Do You Make It Meaningful for Your Language Learners?


Think of the greatest teacher you have ever had.  The teacher that was able to teach you the most - even concepts that were difficult or seemed disconnected to you.  What was it about them that enabled them to reach you?  Connect with you?  The descriptors for great teachers are often "passionate" "kind" "really cared about me" and usually something to the effect of they "made it make sense" or "they made it meaningful."  Making curriculum and language meaningful is incredibly important and the best way we can do that for language learners is to connect what they already know to the new language and content they must learn next.

The College Board issued a 2012 report that synthesizes numerous reviews of effective instruction for ELLs with a focus on middle and high school aged students.  The principles gleaned from the studies reviewed are listed below.  It is noteworthy that four of the nine principles encourage cultural and/or linguistic relevancy as key to effective practice.  I think that the simple practice of assuring that students can make connections from their own lives and their own languages to what they are learning is too often lost in our work with language learners.  Making these connections requires that: 1) We know our students and their lives outside of school; 2) We create our own curriculum or modify the curriculum we have to make it meaningful to our students.

Principle 1: Implement Challenging Curriculum with High Expectations

A curriculum designed for the ELLs should include not only basic skills and basic thinking, but also higher level thinking. Teachers should challenge ELLs on the content being taught and establish high expectations for them.

Principle 2: Design Standard Academic Content and Make It More Accessible

When designing academic content for ELLs, teachers should make sure that they keep the standards for academic content while using every possible means to make it more accessible to students. The language of the teaching materials should be authentic and culturally relevant.

Principle 3: Offer Explicit and Culturally Relevant Instruction

Teachers should take into account students’ background knowledge and culture and make their instruction culturally relevant. Teachers should understand the English language developmental levels of their students and select the appropriate instructional strategies for each level.

Principle 4: Support Metacognitive Strategies and Specific Learning Strategies

Teachers should make explicit metacognitive and specific learning strategies for ELLs. They should make sure that students understand the strategies and know when and where it is appropriate to apply the strategy. Teachers should teach students how to use their metacognitive strategies to help with their learning even when their instructional goals are focusing on the academic content.

Principle 5: Use ELLs’ First Language Strategically with Difficult Concepts

Teachers should view the first languages of the ELLs as a resource and use them strategically, if possible. The use of the first language will benefit those ELLs who have received some formal education in their first language.

Principle 6: Teach Vocabulary Within Multiple Contexts

Teachers should pay attention not only to breadth but also to depth and association of vocabulary learning. They should embed words in multiple contexts and use them frequently in class.

Principle 7: Build Reading Comprehension Ability

Teachers should adopt the instructional practices they use with native English speakers to improve ELLs’ reading comprehension. Reading aloud frequently, connecting reading materials with ELLs’ cultural background knowledge as well as content background knowledge and teaching reading in both English and the students’ first language may be additional helpful strategies.

Principle 8: Provide Strong Oral and Written Language Models for Students to Follow

Teachers should cultivate students’ ability to use oral English and create opportunities for them to use it. ELLs should communicate with teachers rather than solely with their English- speaking peers. Before asking ELLs to produce English either in oral or written form, teachers should set a good model for ELLs to follow.

Principle 9: Integrate Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Skills

Teachers should integrate reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills in their teaching. They should teach ELLs to simultaneously develop their four language skills with academic English. They should not only provide extensive English input for ELLs — that is, chances to read and listen to English — but also create more opportunities for them to use English. 

(Li, J. 2012, Principles of Effective English Language Learner Pedagogy, The College Board, Research in Review)

Tricia Gallagher-Geurtsen
Tricia Gallagher-Geurtsen


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