Part 7 of WIDA’s Essential Action Series. Click here to return to the first article in the series.

Last year, I attended an EL conference in Bangkok, and I befriended a participant who works at an international school in Vietnam.  We were talking about our ELs, and she mentioned how she struggled to get one of her ELs, in particular, engaged in learning.  She explained that one day, this particular student had come to class before her and was typing furiously on his laptop.  She asked what he was doing, and the student said, “I’m responding to one of my subscribers on Youtube”.  With her interest piqued, she sat next to him to learn more.  He revealed that he had 12,000 subscribers to his video-game tutorial Youtube channel.  

She was shocked and impressed.  My friend decided to somehow select the context in her next unit to be something connected to video-games as an attempt to engage this particular student.  She had students explore the societal impact of technology, and, of course, this EL chose video gaming.  She reported that this typically disengaged EL became a mini video-game researcher, and his classmates saw him as the resident expert in video-gaming.

This anecdote demonstrates the power of creating a sociocultural context that is connected to something that we’re interested in or that reflects our experiences.  WIDA’s Action 7 from Essential Actions: A Handbook for Implementing WIDA’s  Framework for English Language Development Standards is about designing learning around a sociocultural context that is relevant to ELs. 

Gottlieb introduces Action 7 with:

Language learning occurs within a social context that serves as the backdrop for knowing what to communicate (the task), how to communicate (the register), and why communicate (the purpose). The context for language learning is significant within the classroom environment because it provides the reasons for academic language use. The classroom context should, [h]onor and build upon students identities and experience, [c]onnect school to home, community, and other venues in the real world, [and] [o]ffer authenticity and meaning to communication (2013, 40) (2013).

The goal of this article is to encourage teachers to design curriculum that is grounded in socially and culturally relevant context connected to students’ experiences. I offer three case studies to illustrate Action 7 and provide a framework to design instruction to implement its principles.

Research Findings

Research in this area highlighted several key points that inform the implementation of this action.  They are as follows:

  • Building sociocultural contexts allows ELs to develop academic language by providing opportunities for students to use language authentically and intentionally (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2008; García & Hamayan, 2006; Kramsch, 2003; Halliday & Hasan, 1989).
  • Teachers can develop context by designing learning experiences that mirror the work of a discipline such using math to solve a problem, creating an experiment to test a hypothesis, and conducting interviews with people to gather perspectives (Bunch, 2006; Gebhard, Harman, & Seger, 2007; Gee, 2008; Schleppegrell, 2005).
  • “Using a social context for learning will also produce students who are better able to use language to express their own knowledge, thoughts, and opinions” (Gottileb, 2013, p. 35).
  • We learn by communicating and interacting with each other; this interaction always occurs within a sociocultural context (Gottileb, 2013, p. 35).

The research implores educators to establish a purpose for using language because humans are social beings.  Often, teachers feel that students come to school to learn.  But for many students, the reality is that they come to school to socialize.  Learning is a secondary priority.  We can tap into our ELs’ innate inclination to socialize with their peers to develop a context that motivates learning content and fosters language acquisition.

Case Study 1: Damming in Laos

Mr. Garrett and Mr. Duncan are Individual and Society teachers (IB speak for “history class”).  They wanted to teach their 7th graders the concept of “resources”.  We decided to link the content to damming in Laos because of how Laos uses water as a resource.  Students watched a documentary about damming in Laos, read an article about the issue, and went to the Theun-Hiboun Power Company to learn about the dams it is building in this country. We also visited an anti-damming organization called The Mekong River Commission to gather a different perspective on the issue

In English class, students developed their persuasive writing skills using the knowledge they formed from their history class.  ELs pretended they were representatives from different Southeast Asian countries and were tasked to compose a letter to advise or discourage the Laotian government from building more dams in Laos.  

This task empowered ELs to use language to learn, form opinions, adopt a stance, and defend it through writing. A traditional history class would just have students read about types of resources such as wind, power, solar, coal, and gas.  Students would have read texts, viewed videos, and wrote a report.  However, the way Mr. Garret and Mr. Duncan structured the unit provided students with an opportunity to engage with content to create something authentic with the things they learned. 

