This article on integrating language and content instruction is Part 14 of WIDA’s Essential Actions Series.  Click here to read the first article in the series.

ELL strategies to integrate language and content instruction

I’ve been reading more and more articles that talk about how the future of education will be a more integrated experience of learning than our current model of “siloed areas of knowledge”.  Finland, for example, will do away with subjects entirely and move to an interdisciplinary approach to learning by 2020.  

But I don’t think educators have to wait for 2020 to make learning a more integrated experience.  In truth, some pioneers in our field such as Echevarria, Vogt, and Short (2008) have been advocating for integrating language and content instruction since the 1990s.   

Action 14 in  Essential Actions: A Handbook for Implementing WIDA’s  Framework for English Language Development Standards (Gottlieb, 2013) also advocates for interdisciplinary learning.

Action 14 suggests that discipline-specific topics are the springboard that launches ELs into using language authentically instead of passively learning it.  Gottlieb (2013) suggests that borrowing topics from content standards such as the Common Core and the Next Generation Science standards provide context for learning content and developing skills.

For example, the topic of the European refugee crisis in history class unfolds as students watch interviews from Sudanese refugees, read opinion pieces from an Italian crew rescuing refugees adrift in the Mediterranean, and analyze infographics about refugees fleeing Africa into Europe. These ELs are using language to learn and express their opinions about refugees instead of learning language in isolation.

In this article, we’ll examine some examples of how to marry language instruction with discipline-specific topics to provide an authentic context to learn language.

Research Says

There’s compelling research that encourages teachers to plan language instruction that is connected to discipline-specific topics.  Some highlights include:

  • The topics in content classes provide an authentic context for ELs  to learn and use academic language (Gottlieb, 2013; Schleppegrell, 2004).
  • In order for ELs to complete an academic task, they must know what’s the task is expecting and possess the academic language to communicate their ideas (Short & Fitzsimmons, 2007).
  • To fully engage with academic content, ELs must switch from social language to an academic one (Scarcella, 2003).
  • For ELs to fully develop academic language, they must be exposed to discipline-specific topics concepts and engage in academic-oriented learning experiences (Halliday & Martin, 1993; Lemke, 1990).

This research suggests that it’s important to link language instruction with discipline-specific topics.  We can structure lessons so that ELs use language to learn about content and participate in activities that require critical thinking.  

The research also implies that ELs won’t develop their language skills if they’re just learning grammar rules and memorizing parts of speech, for how effective is diagramming a sentence to an ELs’ language development and critical thinking skills?

ELs will own the language when they use it to engage in meaningful activities such as solving a problem, creating a product, and defending a perspective.

From One, Comes Many

Just like there are many paths a person can take to reach a mountain’s summit, there are several ways that English language teachers (ELTs) can connect language instruction with topics from content classes:

  • Problem
  • Aspects
  • Content
  • Individuals
  • Time period
  • Environment
  • and Communities

Each path provides a different view and experience but ultimately ends at the same destination – content knowledge gained and language skills cultivated. The path selected by the ELTs depends on the experience they want ELs to have. If a particular pathway isn’t accessible, explore another avenue.  

For example, when students are learning about the Arctic ecosystem, the Individual’s option doesn’t provide a natural connection.  A better connection would be Communities because students can learn about how changes that occur in an Arctic ecosystem impact the populace within it.

Here’s  an example of how to provide various ways of connecting to language instruction in one discipline specifically.  Mr. Duncan is a 7th grade Individual and Societies teacher (IB speak for “social studies”) who was teaching students about the concept of systems through the ancient Sumerian civilization.

I wanted to capitalize on this rich opportunity to have ELs use language to engage with content, so I linked my English classes to Mr. Duncan’s Systems unit.  Linking my English class to his Systems unit provided a perfect playground for language instruction.  The section below demonstrates all the pathways I could take to tether my English lessons to Mr. Duncan’s history classes.

1. Study another community

ELs could learn about how another ancient civilization used systems to survive, such the ancient Mayans in Latin America or the Champas of Southeast Asia.  This type of alignment would have set up an opportunity to practice the high-order thinking skill of comparing and contrasting the two communities.

