Academic Vocabulary and English Learners

This is the third in a series of posts drawing attention to the intersection of our English Learner (EL) students or English Language Learner (ELL) students and the goal of the Visioning work of making public schools better for all Texas children.  All Texas children.

The first post focused on the use of the Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System (TELPAS) Proficiency Level Descriptors as a tool to guide formative assessment in the classroom.  The second post described a variety of professional learning opportunities for educators and administrators in order to better design classroom environments, learning experiences, and assessments for all students, and specifically for our English Language Learners.  This post highlights what works to build the language and literacy skills for English Learners to be successful in school, specifically related to academic vocabulary.

According to the What Works Clearinghouse Practice Guide, Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School, one recommendation is to teach a set of academic vocabulary words intensively across several days using a variety of instructional activities.  In order to carry out this recommendation, the following strategies are provided:

  • choose a brief, engaging piece of informational text that includes academic vocabulary as a platform for intensive academic vocabulary instruction;
  • choose a small set of academic vocabulary for in-depth instruction;
  • teach academic vocabulary in depth using multiple modalities (writing, speaking, listening); and
  • teach word-learning strategies to help students independently figure out the meaning of words.

The key here is intentionality in the design and facilitation of academic vocabulary instruction.  Intentional selection of text to launch the learning, intentional selection of vocabulary, intentional use of multiple modalities for engaging with the terms, and intentional integration of word-learning strategies are all necessary for all students, but specifically English Learners, to learn and be able to successfully use academic vocabulary as part of their content and literacy skills.

Choose a brief, engaging piece of informational text that includes academic vocabulary as a platform for intensive academic vocabulary instruction.

As informational text is selected to launch the learning experience, consideration should be paid to identify a piece that is relevant to the students, includes academic vocabulary, and contains sufficient content for class discussion.  A variety of text is available for educators in the public domain through many libraries and non-profit organizations.  A few examples of these are linked below.

Newsela, which does not fit into the library or non-profit organization category, does offer both free and PRO accounts.  This company publishes news and nonfiction texts at varying levels of complexity, including recent, timely content.

Choose a small set of academic vocabulary for in-depth instruction.

When we consider our High Priority Learning Standards, as referenced throughout Article II: The New Learning Standards, we look for those providing Endurance, Leverage, and Readiness for the Next Level.  That is, standards whose relevancy lasts beyond the current grade level or course, standards that provide horizontal connections to other content areas, and standards which serve as pre-requisite content to future learning.

In a similar way, consideration should be paid for High Priority Academic Vocabulary (this is a term coined for this post).  Through this lens, focus on those terms that can be connected to past and future learning, provide opportunities for inter-disciplinary learning, and through learning these terms, the students will be set up for success in future courses or grade levels.

I recommend as a first step, to identify High Priority Learning Standards.  Then, following that process, use those standards to narrow academic vocabulary lists to those most relevant and valuable for learning of the content.  When students face an extensive list of academic vocabulary in a single setting or single day, on the other hand, the experience becomes more mile wide and inch deep than focused and intentional – descriptors we associate with profound learning.

Teach academic vocabulary in depth using multiple modalities (writing, speaking, listening).

This strategy leans heavily on the integration of our English Language Proficiency Standards (ELPS).  We know that through engagement with content through listening, speaking, reading, and writing, our students are set up for success in language acquisition as well as growth in content knowledge.  Specifically, integration of graphic organizers and images, connections to prior learning, and classroom discussions are examples of strategies to promote use of academic vocabulary.

Teach word-learning strategies to help students independently figure out the meaning of words.

Explicit modeling of word-learning strategies such as context clues, word parts, and cognates should be used to support academic vocabulary acquisition.  Following a gradual release or heavy-to-light scaffolding model may be useful here, where students are provided the greatest support at first with a goal to independently decode the meaning of words in which they encounter within and beyond the classroom.

We recognize with these four strategies (use of relevant text, selection of High Priority Academic Vocabulary, integration of multiple modalities, and modeling of word-learning methods) educators intentionally design and facilitate high quality academic vocabulary instruction for English Learners.  And, we know these opportunities are necessary in order for our students to develop sophisticated language skills that will be developed and used in the listening, speaking, reading, and writing of content.


I recommend reading the entire Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School Practice Guide, as only one portion was highlighted in this post.  The Institute of Education Sciences, operating as the statistics, research, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Education, shares What Works in education and has 22 Practice Guides available here.

 

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