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Supporting English Language Learners through the Curriculum and Beyond

ESL expert Rebecca Blum-Martinez guides us through four high-leverage approaches to supporting English Language Learners (Language Dives, Conversation Cues, Levels of Support, and Diversity & Inclusion) as we see this in action across grades and disciplines at Lead Academy in Greenville, SC.


- Imagine you’re in school for six hours. You’re immersed in another language that you don’t know and on top of that, you’re expected to be learning math, or history, or science. It’s really important for everybody to understand that task before English Learners and to give them as much support as they can.

- At EL Education, we are tirelessly pursuing and trying to promote equity. We have built the curriculum thinking about English Language Learners being part of it as opposed to separated from it.

- The curriculum hands to teachers almost on a silver platter a way to invite kids of all backgrounds into a conversation and invite all kids into learning.

- One of our guiding principles was to think about eight high-leverage approaches to supporting English Language Learners to make sure that students had the same access to complex texts and to communicate in writing and speaking in the same ways that other students do as well.

- Really looking at language deeply and this is one of the reasons we coined the term Language Dive, because you’re diving into language.

- [Teacher] Very interesting, alright friends are you ready to dive deep?

- [Children] Yes!

- [Teacher] Let’s do it!

- [Sarah Mitchell] Allow students that opportunity, to pause for a moment in their day, and have a rich conversation about a single sentence from a complex text.

- [Teacher] He flew straight to the window,

- [Children] Zoom

- [Teacher] but the window was closed,

- [Teacher] and there were bars on it.

- For my English Language Learners, I learned that they can easily get bogged down if they don’t know the meaning of one word and then that can throw off the rest of the sentence and it’s completely unnecessary. Through Language Dives I’ve learned to separate it into chunks. They’re able to step back from the words. They’re able to think about the actual structure and the role that the words play. Can you reverse the order?

- [Student] You can reverse the order because...

- Let students just play with sentences and really understand why authors use the words that they use. Why did the author include the preposition “as”?

- It connects the first chunk to the second chunk to make it

- [Sarah Mitchell] It is not teachers telling kids what strong grammar looks like. It’s kids playing with the sentence and learning for themselves how language works.

- Peter went like

- [Stephanie Clayton] We take a sentence from the text we’re already reading. We analyze the sentence, through several different ways, through sketches, through acting, through words and then we let that dive live on the wall, so that the students can pull from it later. So, that last step of the students being able to apply what they’re learning, now with Language Dives I can actually see it make an impact on their writing. Students can learn, okay, this is my model and now how can I turn my writing into beautiful writing like that author.

- What more could you ask of an educator right now than to train kids in this climate that we live in to listen to one another and then to have a true conversation back and forth and that’s exactly what Conversation Cues do. Conversation Cues have been one of the single most important drivers of equity at all grade levels in all subjects.

- How’d you find the area?

- The area is...

- [Sarah Mitchell] So a Spanish teacher can use Conversation Cues, a PE teacher can use them, a math teacher can do them.

- Can you tell us a little bit more about using the coefficient, Carlos?

- Because it drives at that core belief that all students have something important to say.

- I have a question for you. Could you say that Tinker Bell was mean because, was she mean actually the whole entire story, or was she mean like a certain little bits of the story?

- [Sarah Mitchell] So it starts off very simply, as sentence frames that help English Language Learners learn how to simply just say one sentence and get comfortable, and then they progress to higher level goals and getting kids to speak even more and interact with one another in conversation.

- Yeah, right

- In British 13 colonies.

- Who can say it in their own words?.

- If a child is brand new to English there’s a lot of support that a child will need. I have seen newly-arrived students be involved in a Language Dive not in a verbal way. Now that doesn’t mean the newcomer isn’t getting anything. They’re getting something that is very context-specific. Before the Language Dive begins, show them some pictures, whatever it is that helps to set the context, content-based learning is so good for English Learners cause there’s context. But as a child becomes more and more familiar with English, pull back the supports. They need to begin to make sense for themselves how this language works, try it out themselves, grapple.

- [Sarah Mitchell] Teachers can look at the levels of support that are written into the curriculum and intentionally choose what’s going to work best for their kids. I can see some of our kids who were having there teachers expose them to some of the heavier support not needing that anymore and just using the lighter supports or even no supports at all and being the ones that are talking the most.

- What I’m most proud of is how they take risks though. My English Language Learners are not afraid to make mistakes with language now because they recognize that mistakes are a part of how we learn and a part of the process of sorting out language.

- You start removing some of the support and allowing them to become more active participants in the Language Dives, in the Conversation Cues,

- Patriots? -Or the Americans... and allowing them to take the lead in their own learning.

- I do agree, because... ..it... the last...

- I am a shy girl. I agree because... ...the war started... What it feels to take a risk in a Language Dive it’s a little, it feels nerve wracking. Talking with a partner first gives me the confidence to talk with 20 or 30 other students. They didn’t start because they don’t want the tea to be taxed. They wanted to fight for the rights of English people and for them.

- They then are able to move through these different stages of language development.

- In schools today, as you see in the country, it’s possible to be incredibly diverse but to not be inclusive and what I love about this curriculum is that it helps our diverse school community teach and talk about inclusivity, directly. Whether that be looking at something from our historical past, such as the American Revolution. What it would have been like to be a Patriot versus a Loyalist versus a Quaker versus a Native American and the different viewpoints they would have had about that war. So, what I love is the intentionality that the curriculum has in terms of honoring different perspectives but then also, allowing the student’s voice to talk about their own perspective. And it’s promoted so much equity in terms of student voice in the classroom.

- Do you know what “beliefs” is in Spanish?

- Creo.

- Creo?

- Creo.

- Creo.

- I also encourage my ELLs to speak to one another in Spanish. We have a Conversation Cues poster that’s completely written in Spanish for them to refer to and it has sentence starters for them as well.

- Children who are able to maintain the home language and add English, those languages serve as supports for academic learning. Language is so intimately tied with a sense of identity and in order for children to be successful learners they have to have a strong sense of self.

- Interact with the families. Bring whatever it is that you have come to know with the families into the classroom. So that the children see themselves represented and just as importantly the children who are not from that culture will come to learn something and that makes for a more peaceful school.

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