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Teaching English Language Learners (Part I)

Language Learners in the English Classroom by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and Carol Rothenberg (Part I)

Are you interested in learning about English language learners? Language Learners for the English Classroom is a user-friendly text that will help you understand the challenges and complexities of working with English language learners in the secondary classroom and give you practical ideas for how to help them in their quest for fluency.

Why is learning English difficult for adolescent students? Fisher outlines several challenges facing the adolescent English learner, specifically a lack of familiarity with the linguistic code (namely pronunciation, vocabulary, idioms, grammar), difficulty with text structures and features, diverse rhetorical styles (remember that different cultures develop ideas in different manners, leading to a new challenge when learning English and a different structure for writing and developing ideas), and different background knowledge than their English peers who have attended elementary school in the United States.

What are the best practices for English language learners? To develop literacy in the English language, there are three areas that demand focus in the English classroom: teaching language, teaching reading, and teaching writing. (You may want to read the NCTE Position Paper on the Role of English Teachers in Educating English Language Learners for more a comprehensive discussion.) Fisher discusses more about guided instruction, focus lessons and modeling, using the Gradual Release model when planning instruction, and other strategies for planning effective instruction.

ELLAt the heart of this book, Fisher, Rothenberg & Frey discuss four components to a successful program for English language learners, focusing on vocabulary, grammar, fluency and comprehension. For right now, I will discuss vocabulary and grammar (go to Part II for fluency and comprehension).

Vocabulary – Getting the Just Right Word

Vocabulary (not worksheets!) can be fun — and a strong vocabulary is crucial for improving reading comprehension. How can you improve vocabulary with your students? Fisher discusses many possibilities for vocabulary strategies, specifically with the goal of using precise and academic terminology for the classroom in mind. Fisher discusses how the English language learner is challenged in terms of academic vocabulary, and “command of academic language use, both verbal and written, lags significantly behind their conversational skills” (40). Further complicating this issue is how to teach vocabulary in a successful manner, particularly with the realization that “fewer than 10 percent [of the 3,000 to 4,000 words learned per year] could be attributed to direct vocabulary instruction. Instead ….most of the gains in vocabulary were attributed to acquisition with the context of learning, that is, through reading, writing, thinking and speaking about concepts” (41).

Fisher identifies five instructional strategies focusing on vocabulary.

  1. Wide Reading. Silent Sustained Reading (as well as independent reading across content areas) is helpful for students to spend time reading, and increasing their vocabulary knowledge while reading. High-interest, low reading level books are ideal for students learning English. It can be challenging to find fiction appropriate for older English language learners which is at a level suited to their vocabulary, and not too challenging. (I know of a teacher who used the Bluford series  – with high-interest, engaging and current topics in a shorter – lesser than 200 pages – format, often with her ELL and struggling readers at the high school level, with a great deal of success Bluford Series Books) Of course it is not enough to simply have access to books. Teaching contextual analysis is an excellent way to help students maximize the vocabulary they can learn through wide reading. Using context clues to look for the definition, synonym, antonym, general or an example can help your students learn new words. This is also an excellent opportunity to use a special bookmark for “what to do when you don’t know a word” to help students with context clues. For one idea, check out this bookmark at Teachers Pay Teachers here.
  2. Teacher Read-Alouds. Using read-alouds in the secondary classroom can help students build necessary background knowledge while watching teachers model fluent oral reading of texts (especially pronunciation) and model the “think-aloud” process of making connections, clarifying and building comprehension. This is also another opportunity for vocabulary in context and repeated exposures – particularly with new, important words that you are focusing on in class. Students have an opportunity to watch the teacher’s face and notice the expressions, which helps them understand the new words.
  3. Content Vocabulary Instruction. Every content area has its own specific vocabulary, and this is crucial for students developing their vocabulary in the classroom, and building that important “academic vocabulary” for all subjects. Vocabulary journals and word walls can be used effectively in the classroom – particularly with the important words that teachers will want to reference on a regular basis. Keeping an ongoing word wall in the classroom is a fun way for students to add words and be directly involved with their new words. Giving students the opportunity to decide “yes, this is a word we should add to our journal or wall!” is a great source of ownership and engagement.
  4. Academic Word Study. Sometimes teachers may overlook some of the “academic vocabulary” because they assume that students already know the word. Sometimes students may not know the word at all, or have a very limited understanding of the word. Yet these academic words are so important and many texts will not have enough contextual clues for these words, meaning it is very important for teachers to help students access the academic vocabulary through other means than simply context clues. An excellent resource mentioned by Fisher is the Academic Word List (Coxhead 2000) and this list is a good place to start when deciding what words are worthy of individual focus and attention.
  5. Words of the Week. Breaking down words. Quite literally, the word parts are important (think prefix, suffix, and roots) and students do need to learn the parts of the words. Examining word parts will help students discover and understand relationships between words with similar parts; this can also be an opportunity for students to connect their learning with the knowledge of their primary language, as English shares many Latin based affixes and roots with other Latin-based languages. Words of the Week (WOW) is one program that tackles a different affix or root each week, and this may be helpful for your school and classroom in addressing the vocabulary needs of English learners.

Grammar – “It Is Blue?”

Grammar skills are extremely important in communicating ideas in standard academic English and formal grammar instruction should be part of a successful ELL program. There are many possibilities for teaching grammar with your ELL students – ideas that are far more successful and more fun than diagramming sentences and filling in worksheets!

Why is grammar so important for English language learners? First of all, students need to be able to apply the rules of the English language consistently and accurately. Memorizing rules is simply not adequate; this is one of the reasons that it is vital to teach grammar in context. When it is decontextualized, grammar instruction is not effective. Rather, using students’ own writing as the basis for grammar lessons actually results in increased knowledge and understanding for the students. Students then use the rules that they learn in their own writing, cementing their understanding of the grammar. Fisher outlines three instructional strategies to help students improve their grammar in context and using authentic writing as a basis.

  • Generative Sentences

This idea calls for students to generate sentences with a specific strategy in mind. They can expand their sentences and vocabulary in a meaningful that will ultimately help them with their understanding of the English language. Teachers can use specific word placement, word limits and other requirements to help students focus on precise language use and effective sentences. This activity is also effective in vocabulary development, as teachers can use key vocabulary words as part of the generative sentence activity.

  • Sentence Combining

Combining sentences is a creative way to address grammar. What I love about sentence combining is that you can show students how to use rules in authentic writing – not a “canned” grammar activity that is decontextualized and isolated from “real” writing. Sentence combining can help you teach punctuation, compound sentences (the run-on sentence!), subordination, reduction and apposition. Students can use their own writing while they examine individual sentences, looking for effective means of combining and reconfiguring sentences in a way that improves their writing fluency. This can be a time consuming process and it is often best done in teacher-student writing conferences. The benefits of this strategy are huge and you can see the improved writing immediately! Fisher also includes some excellent student examples that help clarify the process.

  • Sentence Syntax Surgery

I love the name of this strategy. Writers are like surgeons, cutting apart sentences and rearranging them in the correct English sequence. Students learn syntax by manipulating the words and creating a grammatically correct sentence. This is especially effective with students at the Expanding and Bridging levels. It is also hands-on, giving students the opportunity to literally move the sentence around, which gives them a different experience than simply a paper and pencil or word processing program. For some students, the ability to pick up the word and move it, then try the sentence out loud, will help them find the correct syntax and further their understanding of the grammatical concept at hand.

Vocabulary and grammar are the first two instructional focuses of this book – and then we move to fluency and comprehension – Post II.

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