Supporting English Learners at the High School Level
Supporting English Learners at the High School Level
Author: Elizabeth Sawyer Date of Posting: February 2022 Institution: American College of Education Program: M.Ed. ESL/Bilingual Education (Original Contribution for Capstone)
Teachers who support English Learners (ELs) in their classrooms face many challenges and juggle many variables when planning effective curriculum. On top of the multitude of day-to-day teaching tasks, teachers of ELs must consider: What does the research say about the process of language acquisition? What stages are our students currently at? How can we be culturally sensitive and responsive in a diverse classroom? What kinds of backgrounds are our students coming from? What instructional strategies have been shown to be effective, and which would make sense for our own classrooms?
A significant added challenge for students at the high school level is time. Students may only have a few years before graduation and bell schedules can be limiting. How can we ensure that we are supporting our students’ language development and academic development simultaneously with such limited instructional time? How can we ensure that our ELs are learning both conversational language and academic language, while also learning the content of their subject classes?
One of the most wonderful and challenging things about teaching ESL is that the possibilities for learning activities are seemingly endless. Gaining an understanding of the stages of language acquisition, the program models available, and some research-based instructional strategies is helpful to narrow down the options, more effectively plan, and overall better support our ELs.
Stages of Language Acquisition
In order to effectively support ELs, teachers must have at least a basic understanding of how humans acquire a second language. Understanding what can realistically be expected of a typical EL in each stage of language acquisition is essential for planning and for making students feel, and be, successful. When planning lessons and activities, teachers must ask themselves, “What stage of language acquisition is this learner at? How much new vocabulary can he reasonably handle? What can I reasonably ask him to do?”
To understand the stages of language acquisition, it's helpful to use The Natural Approach, developed by Dr. Stephen Krashen and Tracy Terrell (1983), as it lays out the language acquisition process into four stages with clear implications for the classroom. Click on a stage to read a more detailed description:
Stage 1: Pre-Production
The first stage of language acquisition as defined by the Natural Approach is the “pre-production” stage (Krashen & Terrell, 1983). At this stage, learners do not actually produce any verbal language, however, they are actively listening and absorbing linguistic input. This stage is often called the Silent Period and strategies and activities should be planned to accommodate. Teachers must understand that although learners are not producing language at this stage, they are indeed learning, and should not be forced to speak. Learners should be provided with lots of comprehensible input and a variety of opportunities to demonstrate understanding in non-verbal, non-threatening ways.
An effective strategy for this stage would be to incorporate a Total Physical Response (TPR) activity using the unit vocabulary. TPR activities use physical movements and repetition of simple vocabulary, usually commands, such as “Stand up”, “Sit down”, or “Point to”. For example, the instructor might first start by introducing a small handful of the most basic necessary vocabulary for a unit with visuals or props. For instance, the instructor might repeat the words several times, while holding up large, clear visuals and pointing. Once students have been exposed to many repetitions of the new vocabulary, the instructor may modify the activity to make it more interesting and to assess for comprehension non-verbally. For instance, the instructor might hold up two of the visuals, say one of them out loud, and have students point to the one they think is correct. The instructor could also post the visuals around the classroom, shout out one of the words, and have students move to touch the correct visual to demonstrate comprehension. Notice that in all of these TPR activities students are not being put individually on the spot because they are moving as a group. This intentionally keeps learners’ affective filters low, allowing them to more successfully absorb the new linguistic input, as explained in Krashen’s Affective Filter Hypothesis (Krashen, 1982). Also, the teacher should be sure to give lots of positive feedback and encouragement throughout the entire process, always keeping in mind her body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice in order to maintain a warm, welcoming atmosphere (Park, 2014).
Stage 2: Early Production
The second stage of language acquisition is called the "early production” stage. During this stage, students are just beginning to produce language, and their speech is usually limited to single words and short phrases. At this stage, activities can be planned that encourage students to start demonstrating comprehension of new vocabulary both non-verbally and verbally. Students can complete activities such as repeating new vocabulary words, answering yes/no questions, or choosing one option over another (verbally or non-verbally).
