A classroom with quality, complex problems as its cornerstones can support English Language Learners. First let’s check out a few “ground rules” about supporting English Language Learners. The following ground rules are not exhaustive, but are pulled strategically from English Language Learners and the New Standards by Margaret Heritage, Aída Walqui, and Robert Linquanti.

  • Use authentic and meaningful tasks to build student agency and sense of purpose, as well as background knowledge and schema
  • Learning needs to be social. Scaffolding should be interactive and occur through discourse.
  • Learners need to use language themselves in meaningful and purposeful ways.

Problem-based learning can go hand in hand with these principles, provided you establish strategies to promote them. The use of authentic, quality tasks paired with discourse can yield significant gains in language acquisition. However, you must be conscious and strategic. Here are five strategies to help that process.

Use word walls. Post challenging vocabulary on your classroom walls to offer visual reminders of content terms. Be sure to provide not only the word itself, but pictures and examples when possible.

Use Sentence stems. Provide students sentence frames and sentence stems. For example,

Be judicious about sentence stems as time goes along. You don’t want to stifle student creativity and their ability to flex their English going forward. Still, sentence stems can be an effective way to bridge that gap.

Double Entry Journals. Double entry journals are a strategy of writing to learn. Student divide their notes with a vertical line. On the left is the source material. It may be a problem, a vocabulary work, or a strategy. On the right they can write their interpretation or process or even additional questions.

Use Graphic Organizers. Thankfully in math we have a wealth of graphic organizers at our disposal. Graphic organizers can include concept maps, Venn diagrams, bar charts, etc. Be sure to take your time with them. If you’re placing items in a particular part of a Venn diagram, encourage a discussion and come to a consensus as a class.

Amplify, don’t simplify. Don’t shy away from using sophisticated vocabulary. English Language Learners need multiple and varied exposures to rich, and even technical vocabulary. Offer the challenging vocabulary word and support it by providing synonyms, definitions, and examples.

This is only a small bank of strategies to support pupils. What are some of your most effective strategies to support students for whom English is not their primary language?

(Note: While I use the term English Language Learners (ELLs) in this blog post, I recognize that there are other – probably better – terms for students for whom English is not their first language. By putting “English” first in the term and implying English acquisition, the term promotes anglo-supremacy. It is the accepted term from the U.S. Department of Education. Other similar but distinct terms include Emergent Bilinguals (EBs) and First Language Not English (FLNE) students.)

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