SWRLing with EL: Speaking, writing, reading and listening
Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Language skills are important for every student, especially in terms of academic language and vocabulary.
Speaking, writing, reading and listening (SWRL) skills can and should be taught to students as part of every subject area, as these skills are paramount in learning the deep academic content taught in schools. But these language skills are especially critical for English learners to ensure their success in school and in an ever-changing world.
There are multiple strategies that can be employed in each of these areas. The following strategies are but a few that may be helpful as you continue your journey of improving your practice and meeting the needs of each student in your classroom.
Student interaction opportunities should be plentiful in the classroom. Often times, the balance of teacher talk to student talk is disproportionately weighted toward teacher talk. It makes sense, as teachers are charged with sharing knowledge and skills and ensuring that students understand, learn and are able to apply the skills they are learning across the content areas.
However, in order for students to deepen their understanding, and clarify and negotiate for meaning, they must talk about what they are learning. Because teaching and learning are social endeavors, increasing student-to-student interaction opportunities will help increase student understanding and learning of the content and skills being taught.
Consider the 10/2 rule. This rule states that for every 10 or so minutes of input, students should have two minutes of processing time. The numbers are not absolute; instruction and input should range from five minutes to 20 minutes depending on the complexity of the material, the grade level of your students, and their language proficiency levels.
For example, after several minutes of teaching students a specific concept or skill, have them turn to a partner and name the key points, explain the process described, etc. This provides English learners with the opportunity to both process the content and language that they are learning with another student, and seek clarifications as needed.
Alternatively, students can be given an opportunity to write or sketch about the concepts being taught. It is key to remember that materials must be taught in a comprehensible way to the students, and scaffolding — such as the use of sentence frames, starters and signal words — should be included to support student discourse.
Another important concept in teaching English learners deeper speaking skills in the classroom is to model and hold students accountable for using complete sentences based on their proficiency level. The WIDA consortium as well as the ELPA21 consortium both have helpful documents and tools to determine the kind of language students at various proficiency levels should be able to produce.
When having students answer a question, ask them to speak in a complete sentence and hold them accountable for doing so. Consider the following interaction:
Teacher: What is the title of the book we are reading?
Student: "The Solar System."
Teacher: Say that in a complete sentence, please.
Student: The title of our story is "The Solar System."
Teacher: Thank you!
We can teach students to utilize the "turn the question around" strategy, wherein they utilize the words from the question to answer the question. We can support students in utilizing this strategy by first teaching them explicitly how to utilize it through modeling and demonstration.
They can then practice the strategy in their interactions with peers as well as when answering teacher-led questions. Giving students a frame or sentence starter can be helpful, as well as an anchor chart that shows the strategy.
Have students incorporate the appropriate vocabulary words you are teaching and practicing into their speech as well. The idea is to call attention to the key vocabulary that is being studied in the unit, as well as words and phrases from previous units of study, and have students use precise words in their speech.
For example, consider the following exchange:
Teacher: What will we be doing in this experiment?
Student: Taking the iron out of the breakfast cereals.
Teacher: What is another word for "taking out"?
Teacher: Tell me again in a complete sentence, please.
Student: In this experiment, we will extract the iron from a breakfast cereal.
When encouraging students to use the accurate, precise vocabulary word, you can begin by asking, "What is another word for ..." or by pointing out the word on a word wall, chart or vocabulary list. The idea is not to punish students for utilizing a more simple word, but rather to help them to incorporate higher level academic vocabulary into their speech.
High-quality writing is challenging for many students, and English learners are no exception. Many students are not comfortable with writing and are intimidated by writing. One way to lower the anxiety over writing is to provide students with low-stakes writing opportunities early and often.
At times, teachers think of writing opportunities as lengthy, complex tasks that students must complete over multiple class periods as well as through homework. Lengthier writing opportunities such as essays and short answer questions may be appropriate, but short, frequent, low-stakes writing opportunities can help students feel more comfortable with writing.
There are many opportunities within any class period to have students write. The use of quick-writes is an effective way to get students to write more often.
Essentially, any questions that a teacher asks throughout the course of the day can be turned into a writing assignment. Asking students to write a quick response, or even create a sketch or picture to demonstrate their understanding of the content helps students to reduce anxiety around writing.
Teachers ask many simple, comprehension-level questions throughout the day, and these questions lend themselves well to writing. However, students can also be asked higher-order thinking questions and encouraged to write a response.
