A Framework for Supporting English Learner Students’ Language Development

By Tim Blackburn
March 2018
Two giant speech bubbles with gears and shapes floating around them

From the beginning, our partnership with the Ontario School District in Eastern Oregon has focused on improving outcomes for English learner students. We worked side by side with the district to build teachers’ capacity to increase language development opportunities throughout the school day.

To this end, we closely collaborated with school and district leaders to create a framework that centers on maximizing student interaction and language use.

The framework is based on intentional planning practice—a key feature of which is that each step offers tools and considerations for anticipating the conceptual, analytic and linguistic demands inherent in learning standards.

These steps help teachers highlight the practices and language students will need to access their grade-level texts and express their understanding.

Ontario’s framework consists of four steps:

Clear Intended Learning

The first step involves careful task analysis as teachers get a handle on students’ language needs, as well as what they want students to know and be able to do to be successful.

The framework provides lenses that help teachers pull concrete concepts from content standards they want students to know, such as characterization in reading fiction, photosynthesis in science or linear expressions in math.

After that, the process becomes more complex, as it involves analysis of content and language framing, which are often the missing components in teacher planning.

Analytical practices (based on concepts from Bloom’s Taxonomy) describe the depth of thinking teachers want students to have and connect directly to language use.

For example, if students are required to describe the location of natural resources, they will need a specific language construction (i.e., prepositions) to connect their thinking.

Through deep professional development, Ontario’s English Language Proficiency (ELP) teams developed a clear sense of the intended learning outlined in their content standards.

Crafting Integrated Language and Learning Outcomes

This step of the framework provides teachers with scaffolds to design learning outcomes informed by their task analysis and ELP Standards—an evidence-based practice.

Building on the previous example, teachers might create a language and learning outcome such as, “I can use prepositions to describe the location of natural resources,” which communicates the content they want students to know, the thinking they want students to do (describe) and the language they want students to use to do it.

Before this shift, Ontario’s teachers tended to post learning outcomes that were only somewhat related to the day’s lesson, lacked the specificity students needed to reflect on their learning (i.e., “I can describe location”) and did not account for the language focus of the lesson.

The district has found that intentional planning practice mitigates assumptions, tunes teachers’ attention to language learners and encourages students to reflect on their learning and language use.

Standards-Based Scaffolding and Differentiation

Because the first two steps focus so much on what students must know and do, in the third step, teachers can concentrate on what their students will need to reach the clear intended learning goals.

Ontario uses a lesson design process called Scaffolding in Three Moments (developed by researchers Aída Walqui and Leo van Lier), which simplifies the process of determining how, where and for whom to scaffold learning by adding structure to the gradual release process. Over time, students apprentice in disciplinary concepts, practices and language.

The scaffolding consists of the following:

  • Moment 1: Tasks that give students a sense of the concepts, themes and vocabulary they will encounter in texts
  • Moment 2: Tasks that support students by inviting them to engage and re-engage their texts with purpose
  • Moment 3: Tasks that allow students to apply their understanding of class concepts and language in different contexts, extending their understanding of the ideas in the text

Formative Assessment Practices

The final step involves daily formative assessment, which helps teachers account for the specific needs of all learners during instruction.

Formative assessment doesn’t have to be formal; simply listening to how students are using language to express their understanding of class content will reveal much about how and where to adjust instruction.

The key is that teachers have a clear sense of how students are growing in the intended learning as it relates to the appropriate ELP Standard.

In Ontario, the shift from formative assessments (tasks teachers give students) to formative assessment practice (the way teachers look and listen for evidence of student learning) was critical important.

It also underscores that to provide differentiated supports for students who need it, teachers must define and communicate the clear intended learning—and reflect on student learning.