An Innovative High School CCSS Lesson for ELLs: Letters from John Smith
In my last post, I shared Colorin Colorado's new multimedia project filmed with ELLs and ESL teachers in Poughkeepsie, NY. This week, I'd like to delve a little deeper into one of the high school lessons taught by ESL teacher Anne Formato. As I highlight the lesson "Instruction of Key Academic Vocabulary with High School ELLs," I'll share innovative aspects of this lesson that will leave you with some strategies you might consider for your own ELLs, even if they're not at the high school level. I'll focus on how this lesson innovates by: (1) using different grade level standards than the students' actual grade, (2) including student-friendly objectives, and (3) reinforcing academic vocabulary in multiple ways. I'll close with some thoughtful reflections from Ms. Formato about language learning and the challenges her ELLs face.
ELL Innovation #1: Choice of Grade Level for Standards
In this lesson for ninth grade ELLs, students read a letter that Captain John Smith of the English Army wrote to Queen Anne in 1616. He wrote this letter about his encounters with the Algonquin Indians of Virginia. The lesson focuses on academic vocabulary from the second paragraph.
I chose to examine this lesson a little more closely because, although it's taught to ninth grade ELLs, it's based on seventh grade Common Core Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy. As you may know, the CCSS increase in complexity and sophistication as new skills and concepts are added to each grade level from the previous year, forming a spiral progression through grade levels. Here's a comparison of the seventh grade standards with the ninth grade standards. You'll see the differences between the two in boldface.
Seventh Grade Standards Compared to Ninth Grade Standards
|7th Grade Standard (With Differences in Bold)||9th Grade Standard (With Differences in Bold)|
|Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text. (RL.7.2)||Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text. (RL.9.2)|
|Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 7 topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly. (SL.7.1)||Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9–10 topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively. (SL.9.1)|
|Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate general academic and domain-specific words and phrases. (L.7.6)||Acquire and use accurately general academic and domain-specific words and phrases, sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression. (LS.9.6)|
ELL expert Diane August has suggested using the strategy of basing instruction on a lower grade's Common Core standards for ELLs who are at lower levels of English proficiency to support them as they work towards standards at their grade level. Even though the Captain John Smith lesson is based on seventh grade standards, the lesson is still complex and challenging, but it also allows ELLs an opportunity to succeed in meeting the Common Core standards it's based on while preparing them to meet the Grade 9 CCSS in English Language Arts and Literacy.
ELL Innovation #2: Student-Friendly Objectives
Another innovative aspect of this lesson is that it includes student-friendly objectives (or objectives written in language that ELLs will understand) for all the standards the lesson is based on. For example, the reading (literature) standard for the lesson is: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text. (RL.7.2) The lesson objective and student objective are the following:
Lesson Objective: Students will determine the central theme of the excerpts and will be able to provide supporting details from the text.
Student Objective: I will determine, or find out the central idea of the text. I will find details (pieces of information) in the text that support the central idea.
It stands out to me how the teacher embeds the meaning of certain terms (e.g., determine and details) in the student objective. So, students are not only increasing their understanding of the lesson objective through the student objective, but they're also learning some academic vocabulary along the way. I like that two-for-one special!
ELL Innovation #3: Reinforcing Academic Vocabulary
The third innovation is the way in which academic vocabulary is reinforced throughout the lesson. Ms. Formato identifies academic vocabulary the students will need and makes distinctions between Tier 1, 2, and 3 words during instruction. It's evident through the video how she has students apply the new vocabulary throughout the lesson via discussion, examples, and student-generated sentences. You can find all the lesson materials here (PDF), including the text, glossary, and the vocabulary matrix pictured to the left.
In a series of teacher reflection videos linked to this lesson, Ms. Formato draws upon her past experience as a bilingual speaker of English and Italian and describes feeling like she was always "in the spotlight" in terms of feeling self-conscious about her emerging bilingualism. She offers an insightful quote about how she has students "own the light that they're in" – to help them "make the stage their own" and produce language they're proud of and feel comfortable with, even if it isn't exactly perfect. She recognizes the diversity of her high school ELLs, including students with interrupted formal education (SIFE), students who are pregnant, ELLs who also receive special education services, and those who are thinking of dropping out. She says was proud of her students for "showing up," although it's often far from simple for many of them to show up to school, and for doing their best. Her reflections solidify my belief that the most effective teachers of ELLs are ones who really know their students' strengths and challenges and support their students on both an academic and personal level.
Which of the innovations used in this lesson resonate the most with you? Which have you tried, and what effects did they have on your instruction? Which might you consider using this year?