Wednesday, July 11, 2018

What Modifications Would You Make for ELLs in Mainstream Classrooms? – Part 3

Tamara Jones is an ESL Instructor at Howard Community College, Columbia, Maryland

In my last 2 blog posts, I told you that one of my best friends asked me for some advice about supporting English Language learners (ELLs) in a mainstream primary school class. In addition to working as an adult ESL administrator and instructor, one night a week I teach in a local MATESOL program. So, I got pretty excited when she asked about this topic.

Her question was: What modifications and adaptations would you make for ELLs in your classroom?

In Part 1 of this blog post, I shared my thoughts on teaching vocabulary. In Part 2, I discussed the importance of knowing my learners. I had 1 other piece of advice for her as well.

Balancing BICS and CALP

Jim Cummins (1989) came up with the terms BICS and CALP to differentiate between the different kinds of language students need to master. BICS refers to Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills. It’s basically conversational language and it develops in 6 months to 2 years, in general. CALP, is Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. It’s typically learned through formal instruction and relies on vocabulary and grammar that may not be used in everyday language. It takes (get this!!) 5 to 7 years to develop, and for SLIFE, it can take up to 10 years! The problem is that ELLs develop BICS and then are considered English proficient; however, they may not have developed the CALP they need to succeed with content area learning. It’s this discrepancy that has led to the proliferation of LTELs in US public schools.

What can Teachers do?

If I were a mainstream content teacher, I would make sure my ELLs were exposed to both social and academic language, so when they exit ESOL, they are more equipped to succeed. To do this, I would pull some of the elements from the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) Model (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2009). (While there are many more important components to the SIOP Model, I have focused on four.)

a) Planning: I would prepare my lessons with not just content objectives but also language objectives in mind. I would ask myself what language – vocabulary and grammar – students will need in order to successfully carry out the content objectives. I would also think about what skills they would need to have mastered – reading, writing, listening, speaking – in order to be able to do the activity. Interestingly, expert teachers, such as Zehr (as quoted by Ferlazzo, 2015), contend that a focus on language rather than content is the best way to plan for ELL inclusion. “Increasingly, I’m trying to plan lessons with the primary goal of teaching language or a skill using history content rather than teaching history with a secondary goal of supporting students to acquire language and skills along the way.” Markos & Himmel (2016) liken content and language objectives to a road map for both the teacher and the students. This is a metaphor I really appreciate.

b) Building Background: I would build/activate background for my students. I would need to make explicit connections for my students and consider their cultural and education backgrounds when designing activities that build background. It is especially important to be thoughtful about how to activate background knowledge for SLIFE because even though much of their schemata is not academic, connections can be made (DeCapua & Marshall, 2015). SLIFE may have real world experiences with things like seasonal shifts, scarcity or natural disasters which can provide background for science lessons. Or their experience working in a family business or store might provide background for math lessons. What this alternative schemata means is that teachers of SLIFE need to be a little creative when connecting learning to students’ funds of knowledge.

c) Strategies: I would make sure that students were taught specific comprehension strategies (e.g. predicting, summarizing, comprehension monitoring) and given the opportunity to practice them. ELLs often need help acculturating to the North American school system, so it is helpful to explicitly teach independent learning strategies, study skills, note-taking skills, technology skills and collaboration and group work strategies (WIDA Consortium, 2015).

d) Interaction: This is a biggie! “Perhaps the single most salient aspect of observations of ESL students in mainstream classes [is] their reticence and lack of interaction with native-speaking peers” (Harklau, 1994). So, I would not create ELL ghettos within my classroom by clumping all the ESOL students together in a group and hoping the ESOL Specialist or TA can figure out how to help them. Instead, I would sprinkle ELLs throughout the room so they are able to interact with the proficient English speakers in the class. It is important for students to develop their BICS through social interaction and their CALP through academic discussions with their peers, so group work would be an essential part of every lesson. Group work is motivating for all students, and especially helpful for ELLs.

Having ELLs in mainstream classrooms can certainly bring some challenges for teachers. Making content accessible for all students and ensuring that ESOL students are learning both the content and the language is more than just “good teaching.” It requires a thoughtful approach to lesson planning with careful consideration about what the students’ educational backgrounds are, what vocabulary they will need, and how to best support and encourage them as they develop both BICS and CALP. These three suggestions are by no means “the answer.” Entire graduate programs are devoted to English Language Teaching, so clearly a few blog posts can’t do justice to this topic. However, these are, in my mind, the top three pieces of advice I would give any mainstream teacher who was concerned about the learning of his or her ELLs.

Cummins, J. (1989). Empowering Minority Students. Sacramento, CA: California Association for Bilingual Education.
DeCapua, A. & Marshall, H.W. (2015). Promoting Achievement for English Learners with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education: A Culturally Responsive Approach. Principal Leadership, 15, 48-51.
Echevarria, J., Vogt, M. & Short, D. J. (2009). Making Content Comprehensible for English Language Learners: The SIOP® Model. Boston, MA: Pearson Allyn & Bacon.
Frelazzo, L. (2015). Response: Teaching Strategies for ELLs in Content Classes. Classroom Q&A. Retrieved from:
Harklau, L. (1994). ESL versus mainstream classes: Contrasting L2 learning environments. TESOL Quarterly, 28, 241-272.
Markos, A. & Himmel, J. (2016). Using sheltered instruction to support English learners. CAL Practitioner Brief. Retrieved from file:///C:/Users/tjones1462/Downloads/using-sheltered-instruction-to-support-english-learners.pdf.
WIDA Consortium. (2015). WIDA Focus on SLIFE: Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education. Retrieved from file:///C:/Users/tjones1462/Downloads/WIDA_Focus_on_SLIFE%20Final.pdf.

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