To effectively incorporate quick-writes, first brainstorm what questions you might ask students throughout the instructional time you have with them. Choose the questions that will lend themselves best to having students write. As a scaffold, write a quick response you would like to see form your students. Use these as a model for students. You can also use your own response as a way to brainstorm sentence frames or starters to support student responses.
Once you have the prompts and a model for students, set some expectations for the writing. For example, you may ask students to write a certain amount, as measure by the number of lines of text, a specific number of sentences, a paragraph, half a page or a full page of writing.
Asking students for a specific number of facts or details is also helpful. Starting small and increasing the expectation along the way will help students to increase the amount and quality of writing students produce.
Challenges in reading for English learners are compounded by several factors, including students' previous schooling and native language literacy levels, as well as the complex vocabulary, syntax and sentence structures that are presented in academic texts.
To help English learners read grade-level, complex text, it is important to provide reading instruction, vocabulary instruction and appropriate scaffolding. Reading instruction should be aligned to the instructional needs of the particular student. English learners may benefit from instruction in the foundational skills as well as particular fluency and comprehension skills matched to their skills and needs.
Vocabulary instruction in general-academic and domain-specific vocabulary is critical for English learners. Vocabulary instruction, as tied to reading, should be comprehensible and in context. In other words, choose words that are both high utility and important to the text.
Vocabulary can and should be taught before, during and after reading the text. Begin with teaching words before reading that are not taught in context of the text. During instruction, point out the words that you taught before reading, and teach and emphasize the additional vocabulary words that have embedded contextual definitions or that are easily taught through the reading of the text.
Upon encountering key vocabulary, as well as specific sentences or phrases that are critical to the central idea or to comprehending the text, have the students read or repeat the section aloud or with a partner. One effective way to have students read key vocabulary and text is to say, "Read that with me." In this case, students should chorally read the word or text.
Note that choral reading involves students actually reading the text, not just repeating what you have read. There are several ways to approach this; sometimes teachers read an entire text to students for the first read as a way to introduce the text, model prosody and build background. Other teachers conduct a cold read, wherein students have never heard or read the text before.
Having the students chorally read text will both lower the effective filter as every student in the class attempts to read the text as well as encourage all eyes to be on the text. Students can also echo read the text, where they repeat what you have read, or the teacher can conduct a cloze read, wherein the teacher pauses or uses a signal to indicate when students should read the next word.
Adding in visuals is another effective tool to emphasize reading comprehension with students. Look for pictures that will support the content and vocabulary of the text that will be read.
Students can start off with an exploration of the pictures. Have them discuss the pictures, including their background knowledge about what is depicted, as well as predictions as to how the pictures relate to the text. While reading the text, utilize the pictures to support comprehension.
Pictures can help make abstract concepts and vocabulary more comprehensible to the students as well as help make the content more engaging.
Teaching listening can be a bit of a challenge, but there are several strategies that can be incorporated into the classroom to both help English learners listen more effectively as well as to assess students' listening skills.
The first step is to let students know that they should be listening at a specific time. Although we may think everything we say is of the utmost importance, we can usually also identify some specific points within instruction that are critical. Be sure that students are aware of which portions of the lesson are most critical and align to the lesson objectives.
Having students engage is discourse opportunities with each other also help to encourage listening. For example, after students have engaged in a portion of the lesson, listened to a series of directions or watched a video clip, for example, have students discuss what they heard with a partner.
Depending on the proficiency levels of the students you are working with, you can adjust the amount of content or length of time spent in listening before students process and debrief what they have heard. Keep the amount of time shorter for students at lower proficiency levels and increase the amount of time as students develop proficiency in English.
"Listen and sketch" is a Project GLAD strategy that is helpful to assess student listening skills. In essence, students first listen to a section of text read by the teacher or played on an audio advice. Choose text that is rich in descriptive language or that lends itself to visualization. Instruct the students to consider and reflect up on the images that are formed in their brain as they are listening to the text.
After listening to a chunk of the text, students should sketch the images that were formed in their brain, or their visualizations. Give a short time for students to sketch. Students can label each sketch with a number to sequence, add a title as instructed so that the teacher can see what the student sketched for each chunk of text, or fold a piece of paper to differentiate the various sections.
When teaching English learners, it is important to keep in mind that students will need instruction in both content and language. By incorporating SWRL into every lesson, English learners will gain skills to achieve at higher levels.
While not every lesson will lend itself to incorporation of each of these skills, consistently look for opportunities to incorporate instruction in speaking, writing, reading and listening in every content area.
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