Last spring, I made the decision to go back to school in order to obtain a Master of Arts in Education degree and my teacher certification. (Needless to say, I only made it through one of the books on my summer reading list). Upon my completion of this program, I hope to teach English Language Arts at either a middle or high school. The rationale behind my decision to go back to school could be a post of its own, and maybe one day it will be. In the meantime, I will be sharing with the PALS community some of the work that I’ve done so far in my program. As a result, the content and the tone of my posts may be noticeably different from what I have covered in the past.
This week’s post will focus on the concept of linguistically responsive teaching strategies, which was the topic for my final paper in Development of English Language Learner (ELL) Students, one of the three courses I completed this summer. Lucas, Villegas, and Freedson-Gonzalez (2008) acknowledge, “many [English learners] face a daunting challenge in learning academic content and skills through English while still developing proficiency in English” (p. 361). One way to help English Learner (EL) students is by including linguistically responsive teaching strategies in a course’s daily instruction. These strategies include classroom activities, instructional methods, and assignments that combine explicit teaching of the English language with a course’s typical content. This post will first identify why it is important to utilize linguistically responsive teaching strategies in order to help ELs better learn Academic English (AE) before offering some suggestions for how to do so, based on current research.
Linguistically Responsive Teaching and Academic English
One of the reasons that AE is so challenging to learn is its abstract nature. Students can rely on visual cues, such as gesturing, when they are speaking a new language; however, those nonverbal cues simply do not exist when reading a text in isolation. Lucas et al. (2008) further describe, “The use of written text, which makes meaning increasingly dependent on language itself, adds another layer of abstraction” (p. 363). In addition, learning a course’s content often requires a working knowledge of sociocultural references, which makes understanding written language even more challenging for students who did not grow up learning these references. To this point, Murillo and Shaw (2016) argue that the development of academic literacy relies on students also learning “a set of social practices embedded in specific historical, linguistic, economic, and political contexts” (p. 315). Therefore, English instructors should not think of their curriculum as existing outside of these contexts when working with students who are learning the intricacies of the English language as they are enrolled in an English course.
It is also important for English instructors to understand that a student’s reading and writing skills develop in conjunction with each other. Grabe and Zhang (2016) describe, “Even though reading and writing are not explainable as mirror-image literacy skills, they have bidirectional developmental paths. They are two aspects of literacy abilities that mutually support each other” (p. 341). As a result, explicit instruction centering on reading and writing skills will improve an EL student’s ability to critically analyze a text and to write according to a variety of academic modes (Grabe & Zhang, 2016, p. 341). Daniel and Eley (2019) assert, “For these capabilities and ambitions to be realized and expanded, educators must give multilingual teens opportunities to engage in high-level thinking, reading, and writing” (p. 430). The following section of this post further elaborates on two strategies that facilitate this type of engagement: the use of deep scaffolding and the use of the semantic map combined with the connective press.
Linguistically Responsive Teaching Strategies
Although many teachers, both at the secondary and post-secondary level, often are required to teach specific texts or previously determined curriculum, they can still utilize linguistically responsive pedagogical strategies during their daily class sessions. Lucas et al. (2008) acknowledge, “mainstream classroom teachers must identify aspects of the language inherent in those tasks that are likely to pose the greatest challenge to the students” (p. 367). Explicitly teaching academic vocabulary to EL students, for example, helps them to better understand content objectives. This is an example of deep scaffolding, which specifically acknowledges that the strategies used to scaffold an assignment for native English speakers might not work for ELs (Brown et al., 2019). Other strategies that can be used in deep scaffolding include showing students what they already know and how it can apply to their writing process. For example, one teacher in “Powerful Participatory Literacy for English Learners” showed students that they have the ability to make a claim about a topic and support that claim with evidence by asking them to discuss their favorite foods. She placed their responses on a t-chart to highlight their claims and evidence before using this same strategy to critically think about a proposal to rezone their school, a local issue that her students were extremely invested in. This teacher then had her students watch videos and annotate newspaper articles about the rezoning proposal; if the article’s reading level was too high, she rewrote them using simpler language that preserved the article’s original meaning (Brown et al., 2019). In this example, elements of deep scaffolding included the use of t-charts, repetition, annotation, and translation. These strategies are examples of interventions that all English instructors can use to supplement their current lessons in order to better support their EL students.
In addition to the use of deep scaffolding, English teachers can incorporate semantic maps and the connective press, which work together to become a guided form of brainstorming, into instruction on student writing. Semantic maps and the connective press are designed to work together in order to help ELs write more cohesive essays. Daniel and Eley (2018) define semantic maps as “a brainstorming and questioning tool to elicit further ideas and feedback. Semantic maps help students link related ideas and visualize the structure of a piece of writing” (p. 423). In this case, a semantic map serves as a written document of the thinking process that students go through when writing. It looks like a typical web that is used during brainstorming, but is developed further to include not only the thoughts a writer had when brainstorming, but also any insights they gained from reading mentor texts as well as suggestions made by peers during writing workshops. In order to facilitate the semantic map’s development, teachers can use the connective press, which is a process of questioning students so that their answers enable them to make connections between different ideas. Daniel and Eley (2018) find, “These practices gave teens some supportive language structure to develop discourse competence and elaborate on their ideas while thinking critically about their experiences and goals, in both preparing to write and elaborating on their writing” (p. 429). Through the use of these strategies, English teachers can help students improve their writing skills by modeling both the writing process and how to critically think about a topic.
Developing the reading, writing, and critical thinking skills necessary to succeed at the secondary and post-secondary level is challenging for many students; however, many EL students will face the additional challenge of learning AE as they are enrolled in mainstream classes. Therefore, instructors should consider the ways in which they can adopt linguistically responsive teaching strategies into their course content. By using the strategies outlined above, English teachers can help EL students to feel more comfortable with reading and writing in English.
Brown, C. L., Schell, R., & Ni, M. (2019). Powerful participatory literacy for English learners. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 62(4), 369-378. doi: 10.1002/jaal.913
Daniel, S. M. & Eley, C. (2018). Improving cohesion in our writing: findings from an identity text workshop with resettled refugee teens. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 61(4), 421-431. doi:10.1002/jaal.700
Grabe, W., & Zhang, C. (2016). Reading-writing relationships in first and second language academic literacy development. Language Teaching, 49(3), 339-355.
Lucas, T., Villegas, A.M, & Freedson-Gonzalez, M. (2008). linguistically responsive teacher education: preparing classroom teachers to teach English language learners. Journal of Teacher Education, 59(4), 361-373. doi:10.1177/0022487108322110
Murillo, L. A. & Schall, J.M. (2016). “They didn’t teach us well”: Mexican-origin students speak out about their readiness for college literacy.Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 60(3), doi:10.1002/jaal.581