In content-area courses, English language learners (ELLs) have a double challenge: they must learn language and content at the same time. ELLs may struggle in content-area courses such as literature, science, math, and social studies because they haven't acquired the literacy, language skills, or background knowledge necessary to master that new content knowledge.
One way to address that challenge is through effective lesson planning. Depending on their different stages of English proficiency and literacy, ELLs will benefit from the skills that a well-designed lesson can address.
- building background knowledge
- explicit instruction and modeling
- guided practice
- peer practice
- assessment of content learned
Teacher-student interactions, as well as peer interactions, are critical for learning. Because of the diversity in experiences and backgrounds that ELLs bring to the classroom, it is essential to prepare lessons that can address a wide range of needs. This broad sweep will also benefit all other students in your class.
Effective lesson planning requires a number of steps from initial preparation to the final review of material. This Lesson Plan Checklist for The Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) offers a general roadmap for that process.
- determine your standard or lesson objective
- eliminate unnecessary information that does not meet your objective
- select the concepts to teach
- choose specific vocabulary to pre-teach
- develop assessments to test that content
Once you have identifed your target objectives, concepts, and vocabulary, consider the following elements of your lesson plan.
Building background knowledge
As you prepare your lesson, determine what background knowledge students need in order to master the material. Teachers may find that their ELLs' background knowledge varies greatly from one student to another. It's also important not to assume that ELLs' background knowledge matches that of other students who were raised in this country.
For example, a student may not have learned much about geography in previous schooling or if he has had little or no schooling, so the concepts of a "city," "state," or "country" may be new to him. Also consider your students' different cultural backgrounds — in some countries, students learn that there are 5 or 6 continents rather than 7, so if they are expected to learn the 7 continents here that may be a bit confusing at first.
- Create interest in the subject by using pictures, real objects, maps, or personal experiences. Say the names of objects as often as you can so ELLs can remember them. Relate material to students' lives when possible.
- Build text-specific knowledge by providing students with information from the text beforehand, particularly if the text is conceptually difficult or has an abundance of information that is important. For example, if there are six main topics on the animal kingdom, highlight them beforehand.
Also, develop concept background by explaining difficult concepts and labeling them with key words ELLs can remember. For example, "This is the Statue of Liberty. Liberty means freedom. Liberty means libertad. The people of France gave us the Statue of Liberty…"
- Establish the purpose for reading (e.g., "Now we are going to read to find out about a country called France. What are some things we might learn about France as we read?")
- Select a specific comprehension strategy for students to use. For example, decide to focus on the main idea, cause and effect, or comparing and contrasting.
- Select tier 1, tier 2 and tier 3 words from target content. Write an ELL-friendly definition for each and post them where students can see them throughout the lesson.
- Choose different strategies to teach each word. If there are five words to be pre-taught, use different ways of engaging the students to hear and produce each word in context.
- You might want to use your state or local English language acquisition standards as a guide for choosing words to highlight.
Peer review and cooperative learning strategies
Using peer review can be a powerful way to help students master content. Here are some ways to get students working together:
- Use graphic organizers.
- Have students work in collaborative groups and use a graphic organizer so together they can identify main ideas, relationships between information, etc. It gives a purpose while reading while interacting and using the language.
- Assign reading partners.
- Pair ELLs with friendly fluent readers. Ask partners to read aloud to each other, alternating sentences or pages. After partner reading, ask them to summarize what they read. For variety, use choral reading once in a while. Assign different sections to each team, ask them to rehearse, and then ask teams to read chorally.
- Use Think-Pair-Share (TPS). TPS is a collaborative learning strategy in which students work together to solve a problem or answer a question about an assigned reading. This technique requires students to (1) think individually about a topic or answer to a question; and (2) share ideas with classmates. Discussing an answer with a partner serves to maximize participation, focus attention and engage students in comprehending the reading material. Read more in the following articles:
Writing is another way for ELLs to demonstrate and extend their understanding of content. You can ask teams to compose questions about the content and use those questions for their test. Throw in one of your questions as a 'surprise test question.' Or, ask students to practice writing short simple summaries of what they read.
You can also support ELLs' writing skills by modeling the kinds of writing used frequently in your particular content area, such as lab reports in chemistry class, or a persuasive essay in social studies. Help students understand what the purpose of different kinds of writing are, and review vocabulary that would be typically used in these kinds of assignments. Be sure to provide examples of the different kinds of writing to your students so they can learn and compare models.
Another writing option is to give students a graphic organizer to fill in. This will demonstrate that they understood the concepts and content, even if they only use a symbol or write one or two words for each category. Graphic organizers can also be used as a pre-teaching or post-teaching strategy for introducing or reinforcing key concepts and how they are related. The more connections ELLs make to the overall content and organization of the content before reading, the easier it will be to focus on and understand what is important. When teachers and/or students use graphic organizers at the end of a lesson, this helps to reinforce and synthesize lesson content.
Review and assessment
There are many ways to review and assess content following instruction. For some ideas, take a look at these articles:
Reading comprehension and using textbooks
Reading is an important part of learning new content in the classroom. Remember that ELLs (especially those students with limited educational experience) may also need some help with two areas in particular:
- 1. Reading comprehension
- 2. How to effectively use textbooks
There are a few ways to support these skills:
Explicitly teach reading comprehension skills. Learning skills such as summarizing and finding the main idea will help students apply these strategies to all subject matter.
Teach students how to make predictions. One method is the Directed Reading-Thinking Activity (DR-TA), which encourages students to be active readers.
Help students recognize the structure of expository text. Introduce the various parts of the text, such as the table of contents and the glossary. Show students how the text is organized, and teach them how to use these tools for informational reading:
- Bold print
- Side bars
Read an introductory portion of the textbook aloud. Model thinking aloud about what you are reading, how you figure out difficult words, and how to summarize what you read.
Develop study guides to guide ELLs through their content area textbook reading. Study guides will focus their attention on the major ideas presented, and can include graphic organizers as described above, key vocabulary, and guiding questions.
Assign reading partners. Pair ELLs with friendly fluent readers. Ask partners to read aloud to each other, alternating sentences or pages. After partner reading, ask them to summarize what they read. For variety, use choral reading once in a while. Assign different sections to each team, ask them to rehearse, and then ask teams to read chorally.
Encourage student engagement. One strategy is the "Say Something" activity. Students take turns reading aloud, and following the reading, each student 'says something,' such as asking question, making a comment, making a connection to something already read, or responding personally to the text. The exercise also engages students as readers and get them thinking about the text.
For more tips on supporing reading instruction in the ELL classroom, take a look at our reading tips for teachers.