No multilingual learner is the same; everybody learns a language at their own pace. Even if you have mostly the same language proficiency levels in your classes, you will still have some variations of proficiency as well as learning styles. Even if you have a newcomer ESL or ELD class, you may have some who just arrived and some who are leaning towards the expanding, or intermediate proficiency level range. So there will always be a degree of differentiation that will be needed in your ESL/ELD class.
One of the biggest questions I get from teachers I support in my district and through my high school teacher membership, My MLL Mentor, is how to differentiate instruction for ELLs (English language learners, or MLLs (Multilingual language learners). It can seem daunting. There are so many questions- How can I group my students? What should I start out with whole group vs. small groups or pairs? Which text should they read? There's a way to keep things simple, and I got to discuss it with Tan Huynh, of Teaching MLs Podcast, when he came to talk to our members recently.
Shifting our Mindset
First, there has to be a mindset shift. The shift moves from deficit to assets-based thinking. We're not focusing on what they can't do; we are looking at what they can do. And believe me, they can! They can, can, can. It's just going to look different for some MLLs than for other students. So when teachers get students who recently arrived and are newcomers, we must think of scaffolds and strategies to get them involved and engaged in our lessons and in our classroom community. The last thing we want is for our students to feel "othered" and different. The last thing we want is for them to be sitting at a table in the back doing an online program and missing out on our core content. That's how LTELs, or Long Term English Learners, are made. When LTELs experience a narrowed curriculum (in which English language development classes supersede subject classes), gaps start to form in their learning (Long-term English learner students: Spotlight on an overlooked population).
Speaking and Listening
According Reading Rockets' Speaking and Listening in Content Area Learning, "children can listen to and talk about much more complex ideas than they can read (and probably write) about." During language acquisition, listening is the first skill a child learns in their native language (L1). It is also the first skill a person learns in a second language (L2) (Building Language Skills Part 1: Listening). So when a student first arrives, it is perfectly okay to allow that student to just be in their silent period and listen. They may also repeat after the teacher or a partner during reading with echo reading or choral reading. This is a stepping stone into speaking. The next stepping stone might be for them to use sentence frames and starters with a word bank to participate, but as long as they are participating in some way. Participation over perfection, teacher friends!
Our Multilingual learners, or English Learners, are now listening and speaking, but how will they engage in your complex text when they don't even know how to read? We amplify, not simplify, the text. I started doing this with my newcomers and I had no clue this was a thing. I didn't know this was called text engineering, but thanks to Teacher Twitter, it helped me give my strategy a name! Text engineering is simply tweaking your grade-level, complex text so that all students can understand. And it doesn't mean by simplifying your text.
Aída Walqui states that we can do this "through additional linguistic clues and redundancy and adaptation of key structural elements such as chunking the text into meaningful units, adding headings and subheadings between the chunks that alert the student as to what is coming next, and incorporating focus questions to guide the student as s/he reads." I also like to add in digital images if I am working in Google Slides, or drawing images for students on their paper or on the board or having students draw their own images on the margins and leaving space for them to write in English or in their first language. I also might add in translations of tier 2 vocabulary words they may see in other classes and add in sentence frames or starters into assignments.
When you practice text engineering, it is easy to chunk things differently for your newcomers than for your other language levels in your room. I may start off with the text whole group for all levels to hear the original text, and then for my newcomers I may pull them aside when it is time for some pair or independent work and work with only a couple of sentences out of the text that are very important for understanding. That way, they are still getting exposure to the grade-level complexity. There's no need to change the Lexile level for them and as their proficiency grows, we can offer them more of the text since scaffolds are temporary! We don't want to over-scaffold and hinder the language learning process.
To make sure that students will comprehend the engineered text, it's also important to boost understanding by designing tasks before, during, and after reading that will build background and encourage more deeper understanding. For example, show videos and photos before reading, allow translanguaging in our classrooms by having students discuss the text in their first language during turn and talks, and providing graphic organizers after reading and allowing translation or the home language again to digest the material.
In the differentiated assignment example below, the text or assignment is engineered by adding in translations, visuals, and sentence starters. Imagine this without those scaffolds...how successful might a newcomer be in this example versus one without the engineering?
The big takeaway is that all teachers can engineer their text and build listening and speaking into their lessons so that all levels of multilingual learners can be successful in our classrooms. It doesn't matter if it's a math class, a social studies class, or a biology class- any lesson can be differentiated to accommodate our MLs with very little extra planning. Just remember that it will look different for them and that is okay. They will get there; it just takes time and patience. Embrace the assets-based mindset and watch them grow!
I support middle and high school teachers through monthly lesson plans, coaching, and guest speaker offerings in our Secondary ESL Teacher Membership.