Language, literacy and knowledge for ELLs

Adolescent English Language Learners need explicit instruction in language and literacy, particularly to help them with the challenges they face in middle and high school. To meet their needs, schools need an integrated approach, writes Margarita Calderón

SCHOOL 319 was established in New York in 2005, to replace a school that was closed due to poor performance. Despite having the same students, School 319 was last year recognized as the middle school where students had made the most improvement in the city! This success may be attributed to their approach to literacy. The halls are filled with newspaper clippings, comments from students about current affairs, and even vines hanging from the ceiling with prepositional long phrases, idioms, and other processing words, words that about 40% of the students are still learning. Inside the classrooms, English Language Learners (ELLs) receive strong support. For example, in math, vocabulary is pre-taught before lessons are presented, and at the end of the session students take a test on an interactive whiteboard and cheer if they see “100% correct” for the class. Specialist ELL teachers also sit in on lessons, and offer feedback to teachers.

Supporting ELLs in this way is vital. There are many types of texts that upper elementary and middle and high school students are expected to read, write, and comprehend; not only literature (e.g., poetry, novels, essays) but also scientific writing, historical documents, a range of mathematical texts, and reference material. This variety is complicated enough for mainstream students, but triples in complexity for those with English as a Second Language.

A recent report from the U.S. National Literacy Panel on Language Minority Children and Youth found that the components necessary for successful reading comprehension for mainstream students also become the building blocks for ELL language and literacy development: phonemic awareness, decoding, fluency, vocabulary, background knowledge, and comprehension. However, the panel found that ELLs need more explicit instruction and more time for comprehension.

The diversity of ELLs

Adolescent ELLs are diverse. They differ in levels of oral English, literacy ability in both their native language and English, cultural backgrounds, and schooling experience. They may be newcomers with interrupted formal education in their country, newcomers who were highly schooled in another country, or those who have grown up here and have conversational language abilities in English but lack academic language proficiency. Unfortunately, these students are typically placed in the same classroom with teachers who have not had sufficient preparation for addressing this variety of needs.

The diversity of ELLs and their instructional needs were the focus of a four-year study, funded by the Carnegie Corporation, in 20 New York middle and high schools. Expediting Comprehension for English Language Learners (ExC-ELL) was designed as a professional development program for mainstream teachers of math, science, social studies, and language arts. Intensive professional development by experts helped teachers integrate vocabulary and reading comprehension skills development into daily lessons. At the same time, Reading Instructional Goals for Older Readers (RIGOR), a curriculum for middle and high school ELLs reading at a K-2 level, was developed as an intensive intervention for children with low literacy levels in their native language and other struggling readers. The program used science and social studies leveled readers to develop reading skills and basic and academic language.

Both ExC-ELL and RIGOR emphasize explicit instruction of vocabulary, reading comprehension strategies, and writing templates for content instruction. The programs were piloted with 900 students from diverse language backgrounds, and matched schools were selected as “control groups” (where students were taught as normal). The schools that implemented ExC-ELL and RIGOR school-wide moved from low-performing to high-performing schools in two years.

Vocabulary instruction as the basis of success

Extensive explicit vocabulary instruction became the basis of ELL success in these schools. In our observational studies we found that the larger the vocabulary, the deeper the comprehension – and, thereby, the higher the test scores. Without understanding 80 to 90% of the words in sentences or tests, a student could not grasp the concepts to be learned or respond to questions, much less enjoy reading. Furthermore, without specific academic vocabulary (e.g., for math or science), ELLs could not keep up with their subject classes.

There were also non-ELLs who were struggling readers because their word knowledge was limited. Teachers reported that teaching rich vocabulary and reading integrated into math, science, and social studies helped all students perform better.

