If your school is like mine, your administrators are constantly evaluating various data to give everyone something to discuss on the in-service days. All of these facts gets condensed into an easy graphic with lines, bars, or fractionally divided slides presented on a PowerPoint and projected or passed out on handouts. All it takes is a little explanation and we can get a snapshot of what’s happening and where it’s headed.
While it’s easy to take for granted that graphic organizers are easy alternatives to large chunks of text, we have to remember that these could be very confusing to ELLs. Other cultures may not use the same layouts we use, different schools the students previously attended may not have incorporated these into the curriculum, or the whole process of how to make sense of weird words and lines may be overwhelming. So, as ELL teachers, we may want to take the time to go over how charts and graphs work as a part of academic language.
Some ways to make this happen are to:
1. Look at everyday graphic organizers. Calendars, schedules, and report cards may not readily come to mind when you think of graphic organizers, but this is exactly what they are. You can show students how one term is on the top and another on the side to make the information easy to grasp, and once you’ve exposed them to this principle, they have a foundation to see how this process works in other ways. For some good exercises here, check out the free worksheets at ELL Civics.
2. Go over the terms. You may not use “axis” often outside of geography or history classes, but when the students get ready for geometry class, they will hear the teacher say that repeatedly. Otherwise, you can use this opportunity to focus on terms relevant to the students’ levels: Lower-level students can practice directional movement (left, right, up, down, fractions, bar, line); intermediates can learn about using continuous verbs (rising, falling, increasing, decreasing); and more advanced students can describe the trends and explain the context of the charts. The ESL About.com page has a great list of some of the terms you can review during these activities.
3. Make it manipulative. With some paper and markers, you can make this one of your more interactive lessons. Can the students draw a chart based on the data you give them? Can they find the appropriate sizes in a pie chart? Can they identify the parts of a chart with the vocabulary you give them? Anything goes as long as they can connect the idea with the graphic itself.
What I find particularly rewarding about these lessons is how they relate to other subjects. History becomes easier to understand with a good timeline. You can break down the paragraph-writing process into a graph that differentiates the main idea from its support—the classic “hamburger organizer.” Many scientific processes are easier to explain if your students can follow a flow chart for an ecosystem or a Punnett Square. And, perhaps most directly, the students will feel more confident when their math teachers start working with spatial activities.