I’m delighted to introduce readers of this blog to the work of Rita Platt and John Wolfe. Rita and I became acquainted through #ELLCHAT, the Twitter chat for teachers of ELLs that I comoderate. I have since read her wiki and enjoyed the work that she and John write. I’m sure you will too.
ESL teachers have many roles. You are among the hardest working teachers in the profession. You are charged with the enormous responsibility embodied in Lau v. Nichols: to provide meaningful access to grade-level content learning and to support English language development. As we have written before in “Out of the Peaceable Kingdom: The Three Roles of the ESL Teacher,” there is a tension in these roles. It is not always an easy balance.
The Two Goals of Content Learning: Key Concepts and Academic Literacy
Think of content teaching as having two goals. One is providing students with meaningful access to grade level learning and the other is developing academic and domain language and literacy. While these two goals are related and mutually supportive, there are key differences. Grade-level content learning focuses on learning now, on students’ achieving the developmentally appropriate key conceptual understandings embedded in state standards.
What Is Content Learning?
Content learning is where we focus on standards-based learning targets in a specific content area (science, social studies, math, etc.) The heavy lifting of grade-level content learning is through focused teaching. This is good news for ELLs. This mode of teacher-led instruction for mastery of state standards-based key conceptual understandings lends itself to the type of differentiation, modification, and scaffolding that provide ELLs with meaningful access.
What Is Content Reading?
Academic and content literacy, on the other hand, is oriented more toward future learning, to providing students with the ability for future, more advanced learning in the concept area, to transform students to “insiders” to a discipline. Put succinctly, to teach students to read in the content area. To meet this goal, students need abundant practice engaging in meaningful content reading. This means allowing students to read texts at their appropriate reading level, which is sometimes years below their current grade level.
As Judie Haynes pointed out in a recent post, “Reading Challenges for ELs in the Age of the Common Core,” allowing ELLs to read at their language level rather than their grade level is a time-tested best practice that must be promoted. Every learner should be afforded the opportunity to learn using texts within their own Zones of Proximal Development (ZPDs) rather than being held accountable to material that is frustrating and often defeating. Second language acquisition theory tells us that acquisition is driven by level-appropriate language work. ESL teachers can and should advocate for a move toward ELLs being offered meaningful and comprehensible texts.
Individualized and All-Together Learning
Attainment of state content standards can be done through the full complement of support, scaffolds, and modifications that teachers and ESL teachers have long been using. Academic and domain literacy, on the other hand, can be supported by having students read content-adjacent texts at their appropriate level. Think of it as a system of teaching that is both individualized (by reading level) and all-together (focused on the same content-based themes.)
Teachers may find it challenging to find the perfect text at the perfect level for each student. That is why we encourage content-adjacent reading. If, for example, state science standards mandate and grade-level texts support learning about the process of the eclipse, students who read below the level of the textbook can read any book about the moon or sun. Remember, the goal of content reading in school is for students to acquire the academic and domain language and literacy to succeed in future learning in the content area. Additionally, content reading allows ELLs to be a part of the academic conversations surrounding the standards-based reading.
What Comes Next?
For some content teachers, using multiple texts to meet various needs and reading levels is a foreign concept. ESL teachers may find some opposition. Insuring students are offered instruction that is individualized and all-together is a big job, but try not to be overwhelmed! Start small. One lesson at a time. As a starting point, we have curated a sampling of the plethora of new resources for finding leveled resources to procure content-adjacent texts for many standards-based learning targets or units. Please visit our wiki to check them out! If you know of others, please share them. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of our ELLs.
Rita Platt (@ritaplatt; email@example.com) is a Nationally Board Certified teacher. She currently is a library media specialist for the St. Croix Falls SD in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, and consults with local school districts.
John Wolfe (@johnwolfe3rd) is a teacher on special assignment for the Multilingual Department at the Minneapolis Public School District. His areas of expertise include ELLs, literacy, and integrated technology.