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December 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 4

Research Matters / Let's Think About This

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Give English learners time to make sense of learning.

Instructional Strategies
Research Matters / Let's Think About This thumbnail
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If you've ever tried to learn another language, you know that there's often more going on inside your brain than your outward expressions of fluency might suggest. You may find, for example, that you're able to read another language, yet struggle to follow it when spoken, or that you can listen well enough to conversations, yet struggle to participate in them.
The same is true for English language learners in our classrooms, especially as they engage in subject-specific learning. A lot is happening inside their brains that we don't see as teachers. Yet the more we can understand what's happening for them as they're learning, the better we can support their success.
Let's start with what research says about how to help English learners with subject-specific content, drawing from four major syntheses and reviews of research over the past 15 years: the National Literacy Panel (August & Shanahan, 2006), the Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence (Genessee et al., 2006), the Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability, and Reform Center (Richards-Tutor, Aceves, & Reese, 2016) and the Institute of Education Sciences (Baker et al., 2014). While there are some nuanced differences, all of these reports generally agree on these points:
  • Build a solid foundation of first-language reading. The National Literacy Panel's meta-analysis of 17 studies found that teaching students to read in their first language prior to teaching reading in the second language boosts reading comprehension in a second language. This is likely because many reading concepts and skills (such as syllables, phonemic awareness, or decoding) and knowledge-learning in one language transfer to another.
  • Employ visuals. All four reviews point to the power of providing English learners visual representations of new concepts, processes, and key ideas. Visualizations and hands-on activities help students translate what they're seeing into linguistic representations in both first and second languages.
  • Teach essential words directly. The four reviews also point to direct instruction of academic vocabulary (compare, infer, synthesize) and subject-specific terms (sum, stomata, and oligarchy). Priming background knowledge and pre-teaching essential words helps students make sense of learning by giving them first-language "handles" for grasping new ideas.
  • Engage students in peer-supported learning. This research, as well as a recent review of "peer-mediated" interventions (Pyle et al., 2017), found medium-to-large effects for comprehension from engaging English learners in "strategically matched" pairs (typically integrating students with different ability levels) or small groups to summarize new learning, compare and contrast concepts, and engage in reciprocal teaching to clarify, process, and ask questions.
  • Use inquiry-based learning. In one study of science instruction in high-poverty schools, researchers found significant gains in science achievement for all students, including English learners, from engaging them in hands-on inquiry, peer-supported learning, and scientific expository writing (Santau, Maerten-Rivera, & Huggins, 2011). These types of projects provide students with time to clarify learning, synthesize it into patterns, make connections with prior learning, and put new vocabulary to use.
  • Combine techniques. Researchers have also found significant gains for English learners engaged in social studies units where teachers used a variety of these techniques. They cued background knowledge with introductory videos, offered direct instruction in "essential words," provided multiple opportunities to process learning in peer learning groups, and engaged students in end-of-unit cooperative learning that involved critical thinking and problem-solving activities (Vaughn et al., 2017).

Making Sense of Learning

These studies suggest that English learners need ample opportunities to process subject-specific learning. As we describe in a white paper (Goodwin, 2018) and a forthcoming ASCD book (Goodwin, in press), deep learning requires that we make sense of learning. We need time to pause and process new learning—comparing and contrasting, aggregating concepts into "big ideas," and connecting new knowledge to prior knowledge.
Most of us continue to think in our first language when learning a second language. So, English learners often need to process subject-specific learning in their first language before translating their new knowledge into English. This instinctive approach reflects what researchers call translanguaging—using all your languages together to process information and make meaning (Esquinca, Araujo, & de la Piedra, 2014).
What's perhaps most important about these strategies is that they reflect a shift from teacher-explicit instruction to student-initiated learning (Santau, Maerten-Rivera, & Huggins, 2011). Teachers need to let go of some control over learning to let students process new learning on their own and with peers. Studies suggest, however, that as much of 90 percent of class time for English learners remains consumed with teachers talking or students working in isolation (Gibbons, 2015), giving students little time to work with one another, process learning, or practice oral language skills.
What English learners may need most is for us to understand what's happening inside their brains as they learn, including the incredible mental connections they're making, and then give them (and their peers) ample time to make sense of their learning.
References

August, D., & Shanahan, T., Eds. (2006). Developing literacy in second-language learners: A report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Baker, S., Lesaux, N., Jayanthi, M., Dimino, J., Proctor, C. P., Morris, J., et al. (2014). Teaching academic content and literacy to English learners in elementary and middle school (NCEE 2014-4012). Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Esquinca, A., Araujo, B., & de la Piedra, M. T. (2014). Meaning making and translanguaging in a two-way dual-language program on the U.S.-Mexico border. Bilingual Research Journal, 36(2), 164–181.

Genesee, F., Lindholm-Leary, K., Saunders, W. M., & Christian, D. (Eds.). (2006). Educating English language learners: A synthesis of research evidence. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gibbons, P. (2015). Scaffolding language, scaffolding learning. 2nd ed. Portsmouth, UK: Heinemann.

Goodwin, B. (2018). Student learning that works: How brain science informs a student learning model. Denver, CO: McREL International.

Goodwin, B. (In press). Student learning that works: Teaching with learning in mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Pyle, D., Pyle, N., Lignugaris/Kraft, B., Duran, L. & Akers, J. (2017). Academic effects of peer-mediated interventions with English language learners: A research synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 87(1), 103–133.

Richards-Tutor, C., Aceves, T., & Reese, L. (2016). Evidence-based practices for English learners (Document No. IC–18). Gainesville, FL: University of Florida, Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability, and Reform Center.

Santau, A. O., Maerten-Rivera, J. L., & Huggins, A. C. (2011). Science achievement of English language learners in urban elementary schools: Fourth-grade student achievement results from a professional development intervention. Science Education, 95(5), 771–793.

Vaughn, S., Martinez, L. R., Wanzek, J., Roberts, G., Swanson, E., & Fall, A. M. (2017). Improving content knowledge and comprehension for English language learners: Findings from a randomized control trial. Journal of Educational Psychology, 109(1), 22.

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has been at McREL for more than 20 years, serving previously as chief operating officer and director of communications and marketing. Goodwin writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership and presents research findings and insights to audiences across the United States and in Canada, the Middle East, and Australia.

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