Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Summer PD Series: Academic Language Demands for ELLs

I hope all my US teachers had a fabulous Independence Day! Today continues our Summer PD series with the third installment- Academic Language Demands for ELLs. 

When working with ELLs, we not only need to consider the content that we want them to learn, but the language they need to acquire in order to access the content and be successful with the lesson. In order to be sure that we are providing appropriate scaffolds and meeting students’ language learning needs, it is essential that we take time to analyze the language demands involved in each lesson.

Since I work in a WIDA state, I use the academic language features that WIDA has laid out in order to help me break down the language demands in a lesson. Here are the components that WIDA considers, and the questions that I ask myself when planning a lesson:
  • Vocabulary Usage (Word Level)- What sort of vocabulary must be learned in order for students to access the content and participate in the lesson? What vocabulary is essential for students at all levels of language proficiency? What vocabulary could be useful to teach students at each level to extend their vocabulary beyond the essential terms?
  • Language Forms and Conventions (Sentence Level)- What parts of speech or grammatical structures are used when talking or writing about the topic? When listening to or reading information? Consider grammatical structures, punctuation/conventions, parts of speech, and verb tenses.
  • Linguistic Complexity (Discourse Level)- What organizational patterns are used? How much language do you expect students to produce or process? What sorts of transitions are used?

Take a look at the language analysis chart below for a 4th grade lesson on equivalent fractions.

Levels 1-2
Levels 3-5
All levels
Vocabulary Usage
fraction names:
one-fourth, one-half, three-eighths
greater than, less than, smaller than, bigger than, comparison
compare, denominator, equal, equivalent, fraction, numerator, part, whole
Language Forms and Conventions
- Short, simple sentences

-Compound sentences
-Use of conjunctions, such as “because” or “since” to connect thoughts
-use of comparatives, such as: greater than, bigger than, smaller than

-Present tense verbs
-correct use of is, is not, are and are not
Linguistic Complexity
-no use of transitions to connect sentences and phrases
-paragraph format with cohesiveness and smooth transitions

¼ is equivalent to 4/8.
1/3 is not equivalent to 4/6.
½, 2/4, 4/8 and 8/16 are all equivalent fractions.
When you compare ½ and 5/8 using fraction strips, you find that they are not equivalent because 5/8 is larger than ½.

-Sentence frames (simple sentences)
-Explicit instruction in the correct use of “is” and “are”
-Sentence frames (compound sentences)
-Explicit instruction in using conjunctions to create compound sentences
Word bank
As you can see, there’s actually quite a lot of language involved in a lesson about fractions, and students must be able to understand and use this language to be able to fully access the content of the lesson. The expectations for each level are shaped by the WIDA performance definitions for each level, and organizing my thoughts into a chart like this also allows me to determine the most appropriate supports or scaffolds to put in place for each level, as well as where brief but explicit instruction in the use of certain language structures might be needed.

I also advocate sharing this chart with mainstream teachers. Language growth and development is not solely the domain of the ESOL specialist- we all share this task. Providing a completed chart to teachers gives them concrete examples of the types of language they should expect students to process and produce during the lesson, as well as suggestions for supports they can provide. Teaching mainstream classroom teachers to use this chart to analyze the language demand of a lesson allows them a way to directly support the language growth of the ELLs in their own classrooms.

Once you’ve fully analyzed the language demands of a lesson and put appropriate supports in place, be ready to watch students soar!

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