Student Interaction at the Secondary Level; Increasing Language Development for ELLs

Author:  Trish Flores, Bilingual/ESL Specialist

 

Engaging students at high levels of interaction is a goal for today’s schools.  High levels of interaction ensure that students are learning to use metacognitive skills to reflect on what they are learning and how they are learning.  Meaningful interactions create opportunities for students to practice what they are learning and apply it to authentic situations.  Typically, our thoughts on establishing these learning environments revolve around core subject areas such as math, science, literacy, and social studies.  It is not uncommon for teachers of elementary students to engage them in cooperative learning activities that lead to high levels of interaction.  Recently however, secondary teachers of students whom are second language learners are seeing the value and importance of implementing cooperative learning activities to accomplish two goals: content mastery and language development.

It is a wide held understanding that a skill or new learning is perfected after it is practiced and used frequently.  One does not learn to play an instrument on the first or even tenth attempt.  Learning a new skill takes targeted and focused practice that needs to be structured.  In a middle school classroom, teachers can create this learning structured environment by establishing learning stations that are geared to the specific needs of English language learners.  These mini islands of knowledge are organized to allow students the opportunity to use new and existing academic vocabulary in various expressive manners in order to master content and increase their English proficiency.  Although this might be new territory for middle school teachers, it can be accomplished with relative ease and high levels of success.

 

Student Grouping

As with planning any activity for your classroom, teachers need to be aware of the ability levels of their students when assigning them to station groups.  When working with second language learners, teachers need to know the language proficiency levels of students so that they can create groups that will be successful in expressing their knowledge in a variety of ways. This information also assists teachers in knowing how to scaffold the lessons linguistically.  The proficiency levels for all four communication strands (listening, speaking, reading and writing) can be found in the chart below.

Beginning Intermediate Advanced Advanced High
Beginning ELLs have little or no ability to understand English used in academic and social settings. Intermediate ELLs have the ability to understand simple, high frequency English used in routine academic and social settings. Advanced ELLs have the ability to understand, with support, grade-appropriate English used in academic and social settings. Advanced high ELLs have the ability to understand, with minimum support, grade appropriate English used in academic and social settings.

Groups are flexible and can be changed based on the knowledge level of the content and the language proficiency of the students.

 

Activities

The activities placed in learning stations need to reflect the rigor of the content being taught in a whole group setting.  Once the content is introduced, activities to extend the learning are placed in the learning stations.  Keeping in mind the language proficiency levels of students, teachers need to differentiate the activities by providing resources such as vocabulary word banks, sentence stems, paragraph frames, visuals, dictionaries and other materials that provide scaffolds for ELLs.  It is important to keep in mind the goal of language development when designing activities. Students need to be able to develop expressive skills such as speaking and writing as well as the receptive skills of reading and listening.  It is vital that activities be structured to support student-to-student or group interaction and provide ways for  ELLs to use English to explain concepts and contribute to the work. This gives teachers an opportunity to gauge what the student has learned while assessing student progress in English language development.

 

Management

It is crucial that students understand how to manage themselves at learning stations. Teachers need to communicate their expectations for time management and group conduct.  Roles such as time keeper, leader, materials person and scribe can be assigned to students to encourage participation and accountability.  These roles also offer hidden opportunities for students to develop their oral language.

 

Accountability

Learning stations offer teachers opportunities to observe their students and gauge their level of understanding of content and language use.  As students complete activities they place work in station folders for teacher review.  Teachers may review the assignments to assess students’ use of language.  It is in this final step that teachers can provide students feedback and refine the learning tasks to create higher language learning expectations.

High levels of student engagement are goals for educators.  All teachers, regardless of content or grade level, should strive for high levels of engagement so that their ELLs can have opportunities to enhance their language skills.  Students should not merely be recipients of knowledge but active constructivists of their own learning.  This can only be accomplished when teachers create authentic learning environments that require students to speak, read, and write on a daily basis.


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