6 minutes reading time (1235 words)

Explicit Language Instruction: Why does it matter if students understand how English works?

SusanaSusana Dutro, Co-founder and CEO

 

While the Common Core English Language Arts Standards do not prescribe specific instructional approaches, there are several key shifts that have significant implications for classroom practice. 

  • With a focus on reading increasingly complex texts, students must learn to respond to questions based not on factual recall, but rather on the relationships among ideas and between different texts, and on their interpretation of those texts.
  • Learning to use evidence from text and their own experiences, students must articulate their thinking to demonstrate a depth of understanding, research skills, and analysis.
  • The emphasis on gaining knowledge through higher-order thinking skills means that providing a brief written response or selecting a correct answer from a list of options is no longer sufficient to demonstrate learning.

Each of these shifts has a critical point in common: a lot of language is needed to accomplish the work. To successfully meet academic demands, English learners need an internalized knowledge of written and spoken English – the ability to confidently and adroitly make skillful language choices to express their thinking.

What’s language got to do with it?

English learners acquire a great deal of English knowledge from a natural process of language learning during daily experiences. They have gleaned some important vocabulary, grammatical structures, conventions, and rules of discourse from everyday interactions. They might appear fluent. However, while they may have internalized certain complex verb forms, they may consistently misuse others. These students may lack knowledge of precise vocabulary for fairly common objects, such as countertop, high-rise, or pedal.

Much of our native language learning happens effortlessly – and almost invisibly. It is only when we manipulate a new language, or academic aspects of our first language, that some of these complexities emerge.

Students learning English as a second language must learn every word and sentence combination that native speakers of Standard English have spent thousands of hours internalizing during their early childhoods. This must be done in a condensed time frame, and often only during the hours a student is in school. Additionally, English learners must learn the content language being taught in their reading and writing materials. This includes not only the conceptual and concrete language taught in the current year, but also the foundational vocabulary taught in each previous year.

Consider what it takes to learn abstract concepts such as plot, ideas such as loyalty, and skills such as evaluate evidence or make an argument in a second language. English is particularly rich in idioms and figurative language with hundreds of expressions, such as know the ropes or put your best foot forward, which pepper the everyday speech, literature, and informational text that English learners must decipher.

As students progress through the grades, language demands increase rapidly. Sentence constructions are longer and more complex, and vocabulary is less concrete. Problems in reading and writing in the higher grades often stem from limited vocabulary and syntactic knowledge of English (García, 2000). Without a deep understanding of English, students are constrained academically, resulting in frustration for both themselves and their teachers. This can be especially problematic for long-term English learners who have attended U.S. schools for years, appear to be acculturated, and are comfortable using English in most settings. On the surface, these students do not seem to need specific language instruction. However, their verbal fluency often masks their instructional needs.

What’s often missing from English learner programs?

Despite the clear evidence that language knowledge affects academic and social success, we sometimes encounter reluctance to focus on language learning.

Sheltered instruction has long held sway in teacher preparation for teaching English learners and professional development (cf. Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2000; Díaz-Rico & Weed, 2002). This approach emphasizes critical elements that are fundamental for student learning – including the use of comprehensible input techniques along with effective teaching strategies, such as accessing prior knowledge, establishing relevance, and ensuring content instruction is clear, sequential, and scaffolded. Yet this is not enough.

Current research strongly suggests that a more comprehensive model is needed. The literature makes clear that explicit instruction in English and how it works – vocabulary, word usage, grammatical features, and syntactical structures – must be included (Saunders, Foorman, & Carlson, 2006; Olsen, 2010; Coleman & Goldenberg, 2012; Dutro & Moran, 2003). By alluding to language use rather than explicitly sharing our knowledge of how the language works, we end up leaving English learners with a partial command of the structures of academic English.

It is up to us to do the hard work of learning how to equip English learners with the advanced uses of English required in academic tasks. Unfortunately, because much professional development is generally silent on the role of explicit language instruction, teachers are rarely provided support in teaching the language students need to be successful.

In the graphic below, we propose a Blueprint for Serving English Learners that adds this missing piece. It is a research-based and federally compliant model that ensures English learners receive explicit language instruction throughout the school day for two related, but distinct, purposes:

  • Integrated English language development within content instruction (Constructing Meaning), and
  • Dedicated ELD (Systematic ELD) to grow students’ proficiency in English.

Each component of the instructional blueprint is essential to a well-designed program for English learners. Neither is sufficient on its own: dedicated or Systematic ELD instruction supports success in content areas by strengthening language skills, but by itself it will not ensure meaningful access to the curriculum. Integrated ELD, or Constructing Meaning, does not provide sufficient language instruction to ensure a solid foundation because it does not follow a scope and sequence of language skills and may leave gaps in language knowledge.

Both Systematic ELD and Constructing Meaning instruction are provided within an inclusive, culturally responsive learning environment that recognizes, values, and builds on the language and experiences of each student. Instructional planning always begins with the end in mind. It is backward mapped from content standards, employs a range of strategies to scaffold learning and make content comprehensible, and is infused with ample opportunities for speaking and writing about learning. 

To meet the needs of the English learners they serve, our partner districts apply the Blueprint for Serving English Learners to their program design. To learn more about the language growth and academic success of their students, visit our Promising Results page.

References
Coleman, R., & Goldenberg, C. (2012). The Common Core challenges for English language learners. Principal Leadership (February), 46–51.
Díaz-Rico, L. T., & Weed, K. Z. (2002). The crosscultural, language, and academic development handbook: A complete K–12 reference guide. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Dutro, S., & Moran, C. (2003). Rethinking English language instruction: An architectural approach. In G. G. García (Ed.), English learners: Reaching the highest level of English literacy, 227–258. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Echevarria, J., Vogt, M. E., & Short, D. J. (2000). Making content comprehensible for English language learners. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
García, G. E. (2000). Bilingual children’s reading. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of reading research, Vol. 3, 813–834. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Olsen, L. (2010). Reparable harm: Fulfilling the unkept promise of educational opportunity for California’s long term English learners. Long Beach, CA: Californians Together.
Saunders, W. M., Foorman, B. R., & Carlson, C. D. (2006). Is a separate block of time for oral English language development in programs for English learners needed? Elementary School Journal, 107(2), 181–198. 

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