Part 8 of WIDA’s Essential Action Series. Click here to return to the first article in the series.

We’ve all heard the old adage: Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.  Similarly, don’t let an ELs’ current mastery of English be an indicator of her intelligence.  If teachers do that, we risk “dumbing down” ELs’ learning experiences and preventing them from fully engaging in class.  

WIDA’s Action 8 from Essential Actions: A Handbook for Implementing WIDA’s  Framework for English Language Development Standards honors this principle by encouraging ELs to engage in intellectually challenging activities. Gottlieb introduces the action by writing:

With ample and varied instructional supports, every English language learner can engage in cognitively demanding tasks to demonstrate understanding and use of academic language and content. Even newcomer ELLs can be challenged using higher-order thinking when responding to different commands or questions, such as, “Show me how to ______.”  There is no reason why ELLs cannot make decisions based on evidence, produce creative work, construct original models, or invent using their imaginations (2013, 38).

Likewise, my goal is to share a case study of one of my own students who is cognitively an advanced Japanese speaker, but is only at the Entering Phase of English language development.  The Design teacher and I scaffolded her learning experiences so that this particular EL could engage in cognitively demanding tasks even though her language skills did not yet reflect her advanced analytical abilities.

By modifying the way we provide instructions and by differentiating tasks, all teachers can successfully integrate even beginning English speakers into their classroom by modifying instruction and differentiating tasks.

Research Findings

There are several key research assertions that support this action:

  • Tasks that are engaging and provide a reasonable challenge will be both cognitively involving and motivating for ELs (Himmele & Himmele, 2009).
  • ELs are more likely to be engaged and motivated to participate in learning experiences that are reasonably cognitively challenging (Ellis, 2005).
  • ELs’ language proficiency and thinking skills can develop significantly as they are learning content.  This is particularly true for students in the upper grades (Zwiers, 2008).
  • According to the sheltered instruction model, it’s best practice to design learning that leads ELs to high-order thinking at all levels of language mastery (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2008; Goldenberg & Coleman, 2010).

The research suggests that educators should design instruction that allows ELs to engage in activities that foster critical thinking even if their language proficiency does not allow them to communicate with control and precision.  Thus, educators should not confuse an ELs’ language proficiency with their ability to think criticallyTwitter .  Instead, teachers should plan instruction that differentiates learning and scaffolds the interaction so that ELs are engaging in critical thinking at all levels of language proficiency.

Ayaka’s Story: A Case Study of Working with Entering MLs

I would like to e-troduce you to Ayaka.  She’s a Japanese student in the 6th grade who has just enrolled in our school (August 2016).  Ayaka is a polite, soft-spoken girl who is highly observant, learns quickly, and possesses a gentle grit usually seen in older souls.  

Ayaka is also a gifted artist who impresses her classmates with creative and whimsical drawings.  This is one of her drawings that describes her understanding of safe laboratory practices in science class.  You can easily see how creative Ayaka is.  When I reviewed her school records from Japan, I noticed her state-standardized test scores were in the 90% percentile for her grade, and she had glowing remarks about her diligence.

Teaching Entering ELs

Sheltered Immersion

Linguistically, however, Ayaka is at the Entering Phase of English language development.  She is learning basic Tier 1 vocabulary words such as “bathroom”, “teacher”, “pencil”, “book”, etc. As of February 2016, Ayaka has yet to produce a full spoken sentence, and only says short phrases.  Ayaka is also attending mainstream classes, as is instructionally appropriate because content provides a context for learning and using language.  

Her intelligence is significantly higher than her ability to comprehend and produce in English, which creates a difficult problem.  As part of the sheltered immersion model at my school, we want ELs to gain content skills and knowledge without being pulled out and given remedial English lessons.  Instead, our solution is for me to co-plan and co-teach with the content educators to scaffold learning experiences.  

Ayaka is pulled out of her English and Mother Tongue Japanese classes to attend foundational English classes, but 80% of her class schedule consists of mainstream classes because the contexts provide the authentic purposes for using language.   There is room for pull-out classes, but a diet can’t comprise of vitamins alone.Twitter .  I see pull-out instruction being more appropriate for elementary schools.

To support Ayaka, Ms. Jenny – the Design teacher – and I co-planned lessons, and I co-taught Design classes two days out of the eight-day cycle. In this particular unit, Ms. Jenny wanted all students to go through the Design Cycle to create a product that would keep an egg from cracking when dropped from the top of the third floor.  The content goal was to use the Design Cycle to create a product and evaluate its effectiveness.  The Design Cycle fosters critical thinking because students had to:

  • conduct research
  • synthesize research
  • apply research into a design
  • plan the design
  • build the product
  • test it against specifications
  • evaluate its effectiveness against the specifications

This is the class wall chart for the design cycle, which uses many complex, applied academic terms found in Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy.  

