Resources to Support Teaching and Learning Virtually Due to COVID-19.
Header image

Empowering English Language Learners Through Language Dives

  • Date

  • Author

    EL Education

What's the best way to empower and engage English Language Learners? Read the latest from EL Education's Anne Villen and Kevin Jepson in the ASCD Express to learn concrete strategies to help ELL's develop critical language skills. 

ASCD Express 13.17 - Empowering English Language Learners Through Language Dives

May 10, 2018 | Volume 13 | Issue 17
Kevin Jepson and Anne Vilen

If you step into a language arts classrooms at Lead Academy in Greenville, South Carolina, you’ll hear English language learners (ELLs) deep in conversation with small groups of their classmates, both native speakers and other ELLs. They’ll be talking about how English works, discussing why an author chose specific words in a key sentence, and trying out their new understanding of syntax and usage in sentences of their own. When we visited the school recently, 3rd grade students were examining how author J. M. Barrie uses pronouns in the following sentence from his novel Peter Pan: If you peer over the edge you can see the trees all growing upside down, and they say that at night there are also drowned stars in it.

One student started out the discussion with a telling comment: “I like looking at stuff and wondering.” That spirit of inquiry set the tone for a lively discussion about who Barrie means by “you” and “they” in the sentence. Students figured out that the first “you” means “the reader.” By the end of the dive, both ELLs and native speakers realized that in English, “you” and “they” can refer either to a specific person addressed by the speaker or to a general group, depending on the context. This is a sophisticated insight into English, especially when contrasted to many languages that have different words for singular and plural—and for familiar and formal—pronouns.

These conversations, called “language dives”, are based on the “juicy sentence” research by Lily Wong Fillmore and Charles J. Fillmore of the University of California at Berkeley. Language dives are an integral part of the transformation in student achievement and culture in Lead Academy language arts classrooms, where as many as 50 percent of students are ELLs. At Lead Academy, K–5 teachers are using EL Education’s (formerly Expeditionary Learning) language arts curriculum, which integrates language dives into lessons that include both ELL and native English speakers. But language dives can be designed by any teacher at any grade level in any subject area. When used consistently, these exercises not only equip students to meet required academic standards, but they also have the potential to turn quiet, passive students into curious, empowered, and more proficient communicators. Teachers will need to experiment and practice for language dives to become effective in teaching them, but the benefits for ELLs are worth the effort. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you put language dives to work in your classroom.

Choose a Sentence that Offers Multiple Opportunities for Learning

The first step toward designing an effective language dive is to choose a sentence that you think will be purposeful and meaningful for students. A worthy sentence unlocks the meaning of the text students are reading and fortifies the meaning they are making themselves as writers and speakers. A language dive sentence should meet the criteria below. To explain these criteria, we’ll use a sample sentence that 5th graders at Lead Academy study as part of a unit on human rights: Everyone has the right to own property alone, as well as in association with others.

A language dive sentence should

  • Come from a complex text, often from a primary source, from authentic literature, or a real-world nonfiction text. In this case, the sample sentence presents a main idea in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is a central text in these students’ unit on human rights.
  • Be relevant to the content and skills of the unit students are studying. For instance, the sample sentence helps students answer the guiding question of the entire human rights unit: “What are human rights, and how can they be threatened?”
  • Contain language functions (or purposes for using language) that relate to the content and tasks at hand. In their examination of human rights, students at LEAD must discuss a human right as part of a writing assessment.
  • Contain complex language structures. The complex structures in the example above include as well as and in association with. The sentence also features an implied ellipsis. After as well as, the authors intentionally omitted the structure to own property because readers don’t need the structure to understand that the author is still talking about owning property: Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as [to own property] in association with others.

Get Students Talking Purposefully

To become proficient in English, ELLs need lots of opportunities to speak to and listen to other ELLs as well as their native-speaking peers. Teachers can turn the conversation over to ELLs during language dives by using conversation cues that invite students to join the conversation in ways that foster dialogue and extend ideas. Conversation cues, based on Sarah Michaels and Cathy O’Connor’s Talk Science Primer (2012), are tied to specific purposes for talking, which include:

To share, expand, and clarify thinking

-  ”Can you say more about that?”

-  ”So, what are you saying?”

To listen carefully to one another

-  ”Can you repeat what X just said?”

