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November 1, 2013
Vol. 71
No. 3

Tackling Complex Texts with Language Learners

To help English language learners read confidently, interweave language and content learning.

The shifts in language arts instruction required by the Common Core State Standards—chiefly the need for students to read informational texts and engage in evidence-based conversation around these texts—take on special weight when students are still learning English. Teachers will make these shifts more easily when they view language learning and cognitive development as mutually dependent and create ways for students to learn language while they learn content.
Let's step inside a classroom in which the teacher scaffolds students' reading of a complex text to support both language and content development. Ms. Dulaney's elementary class, composed of both native speakers and English language learners (ELLs) at different levels of proficiency, is tackling an article about the digestive system. To prepare for this complex reading, Ms. Dulaney preteaches some terms from the article, but only those that are new concepts for students—specifically, the concept of digestion as an overall body system—rather than technical terms that might best be addressed during the reading (like intestinal).
Students also revisit how they'll use text features to support their understanding, build vocabulary, and get a sense of the text's structure, using a system of gestures Ms. Dulaney has taught them to use. Students touch the top of their heads to reinforce what a heading signifies (a main idea is being introduced) and touch their chins to remember what subheadings represent.
As she reads some text aloud, Ms. Dulaney models how to infer word meanings by using context. For example, she infers the meaning of esophagus by drawing on students' common understandings of words or phrases in the text, such as throat or "where food passes after entering the mouth." She also models how to extract key vocabulary from the text to begin building a visual diagram of the digestive process, with parts labeled. Teacher and student construct this diagram collaboratively while reading the first pages of the text, and students then reference this diagram as they read the article in pairs.
When all students have read this complex article once, they rehearse their new learning by explaining the process of digestion to a partner, using their new vocabulary. Ms. Dulaney pairs students strategically so students with varying language skills will receive support.

Orchestrating Motivation

Ms. Dulaney masterfully orchestrates rich academic learning while scaffolding students' English learning in this lesson—as I've noticed she does each time I observe her class. Even facing a difficult text, students are motivated to grapple with the content and linguistic demands of their learning.
This engagement continues as they tackle this content again the next day. Students sit in pairs facing their partner and take turns paraphrasing different parts of one section of the article. They use two sentence frames ("We can say that …" and "The important details in this section are …") to help them use the language of paraphrase.
As she listens in on students' paraphrasing, Ms. Dulaney gathers important information about what content vocabulary they've learned, the grammatical nature of their interchanges, and whether they can sift through the information for important details that support the main idea. She captures key words and phrases she hears on a graphic organizer that will support students as they write about this content. Listening attentively also helps her make decisions about her next teaching moves, such as whether to provide more explicit modeling or release students to work independently.
After two days reading, rereading, extracting information, and discussing the article, students are ready to write an informative piece about what they've learned, using the scaffolded chart that contains key vocabulary and ideas extracted from the text.

Tools for the Challenge

Linguistically diverse students need to rise to the tasks set by the new standards: building vocabulary and content knowledge through an array of informational texts; engaging in collaborative language discourse that's grounded in evidence from text; and writing informative, persuasive, or entertaining pieces that draw from informational sources.
Content learning doesn't exist in isolation. People learn by relating new knowledge to existing knowledge, and language is our essential tool for pulling together different strands of meaning. Language and meaning need to simmer in the same pot until they blend to generate learning (Arechiga, 2012). Let's look more closely at the tools teachers can use to help language learners.

Engaging ELLs with Academic Vocabulary

Learning starts with vocabulary and is continually enlarged by new and richer vocabulary. Giving students command of academic vocabulary is essential. Informational texts contain specialized terms that name and describe the work of different content domains and complex terms that describe processes or procedures (like examine or hypothesize). When Simmons and Kameenui (1998) claim that "learning, as a language-based activity, is fundamentally and profoundly dependent on vocabulary knowledge" (p. 183, emphasis added), they aren't just saying vocabulary helps learning. The words profoundly dependent tell us that learning can't really happen without appropriate vocabulary.
Knowing a word implies much more than being able to state its definition. Students need to apply it in a situation to move from receptive knowledge (I know it when I hear or read it) to productive knowledge (I use it in my speech and writing). Four approaches help ELLs make this move.
1. Interact rather than introduce. Rather than introducing many unfamiliar words before students read a text, spend time demonstrating and interacting with new words during and after reading. Explicitly model, multiple times, how to infer word meaning by using context, as Ms. Dulaney modeled using the phrase moves down the throat to infer the meaning of esophagus. This helps students become strategic when they encounter unfamiliar words. It also requires them to see relationships among words and make inferences from the text.
2. Support "concept" words. Words that represent concepts—like democracy—demand more attention. Introduce students to such words before reading a text; then, as they read, explore the crucial attributes of a concept word further to unpack the word's meaning. Other words, like mayor, are labels for objects or ideas a student already has a word for in his or her vocabulary.
Once students grasp a concept, they can link new words to it to further their understanding. For example, once Ms. Dulaney's students extracted concept words associated with the digestive system, like organs, they acquired—and could easily infer the meaning of—terms like abdomen and kidneys.
One strategy for connecting concept words to labels is a concept word sort. Students might be given Digestive System and Pulmonary System as heading cards, and told to sort words like abdomen, intestines, lungs, bronchia, and so on under the correct heading. By discussing words and grouping them into categories, students learn attributes of words in relation to one another and the topic studied.
3. Unpack affixes. Many words in informational texts consist of affixes (prefixes and suffixes) and root words that represent meaningful units. Before, during, or after reading it's helpful to pull the word from context, write it on the board, and model how to unlock its meaning by looking at what each unit means. Move beyond the represented word—say, digest—to show its derivatives (digestion, digestive, digesting) and introduce words with the same affix (gestation). Such word building helps students in use this strategy when they encounter new words.
4. Use visuals. Visual representations—photographs, illustrations, or multimedia—help keep learning comprehensible by coordinating auditory and visual modes of input. Using a graphic aid to represent how words are related within a content area not only helps ELLs see structural relationships among ideas, but can also be a tool for moving students into speaking and writing in the content areas.

