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Teaching Newcomers in Content Classes - So What's It Look Like?

I know I have been focused on newcomers and beginning English learners for a while now.  There is so much to consider.  So many conversations we need to have.  So little time.  Teaching English learners is HUGE.  This week, I stay with the theme and I promise next week I will get back to best practices with something you can do with vocabulary (word level) at any age level.

Last week I wrote about grading and the idea that students with beginning English proficiency can only reasonably access a portion of the lesson content with supports.  I know, it's interesting in theory, but what does it look like in a classroom?  Today I will share one example of what I would do on any given day and my thinking behind it.  I don't claim that my way is the best or only way, because honestly it's a day to day dance of how much students can handle based on many factors such as time, background knowledge, the complexity of the content, and....well....the patience of their awesome teacher. :-)

**Disclaimer:  The example below is an example of supports in action in the content classroom.  This is NOT the entirety of the ESL program for these students.  I also understand that not all content classrooms have a second teacher (very few actually), so I hope the example gives all adults some empowerment to make adjustments.

The first thing to remember is that anything you ask a student with beginning English proficiency to do is going to generally take twice as long as the rest of the class.  It just is, so let's plan for it.  Our students at overall level 1 & 2 proficiency levels are still doing a LOT of translating in their heads.  They still need to process the content in their dominant language before shifting their thoughts into English.  This takes time.  And energy.  Lots of energy.

Think about the lesson content as this delicious layer cake.  An English proficient student can consume all of the layers (content) with a reasonable amount of effort.  Some may even get to the bonus parts, such as the fruit on top.

Our beginners, in the same amount of time, can handle about the first layer or two of the content. So what do we want that to be?

Example 1:  A high school English class is reading an essay about the contribution of immigrants in U.S. history.  Perfect topic!  We can do this!  The students I have in mind are approaching a level 2 in reading depending on the content.  The essay is 3 pages long.  The whole class listens to the essay read aloud through an online recording.  This is helpful, thought the reader reads fairly quickly.  In a perfect world, I would have played the recording more than once and stopped to summarize and clarify along the way, but time is always a factor. 

So here's the big question.  What's most important?  Understanding the details of the text in depth or analysis?  We'd love to have it all, but what are truly the first two layers of the cake.  On this day, we decided it was exposure and practice in everything rather than depth.

I prepared a two paragraph summary in simple English to read and discuss with my students after listening.  Do they get all of the details and nuances of the text?  No. Thinking a layer or two, they get the main idea and a few key supporting details. They can follow the discussions in class because they see how one text is connecting to the next in message.

Proficient English speaking students in the class answer 5 comprehension questions.  I select two for my students - one that is more concrete about main idea and one that is making a personal connection to the text.  The students talk about their thoughts in Spanish together.  I'm not participating, just listening.  This is not what I can give them about the text, but if they are truly thinking at an age appropriate level about text.  We have access to Google Translate so the students put their thoughts together in Spanish and translate to English to help them write a response.  

Ok.  I know.  The pros and cons of Google translate.  Here are my thoughts.  If we had time, I would work through productive struggle with the students to create an English response.  I'd use all my supports and tricks and strategies to help them produce a response.  But in reality, class time is ticking and we still have another activity to do before it ends.  I want my students to have a plan for when I'm not with them.  They know we expect them to try.  To think.  To have thoughts and opinions in any language.  This is one tool they have access to that makes the process faster and helps them get their ideas on paper for the teacher.  What I don't want is for the teacher to translate the materials (the payoff is not worth the time invested IMHO) or excuse them from thinking.  I want reasonable chunks.

Anyway, back to class.  The class practices with looking for examples of various types of language in the text such as contrasting or conflicting ideas, the use of stats and numbers, quoting experts, and word gaps (vocabulary).  Honestly, at first, I wanted to cry.  How do we analyze a text that's way over our heads? But, being a "newcomers can" believer, we are making it work.  Again, not at 100%. 

We can do stats and numbers.  My students can find numbers in the text and consider why the author included this information.  They can figure out if it suggests, for example, a lot of people or a few.  We look at one sentence at a time and consider the big ideas.  We are now trying to find words such as many, few, a lot, and most.  These are high value words to know.  We can also handle word gap.  They can ALWAYS find new words they want to know.  They are great at finding cognates now, so I push to get curious about other words.  We work on the expert quotes.  Some we can handle, some are so complex that it takes waaaaayyyy too long to explain to be worth the time.  As for conflicting and contrasting information, we tackle those if they are comprehensible.  They tend, though, to be more figurative which is very time consuming to break down.  Overall, if we find three examples in total, we did well.

So, what do you think?  In this one class period, were they exposed to grade level text?  Did they think at an age appropriate level?  Did they attempt to meet a grade level ELA standard or two?  Did I spoon feed anything?  Did they use their own resources and creative problem solving to make an effort so they know what to do when there isn't someone sitting next to them?

All that talk about cake.  Now I'm hungry.

I'd love to hear your thoughts!   [email protected]

Blog author, Kelly Reider, is the founder of English Learner Portal.  She currently works with high school newcomers and provides professional learning workshops both online and across the country.

Want more professional learning around developing language and content in your classroom?  Take a look at our online course, "A Content Teacher's Guide to English Learner Success".  This course is perfect for those just getting started with English learners and is open for enrollment.


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