Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Recommendations from a Content Teacher

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Keys to English Learners’ Academic Success

From my own experience with English language learners (ELLs) in my science classroom, as well as classroom observations of many other teachers, I have identified a number of significant issues that educators need to address to help ensure ELLs’ academic success.

As teachers prepare their lessons, they should consider the following ideas to make their lessons more comprehensible for their ELL students. All of these strategies are those that I emphasize and model in my training of teachers and throughout the Teaching English Learners materials.

                         Things to add to your daily routine:

  1. Post a content objective and language objective daily, for each lesson. These objectives should be embedded in a daily agenda that is written in simple, student-friendly language.
  2. Along with the agenda, post a list of key vocabulary important to the lesson of the day. These key content and support vocabulary words should be drawn from  a vocabulary list from the posted word wall in the classroom.
  3. Contextualize the lesson content. That is to say, provide visual support for concepts and key vocabulary. These visuals need to be provided whenever and wherever direct instruction is involved: integrated into lectures, presentations, and directions to help students’ comprehend meaning.
  4. Keep in mind the statement “Language out, not language in”. Make sure ELL students have lots of opportunities to produce language, both orally and in writing.  Use interactive strategies like “Think Pair Share” or “Numbered Heads Together” to maximize output from all students. Providing models such as sentence strips will help your ELLs to learn and use academic language.
  5. Establish strategies to increase feedback from your lessons and activities. Strategies like “Word Mapping” and “White Boards” will give you information about what the students comprehend, and, at the same time, what strategies are most effective in delivering content to your ELL students.

By adding these 5 components to their lessons, teachers can provide better access to the content and concepts in their lesson materials for all students in the classroom. These 5 lesson components are also easy for administrators to observe, as well as for teachers to use to measure their own effectiveness and progress.

A natural extension of this process is how teachers are preparing English learners to be successful on standardized tests. As I watched teachers and students go through the process this school year, I observed a number of critical areas that need attention: 

  1. Focus on vocabulary and sentence design in test questions. Help students with content-specific vocabulary and support language, and identify specific “trigger” words that help students identify what process/formulas might be needed to answer the question or solve the problem. Vocabulary mapping, semantic maps, and other graphic organizers should be utilized regularly. Explicitly teach and post vocabulary lists and common directions/phrases on tests. Use this language daily and on classroom tests and quizzes so that it becomes familiar to students.
  2. Teach your students to become better at strategic reading, specifically as it applies to assessments. Work through all of the distracters so that students recognize why they may be incorrect,(kind of metacognitive approach) and how they can change (rephrase) the question so that it is clear that one of the distracters is correct.
  3. Design appropriate questions to raise the cognitive demands placed on the students. From observation, it was clear that the lion’s share of questions asked of ELL students, verbally and in writing, was at a cognitive and language comprehension level below that of questions on standardized tests. This great disconnect does not adequately prepare students to approach the test from a level of confidence. Using different levels of questioning is a great way to prepare ELLs for higher levels of critical thinking (i.e. application, synthesis and evaluation) required on academic assessments. 

In summary, teachers need to use strategies that will promote active student participation. We can no longer be satisfied with the process of one question equals one answer. We need answers from every student on every question. Students need opportunities to talk with each other about what they see, what they think, and how they address a problem. As strategies like those I’ve suggested become commonplace structures in every content classroom, ELL students will take ownership of their progress and their learning.


                                                                                                  Ron Rohac


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