An activity for the Early Production stage might use visuals similar to those that were used in the silent period, however, students can start to interact with them in slightly more complex ways. Students can be expected to produce one or two word answers to very simple questions. Incorporating proper nouns (familiar names of people, places, or brands) makes the activity more comprehensible and interesting.
Stage 3: Speech Emergence
The third stage of language acquisition according to the Natural Approach is called “speech emergence” (Krashen & Terrell, 1983). During this stage, learners are beginning to produce original sentences and communicate their messages more fluently. Learners at this stage have about 3,000 vocabulary words and are learning more rapidly. Although errors may be frequent, learners are taking more risks and generally getting their messages across. Strategies for learners at this stage should still incorporate a lot of repetition and a variety of ways for learners to demonstrate comprehension, verbally and non-verbally. However, learners can now start to respond to and interact with slightly more complex language.
Because learners’ language abilities are increasing so much in this stage, teachers can implement a much wider variety of activities and strategies. Learners should be asked to work more frequently with peers, completing tasks such as “comparing sets of pictures and noting similarities and differences… discovering missing features in a map or picture; one learner communicating behind a screen to another learner and giving instructions on how to draw a picture or shape, or how to complete a map” (Matamoros-González, Rojas, Romero, Vera-Quiñonez, Soto, 2017). Teachers should continue to check for understanding frequently and give lots of additional support to individual learners as needed.
Stage 4: Intermediate Fluency
The final stage of language acquisition according to the Natural Approach is called “intermediate fluency” (Krashen & Terrell, 1983). At this stage, learners typically have around 6,000 vocabulary words, are demonstrating a high level of comprehension, and are beginning to refine their accuracy in the new language. During this period it is important for teachers to understand the difference between Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP), as defined by Jim Cummins (1999). While students at this stage may be communicating well socially, they still need a lot of additional support with academic language.
Activities for the intermediate fluency stage should require students to work with peers and communicate information in both spoken and written format. Students should be expected to produce complete sentences and answer more complicated questions. However, teachers should still be careful to make their own language comprehensible, to keep in mind student backgrounds and prior knowledge of concepts, to minimize error correction, and to provide lots of support and emotional scaffolding (i.e. making sure students feel welcome, comfortable, secure, and happy) as needed (Park, 2014). Again, the possibilities for activities are endless and depend only on the creativity of the instructor.
The research findings of Dr. Stephen Krashen and Dr. Virigina Collier in the field of second language acquisition have been extremely influential for teachers of ELs. For example, Krashen's:
Acquisition vs. Learning Hypothesis clarifies the difference between language learning (conscious) and language acquisition (subconscious) (Krashen, 1982)
Comprehensible Input Hypothesis suggests that language learners must receive linguistic input that is just beyond their current proficiency level and easily understood in order to acquire the language (Krashen, 1982).
Affective Filter Hypothesis explains that the learner’s affective filter must be low in order to be able to absorb linguistic input and acquire language, meaning, the learner must not be stressed or anxious (Krashen, 1982).
Collier’s findings go hand in hand with Krashen’s. Her Prism Model illustrates the complex and interwoven developmental factors that should be taken into account when teaching ELs. According to this model, we must not address language acquisition in a vacuum; instead, we must consider all developmental aspects of the student together — linguistic, cognitive, academic, social, and cultural. If focus is placed on only one developmental factor at a time, the learner’s overall growth will suffer (Thomas & Collier, 1997).
Collier’s research also clarifies the positive correlation between native language (L1) competency and second language (L2) competency. Essentially, a young learner will acquire a second language more easily than his peers if he is more proficient in his native language (Thomas & Collier, 1997). These research findings have clear implications for the ESL classroom.
A variety of program options are available to support ELs. When choosing which type of program to implement, it is important to consider several important variables: the demographics of the school or district, the characteristics of the students, and the resources available (Rennie, 1997). To help us navigate the complexities of choosing a program for our school, we might ask ourselves the following questions.
How big is the district or school, and how many different languages are represented? How are those numbers distributed across the grade levels?
Who are our EL students? Where are they from? What are their backgrounds, linguistically, culturally, and academically?
What resources are available to us? Do we have teachers who are certified to support EL students? Do we have teachers or aides who speak the native languages of our ELs?