Case Study 2: Nepal Earthquake

The ELs explore the topic of biological systems in their 8th grade science class.  The teacher decided to have students learn about nutrition as it connected to biological systems. During the unit, an unfortunate earthquake occurred in Nepal.  We decided to link the event to the content we were learning in science.  Students pretended they were nutritionists and were asked to create a food aid package to send to Nepal that was sensitive to the cultural needs of the Nepalese while still being healthy.

In both English and science classes, we read texts to learn about what a nutritional diet consists of, watched culinary videos about Nepalese cuisine, and interviewed a Nepalese student about the foods from her country.  These resources revealed dietary limitations based on religious and regional factors. ELs then assumed the role of an aid organization specializing in supplying food to victims of natural disasters.  Besides the reading, viewing, listening skills involved in developing an understanding of the issue, ELs were also learning how to use academic language in a formal email.

This example demonstrated how English and science classes became a place where students learned language to use language for communicative purposes.

Case Study 3:Gay Rights in Vietnam

The 9th grade Individuals & Society teachers (IB speak for social studies class) wanted students to inquire on the concept of “perspectives”, and they decided to explore the various perspectives around different human rights, such as freedom of speech, the right to education, and the right to religious freedom.

I used my English class to explore other types of rights because those topics were already addressed in the social studies class.  Since Vietnam had just announced that it was abolishing an anti-gay marriage law as I was planning the unit,  I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to connect to it.

We read an article describing the issue and watched a newscast covering the event.  Students were asked to be reporters for a pretend newspaper and interviewed their peers for opinions on the issue.  They then were asked to write an article that described the various reactions to lifting this law.  

This unit provided a context for using English both in speaking and in writing.  ELs had opportunities to develop their formal language during the interviews and used the academic register when writing the news report.

“Real-World Learning”

Each of these examples demonstrates how both the content and objectives can come alive when linking learning to a sociocultural context.  Students first used language to develop a body of understanding, and then they used language to communicate their own ideas and thoughts related to the content.

I would have learned more and better enjoyed the learning process if the content was somehow related to my identity, community, and interests. I spent years feeling like I was learning about one topic to the next from unengaging, outdated textbooks.  It felt like I was learning in the “school world” while there were other things happening in the “real-world” that I couldn’t or shouldn’t learn until I was older.

I have to design learning that connects their literacy skills to their ability to be informed and competent citizens if I want them to participate in the world they’ll inherit. Integrating content and language within a context empowers ELs to be active citizensTwitter  now, so they don’t have to wait to participate in their world later.

Next Post

Please join us for the next post that will explore WIDA’s Action 8, which is about designing, differentiating, and scaffolding learning so that all students – regardless of their language competency – can engage in critical thinking experiences. This is one of my personal favorite topics because I believe that an ELs’ current language skills are not an indication of their ability to think deeply.  What ELs’ need are ways to communicate their critical thinking with increasing precision, accuracy, and with sophistication.


Bunch, G. C. (2006). “Academic English” in the 7th grade: Broadening the lens, expanding access. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 5, 284–301.

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M. E., & Short, D. J. (2008). Making content comprehensible for English learners: e SIOP® model (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Garcia, E. E., & Hamayan, E. (2006). What is the role of culture in language learning? In E. Hamayan & R. Freeman (Eds.), English language learners at school: A guide for administrators (pp. 61-64). Philadelphia: Caslon Publishing.

Gebhard, M., Harman, R. & Seger, W. (2007). Unpacking academic literacy for ELLs in the context of high-stakes school reform: The potential of systemic functional linguistics. Language Arts 84(5), 419–430.

Gee, J. P. (2008). Social linguistics and literacies. Ideology in discourses. London, UK: Routledge.

Gottlieb, M. (2013). Essential Actions: A Handbook for Implementing WIDA’s  Framework for  English Language Development

Standards. Madison: Board of Regents of the U of Wisconsin System.

Halliday, M. A. K., & Hasan, R. (1989). Language, context, and text. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Kramsch, C. (2003). (Ed.). Language acquisition and language socialization: Ecological perspectives. New York, NY: Continuum.

Schleppegrell, M. J. (2005). Helping content area teachers work with academic language: Promoting English language learners’ literacy in history. Final report: Individual Research Grant Award #03-03CY- 061G-D. Santa Barbara, CA: UC Linguistic Minority Research Institute.