Reopening: Moving Toward More Equitable Schools
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Curriculum Q & A Blog, Question 48

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    Sarah Norris

Do you have questions about teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum? We've got answers!

Come back every month for the latest from the Curriculum Q & A Blog.

Question: Why Do Language Dives Matter?

The decisions we made creating the curriculum flowed from the stance that literacy is a civil right. We want all students to build the knowledge, skills, and habits of character they need to go forth and do what is meaningful to them. The topics we chose and the instruction we designed are intended to support student agency through study of issues that affect them and belonging through an emphasis on empathy and collaboration, but we think agency and belonging matter in a linguistic sense as well. We want students to feel that language isn’t a set of rules to master but rather a set of possibilities ready to be brought to life. So here, you’ll read about how teachers use our curriculum to build student knowledge about how language works, skills for interpreting and wielding it, and habits for consciously making it their own. 

We want this for all students, and we recognize that multilingual learners are often specifically denied the opportunity to claim English as theirs to play with and adapt to their own purposes. To foster this linguistic agency and belonging, the basic design of EL Education’s curriculum is inherently and intentionally supportive of multilingual learners. Content-based literacy invites multilingual learners to engage with interesting and cognitively challenging materials as they learn English, and instructional practices that support multilingual learners--and from which all learners benefit-- are part of each lesson of our curriculum. One of the most powerful practices, designed to help all students access all literacy standards is Language Dives: 10-20 minute sessions about specific sentences that reward close examination because of what they say and how they say it. 

At August Boeger Middle School in San Jose, CA, teachers like Gabriel Galindo have embraced Language Dives in precisely the spirit they were written: as a way to demystify language and encourage student ownership. In Mr. Galindo’s ELA classroom, he talks with his sixth graders, many of whom are multilingual, about code-switching. He explicitly connects the thinking they are learning to do in Language Dives to this skill they will use to empower themselves in a dominant culture. He is committed to using Language Dives to give students access to academic language as they read, think, talk and write. Reflecting on why, he notes: “When you say, ‘oh let’s just do simple stuff with them,’ they come up with simple stuff. When you really get deep and engage them, they come up with deep stuff.”

What is a Language Dive?

A Language Dive empowers students to analyze, understand, and use the language of academic sentences, which is critical to college and career, but can often seem opaque to students. During a Language Dive, the teacher and students slow down for 10–20 minutes to have a conversation about the meaning, purpose, and structure of a compelling sentence from a complex text. These structures can include the purposes for communicating, syntactical constructions, collocations, and idiomatic expressions. The classroom becomes a space in which students figure out why the author chose a particular phrase, and how students might use a similar phrase to express their own ideas and identities.

Helping students understand how the English language works is ultimately important in sharing power and establishing equity. For Mr. Galindo, it’s a chance to acknowledge and affirm the linguistic knowledge his multilingual students already have, and make sure they have the linguistic tools to do what matters to them. As they look at a language structure that is likely to be useful to them in an upcoming essay (here, the use of participial phrases that describe, like “brimming with enthusiasm” to add details), he encourages them: “You are not robots. You have so much to give--so much description to add, you just need to get the words out of you.”

Each Language Dive conversation adopts a “Deconstruct, Reconstruct, and Practice” routine as a necessary part of both building language, building literacy, and building habits of mind:

Deconstruct: Teachers guide students to deconstruct the sentence by discussing what it means and its purpose in the text by chunking a sentence into essential phrases. For example, in Grade 7 Module 2, students read Patient Zero by Marilee Peters, featuring true stories about people who contributed to advancements in treatment and medicine. They read about Mary Mallon, who was kept in seclusion on a remote island by the New York Health Department because they thought she was the cause of an outbreak of typhoid fever. One key sentence from this section of Patient Zero is deconstructed into four main chunks:

Language Chunk

In deconstructing this sentence, students might wonder about the third chunk: protesting that her civil rights had been ignored.

 What is the function of this chunk? Students might then work to figure out why this adjective phrase begins with an -ing word, which is different from many adjective forms. They can pause to consider exactly what Mary may have written in her letters. To build student capacity to independently analyze and ask questions about sentence chunks, the teacher can refer students to the Questions We Can Ask during a Language Dive Anchor Chart, introduced in Module 3.

Reconstruct: After unpacking the sentence through conversation, students put it back together, chunk by chunk. For example, students could try to break this one sentence into two, check to see if the meaning remains the same, and then speculate as to why and how the author made it into one sentence, including discussing the use of commas. 

Practice: Students practice using one or more language structures as they speak about their own lives and write their own sentences. In the preceding example, students can focus on -ing adjective phrases as a way to describe verb phrases using a frame such as “This year, I spent time writing an essay, _____.” Students also add this adjective structure to their Language Chunk Wall  for future reference. Later, students can use the Language Chunk Wall as support for applying their discussions of these sentences when speaking or writing. 

What we can learn from the teachers at August Boeger is the power of adult mindsets about language. When teachers come to understand themselves as code-switchers, as nimble users of language, as experimenters with structure (be it sentence structure or the structure of a Language Dive), they are able to serve multilingual students in the way those students deserve.

Proof of Impact

At August Boeger, teachers have worked hard to integrate Language Dives into daily classroom life, and the effect is palpable. On curriculum assessments, students are adapting the language chunks they’ve studied, and it’s improving the sophistication of their writing. Teacher practice has measurably shifted, and the school is seeing clear gains on standardized measures. Scores on the Smarter Balanced assessment have increased overall, and the effect is greatest in classrooms where teachers have received targeted training on the use of Language Dives, with one grade showing the equivalent of three years of student growth.   Teachers beyond ELA have also begun designing their own, content-specific Language Dives. In Ms Kapoor’s science class, they’ve explored sentences like “If a mutation disrupts the reading frame, then the entire DNA sequence will be read incorrectly” both for the scientific content they contain and for the way the particular language structure matters for the discipline; in this instance, for how conditional sentences (If … then) are used to communicate hypotheses. 

Teacher mindsets

What we can learn from the teachers at August Boeger is the power of adult mindsets about language. When teachers come to understand themselves as code-switchers, as nimble users of language, as experimenters with structure (be it sentence structure or the structure of a Language Dive), they are able to serve multilingual students in the way those students deserve. They are able to model these ways of being and thinking, explain how they approach language, believe their students can do it too, and communicate that belief and expectation. And as Mr. Galindo says to his students: “This isn’t just about essays. This is about you learning to use language.” When Mr. Galindo moves through a language dive with his students, he is consciously teaching them that they can have power over language rather than the other way around, because he knows that each of his students has something to say, and that the world needs them to say it. 


For more general information about our curriculum, check out our website or our book Your Curriculum Companion: The Essential Guide to Teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum. If you have questions related to this blog, please email us at: ELcurriculumblog@eleducation.org.