Additive & Subtractive Program Models
ESL and bilingual education models generally follow one of two methods: subtractive or additive. In a subtractive model, the students’ native languages (L1) are not used in instruction and the focus is on rapid acquisition of the new language (L2) - English. In an additive model, the L1 is seen as an asset and as an essential part of the students’ L2 development and overall academic experience.
Subtractive, or remedial, language programs for ELs focus on immersing students in the L2 (English) without any concern for the students’ native languages. Remedial program models include intensive English classes, English as a second language (ESL) pullout, ESL sheltered instruction (when methods do not use the L1), structured English immersion, and transitional bilingual education (Collier & Thomas, 2004). Because the focus of these programs is to get students communicating in English as quickly as possible, students often miss out on important content, creating an achievement gap that widens with each passing year (Collier & Thomas, 2004).
Additive, or enrichment, programs, on the other hand, value students’ native languages as an asset to the educational experience and regularly incorporate them into instruction. “Dual language enrichment models are the curricular mainstream taught through two languages. Teachers in these bilingual classes create the cognitive challenge through thematic units of the core academic curriculum, focused on real-world problem solving that stimulate students to make more than one year’s progress every year, in both languages” (Collier & Thomas, 2004). In this way, students do not miss out on academic content, and they develop their language abilities and literacy skills in both languages throughout the process, thus preventing the achievement gap from widening (Collier & Thomas, 2004).
The research shows that the most effective way to support our students who are learning English is through an additive bilingual language program (Collier & Thomas, 2004). In an additive program, students build content knowledge in both the L1 and L2 simultaneously, thereby closing the academic achievement gap and acquiring English at the same time (Collier & Thomas, 2004).
Strategies for Supporting ELs
Certain kinds of learning activities have been identified as particularly effective when working with ELs, such as Cooperative Learning activities and Whole Language activities. These activities encourage students to use all four language modalities (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) while encouraging peer collaboration and appreciation of students’ diverse prior knowledge and experience.
Thematic, Interdisciplinary Units
Unlike the traditional educational system where studies are divided and categorized into separate subjects that do not often mix, the interdisciplinary approach fosters a more organic, real-world way of thinking in which all subjects are connected and interrelated. Today, the interdisciplinary approach is generally accepted as an effective instructional strategy. The approach is particularly beneficial when working with ELs, as it combines content and language in a variety of meaningful contexts.
When planning lessons for ELs, interdisciplinary, thematic units are the most effective route. Interdisciplinary units make it easy to incorporate strategies and learning activities such as Cooperative Learning and Whole Language activities. These activities not only give ELs the academic support they need to acquire literacy and communication skills in their new language, they also foster the appreciation of cultural and linguistic diversity and make students from diverse backgrounds feel valued.
Cooperative learning is “a teaching strategy where small teams, each with students of different levels of ability, use a variety of learning activities to improve their understanding of a subject. Each member of the team is not only responsible for learning what is taught but also for helping teammates learn” (Research Spotlight on Cooperative Learning, n.d.). Cooperative learning allows students to work together with peers to acquire literacy and communication skills in their new language while also developing social skills and social language.
Whole Language Aprroach
Learning activities should strive to incorporate all aspects of language together (reading, writing, speaking, and listening). This is called the Whole Language approach. When using the Whole Language approach, “language is viewed as a whole and should be taught as such... reading, writing, listening, and speaking are taught together, rather than in isolation” (Patzelt, 1995). Furthermore, “whole language learning is based on real texts and real life experiences. Language is learned through usage, similar to the way a baby learns language... The expression of meaning is the most important goal of any language activity” (Patzelt, 1995).
SIOP (Sheltered Instruction)
SIOP stands for “Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol”, and refers to a set of strategies for supporting students’ academic skills, content knowledge, and language acquisition simultaneously (Krulatz, 2014). This model is based upon six fundamental steps, including instructional strategies such as “Building Background”, providing comprehensible input, allowing time for student interaction and practice/application of new learning, as well as review and assessment (Krulatz, 2014). For more information on SIOP, click here.
“Translanguaging is based on the idea that emergent bilinguals regularly and naturally use all of their languages to make meaning in the world” (Pacheco & Miller, 2016). The concept of “translanguaging” is a break from the traditional idea that languages should be separated in the classroom (Velasco & García, 2014). Essentially, students are able to use all of the languages they possess in order to process and demonstrate their new learning.