Instructional strategies were adapted

Many of the instructional approaches used to teach vocabulary to mainstream students were adapted or changed to guide the teachers’ delivery and lesson plans:

  • Teach important words before reading, not after;
  • Teach as many words as possible before, during, and after reading;
  • Teach simple everyday words (Tier 1) along with information processing words (Tier 2), and content specific/academic words (Tier 3);
  • Use new words within the context of reading, talking, and writing in the same class period. Even level 1 students can begin reading and writing from day one;
  • Emphasize and use lexical items (e.g., tense, root, affixes, phrasal and idiomatic uses) as strategic learning tools;
  • Teach ELLs key words for a reading assignment, testing them at the end;
  • Avoid sending ELLs to look up words in the dictionary. This doesn’t help; and
  • Avoid having a peer translate for ELLs – this doesn’t help either.

Explicit vocabulary instruction for ELLs became a seven-step process that could be taught as a whole class or small group process. The teachers used PowerPoint presentations and interactive whiteboards to present the steps:

  1. Teacher says and shows the word, and asks students to repeat three times;
  2. Teacher reads and shows the word in a sentence (context) from the text;
  3. Teacher provides the definition(s);
  4. Teacher explains meaning with student-friendly definitions or gives an example that students can relate to;
  5. Teacher engages 100% of the students in ways to orally use the word and concept (e.g., Turn to your partner and share how…; Which do you prefer…? Answer in a complete sentence…). Writing the word, drawing, or other word activities should come after reading. Before reading, students need to use the word orally several times in a variety of ways;
  6. Teacher ends by highlighting an aspect of the word that might create difficulty: spelling, multiple meanings, cognates/ false cognates, prefixes, suffixes, base words, synonyms, antonyms, homophones, grammatical variations, etc. More in-depth word study will come later. The seven steps should be the opportunity for oral production on meaning, and exposure to the written word in context. Steps 1–6 should move quickly, with no more than 10 to 15 minutes spent in pre-teaching key vocabulary; and
  7. Teacher assigns peer reading with oral and written summarization activities, and further word study where ELLs can practice applying the new words.

ELLs read every day

ELLs need to read, discuss, and start some writing to anchor new words just learned. For ELLs in beginning stages, text should be broken into small segments. This way, they are reading something different every day but are engaged in greater analysis and application as they learn and apply new vocabulary, grammar and writing. Repetitive reading of the same long passages does not help ELLs develop fluency or comprehension.

Teacher modeling think alouds

It is important for teachers to conduct think alouds to model strategic reading. The reading comprehension strategies that benefit native English speakers are the same strategies ELLs need to develop: predict, determine important information, summarize, make inferences, visualize, ask and answer questions, make connections, and monitor comprehension. However, ELLs cannot be expected to make predictions, inferences, or visualize if they do not have sufficient words to understand, or the sentence starters or discourse protocols for making and testing predictions. It is easier for ELLs to begin with asking and answering questions, determining important information, summarization, and monitoring comprehension, and this strategy works especially well with a partner. Furthermore, using think alouds can benefit all students.

Anchoring reading and learning

Partner reading is more effective than silent reading for ELLs and works best immediately after the teacher models, when a strategy or flow of narrative is fresh in their minds. Alternating reading sentences aloud with another student, followed by a think aloud, is particularly effective. Cooperative learning also gives students opportunities to practice their new language in safe contexts with peers, and most language, literacy, and information processing activities lend themselves to cooperative learning.

The final piece in the sequence is writing about what is being learned. Small pieces of writing, related to what students are reading, can be introduced daily with one summative piece each week.

Recommendations from the principal

The principal of School 319 was asked how he turned it around. He cited extensive professional development, and expert coaching and peer coaching on teaching vocabulary and reading comprehension. Furthermore, he emphasized that as many schools have increasing populations of ELLs, all the teachers need opportunities to learn how to integrate language, literacy, and subject matter.

About the author

Margarita Calderón is a professor and senior research scientist at Johns Hopkins University. She is also a member of the National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children and Youth.

Further reading

August D & Shanahan T (eds), (2006) Developing Literacy in Second-language Learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Calderón M, (2007) Teaching Reading to English Language Learners, Grades 6-12, Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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May 2009