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"Unlocking the Common Core" With English Language Learners

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    Sarah Norris

In Larry Ferlazzo's Classroom Q&A, EL Education's Kevin Jepson discusses the practice of "Language Dives," in which teachers and students slow down for 20 minutes a day to talk about one compelling sentence at a time. His full comments are below:

Kevin Jepson is a lead curriculum designer for EL Education. He was born in Korea and lived and worked abroad for 15 years in five countries. In the United States, Kevin has taught and designed curriculum and assessments for Kindergarten through adult language learners for the past 15 years.

Many English Language Learners and their teachers are taking a fresh approach to meeting the standards: They slow down for 20 minutes a day to talk about one compelling sentence at a time. The approach, called Language Dives, is transforming the way English Language Learners (ELLs) engage with language and content, paving the way for them to enjoy language complexity and achieve more than they think possible.

Language Dives originate from Lily Wong Fillmore and Charles J. Fillmore's "Juicy Sentence" approach and research ("What Does Text Complexity Mean for English Learners and Language Minority Students?"). Rebecca Blum Martinez, a bilingual/ESL professor at the University of New Mexico, worked with the Fillmores in schools across the country and then, over the past two years, helped us at EL Education apply Juicy Sentences to our new K-5 Language Arts Curriculum. In our curriculum, we use the Juicy Sentence research to create the extensive sequence of carefully designed instruction we call Language Dives. As part of Language Dives, teachers:

Analyze a compelling sentence every day with ELLs. Teachers and students read and determine the gist of complex texts together in all subject areas. They then zero in on one critical sentence from a text--a sentence that is key to the overall meaning and purpose of the text and that contains language that students need to investigate, such as the language described by the Common Core standards. They spend 10 to 20 minutes daily figuring out why the author chose the specific words and phrases in that sentence. They ask questions and build on each other's ideas to understand how this academic language enabled the author to communicate for a specific purpose, whether to persuade, entertain, inform, or simply show relationships between ideas. These are the very same purposes as those described by college- and career-ready standards.

Promote productive and equitable conversation among students. ELLs in particular need frequent verbal interaction, and Language Dives are an ideal environment for these interactions. Teachers can turn the conversation over to ELLs during Language Dives using graduated conversation cues, such as those suggested by Cathy O'Connor and Sarah Michaels in Talk Science Primer. The goal is to support all students, regardless of ability, to have rich conversations in which they have time to think, learn to express their thinking, deepen their thinking, actively listen to others' ideas, and build upon one another's ideas.

Build structured opportunities for students to "play" with language. Together, teachers and students develop a curiosity for how English works, all in the service of literacy. Students learn how to use parts of speech effectively and what a complete, syntactically sound sentence is, for example, by breaking a sentence into "chunks" that contain academic language structures, such as noun phrases or prepositional phrases. They move the chunks around like a puzzle to alter the word order, and they substitute alternative words and phrases.

Design tasks that allow students to think, talk, and write using the language structures and content in their "juicy" sentence. Using supports such as sentence frames, teachers model how students can transfer the academic English they've discussed in the Juicy Sentence to their own speaking and writing.

Support learners from all levels of language proficiency in discussing these sentences. Juicy Sentence conversations are critical for ELLs, but also for Language Minority Students. Limiting learners who have less language ability to reading simplified or leveled readers and only answering comprehension questions usually stalls their progress. But native and proficient English speakers benefit as well. Trusting that at- or above-level learners already know how English works can mask rich areas for growth.

During each Language Dive, students embark on a "deconstruct-reconstruct-practice" routine. So, for example, consider what a Language Dive might look and feel like for this compelling sentence for Grade 5, from the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

Teachers support the routine by breaking the sentence down into smaller chunks:

Everyone|has the right|to own property alone|as well as|in association with others.

Deconstruct: Students grapple with the meaning and purpose of each chunk, perhaps sketching or playfully acting out the chunk to support their understanding.
For this sentence, teachers might cue student conversation with question such as:

"How can you say this sentence in your own words?"
"How can you say as well as in your own words?"
"Can you figure out why the authors wrote as well as?"

Reconstruct: Students reassemble the chunks like a puzzle into their original order, and also rearrange them into possible sentence variations. They talk about how the sentence adds to their understanding of the text or lesson objectives.
Students can create two sentences that have the same meaning as the original sentence. And, in this case, teachers might ask:

"What if we replaced as well as with and? How would that change the meaning?"
"How does this sentence add to your understanding of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?"

Practice: Students use the chunks in their own speaking and writing and transfer the structures to future classroom tasks.
From this sentence, students might use the language structure as well as to talk and write about their own lives and the curriculum topic (human rights), with support such as a sentence frame if necessary:

"Everyone has the right to _____ as well as "

Language Dives help demystify college- and career-ready standards--as well as state language proficiency standards for ELLs--by allowing students to investigate how writers use language to master their craft. The Fillmores report great success from Juicy Sentence work: in New York, for example, more ELLs passed the state English language proficiency test, and many of them scored higher than non-ELLs on the English Language Arts test. I, myself, have observed how analyzing one sentence at a time can make language learning less overwhelming for ELLs. In the process, students begin to lead the conversations in their emerging roles as inquirers, experts, and collaborators.


I've heard reticent students find their voice, rising from their seats to gleefully but respectfully disagree, for example, about how when works and what it means, or explaining why authors add details to sentences. Just a few weeks into Language Dives, students begin asking their own questions about how academic English works, owning their own process of inquiry (e.g., seventh-graders asking "What if we replace as though with even though?"). They are fully engaged in language play, barely containing their joy as they act out meaning (e.g., third-graders giggling as they look admiringly at one another to act out an interaction between Peter Pan and Solomon Caw). Students have revelations about English syntax, grabbing hold of a sentence chunk to rearrange it and create new meaning. Perhaps most important, they are consistently transferring their new academic language to their own speaking and writing.

In short: Language Dives not only equip students with the language they need to meet the standards, but they also have the potential to turn quiet, passive students into curious, empowered, and more proficient communicators.