Part 8 of WIDA’s Essential Action Series. Click here to return to the first article in the series.
Did you get to read about Ayaka’s story in the previous article? It illustrates how Entering ELs can engage in critical thinking activities even though they are completely new to English. In Ayaka’s case, we focused on what we could do to help her learn and ignored all the rest until later. As I worked with Ayaka, I only had two priorities – first develop comprehensible input, then foster engagement.
This is teacher speak for: Students can participate if they understand the content and the instructions.
My first priority was to help Ayaka comprehend the instructions so that she can engage with the content. As her content knowledge grew, my role switched from translator to conductor – helping her communicate and apply her understanding. Ayaka’s story demonstrated how these priorities directed my work with Entering ELS, and now we’ll use the same framework to learn how to instruct ELs along a spectrum of language development.
The diagram below, divided into two sections, is the visual embodiment of these two priorities. The sky blue section represents the strategies that cultivate comprehensible input, which is the belief that students must understand what is being communicated in order to learn (Krashen, 1981). Comprehensible input is broken down into categories based on teacher involvement: Direct Instruction, Joint Construction, Coached Construction, and Monitoring. The most involved teaching occurs during Direct Instruction and is gradually reduced over the next three phases until students can independently use strategies to understand content and instruction.
The turquoise section denotes ways students themselves can demonstrate understanding, known as comprehensible output (Haynes, n.d), which I’ll explain in the next post. This section categorizes ELs into four groups: Beginning, Developing, Expanding, and Bridging. This sequence also represents ELs’ increasing mastery of English. The more skills an EL has internalized, the less teacher involvement is needed.
Comprehensible Input: What Teachers Can Do
At this phase of involvement, teachers are demonstrating strategies that develop comprehension. It’s often called “Watch Me Do” or modeling.
My favorite strategy is using ELs’ home languages to build understanding of the content and instructions. Teachers can use Google Translate as a tool that uses ELs’ home languages like in the image below.
When our history teacher needed Zhang Ho, an Entering EL from China, to understand a project, I used Google Translate to make the directions accessible for him.
I directly taught Zhang Ho to use Google Translate as a temporary crutch to aid his comprehension. Although he watched as I modeled the strategy, I didn’t ask for or incorporate his input.
Once the teacher demonstrates these strategies, his role shifts from modeling to inviting students to participate in developing understanding. It’s often referred to as “We Do”.
This joint venture of constructing meaning is most appropriate for Developing ELs because they have cultivated enough social language to follow somewhat complex instructions but still require the guidance of an educator.
The main tool used in this phase is prompting. As a strategy is being demonstrated, the teacher gradually invites the students to contribute ideas. I use Joint Constructing to teach students reading strategies. Below is a dialogue of what that sounds like:
Mr. Tan: [reading aloud a text] Women in Athens generally had no legal or political rights such as the right to own land and to vote. To summarize a sentence, we have to use our NVD strategy. What does the “N” stand for?
Student: It stands for noun.
Mr. Tan: What is the most important noun in this sentence?
Student: I think it’s women in Athens.
Joint construction is key to an ELs’ development because it shows them how to apply the strategies, and it weans them off their dependence on teachers to construct meaning.
In this phase, the teacher coaches students to practice constructing meaning by reinforcing the strategies they have already learned. This phase is often called, “You do; I observe”.
Coached Construction is most appropriate for Expanding ELs because they’re capable of making meaning with growing independence.
By observing direct instruction and practicing joint construction over and over again, they’ve begun to internalize the need to use these comprehension strategies. Now, the teacher observes the students applying strategies on their own and offers suggestions only as needed.
Let’s return to the guided reading from above. As students read the next section in pairs or small groups and work together to construct meaning, I observe and prompt them of strategies they could use. It might sound like this:
Airy: Wait, I’m confused by this sentence: “They could not hold (have) public office (work for the government) or go shopping.
Dexter: Yeah, me too. I don’t understand this symbol “ ( ) “.
Mr. Tan: Before you worry about the parentheses, let’s focus on the word “they”.
Airy: Oh yeah, we have to find what “they” means.
Dexter: Mr. Tan said we have to go back to the last sentence to find the “they”.
Airy: [reading the previous sentence]. Oh, I think the “they” means “Athenian women”.
In contrast to Beginning, Developing, and Expanding ELs, Bridging ELs only need to be reminded of the strategies that establish comprehension. It can also be called, “You do; I check in”.
No longer requiring constant supervision, Bridging ELs are usually the most independent ELs and can apply solutions to help cultivate understanding.
I use two methods to monitor Bridging ELs’ understanding: 1) Quick Writes and 2) mini-conferences. Both of these approaches provide data on the ELs’ progress, and both emphasize the need to provide daily, mini-opportunities for checking in. I’ll return to the reading example above to explain what mini-conferences look like.
Mr. Tan: Hi, Jessica and Jake. Can you tell me how your reading is going?
Jessica: We’re at this point in the text.
Jake: It’s about the housing in Athens.
Mr. Tan: What part is challenging?
Jessica: The words are easy but there’s lots of details.
Jake: Yeah. It’s like hard to see all the details.
Mr. Tan: What strategy did you use to “see” all the details.
Jessica: We drew a picture of what the house to show all the details.
Mr. Tan: How effective was that strategy?
Jake: It helped us understand the details better.
Nothing robs students of their enthusiasm for school more than the inability to understand instructions. Schools become isolating and disempowering places when students are unable to participate in activities with their peers.No student should be stranded on an island surrounded by a sea of unfamiliar words.
As English language teachers, we can send liferafts their way. These liferafts are the strategies that make instructions understandable and content accessible. Every time we teach these strategies, ELs are less adrift in a sea of confusion. No matter how far an EL might seem from fully understanding English, we can light their way by making instruction comprehensible.
In the next article, we’ll explore the second priority when working with ELs – fostering engagement that honors the language skills they do have. I’ll return to the diagram to describe the differences between what a Beginning EL can do compared to a Bridging EL and provide specific examples for helping them communicate.
Krashen, S. D. (1981). Second language acquisition and second language learning. Oxford: Pergamon Press.