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English language learners in class
For Teachers

How to Scaffold Lessons for English Learners in Any Class

By Sarah Knutson November 26, 2018

Being bilingual has many benefits in the long run (cultural awareness, linguistic abilities, job prospects), but English language learners (ELLs) are sometimes stuck between two worlds. In order to best serve these students, schools should seriously consider addressing their needs from a whole-school perspective. To make this approach simpler for teachers like you, here are some resources geared toward specific content areas.

Math and English language learners

Strategies to engage ELLs in mathematics greatly resemble what teachers often already use. The difference? When working with ELLs, you may need to make more intentional choices around when and how to implement specific strategies.

  • Provide more frequent exposure to domain-specific vocabulary
  • Post visual word banks to give students words to use in answers.
  • Give students sentence frames for written and verbal tasks so that ELLs have the framework needed to answer math questions.

Additionally, how you interact with students while waiting for responses can impact ELL performance. 

  • Offer more wait time.
  • Accept non-verbal responses (such as thumbs up or down).
  • Create opportunities for partner talk before asking for an oral response in front of the class.

When engaged in activities or projects, ELLs can benefit from manipulatives and the chance to utilize both math and language skills with a partner or in a group. Manipulatives may not always appear in secondary classrooms, but offering students the opportunity to engage with math concepts away from the text can help these students’ math and language skills develop.

ELL resources for social studies

In a notes-heavy content area like social studies, graphic organizers can give students the opportunity to process information in a way that makes sense to them. Offering students a choice in how they organize their information — or at least exposing them to a toolbox of options — can allow the bilingual mind to come to a deeper understanding of the content.

Other strategies include offering different types of resources, such as video and audio, which allows ELLs (and all students, really) to access information beyond the text. Incidentally, statewide redesignation testing (English language proficiency exams) include assessments on processing oral information. Offering alternative formats allows students to better access the content and it prepares them for the opportunity to move beyond an official English Language Learner designation.

ELL strategies to use in science

The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) sets forth a number of strategies for the science classroom. Most echo the recommendations found for other content areas, including teaching vocabulary explicitly and encouraging intentional group and partner work. Where the recommendations differ are in how to build the curriculum. The NSTA specifically suggests including non-Western scientists and viewpoints. Connecting with world science can decrease the affective filter and engage ELLs, as well as other students who come from diverse backgrounds.

While the NSTA recommends providing teachers with diverse field experience, that is beyond the classroom teacher’s control. However, teachers can find ways to invite parents and families to participate in science instruction: “Parent-to-student and parent-to-teacher workshops serve as an opportunity to facilitate information (in various languages) on science-related issues, such as health, environment, and planning for careers in science.” 

Here are some creative ways to involve parents in science classes:

  • Offer science workshops at different times of the day and week.
  • Encourage students to get their parents’ perspectives on science topics.
  • Invite parents into the classroom to serve as presentation judges or as panelists.

ELA as the foundation for ELL instruction

California’s ELA/ELD Framework provides instructional guidance for different grade levels of English Language Arts. From encouraging discussions in kindergarten to being selective about vocabulary instruction in fourth grade, the framework and numerous articles that expound on it, offer specific ideas for how to approach ELL instruction. As with math instruction, the larger focus is on intentionality. 

As teachers, we need to ask ourselves what our students truly need to know in order to grasp the given content. For example, the framework’s suggestion around vocabulary instruction in fourth grade asks that teachers choose words that deepen students’ understanding of a particular concept rather than simply pulling words from a selected list.

Teaching with intentionality points to extensive research on the concept of “teacher clarity.” Teachers and students have clarity if they can answer these questions:

  1. What am I learning?
  2. Why am I learning it?
  3. How will I know when I have learned it?

Teacher clarity and improved teacher instruction have the potential to greatly impact student growth. The ELD framework points directly to that idea. In the ELA classroom (and across content areas), before worrying too much about specific, day-to-day strategies, first look at what you are teaching and how you are teaching it. No amount of graphic organizers will support an English learner (or any learner) if the learning intention and your instructions do not clearly express what your students must do in a given task.

Once teacher clarity exists, you can dig into ways to deepen ELL instruction. Ideas such as a set of “non-negotiable” vocabulary words for ELL students can build foundational knowledge that will allow them to catch up to and even surpass their English-speaking peers.

If you’re passionate about ELL instruction and want to explore it further, you might consider Concordia University-Portland’s MEd in Curriculum & Instruction: English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). The program, which is offered on campus in Portland, Oregon and online, addresses topics such as intercultural communication, language acquisition processes, and the interconnectedness between linguistics and PreK-12 teaching and learning.

Additional resources

Sarah Knutson is a 7th and 8th grade English Language Arts teacher at River School in Napa, CA. She holds a BA in English from UC Berkeley, an MLIS from San Jose State University, and a teaching credential from UC Davis.

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