Teaching Newcomer Students Language and Content Knowledge Through Intentional Planning Practice

By Tim Blackburn
October 2018
A group of students in a classroom

One of the most exciting aspects of our work at Education Northwest is that it provides the opportunity to connect and partner with teachers and school leaders. In each community we serve, we are guided by our goal to support all students in realizing their potential.

Over the last two school years, I have had the honor of collaborating with colleagues from El Cajon Valley High School, or ECVHS as my colleagues call it, located just east of San Diego, California.

ECVHS is a school community rich in culture and diverse in language. The school has a significant population of newly-arrived language learner students from nations such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central America, Mexico and Congo. Our role is to collaborate with our ECVHS colleagues on planning practices that elevate and extend language development throughout the school day.

One challenge in teaching language learners is that for the students to succeed academically, they need to learn English and gain content area knowledge and skills at the same time. Adolescent language learners do not have the luxury learning English before subject matter content.

There are relatively simple ways to invite students to use their new language as often as possible throughout the day that can make an immediate impact. However, this strategy can be challenging to implement in classes, such as math and history, that rely on concept-specific language that students do not necessarily learn while developing their conversational English.

This is the challenge we are addressing with our colleagues at ECVHS.

Finding Solutions

ECVHS is adopting a process called Intentional Planning Practice, a set of planning practices designed to amplify access to grade-level content while simultaneously developing disciplinary language.

I am working with ECVHS leaders to adapt the process so that it aligns with the school’s priorities, assets and challenges while maximizing teacher buy-in and sustainability.

The following steps provide a simplified picture of what intentional planning practice involves:

Analyze the language demands of our content area standards

For a cohort of ECVHS teachers with newcomer students in their classes, we are providing coaching on how to anticipate the core concepts, thinking processes and associated language demands of tasks aligned to content standards. The goal is that students will be able to understand the content more deeply and express their thinking when we attend to these concepts and practices.

Complement content area learning with English language development (ELD) standards

California’s ELD standards define the many ways students use language for academic purposes—and they explain the specific language students need for particular tasks. In addition, much like other states’ ELD standards, they serve as a tool for designing lessons that seamlessly weave content and language learning.

Design lessons with scaffolds

At Education Northwest, we follow a lesson-design mantra of “high expectations and high support.” In other words, we coach our colleagues to anchor their lessons in high expectations (grade-level standards), communicate their expectations to their students in the form of lesson outcomes and then focus on designing scaffolds that supports student learning in content, practices and language that help students advance in academics.

It’s important to remember that scaffolds help students reach grade-level standards. When designing lesson scaffolds, make sure to provide students:

  1. A sense of the concepts, themes and vocabulary they will encounter in content area texts
  2. An invitation and purpose to engage and re-engage their texts
  3. Opportunities to apply their understanding of content-specific concepts and language in different contexts

Look and listen for evidence of student learning

Simply listening to how students are using language to express their understanding of class content will reveal much about how and where to provide differentiated supports. As a result, it is critical that teachers are clear on the lesson goals and provide feedback in real time.

Our teacher colleagues at ECVHS are piloting lessons that incorporate Intentional Planning Practice—and in just a few days, we’ll reconvene to analyze artifacts of learning with formative assessment tools derived from the proficiency descriptors of California’s ELD Standards.

These efforts appear to be setting a strong foundation; we were excited to hear that the work of our cohort is permeating other parts of ECVHS as school leaders are connecting other teachers to some of the corresponding principles and practices.

Any teacher on campus can do this…. It’s not just an English learner training.
—Doug Martin, assistant principal at El Cajon Valley High School

For me, collaborating with colleagues at ECVHS and other schools is a thrilling experience, especially when we see an immediate impact in teachers’ ability to support the simultaneous development of language skills and content knowledge that students need to succeed.