To deepen reasoning

-  ”Why do you think that?”

-  ”Does it always work that way? Can you think of another example that’s a little different?”

To think with others
-  ”Do you agree or disagree? Why?”

-  ”Would anyone like to respond to that?”

To explain what someone else means
-  ”Who can explain what X means when they say XYZ?”

-  ”How do you think X came up with that answer?”

Sarah Mitchell, instructional coach at Lead Academy, says “conversation cues have been one of the single most important drivers of equity. The neat thing is they are not just something we do when we’re doing language dives. Conversation cues promote equity at all grade levels in all subjects. Any teacher—from Spanish to physical education to math—can use conversation cues. They are based on our core belief that all students have something important to say.”

Ask Students to Rearrange the Building Blocks of Language

As students deepen their conversations with each other, they become more playful with language and through speaking, discover how English works. You can encourage this language play through a routine we call “deconstruct-reconstruct-practice.” This routine begins by breaking the language dive sentence into smaller “chunks” that contain academic language structures, such as noun phrases or prepositional phrases. Then students move the chunks around like a puzzle to alter the word order or substitute alternative words and phrases to discuss any change in meaning.

For example, the 3rd grade language dive at Lead Academy focused on a description of the characters Wendy, the mermaids, and Tinker Bell from Peter Pan. ELLs and native English speakers discussed the meaning and purpose of the comparative phrase in the sentence, “Much to Wendy’s disappointment, the mermaids turned out to be as unfriendly as Tinker Bell.” ELLs needed to know that writers can use the formula as + adjective + as to compare, and proficient English speakers refreshed their understanding of describing a character through simile. Students then engaged in a rich conversation about how J.M. Barrie used this phrase to help reveal the mermaids’ feelings toward Wendy.

Conversations like this one are crucial for ELLs, and native and proficient English speakers also benefit. Through such play, and talking about their new sentences, students learn how to use parts of speech effectively and come to understand what a complete, syntactically sound sentence is. This close attention to syntax is a key to closing the achievement gap.

Create Opportunities to Practice and Apply

Once students become more comfortable playing with language and testing out their new understanding of English through talking, it’s important for them to use the chunks of sentences they deconstruct and reconstruct in meaningful classroom tasks where “getting it right” counts. The 3rd graders at Lead Academy practiced their use of the simile “as + adjective + as” to help reveal another character’s feelings in Peter Pan for their performance task. For example, one student wrote, “Captain Hook turned out to be as violent as a storm.” Students also transferred the comparison to incorporate their own lives: “He was as courageous as an immigrant,” remarked another student.

Just as new English speakers are intrigued and empowered by learning a new idiom or slang greeting in everyday conversation, understanding how to use the academic constructions they read during school in their own writing strengthens both confidence and competence. In the process, students begin to lead classroom conversations as inquirers, experts, and collaborators. The rewards for students—and for educators determined to make their classrooms and the world a more equitable space for all students—are profound.

By enabling students to investigate and articulate how writers use language to communicate ideas, language dives boost ELLs up the ladder of text complexity so that they can meet grade-level standards, as well as state language proficiency standards for ELLs. After a year of implementing Language Dives regularly in half of their grades K-5 classrooms, school leaders noticed that those classrooms saw a 24 percent increase in ELA proficiency, as compared with the classrooms that didn’t use the dives. Given the school’s growing population of ELLs, language dives have helped foster equity in student achievement. In fact, some ELLs have gone from near silence in the classroom to leading conversations about English. Among the many important aspects to consider in teaching and learning a language, language dives should be a priority because they enable students to grasp the peculiarities and subtleties of academic language and to punctuate their own writing with powerful claims. As such, language dives are not just an effective instructional technique, they are a tool for equity.

Anne Vilen is a senior writer for EL Education and the author of Learning that Lasts: Challenging, Engaging, and Empowering Students with Deeper Instruction (Jossey-Bass, 2016). Kevin Jepson was a lead curriculum designer for the second edition EL Education K–5 Literacy Curriculum. Currently a professional development specialist for EL Education, he supports curriculum implementation and English language learner (ELL)instruction. He was born in Korea and lived and worked abroad for 15 years in five countries.

ASCD Express, Vol. 13, No. 17. Copyright 2018 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit