Are you a teacher working with English learners (ELs) in Grades K–12? If so, please keep reading! This blog highlights a couple of instructional videos created by the REL Northwest, which may be of great use to you. These videos present research in succinct and engaging ways through authentic teacher demonstrations. You can also learn about these practices in more detail in the Institute of Education Science Practice Guide, Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School. As a bilingual teacher myself, I wish I had been exposed to these types of videos when I was in the classroom. But teachers have little time to spend researching the latest evidence-based strategies to implement in their classrooms.
The first video illustrates four evidence-based activities that teachers can incorporate into their classrooms, which we expand on below. It features a teacher who integrates oral and written English language instruction into content-area instruction during a classroom lesson. In other words, this teacher combines language and content instruction. While most kindergarten and first-grade students are still developing their writing skills, you can adapt these evidence-based strategies for your younger students. This type of integration is possible in ESL, bilingual, and content classes.
Activity 1: Strategically use instructional tools such as short videos, visuals, and graphic organizers to anchor instruction and help students make sense of content. Visual supports help ELs with learning and understanding the meaning of academic concepts. This activity is an application of contextualization, a scaffolding strategy that “…embeds academic language in sensory context by using pictures, manipulatives, film [without sound], authentic objects as source of information” (Moro, 2017, Slide 12). Listening to how a word is pronounced, how it “sounds” in English, and seeing how it is spelled contributes to both oral language and written text development.
As teachers, we should not forget the power of realia, and we should use objects and materials (physical or virtual) from everyday life as teaching aids as frequently as possible. Why is realia effective in the classroom? Because it can make the learning experience more memorable and create connections between objects and vocabulary words or other language concepts. This association between the word and the real thing will help ELs recall information, in this case, English concepts. For decades, researchers have explored the process by which young children remember the new words they are learning (Wojcik, 2013). Applying this research to the learning of a new language, we will empower ELs by enabling them to recognize and recall words to communicate in English. When we introduce a word or another language concept in English and use realia, this creates an impression on our students, who encode the new term; they create a representation of the word in their memories. We need to allow them to recall and retrieve that information often so that it can consolidate in their memories and they can successfully retain it. As memories consolidate, they are harder to forget, and the more they are retrieved, the more they will be retained. So, it is critical to give your EL students opportunities to use newly introduced concepts in English often. Realia is a powerful tool at all grade levels. Try it today! (Some great ideas on using realia with your ELs can be found here.)
Activity 2: Explicitly teach content-specific academic vocabulary—and the general academic vocabulary that supports it—during content-area instruction. There is a science to teaching vocabulary to ELs! Strong evidence from several research studies has led language experts to recommend teaching “a small set of academic vocabulary words intensively across several days using a variety of instructional activities” (Baker et al., 2014, p. 13). That means selecting about 5 to 8 words over several lessons and providing explicit vocabulary instruction. It may sound a bit counterintuitive, but let the research guide your practice. It will streamline your vocabulary instruction, saving you time while cashing in on student learning! So, what does that look like in practice? You can view this video or this one by the REL Northwest to see demonstrations of what other teachers are doing to teach ELs academic vocabulary.
Sometimes it can be tricky to decide which words to select to build your student’s academic vocabulary. You might be tempted to teach more words than necessary, but these six key criteria can help you make that instructional decision.
Choose words that
- are central to understanding the text or lesson
- are frequently used in the text or lesson
- might appear in other content areas
- have multiple meanings
- can be altered by adding prefixes or suffixes
- have cross-language potential
(Baker et al., 2014)
Because you only have a small set of academic vocabulary to teach, this will give you more time to teach them intensively, which is important since these words are central to understanding the text or lesson. To ensure your students understand these words, teach them explicitly “using student-friendly definitions, examples, non-examples, and concrete representations of the target words” (Beck et al., 2002, as cited in Baker et al., 2014, p. 18). Your students will need to know the meaning of the word as it is being used in the lesson. Be sure to watch the video to see these strategies in practice!
Activity 3: Provide daily opportunities for students to talk about content in pairs or small groups. Once again, this is an activity that teachers can implement effectively across Grades K–12. When ELs are given a chance to practice their newly acquired vocabulary in conversation, this will reinforce the retention of new concepts. A study investigating prewriting student talk among ELs in small groups found that it (1) helped ELs generate content, language, and organization for their proceeding individual writing; (2) gave ELs opportunities to problem solve with their peers by using their first language (L1) to ask clarifying questions; and (3) allowed ELs to model for each other (Wojcik, 2013). In Grades K and 1, this could be a pre-drawing activity after a read-aloud. The teacher could ask ELs to choose a partner and, first, share their favorite part of the story using L1; then, try to retell it in English with help from the partner. The teacher then walks around and provides help with L2.
Activity 4: Provide writing opportunities to extend student learning and understanding of the content material. It is essential to support ELs in developing their writing skills. There is a correlation between writing and future “reading and writing outcomes” (Pang, 2017, p. 106). To get the most out of your evidence-based writing practices or activities, it is necessary to provide time for writing and use it as a tool to increase comprehension and deep learning, regardless of subject matter (Lopas, Zygouris-Coe, Grysko & Gao, 2021). But before we dive head-long into writing strategies, it is important to note the importance of other interventions that support EL writing performance, such as vocabulary and art (Adoniou, 2013; Woolpert, 2016). One of the first steps in promoting academic engagement is to discover the students’ interests, experiences, and language proficiency in both native language(s) and English in order to differentiate instruction (Schulz, 2009; Lopas, Zygouris-Coe, Grysko & Gao, 2021). Although learning English and learning content is challenging, writing can facilitate both activities (Lopas, Zygouris-Coe, Grysko & Gao, 2021). Writing strategies and opportunities to practice writing (in both native and English languages) may include the following:
- Collaborative writing (McCarthy & Garcia, 2005; Baker et al., 2014; Lopas, Zygouris-Coe, Grysko & Gao, 2021)
- Literacy-enriched play for early learners (Snow, Eslami & Park, 2018)
- Culturally relevant writing communities, which include “strong ties” to students’ history and culture, students’ voices, and collaborative literacy activities (Olson, Scarcella & Matuchniak, p. 39)
- Solid strategy instruction (Olson, Scarcella & Matuchniak, p. 40)
- Explicit instruction in academic language (Olson, Scarcella & Matuchniak, p. 41)
- Explicit writing instruction, which consists of language experience, shared writing, interactive writing, and independent writing (Schulz, 2009, p. 60)
- Vocabulary instruction (Woolpert, 2006)
- Drawing as a prewriting strategy (Adoniou, 2013)
- Interactive writing, especially for early grades (Williams & Pilonieta, 2012)
To effectively support ELs, it is imperative to integrate oral and written English language instruction into the content areas. This strategy works throughout K–12, as it promotes contextualization, academic vocabulary, and deep learning. Carve out time to review videos, practice guides, and the occasional academic journal for evidence-based strategies to implement in your classroom. Doing so will support your professional growth and English language instruction and improve your students’ academic performance.
Authors: Verónica Ruiz de Castilla, PhD; Archie Hill, PhD; Heidi Goertzen, PhD
Adoniou, M. (2013). Drawing to support writing development in English language learners. Language and Education, 27(3), 267–277. DOI: 10.1080/09500782.2012.704047
Baker, S., Lesaux, N., Jayanthi, M., Dimino, J., Proctor, C. P., Morris, J., Gersten, R., Haymond, K., Kieffer, M. J., Linan-Thompson, S., & Newman-Gonchar, R. (2014). Teaching academic content and literacy to English learners in elementary and middle school (NCEE 2014-4012). National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/publications_reviews.aspx.
Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. Guildford Press.
Li, H. H., Zhang, L. J., & Parr, J. M. (2020). Small-group student talk before individual writing in tertiary English writing classrooms in China: nature and insights. Frontiers in Psychology, 2361.
Lopas, C. M., Zygouris-Coe, V. I. , Grysko, R. A. & Gao, S. (2021). Writing to learn in science: Accommodations to support English-language learners’ writing skills and science content learning in grade 5. The Reading Teacher, 74(5), 617–630. https://doi.org/10.1002/trtr.1979
McCarthey, S. J. & Garcia, G. E. (2005). English language learners’ writing practices and attitudes. Written Communication, 22(1), 36–75. DOI: 10.1177/0741088304271830
Moro, B. (2017). Scaffolding strategies for English language learners. Fordham University.
National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/publicatio ns_reviews.aspx
Olson, C. B., Scarcella, R. & Matuchniak, T. (2016). The write stuff: Three essential practices bolter English language learners’ writing skills. Educational Leadership, 73(5), 38.
Pang, Y. (2017). Facilitating young English language learners’ writing skill development. The New England Reading Association Journal, 52(1), 106–120.
Schulz, M. M. (2009). Effective Writing Assessment and Instruction for Young English Language Learners. Early Childhood Education Journal, 37(1), 57–62. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-009-0317-0
Snow, M., Eslami, Z. R., & Park, J. H. (2018). English language learners’ writing behaviours during literacy-enriched block play. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 18(2), 189–213. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468798416637113
Williams, C. & Pilonieta, P. (2012). Using interactive writing instruction with kindergarten and first-grade English language learners. Early Childhood Education Journal, 40(3), 145–150. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-012-0508-y
Wojcik, E. H. (2013). Remembering new words: Integrating early memory development into word learning. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 151.
Woolpert, D. (2016). Doing more with less: The impact of lexicon on dual-language learners’ writing. Reading & Writing, 29(9), 1865–1887. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-016-9656-6