In 2019, 5.1 million students—10.4 percent of students across the US—were formally identified as English learners (National Center for Education Statistics). As this number grows, teachers across the country strive to provide the necessary support for these students to succeed. Students with emerging English proficiency require additional support to develop both their English language skills and to learn academic content. With some thoughtful preparation that anticipates the specific needs of English Learners, teachers can address both content and language with Wit & Wisdom.
As an English language instructional coach, I work with teachers of multilingual English learners—students who speak another language while also learning English. Last year, during the first year implementing Wit & Wisdom, many of my colleagues felt challenged. Some even expressed that Wit & Wisdom was too rigorous for students new to English. Well-intentioned educators might be inclined to “water down” the curriculum by simplifying texts to support students learning English. As part of my job, I must reframe the challenge of teaching Wit & Wisdom to multilingual learners (MLLs).
Research suggests that multilingual learners need access to the same rigorous, grade-level, complex texts as their monolingual peers. When we simplify complex texts, newcomers miss out on the language, text structures, and content that help them comprehend these texts. Filmore and Filmore state that, “There is only one way to acquire the language of literacy, and that is through literacy itself...Complex texts provide school-age learners reliable access to this language and interacting with such texts allows them to discover how academic language works” (2). Complex texts provide opportunities for MLLs to acquire the English language vocabulary and structures used in academic writing.
As an instructional coach, I must first ensure that MLLs receive the necessary support to engage with grade-level content area work. To reach this goal, I work with my colleagues to “water up”—to purposefully scaffold Wit & Wisdom instruction so that MLLs can reach high levels of English proficiency and content knowledge. I always start by emphasizing Wit & Wisdom’s deliberate sequencing, predictable structures, emphasis on knowledge building, focus on vocabulary and syntax, and opportunities for authentic peer collaboration. These baked-in supports help all learners.
Next, we work with Wit & Wisdom’s Module and Lesson Preparation Protocols. Educators closely examine the module learning goals and based on the most important content and students’ needs, identify opportunities for further support in each lesson. Effective scaffolding helps MLLs achieve the high levels of conceptual, linguistic, and literacy knowledge found in Wit & Wisdom.
Supports for Students with Emerging English Proficiency
Students at the early stages of learning English often experience a “silent period” as they adjust to a new setting and develop their language skills. They typically build their listening vocabulary first and can understand more than they can express (Robertson and Ford). To help MLLs develop proficiency, I recommend the following supports.
- Home language supports—Strategically using a student’s home language can help them activate background knowledge, acquire ELA knowledge, and engage with grade-level content. Teachers can incorporate a student’s home language at these points in a lesson:
- Launch and Land—Teachers can group students who speak the same home language to discuss questions, activate background knowledge, or summarize what they have learned.
- Vocabulary instruction—On the Great Minds Dashboard, teachers can access the Multilingual Vocabulary Glossaries in the Teacher Resource Pack. Students use these glossaries to connect the English vocabulary term and the same term in their home language. Teachers can also help students identify cognates or make explicit connections with students’ home language.
- Learn—Teachers can offer students time to process the core text in their home language through writing or speaking.
- Visual supports—Visual aids support emerging English learners’ understanding of texts and directions. Teachers can use visual aids to illustrate module texts’ vocabulary or key concepts and to represent the Content Stages, Craft Stages, or common instructional routine steps.
- Content previews—Among interventions including previewing reading passages, using incentives, and presenting less difficult texts, studies show that previewing texts offers the most supportive scaffold for MLLs (Beck et al. 92). For students with emerging English proficiency, previewing potentially challenging material helps them successfully engage in grade-level instruction. Wit & Wisdom Prologue™, a set of grades 6–8 lessons, provides frontloaded instruction for MLLs.
- English language supports—Teachers can offer language supports to boost MLLs’ skills with receptive and expressive language. Supports might include sentence stems for speaking and writing, word banks and glossaries, or video closed-captioning.
The educators I work with at first wanted tips and tricks to support their students with emerging English proficiency. They wondered if simplifying the texts or content in Wit & Wisdom might help them support their students. Their search for alternate activities to keep students new to English engaged meant that these students missed out on the content and opportunities to grow offered to their classmates.
We’ve learned on our implementation journey that a far more effective approach starts with the curriculum—emphasizing complex texts and content knowledge—and scaffolding with well-chosen supports to meet MLLs’ needs. I recently saw a colleague scaffold with a graphic organizer to help grade 1 students communicate their understanding in speaking and writing. To prepare for writing, students used the chart to share their sentences aloud during a discussion. The Who-What-Where structure also prepared students to generate new sentences by following the same pattern. This English language support provided an opportunity for MLLs to meaningfully participate in grade-level instruction.
Teachers have taken on the productive struggle of “watering up” the curriculum. As a rising tide lifts all boats, access to a high-quality curriculum with the appropriate supports helps all students reach their full potential.
Beck, Michelle et al. “The Effect of Preteaching Reading Skills on the On-Task Behavior of Children Identified with Behavioral Disorders.” Behavioral Disorders, vol. 34, no. 2, 2009, pp. 91–99, doi.org/10.1177/019874290903400203.
Fillmore, Lily Wong, and Charles J. Fillmore. “What Does Text Complexity Mean for English Learners and Language Minority Students?” Understanding Language: Language, Literacy, and Learning in the Content Areas, Stanford University School of Education, 2012, https://ul.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/resource/2021-12/06-LWF%20CJF%20Text%20Complexity%20FINAL_0.pdf.
National Center for Education Statistics. “English Learners in Public Schools.” Condition of Education, US Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, May 2022, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cgf.
Robertson, Kristina, and Karen Ford. “Language Acquisition: An Overview.” ¡Colorín Colorado! 2008, https://www.colorincolorado.org/article/language-acquisition-overview.
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Tsianina Tovar is an EL instructional coach for Grades K–12. She is a National Board-Certified Teacher with 25 years of teaching experience in ESL K–12 and Spanish K–12.