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Response: 'Every Teacher Is A Language Teacher'

(This post is the last post in a two-part series.  You can see Part One here.)

This week's question is:

What are the best strategies to use when teaching English Language Learners in content classes?

The question above is my simplified version of the actual one sent by a teacher who requested anonymity.  Here is what was submitted:

I'm at my start of second school year teaching 8th grade social studies which is tested! My population of Spanish dominant students is the majority. Social studies was never taught at the elementary level. I feel hopeless. I'm using different strategies that include foldables class discussions essential questioning visuals primary sources ...etc etc!! I cant reach them! Sometimes I wonder if its me..other teachers say I work too hard. But I really want my student to learn about history but I have to be both a English teacher and social studies teacher at same time. I need help!


Part One in this series shared responses from four experienced educators: Judie Haynes, Mary Ann Zehr, Bárbara C. Cruz and Stephen J. Thornton.  You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Judie and Mary Ann on my BAM! Radio Show.

Today's guests are Margo Gottlieb, Maria Montalvo-Balbed, and Tracey Takuhama-Espinosa.  In addition, I've shared responses from readers.

Response From Margo Gottlieb

Margo Gottlieb is lead developer for WIDA at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and director, assessment and evaluation, at the Illinois Resource Center, Arlington Heights. Her latest publications include co-authoring and co-editing a compendium of books by Corwin on Academic Language in Diverse Classrooms; a foundational book, Definitions and Contexts, and six others, Promoting Content and Language Learning, English Language Arts and Mathematics for grade-levels K-2, 3-5, and 6-8:

Around the country, linguistically and cultural diversity is becoming part of the classroom mosaic. For English language learners to succeed academically, teachers must interweave the academic language of each discipline into their instruction. As educators begin a new school year, here are some tips for content teachers.

  1. Partner with a language teacher in co-planning, co-constructing, and co-teaching as you share instruction, engage in classroom assessment, and assume joint responsibility for your language learners.
  1. Incorporate the students' linguistic and cultural resources and expertise into lessons and units of learning so that all students can engage in authentic and meaningful learning experiences.
  1. Use college & career readiness standards in conjunction with language development standards to gain a better understanding of the developmental and linguistic pathways to student achievement.
  1. Pair the standards-referenced skills and concepts of a topic or theme with the academic language required of those understandings.
  1. Formulate content and language targets to guide teaching and learning for a unit for all students. These targets provide a global view of key learning and guide the creation of objectives for individual or related lessons.
  1. Maintain grade-level rigor of the content while differentiate language according to the students' levels of language proficiency. Differentiation includes consideration for the students' literacy in their home language as a scaffold for English language development and as a means to communicate conceptual knowledge.
  1. Center on academic language use within and across language domains, such as during interpretative listening, interactive reading, academic conversations, and writing across the curriculum.
  1. Plan, collect, analyze, interpret, and act on evidence for student learning through performance assessment that occurs within and across lessons.
  1. Rely on students as contributors to and evaluators of their own learning as they engage in self-reflection and peer assessment.
  1. Don't forget that school is a unique place where every teacher is a language teacher and every student is a language learner.

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Response From Maria Montalvo-Balbed

Maria Montalvo-Balbed has developed and taught numerous professional development classes in the areas of diversity, cultural literacy development, and authentic engagement of English learners. She is a member of the ASCD Faculty and the Fisher and Frey Cadre, where she works with schools and districts to implement customized, research-based curricula and instructional strategies:

Of course, it goes without saying that strategies are only the best strategies when they are aligned to the learning purpose. To learn more, see ASCD FIT Model authors Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey.  

I do think the following areas of support are critical to a high functioning classroom that supports the needs of ELLs:

  • Systematic practice of the academic and social discourse. See Jeff Zwiers work for specific strategies on Academic Conversations.
  • Students need to be engaged in continuous and strategic practice of listening, speaking, reading and writing in all courses; not just in Language Arts.
  • The classroom teacher must be highly aware of how to set up social and metacognitive supports for ELLs. Teachers can easily do this by modeling behaviors, think-alouds, and processes, strategies for reading and writing and speaking in different contexts and to different audiences. The language overload of any course for ELLs requires that teachers use language scaffolds intentionally (See Virginia Rojas' toolkit for great ideas). Teachers must be very strategic about teaching ELLs (See ASCD Whole Child Education tenets).
  • The systematic use of visuals/non-linguistic supports.

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Response From Tracey Takuhama-Espinosa

Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, PhD, is Dean of the Faculty of Education at the Universidad de las Américas in Quito, Ecuador. She serves on an expert panel for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development to determine Teachers' New Pedagogical Knowledge, including the influence of neuroscience and technology on education, and is professor of a course on the "Neuroscience of Learning and Sustained Change" at Harvard University. She is the author of Making Classrooms Better: 50 Practical Applications of Mind, Brain, and Education Science (W. W. Norton; 2014) and Mind, Brain, and Education Science: A Comprehensive Guide to the New Brain-Based Teaching (W. W. Norton; 2010). Visit her at traceytokuhama.com:

While activities are important and this teacher is determined to find the right activities to reach her ELL 8th grade social studies students, activities are only as effective as the planning context in which they are devised.

Great ELL teachers are simply great teachers. A great teacher knows how to identify desired results before choosing an activity. The teacher should identify the objectives of each class and then try to express these objectives as competencies, or the combination of knowledge (dates, facts, formulas, people, places, etc.), skills, and attitudes (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). Once clear and concise objectives have been identified, the teacher can then decide what she will accept as evidence that she is reaching these objectives, otherwise known as her evaluation criteria. Finally, she can then consider what activities to undertake. Choosing the activities ("foldables, class discussions, essential questioning, visuals, primary sources" or others) should depend upon the objectives of the class and cannot be chosen in a vacuum. It is likely that this teacher is not meeting the success she hopes for and is working harder than her students because she has not yet identified the main objective of each class and aligned her activities accordingly.

Language skills can be learned through content. Actually, the best way to go about improving English is by teaching it through meaningful content (Snow, Met & Genesee, 1989). One key way to teach is to focus on authentic lesson planning in which the context of objectives coincides with students' own interests. The great challenge of U.S. state curricula is its focus on heavily content-based ideas ("Analyze how the American Revolution effected other nations, especially France"; "Describe the nation's blend of civic republicanism, classical liberal principles, and English parliamentary traditions" [California State Curriculum, Grade 8, 2009, p.33]), rather than on greater, global, yet personal concepts ("Why do nations go to war?"; "What's worth fighting for?"; "How does being free as a person differ from a nation being free?"). For example, devising a debate on "what's worth fighting for?" and then relating it to the American Revolution would be a far more effective way to approach the 8th grade curriculum than through "foldables" or "visuals." Depending on the objective, different activities will be most appropriate.

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Responses From Readers

Thanks to Margo, Maria and Tracey, and to readers,  for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected].When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first three years of blog, you can see a categorized list below. You won't see posts from school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking on the monthly archives link on this blog's sidebar:

Classroom Management Advice

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Teaching Social Studies

Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

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Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form.  It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Watch for the next "question-of-the-week" in a few days...

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