Engaging ELLs in Language Production

Historically, theories about language learning have been either formal—focused on students' ability to learn sentence patterns, grammar, and so on correctly—or functional—focused on using language to convey meaning. Both approaches have merit, yet they fall short of developing the language competence students need to achieve academic proficiency. Lier and Walqui (n.d.) propose a focus on language as action: "In a classroom context, an action-based perspective means that ELLs engage in meaningful activities that engage their interest and that encourage language growth through perception, interaction, planning, research, discussion, and co-construction of academic products." (p. 4).
Certainly, ELLs can participate meaningfully in instruction even though their English is imperfect; we don't have time to wait! These tools provide opportunities for classroom interactions that support language learners in talking, writing, and interacting using English.
1. Use student partnerships. The classroom can be a very intimidating environment—especially when students must respond to a question by raising their hands and then receive an evaluative response to their answer in front of peers. This traditional kind of interaction will never promote the type of academic conversations that are a part of the Common Core speaking and listening standards. Structured student partnerships, however—in which two students talk together for a specific academic purpose—support students' interactions.
Pre-arrange these partnerships, taking into consideration students' language proficiency, learning styles, and academic development. Establish a clear purpose and expectations to ensure productive talk, just as Ms. Dulaney's learners knew their purpose was to paraphrase a segment of the text using key words and phrases. Demonstrate the process several times before you release students for guided practice. Always ask yourself: Who's doing the majority of the talking in the classroom?
2. Provide sentence frames. Giving students opportunities to talk with a partner about their learning is a first step in promoting active discourse within a content area. It won't, however, necessarily produce the type of academic conversation necessary to engage with the content at a sophisticated level of vocabulary and language demands. Without scaffolding, ELLs often draw on their limited social English to engage in language production.
Sentence frames give students a way to engage in the academic talk characteristic of a discipline, using terms appropriate for the task. Such a template often includes signal words to support proper grammar or syntax.
For younger students, a teacher might extract a language frame from a text students are reading. As some kindergarten students I observed worked on finding details to support a main idea (how mother animals protect their babies), their teacher provided these frames, which showed them the proper syntax for using referent pronouns: "Animal mothers protect their babies by ___" and "The mother [name of the animal] protects her babies by ___."
3. Tap nonverbal techniques. Such nonverbal techniques as strategic use of body language—facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, and movement—can help students understand the language they're hearing and support them in speaking and writing it. Pointing to a visual aid or using a common gesture paired with speech gives a rich context from which students' comprehension can emerge (Arechiga, 2012). Recall how Ms. Dulaney used a visual (the chart with key words and a diagram) and gestures (like touching the head for headings) to help students understand how to use organizational features to access the text.
To gauge how effectively you utilize nonverbal methods, observe whether your language learners are responding actively or passively. They should be buzzing with purposeful activity that promotes meaningful language use.

Challenge or Opportunity?

With the numbers of ELLs in U.S. classrooms increasing, educators are at the forefront of rethinking and reshaping teaching approaches to language and literacy instruction (Arechiga, 2012). It's our job to convey subject matter in ways that make it comprehensible to English language learners. We'll need to leverage students' background knowledge, build strategic competence, and provide language supports to these learners. We must also create spaces in which students learn content through rich discussions and collaboration with one another.
Our choice is clear: either empower our ELLs with effective tools to meet the demands of informational text or lose an entire generation of ELLs through lowered expectations and failure.

Arechiga, D. (2012). Reaching English language learners in every classroom: Energizers for teaching and learning. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

Lier, L. V., & Walqui, A. (n.d.). Language and the Common Core State Standards / Understanding Language. Understanding Language: Language, Literacy, and Learning in the Content Areas. Retrieved from http://ell.stanford.edu/publication/language-and-common-core-state-standards

Simmons, D. C., & Kameenui, E. J. (1998). What reading research tells us about children with diverse learning needs: Bases and basics. Mahwah: Erlbaum.

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