3 Cross-Curricular Techniques that Expand Thinking & Develop Language for English Learners

by Valentina Gonzalez

In the year 2025, 25% of the students in the United States will be English learners (Suarez-Orozco, & Todorova, 2008). Even now, ELs make up about 10% of our nation’s public school student population, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Though if you live in California, Texas, or Nevada, you know that the percentage of ELs is much greater in your state. 

English learners in our classrooms are acquiring a new language while also learning the content we teach. This poses challenges in and of itself, but it’s especially difficult if the demands of the instruction are not accommodated to support language acquisition. 

As teachers, we want all of our students to do well on classwork and assessments. But if we’re neglecting accommodating language for English learners, then we cannot be surprised or frustrated if they do not meet expectations on classwork and assessments. The use of accommodations changes how students experience instruction by making both how they receive and how they interact with content and language more accessible. Providing linguistic accommodations involves more than merely highlighting some text and omitting a few options on a multiple choice test; rather, it often includes the use of visuals and native language support, among many other techniques. Ultimately, if we want ELs to be successful academically, we have to address their linguistic needs not only in classes focused specifically on English language development, but in content classrooms as well. 

It’s common that when educators work with ELs, they oversimplify the content, sometimes even below grade level. Teachers that do this usually do it with the best intentions of supporting students who are learning English; however, this unintentionally creates academic gaps. Carol Salva and Anna Matis point out in Boosting Achievement: Reaching Students with Interrupted or Minimal Education that “All teachers must see themselves as language and literacy teachers and be prepared to teach language through content” (Menken & Klen, 2010, as cited in Salva & Matis, 2017). Though ESL teachers focus on language development, the best teachers use content as a vehicle to deliver the language instruction. General education teachers may focus on content but must use language as their vehicle for delivering content-related information to students. 

Ingredients for Language Development

Two “ingredients” are necessary for language development. Borrowing from John Seidlitz, “Language acquisition involves receiving copious amounts of comprehensible input with low stress opportunities for output in a target language” (p. 30, 2019). 

Acquiring language is a dynamic experience. It is not the same for each learner, and language proficiency may look different in varied contexts. For example, a student may seem more proficient in a mathematical context but less in social studies. Background knowledge, motivation, interest, and other factors play roles in the ease and speed of language acquisition as well. 

By amplifying language in content classrooms, we can help English learners develop language and become more successful with content. Our aim is to create lessons that incorporate all four language domains — listening, speaking, reading, and writing — within content instruction.

3 Techniques You Can Use Now

The following three instructional methods can be adjusted for use cross-curricularly in a wide variety of grade levels. Many students will benefit from additional supports such as (but not limited to) sentence stems for speaking and writing, visuals, exemplars, and short, clear directions.

In this chart, we use the following symbols to indicate which language domains students will be working on in each step of the lesson.


Strategy
Face to FaceVirtual, Hybrid, Online


Text Rendering (National School Reform Faculty, 2014)
Purposes:
– Uncover meaning
– Dig deeper 
– Clarify & expand thinking
1. Provide students with a text to read.

2. Have students highlight a significant sentence, phrase, and single word. 
3. Put students in groups of three to four.
4. Have students take turns sharing the sentence they highlighted. Then have them take turns sharing the phrase they highlighted. Finally, have them take turns sharing the word they highlighted.

5..Lastly, have groups discuss the significance and overall importance of the reading and write a one sentence summary, either together or separately.





1. Provide students with a text to read.
 
2. Have students select a significant sentence, phrase, and single word and place them on a shared document. (see example)


3. In breakout rooms, have students take turns sharing the sentence they highlighted. Then have them take turns sharing the phrase they highlighted. Finally, have them take turns sharing the word they highlighted. 

4. Lastly, have groups discuss the significance and overall importance of the reading and write a one sentence summary, either together or separately.
Silent Interview
(adapted from Jennings, 1993)
Purposes: 
– Build community
– Lower the affective filter
– Increase a sense of belonging
1. Pair up students.
2. Have students take turns asking one another personal or content-related questions by typing in a shared document or writing on paper. Continue this for 3-5 questions.

3. Bring everyone back to the whole group and have students introduce their partners to the group or class and share what they learned from one another.


Variation: This can be done in small groups or in whole group. Instead of typing or writing questions/answers, students can act out their introductions to one another (Step 2).
1. Put students into breakout rooms of 4.
2. Have students pair up within their groups. (Odd #s pair up and even #s pair up, for example, so 1 and 3 are a pair.)
3. Have students take turns asking one another personal or content related questions by typing in a shared document. Continue this for 3-5 questions.

4. Bring everyone back to the whole group, have them turn on their microphones and cameras (if possible) and have students introduce their partners to the breakout group and share what they learned from one another.

 
Blackout Poetry
Purposes: 
– Uncover key concepts
– Discover new meaning
– Build ideas
1. Provide students with a text or a selection of texts. 
2. Have students glance over or scan the text, select a set number of important words, and place a box around them.

3. Have students blackout all of the remaining words. 
4. Provide students an opportunity to share their newly found poem, discuss, and provide feedback to their peers.
 
Variations: Students can create visual arts around the text. 









1. Provide students access to a digital version of a text or a selection of texts. 
2. Have students copy and paste the words of the text into the Blackout poetry maker.
3. Have students select a set number of important words from the text and screenshot the final image of the blacked-out poem.

4. Have students place the poem in Google Slide, adding a visual, a title, and their name. 
5. Provide students an opportunity to share their newly found poem, discuss, and provide feedback to their peers in breakout rooms, whole group, or by recording themselves on platforms such as Flipgrid and responding to one another.
 

See example Google Slides for this activity. 

In November 2020, I had the honor of hearing Okhee Lee, professor and researcher, speak. I was particularly struck by one idea that she shared, and it stuck with me. “Keep content. Amplify language.” When we are intentional about our use of language combined with content, we may truly be able to enhance student achievement. 

Salva, C., & Matis, A. (2017). Boosting achievement: Reaching students with interrupted or minimal education. San Clemente, CA: Seidlitz Education.

Seidlitz, J. (2019). Sheltered instruction in Texas: Second language acquisition methods for teachers of ELs. Irving, TX: Seidlitz Education.

Suárez-Orozco, C., Suárez-Orozco, M. M., & Todorova, I. (2009). Learning a new land. Harvard University Press.

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