George Lucas Educational Foundation

ELL and Differentiation

ELL and Differentiation

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A few years ago, I was involved with a tutoring program in our middle school to provide extra help to kids to boost their state test scores. There were a lot of ELL students in the group, and it struck me that the problems they faced were, in general, they had enough conversational english to get by and get out of full ELL support classes, but not enough skills to be learning and understanding everything in their classes without additional support.

That brought me to start thinking about how we handle students who are or have been ELL students, but may not be at grade level proficiency in English, even if they could handle grade level education in their native language? How can we go about differentiating instruction for English Language learners, while not underselling the concepts and core knowledge that they might be able to handle just fine if taught in their home language? How do we scaffold support to help these students find success?

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Jocelyn Seamer's picture
Jocelyn Seamer
Transition to Year 2 teacher in remote Northern Territory Indigenous School

Hi Whitney, as a teacher of a class where all but one student is an English Language Learner I find your question really interesting. Though not the same context, we use an approach that involves a detailed unpacking of the material to be learnt. We focus on learning English, learning about English and learning through English. Of course, the pace of our lessons in a totally ELL situation will be different from an English speaking class. The use of technology is also an area that we are embracing. There are so many wonderful apps now that help students access grade appropriate learning. Our kids are now able to utilise text to speech functions and a whole range of writing tools to give them a helping hand. It doesn't replace the language learning that they undertake, but helps them compete a little with their English speaking peers.

Judie Haynes's picture
Judie Haynes
I am an author, professional development provider and retired ESL teacher

Experts in the field of second language acquisition differentiate between social and academic language acquisition. Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) are language skills needed in social situations. It is the day-to-day language needed to interact socially with other people. Social interactions are usually context embedded. They occur in a meaningful social context. They are not very demanding cognitively. The language required is not specialized. These language skills usually develop within six months to two years after arrival in the U.S.

Problems arise when teachers and administrators think that a child is proficient in a language when they demonstrate good social English.

Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency

CALP refers to formal academic learning. This includes listening, speaking, reading, and writing about subject area content material. This level of language learning is essential for students to succeed in school. Students need time and support to become proficient in academic areas. This usually takes from 5 to 7 years. Recent research has shown that if a child has no prior schooling or has no support in native language development, it may take seven to ten years for ELLs to catch up to their peers.

With this in mind, it is important that classroom teachers learn how to differentiate instruction for the ELLs in their class. Read this blog to learn 7 strategies for teaching ELLs across the content areas

Jocelyn Seamer's picture
Jocelyn Seamer
Transition to Year 2 teacher in remote Northern Territory Indigenous School

Hi Judie

Great comment! The difference between BICS and CALP is an important one. It's so easy to make assumptions about a child's English proficiency. I did it myself in the early days. I now conduct regular interviews with students about their learning, video these interactions an then create a transcript. From there I can analyse the student's language use and create a profile to inform future teaching. Unfortunately, here in Australia there is very little professional development in these concepts for classroom teachers which can only disadvantage our students. I commence my Master of Education this year, specialising in TESOL an am really looking forward to further developing my skills in this area. I look forward to reading your blog post! Jocelyn

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