The unit was a rich, relevant, cognitively challenging, and highly engaging learning experience.  Additionally, it was a great opportunity for Ayaka to use language verses learn language. She had to use English to engage in the unit.  Language is driven by the need to use itTwitter .  It was a clear example of in-context development of language skills.  

Below are the steps that I took to empower Ayaka to demonstrate her creative and critical thinking skills throughout this Design unit.

Design Cycle

Step 1:

Researching: Ms. Jenny created a booklet that consisted of various graphic organizers to help all students collect their research findings. This activity cultivated critical thinking because students had to evaluate which information was the most relevant from their research.

Language Scaffolding: I showed her how to translate ONLY words she didn’t understand using Google Translate because translating phrases often produces incoherent ideas.  

I also rephrased Ms. Jenny’s document when translating the words did not assist Ayaka.  For example, she didn’t understand “Cite your source”, so I rephrased it to “Where did you find the design?”

Providing this scaffolding empowered Ayaka to engage in a critically demanding task.

Working with Entering ELs

Step 2:

Materials: Ms. Jenny only allowed the use of 12 items from the materials lists.  This task required Ayaka to think critically about how to best make use of the limited resources she was given.  

Language Scaffolding: The same strategy of Google Translating was used. This scaffold empowered Ayaka to think critically because she had to create within limitations.  In order to create, she had to evaluate the usefulness of each resource. By this phase of the unit, Ayaka understood the benefit of Google Translating and could use it independently without being prompted.  This demonstrates how Ayaka has begun using strategies on her own to help her engage in class.

Working with Entering ELs

Step 3:

Writing Solution: Ms. Jenny wanted students to compose a paragraph that synthesized their research into a workable solution. This activity required critical thinking because Ayaka had to apply her research and the materials to create her own design.

Language Scaffolding: I had to rephrase the instructional sentence twice for Ayaka to make it more comprehensible.  Even though Ayaka is at the Entering Phase, this does not mean her intelligence is. This time, I allowed Ayaka to enter full ideas in Google Translate to help her communicate her complex, detailed thinking in the long, written response. Ayaka needs to be given the opportunity to show her advanced level of understanding despite her developing English skills.

The sentence she wrote was “My goal is [for the egg] to be dropped from the third floor, is that you do not absolutely cracking”.

Working with Entering ELs

This is Ayaka’s paragraph that describes her solution.  The grammar is not perfect, but Ms. Jenny was more concerned about Ayaka’s ideas at this phase of the project.  

As I read her writing closely, I could tell that she was trying to use academic language that was translated from Japanese, which demonstrates her high intelligence.   For example, she wrote “Bamboo skewer is to use the generous protect the egg firmly”.

She was trying to say, “The purpose of the bamboo skewer is to firmly secure the egg”.  Ayaka is trying to communicate a sophisticated idea even though her English vocabulary and knowledge of English sentence structure do not allow her to do so fluently.

Working with Entering ELs

Step 4:

Drafting Solutions:  Ms. Jenny wanted students to create three initial design drafts from their paragraph solution. This task fostered Ayaka’s critical thinking because 1) she engaged in creating by using her own research and 2) evaluated the three plans and decided on which one would be most appropriate to build.

Language Solution: We used the same strategy of translating unfamiliar words, writing them in Japanese for easier comprehension, and rephrasing the instructions.

Ayaka has started to realize that it’s ok to use some Japanese, so she is becoming more independent at going to Google Translate when there are unfamiliar words. My role as a language specialist is to gradually wean her off of these scaffolds as her confidence and independence increases.  I hope to empower Ayaka to intentionally use strategies that facilitate comprehension of text and support communication of her own ideas.

Working with Entering ELs

Step 5:

Collaboration: Next, Ms. Jenny wanted the students to take their best design and partner with another person in class. They negotiated which design is best and identified which ideas, incorporating ideas from the other classmate’s design.  This activity is cognitively demanding because students had to 1) negotiate human interactions and 2) evaluate another person’s idea.

Language Solution: I was not there for the day they collaborated, but Ms. Jenny (who exemplifies the belief that all educators are teachers of language) had a wonderful strategy to support the evaluation experience. She systemized the interaction through a gallery walk.  Ms. Jenny asked students to place a star around the parts of the design that they think their classmates should keep.  Ms. Ms. Jenny asked them to draw a “question mark” on items that they were not comfortable with or unsure of.  

