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Problems of Practice

Strategic Supports: How can general education teachers implement strategic supports for students who are learning English within their personalized classroom?

Key Takeaways

Implement specific supports for students who are learning English within a personalized classroom by:

  • Providing options for nonverbal understanding (i.e., multiple modalities and representations)
  • Building supportive language strategies to master both the language and content at hand
  • Explicitly linking the acquisition of content-specific academic language to support mastery

Action Steps: Identify two strategies you plan to use in your personalized classroom and share them on Twitter and tag us @LearningAccel.

What is the problem?

The Learning Accelerator worked with a team of fellows from Latinos for Education to explore the ways in which blended and personalized learning can support EL students, who currently make up nearly 10 percent of all children enrolled in U.S. public schools and almost three-fourths of whom are Latinx. While opportunities and bright spots abound, the team found that challenges remain. They reported that, in some cases, districts and schools saw blended and personalized learning as a “silver bullet to solve poor-quality instruction or lack of teacher expertise with language development,” allowing technology to replace instruction instead of leveraging it to build additional opportunities for support. However, when educators in personalized classrooms are more strategic and design curriculum and instruction that takes into account both content and language needs, EL students are able to engage with the content in new and exciting ways.

Beyond leveraging a student’s home language, a complementary and equally important way to approach this is to implement effective EL supports within a personalized classroom through both targeted activities and everyday instruction. Many EL students only receive these supports when they are pulled out for specific language instruction, but these same strategies should be used in their general education classrooms to ensure they are:

  1. Offered options for building understanding through nonverbal means
  2. Given supportive language strategies to master both the language and content at hand
  3. Provided opportunities to link language acquisition and content mastery through activities focused on these connections

Why is it important?

Using appropriate EL supports and strategies is vital to not only effective language acquisition but also to content mastery for EL students. “To provide support for English language learners, teachers need to maintain focus on the curriculum goals, as well as the language demands of the learning. The more meaningful the context for the learner, the easier this will be to achieve.” (Hervey, Generation Ready)

The research says...

  • “There (is) a strong relationship among the quality, amount and the method of using non-verbal communication by teachers while teaching,” and “the more the teachers used verbal and non-verbal communication, the more efficacious their education and the students’ academic progress were.” (Fatemeh Bambaeeroo and Nasrin Shokrpour* 2017)
  • Data found that an “interactive word wall was effective in helping students gain a stronger understanding of content-specific vocabulary. Both ELL and non-ELL students’ academic vocabulary increased, however, ELL students and traditionally low-performing students benefited from the use of the word wall the most.”(Curtis 2018)
  • “Students with developing levels of English proficiency will require instruction that carefully supports their understanding and use of emerging language as they participate in these activities. Language learning is a recursive process, which means that in order to become proficient users of a new language, learners need repeated opportunities to be exposed to language features and to practice identifying and using them in a variety of increasingly complex texts and tasks.” (Hervey, Generation Ready)

How: Solution

Designing activities that specifically support language acquisition is key to engaging EL students in their own learning. By breaking down these barriers and building supports in their place, you will be giving these students (and likely their peers) greater access to the content and the confidence to master it.

When going through these sections, ask yourself: In what ways can I offer similar support within my classroom instruction?

1

Providing options for nonverbal understanding (i.e., offering content in multiple modalities)

Offering content in multiple formats (e.g., through verbal and visual dual coding) can be a powerful strategy for helping students comprehend and remember new ideas. When thinking about ways to support EL students in a general education classroom, it is important to first think about offering them opportunities to understand content beyond verbal means. Do you have posters that illustrate content around the room? Do you encourage students to draw out their ideas through visual representations and graphic organizers? When explaining directions, do you act them out step-by-step and then check for understanding? These small additions can go a long way when building understanding and engagement. More specifically, when supporting EL students, it is important to remember that body language, visuals, and acting (i.e., demonstrating activities or the meaning of words) can provide important access points for understanding. (Note: this is not about tailoring to so-called “learning styles,” which is not a reserarch-based or effective instructional approach.) Within an innovative model, these types of cues may come from the teacher during small-group activities but could also involve student-built visuals, peer interactions, and technology supports through visual scenarios.

(Image Source: Nicole Yeary)

Strategies/Resources:

Here are some additional ways educators are offering options for nonverbal understanding. When exploring these strategies, ask yourself:

  • How am I currently using nonverbal cues and organizational frames to support my EL students?
  • Could I introduce additional approaches, like the ones below, into my current instruction? How?
  • How could I engage students in helping to support these strategies?
2

Utilizing supportive language strategies generally across content

Integrated, ongoing strategic language supports are vital to understanding, mastering, and making connections across content for EL students. Sometimes in personalized classrooms, we lean on technology and pull-out supports to fill these needs and don’t integrate those supports within instructional design. Technology can be a great EL support if used appropriately, but it should not take the place of (and should instead be integrated with) current supports, strategies, and activities that are already used in the classroom. True language acquisition is something that all students should work on continuously, particularly in content-based classrooms where they are essentially asked to learn the “new” language of varying subjects.

Strategies/Resources:

Explore these strategies and see how other educators support language skills and acquisition within their personalized classrooms. Some questions to ask yourself when looking through each strategy are:

  • What strategy (or strategies) resonates for me, and why?
  • How can I iterate on this strategy or activity to suit my students and their needs?
  • How else could I develop language supports for my EL students?
3

Implementing activities that explicitly link the acquisition of content-specific academic language to support mastery

Linking learning and language helps EL students observe how language plays out within specific subjects and contexts. This strategy can take on many different shapes, but in order to implement it effectively, language needs to be the base of the activity, and students must connect language to the content at hand. By learning a language within the context of a specific subject (with the proper support in place to make those connections), students are more apt to master both. Ideally, this would happen across all activities, but without narrowing in on the language supports specifically, the focus can quickly shift to pure content mastery and fails to highlight the academic vocabulary students need to master the content.

(Image from Speed of Creativity)

One tool that brings in multiple opportunities to link content knowledge and language is an interactive notebook. Interactive notebooks can vary from teacher to teacher, but most include:

  1. A table of contents that allows students to reference past work and activities to support future learning.
  2. Writing activities that give students the opportunity to practice writing in a low-stakes setting.
  3. Foldables that organize and illustrate content and connections in a visual and interactive way.
  4. A glossary that helps define and illustrate new vocabulary.

Strategies/Resources:

Some additional strategies that can be used to link language and learning are included below. When exploring each strategy, ask yourself:

  • What would be a good way to introduce this strategy?
  • What would I need to do to make it work for my students?
  • What are some activities I am already doing that could be tweaked to better emphasize language?

Take it further

An important next step when supporting EL students is to bring families into the conversation and help extend these strategies into the home. Families are instrumental in truly engaging students in their own learning by offering additional framing, cultural relevance, and insight into the student as a whole. By engaging families in the learning process and working with families to use similar supportive strategies at home, you can help develop your students’ learning and ensure greater mastery. Explore the resources below to see how other schools engage families in the learning process:

For additional resources on how to effectively communicate innovative practices in education and build engagement, trust, and credibility, view our guide to communications planning.