“Translanguaging can help emergent bilinguals in a variety of ways, such as facilitating access to background knowledge… assisting with the acquisition of new vocabulary… strengthening understandings about features of language… and promoting the use of effective reading strategies” (Pacheco & Miller, 2016). Furthermore, “translanguaging during the writing process—in planning, drafting, and production—is particularly important for bilingual students as they learn to self-regulate their complex linguistic repertoire” (Velasco & García, 2014).
Not only does translanguaging promote and facilitate transfer of skills from L1 to L2, it also shows the value of students’ diverse languages and cultures, helping to foster their acceptance and respect in the school setting.
Within any ESL or bilingual program, teachers should use strategies to teach students metacognitive skills. When instructors explicitly teach students to reflect and think about their thinking, they are essentially teaching them “how to learn more effectively and efficiently”, which can help accelerate students’ academic language learning (Chamot, 2008).
"When students develop metacognition, the awareness of the learning processes and strategies that lead to success, they are more likely to plan how to proceed with a learning task, monitor their own performance on an ongoing basis, find solutions to problems encountered, and evaluate themselves upon task completion” (Chamot, 2008).
Considering the demographics of our small-but-slowly-increasing EL population, the current faculty resources at our school, and the fact that most EL students are Spanish-speakers, a combination of ESL and Transitional Bilingual Services are recommended.
A certified Bilingual teacher, fluent in both English and Spanish, would provide content instruction and support in both languages for one period of the day. Ideally, this teacher would have her own classroom that could serve as a “Bilingual Resource Center” where students could come at any time of the day to meet with other ELs or to receive support (Rennie, 1997). The goal of the daily bilingual lessons would be to support students in their regular classes with corresponding content lessons in the L1. The Bilingual teacher could also assist regular classroom teachers with content-focused materials and resources in the L1, as well as strategies for working with students in class.
Students would spend the rest of the day in regular classes, but would receive “Sheltered English” or “Structured Immersion” ESL supports. This means that the classroom teachers would “use English as the medium for providing content area instruction, adapting their language to the proficiency level of the students. They may also use gestures and visual aids to help students understand” (Rennie, 1997). Classroom teachers would receive professional development to be trained in these strategies and to understand their students’ language needs.
Paraprofessionals or bilingual peer tutors could also be used to assist students in mainstream classes as needed, incorporating the L1 as necessary for student comprehension and for assessment.
All faculty working with EL students throughout the day would communicate and collaborate often with the bilingual teacher, sharing resources and instructional strategies, and gathering and analyzing assessment data to make decisions that best serve students.
These recommendations would dramatically improve academic outcomes for ELs at the high school level:
Hiring more qualified, professional, multi-lingual faculty would allow the school to better understand their EL students’ backgrounds and meet their diverse needs.
Students would have a safe place to gather together, socialize with peers who speak their language, and receive support from a trusted adult who also speaks their language.
The bilingual teacher would be able to spend time working more closely with students who have suffered interruptions in their formal education and need one-on-one literacy tutoring (Calderon, Slavin & Sanchez, 2011).
In this Bilingual Resource Center, the students’ L1 would be highly valued and used for instruction.
Communication with parents and families who speak only the L1 would be greatly improved.
Regular classroom teachers would feel less alone and less overwhelmed knowing that they have a person to go to for assistance with their EL students.
Overall, EL students would be better supported linguistically, socially, and academically.
In the end, research shows that what matters most is not necessarily the type of program chosen to support EL students, rather, the quality of the instruction (Murphy, 2014). Whether or not these specific recommendations are put into effect, in order to improve EL outcomes, schools must hire qualified, professional, caring, and ideally multilingual teachers and tutors to work with students. Aides and regular classroom teachers must receive professional development, training, and ongoing support. Furthermore, schools should make it a priority to visibly value our EL students’ backgrounds and languages, and to incorporate them into instruction.
For, even if a school’s ESL program is primarily English immersion, “it is critical for teachers to show respect for the student’s primary language and home culture” (Calderon, Slavin & Sanchez, 2011).
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