Online Teacher Education Resources in ELT: Content-Area Language Demands

This is the fourth post in our blog series. Previously, we’ve focused on supporting teacher candidates preparing to work with multilingual learners more broadly, while here we focus on specific content areas.

We teach sheltered English immersion courses to teacher candidates working toward a teaching license in content areas, and in these courses, we focus on cultivating asset-based dispositions and culturally responsive teaching so that teacher candidates can develop critical perspectives and pedagogical practices to become linguistically responsive teachers. However, while the teacher candidates we work with are committed to being the best classroom teacher they can be, we know that good teaching is simply not enough when working with multilingual learners. Further, though most teachers work with multilingual learners, not all of them necessarily identify as teachers of multilingual learners.

All teachers need to develop an awareness of the (English) language demands in their classroom and use it to inform their curricular and instructional decisions. In this post, we explore the following question:

How can we help teacher candidates recognize the role of language in their content areas? 

Language Demands in Content-Area Classrooms

Because teachers are often focused on their respective content areas, it can be challenging for them to take a step back and see the language inherent in their lessons, including the specific disciplinary language demands as well as the general academic language and English vocabulary used throughout a lesson.

Vocabulary Activities

A basic element of disciplinary language is vocabulary. We ask our students to view instructional videos and to identify and categorize the kinds of words they hear. These can be either basic, Tier 1 words a newcomer might need to learn; more academic but cross-curricular Tier 2 words all learners might benefit from; or highly specialized, disciplinary  Tier 3 vocabulary. To prepare teacher candidates for this task, they can be asked to review ELT blogger Tan Huynh’s reader-friendly articles about each tier.

For this vocabulary activity, we recommend using the Roble Education Trigonometric Functions and Crash Course organic chemistry YouTube playlists for secondary STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) teachers and the Homeschool Pop and Kids Academy videos for various content at the elementary level. In addition to videos, students can do the same activity by reading texts; we like to use texts from Teaching Tolerance and NewsELA for humanities. This activity works well in both synchronous and asynchronous remote instruction.

Language Complexity Activities

Teacher candidates also need to know language isn’t just words. Each content area has its own language, including certain genres of texts, discourse conventions, and ways to organize information.

An activity that introduces students to the complexity of language more broadly is reading a content-area passage in a language familiar to the instructor, but not the students. First, students read it with no support, the second pass they are provided with some vocabulary, and the third attempt they are provided with some grammatical rules (e.g., how to identify past tense). After each read, we discuss how the additional supports enhanced their ability to access the text. Before students are asked to read the passage for a fourth and final time, we do a mini-lesson where we activate background knowledge and build knowledge of vocabulary and language structures as a way to further model the importance of language instruction.

Example content-area texts in other languages can be found in NewsELA’s Spanish collection as well as in Holt, Reinhart, and Winston’s U.S. history book, which has chapter summaries in English, Spanish, Arabic, Khmer, Hmong, Vietnamese, and Chinese (click on “Holt United States History © 2007” and then choose a chapter to view the language options).

We like these sites also as a way to introduce teacher candidates to resources they can use to supplement English-language lesson materials in order to build onto multilingual learners’ linguistic assets. Additionally, immersing teacher candidates in another language can increase empathy toward multilingual learners by simulating an environment newcomer students often experience: being surrounded by an unfamiliar language.

We also use English text to illustrate disciplinary language demands. Mary Schleppegrell’s book on the “language of schooling” can be used to give teacher candidates the experience of trying to make sense of highly complex text on a topic they usually know little about. We ask our teacher candidates to read and make sense of a section of the text in pairs. Then, we discuss what strategies they used, such as rereading, discussing, and annotating—in other words, the type of strategies multilingual learners may need to be taught. We also use the text to introduce teacher candidates to specific features of academic language, such as nominalization, passive voice, complex sentences, and the use of specific connecting words.

Supporting Language Development in the Content Areas

Writing Language Objectives

A strategy for thinking about language in practical terms is writing language objectives. We like this article by Susan Ranney, which contains a flowchart to “extract” one or more language objectives from a content objective through the different domains of speaking, listening, reading, and writing; and at the levels of discourse, sentence, and word. First, we model the process with an online flowchart tool such as FormSwift, and then we ask teacher candidates to do the same independently. An additional resource we like is Shanthi Kumar’s sentence frame for writing objectives.

Integrating Language and Content

Integrating language and content instruction is an important component of working with multilingual learners, especially newcomers. Though there are general instructional strategies that work across content areas, there are also specific considerations for particular disciplines.

We draw some of our ideas from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education modules for remote teaching in the content areas. Following are some of these and other resources that are particularly helpful in demonstrating how language and content instruction go hand-in-hand. The resources can be used in various ways for reflection, analysis, and lesson planning support.

ARTICLE                                Language demands and opportunities: NGSS
Article                             Improving math curriculum for ELLs
Classroom  Video              Math instruction for newcomers
Classroom Video                       Finding variations in living organisms: Grade 2
Lesson Planning                      Ensuring ELs aren’t left of out of STEM
Lesson Planning                      Engaging ELs in science and engineering
Article                           Social studies for ELLs
Article                     ELLs in the Common Core English Language Arts
Classroom Video        ESL grades 1-2 – Justice, courage, and fairness
Classroom Video             Exploring topics in womens’ rights: high school
Lesson Planning             Engaging social studies lesson for ELLs
Lesson Planning             Using primary sources with ELLs
Performance/Visual Arts
Article                   Art as a tool for teachers of ELs
Article                   Drama and role-play with ELs
Article                    Best practices for ELs: K-8 music education 
Classroom Video           Learning language through drama
Lesson Planning           Visual thinking strategy for art
Lesson Planning            ELLs in music class
Lesson Planning      Helping ELs in art classroom
Lesson Planning          Engaging ELs in music education

Access Is a Civil Right

There is no question that there is a demand for well-trained English language teachers in all classrooms (especially in STEM). We want to close our post this month with an important understanding that we often communicate to our teacher candidates: Language is the vehicle for accessing the curriculum and supporting multilingual learners is a civil rights obligation. If you aren’t meeting the linguistic needs of your multilingual learners, then how are they able to access the content?

How do you integrate content and language instruction in your classroom? Please tell us in the comments section below.

In our next post, we will share ideas for how teacher candidates can practice teaching through multimodal assignments.