Because this system of interaction was beyond Google Translate’s ability to communicate meaning, Ms. Jenny asked Shungo, another Japanese student, to provide brief instructions to Ayaka in Japanese.  Then he returned to his group to continue working. Ms. Jenny intentionally did not partner Ayaka with Shungo nor had him do all the translating while Ayaka worked with her partner.  She wanted the context itself to build Ayaka’s English skills.

Shungo was there only to establish comprehensible input, which empowered Ayaka to engage in the interaction, not to teach and translate the entire experiment. Making an “advanced” student responsible for teaching a developing student is one of the five practices that education blogger,  Jennifer Gonzales, highly discourages.  She wrote about it in her article entitled “5 Common Practices that I’m Kicking to the Curb”.  Gonzales is beloved by teachers because she consistently provides practical advice to busy teachers looking for effective strategies.

Elanora, Ayaka’s partner in this unit, knew that she was a clever artist so they drew their revisions instead of having full-length conversations.  This is an example of differentiating the process.  Words are not the only tools ELs have to communicate.

Working with Entering ELs

Step 6:

Creating: The next step in the design cycle was making the product.  Ayaka and Elanora worked collaboratively to create the device.  This is another example of engaging in critical thinking because as they created the design, they had to make some alterations to their original plans. They were evaluating the effectiveness of the product as it was being constructed.

Language Solution: I offered very little support here because Ayaka is socially smart and very observant.  She does not need language to communicate her ideas.  I did help Elanora use gestures to communicate meaning and asked her to use words with Ayaka, not just pantomiming.  

Elanora’s words will help develop Ayaka’s vocabulary because Ayaka will start to associate words with actions and objects.  Ayaka is still able to hear oral language and should be encouraged to associate words with their meaning even though she is not able to produce oral language yet.

This is Ayaka’s and Elanora’s final egg-drop design. They threw if off the third floor, and yes, the design successfully kept the egg from cracking.

Step 7:

Evaluation: The final step of the design cycle was to evaluate one’s work.  Ms. Jenny created this document to structure the evaluation process.  This task required critical thinking because students needed to reflect on what was effective and what should be improved.

Language Solution: I again used Google Translate, rephrased written instruction, and allowed Ayaka to write in Japanese as forms of scaffolding.  For each question, I rephrased it several times until Ayaka understood.  The rephrasing allowed her to think critically and evaluate her design.

Working with Entering ELs

I also used sentence stems as tools to scaffold writing.  I provided this stem to scaffold her answer for the final question in the evaluation section:

“The most important factor of our design was ….because….”.  

The sentence stem empowered Ayaka to identify a factor and explain its importance. It didn’t matter that she had to Google Translate her ideas from Japanese to English.  It mattered that she engaged critically and was able to communicate it.

A side note to using sentence stems: Remember to differentiate based on the student’s language proficiency. Don’t use overly complicated ones for the Entering ELs, and don’t use basic ones for the Bridging ELs.  Check out Jana Echevarria’s article about differentiating sentence stems.

Working with Entering ELs

Can you imagine what would have happened if we took Ayaka out of Design, and I was assigned to teach her English until her English was ready for the classroom? It would be language robbery!

Learning is not an Olympic event where students have to qualify to participateTwitter .  It’s an ELs’ right to join and participate in class like their other peers, even though their interaction might look different than others.

Front of the House

I used to work as a waiter at T.G.I.Friday’s to pay for college and help lessen mom’s financial burden.  When I was with customers in the dining room, we called that “Front of the House”.  But the real action occurred in the chaotic “Back of the House” where food was prepared, dishes cleaned, and food stocked.  Customers were blissfully unaware of the complicated work behind their beautifully plated meals rushed out by their attentive server.  

This article about Ayaka is like the “Front of the House”, but we still need to learn about the “Back of the House” concepts that drove my work with Ayaka.

These concepts can be distilled down to two priorities – first develop comprehensible input, then foster engagement.   In the next post, I’ll provide a more extensive list of practices that cultivate comprehensible input and, in the post after that, a list of tools that produce comprehensible output. Now that we’ve learned how to work with Entering ELs like Ayaka, I’ll continue to describe how to support ELs on the rest of the language development continuum.

Alison Armstrong, an exceedingly talented music teacher, colleague, and friend, also teaches Ayaka.  After reading this article, she shared this with the community:

Working with ELs new to English


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

Ellis, R. (2005). Instructed language learning and task-based teaching. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of Research in Second Language Teaching and Learning (pp. 713–728). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Goldenberg, C. & Coleman, R. (2010). Promoting academic achievement among English learners: A guide to the research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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.

Himmele, P., & Himmele, W. (2009). The language-rich classroom: A research-based framework for teaching English language learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Krashen, S. D. (1981). Second language acquisition and second language learning. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Zwiers, J. (2008). Building academic language: Essential practices for content classrooms, grades 5–12. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.