2. Study significant individuals

There are many different groups of people and individuals important to the Sumerian civilization.  Students could study how kings, priests, slaves, or soldiers as a group helped make systems function. ELs could also research how an individual created, influenced, or disrupted a system in ancient Sumer.  

Use this pathway when there’s an individual of significant historical importance.  In this context, it would be Hammurabi, who was credited with creating a code of laws that later inspired the legal systems of other cultures.

3. Examine an aspect

Students could also dive deeper into one of many specific aspects of human civilization, including education, work, laws, religion, festivals, homes, or architecture.

This pathway is particularly appropriate when you want a depth of learning over a breadth. It’s also helpful to use this form of alignment if the topic is quite complex.  Focusing on one aspect is more manageable for younger ELs who are developing cognitive skills.

4. Analyze another time period

The phenomena of civilizations have been around for thousands of years, so students could study civilizations that came after the Sumerian one like the Native Americans who thrived before European exploration of the Americas. If I wanted to stay within the Mesopotamian theme, students could study current civilizations in the Middle East.

This form of alignment is particularly effective when we want students to study how things change over time.  Students will be able to learn about what has changed, what has remained the same, and analyze the factors that cause such changes.

5. Learn about a related problem

One of the problems in ancient Sumerian civilization was how to produce crops in an arid environment.  I could have connected to this problem by studying the solutions that other civilizations have created, such as how some highland communities grew rice on the side of mountains.

This form of alignment is effective when the problem itself is a universal one, such as human rights, poverty, disease, and lack of access to resources.  Furthermore, by learning about the different solutions that were implemented, ELs have an opportunity to evaluate which one was the most effective and engage in another critical thinking activity.

6. Research the environmental connection

The Sumerian civilization created systems to work with their semi-arid environment.  These systems would have been different if the people themselves were in a different environment.  ELs could explore how another civilization reacted to their environment, such as how the Inuits adapted to their much colder environment or how the Polonians created a civilization on in their archipelagos.  

This pathway does not work with every topic, but when it does, it’s an effective tool to have students study humans interconnectedness with the environment and learn about a cause-effect relationship. Being able to see the connects and patterns between events is another critical thinking skill.

7. Keep the concept, change the content

While Mr. Duncan was teaching about systems in civilizations, I could have formed an interdisciplinary link to science instead of social studies by keeping the concept of “systems” but changing the content.  For example, we could have studied ecosystems or the digestive, immune, and respiratory systems as another context to study the concept.

This approach is best used if you want students to develop abstract, conceptual thinking.  It is often the most intellectually demanding form of alignment, but if used, can allow ELs to engage in critical thinking skills.

In the end, I decided to align my language instruction around the Communities pathway so that ELs would be familiar with the content when in history class.  We studied systems that helped the Greek civilization and contrasted them with the Sumerian’s. I gradually built a body of knowledge around the topic by having students watch educational videos about Athens, read an article about Athenian civilization, and chose a writing assignment to demonstrate their understanding.  

Throughout this process, ELs were talking together to understand the videos, the texts, and plan their essays.  This curricular alignment to Mr. Duncan’s unit provided a context to use language for meaningful purposes such as researching, planning, creating, and evaluating their work. Integrating language instruction around discipline-specific topics makes learning English relevant and engaging.Twitter

Next Post

Next week, we’ll be learning about scaffolding from WIDA’s Action 12  – one of my favorite topics because it embodies such a can do philosophy. We’ll examine the various ways scaffolds support both native speakers and ELs in accessing content and demonstrating understanding.

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

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., & Martin, J. R. (1993). Writing science: Literacy and discursive power. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Lemke, J. L. (1990). Talking science: Language, learning, and values. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Scarcella, R. (2003). Academic English: A Conceptual Framework. The University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute. Technical Report 2003–1.

Schleppegrell, M. J. (2004). The language of schooling: A functional linguistics perspective. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Short, D., & Fitzsimmons, S. (2007). Double the work: Challenges and solutions to acquiring language and academic literacy for adolescent English language learners. A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.