the choices we make with our word usage, not our knowledge alone. It is our role to model academic language use when we speak and write, and to ensure that above all else, all students are actively participating and producing purposeful language each and every day. What can you tweak so this happens in your lessons tomorrow?


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