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Helping Dual-Language Learners Succeed Academically

Posted by on in What If?
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Gone are the days when all of the children in a classroom are speaking the same language. Nowadays it’s not unusual to have several different languages spoken among your students – and that of course presents a number of challenges. Among them are forming relationships with these special students, making them feel welcomed into the classroom, and helping them form relationships with other students. But beyond those issues is the teachers’ very real challenge of helping dual-language learners succeed academically.

To learn more about this process, I invited experts Jennifer Chen and Karen Nemeth to Studentcentricity.

Connecting Right from the Start WEBFollowing our conversation, which included much helpful advice, Jennifer offered the following strategies for helping dual-language learners (DLL) acquire academic language proficiency:

Teacher modeling.  This is one of the most effective ways to enhance student learning.  The teacher can model academic language use, like how to articulate one’s viewpoint.  For instance, the teacher can model saying, “I agree with the main character in the story ...” 

Providing scaffolding is another key strategy.  That is, use simple academic language to introduce and help DLLs understand more complex academic language.  For instance, explain the new word “delighted” to DLLs using simpler vocabulary that they already know, like its synonym, “happy.”  

Assessing what DLLs already know in their home academic language and capitalize on and incorporate their linguistic and cultural knowledge to help them acquire academic language proficiency in English.  For instance, the teacher can help a Chinese DLL understand the word, “celebration,” by asking her to describe an important holiday that she enjoyed in her home country.  

Communicating and teaching academic content through means other than language, such as using physical models and graphic organizers.  For instance, the teacher can use a physical model to teach the children different parts of the body.  For another activity, the teacher can compare two characters in the story by introducing the concepts of similarities and differences using a Venn Diagram. 

Reading and discussing.  The teacher can engage children in book discussion through which DLLs can learn from the teacher and other children.  For example, the teacher can ask a linguistically more advanced child, “what is the main idea of the story?”  When the child responds saying, “The main idea of the story is…”  DLLs can learn from the child to respond using a similar language structure next time when the teacher asks him the same question.

Exposing children to new vocabulary and language structures.  Exposing children to new vocabulary and a particular language structure in various authentic classroom contexts can provide multiple opportunities for them to learn and understand the meaning of a new word or the use of a complex language structure.  The teacher can make a word wall of new words and even write a sentence containing the new word.

Creating word banks.  Create a word bank with DLLs and encourage them to create their own so that they can remember what they have learned to expand their vocabulary repertoire. 

Eliciting linguistically more proficient peers to partner with DLLs in decontextualized activities, such as role plays, debates, plays, and skits.  These activities can encourage DLLs to learn from their peers how to use words independently, as well as build and expand their vocabulary.

Providing plenty of writing opportunities to engage DLLs in writing for different purposes, such as for a letter, a creative story, and a poem.  For instance, the teacher can teach or model for them the social etiquette and format for addressing different people in a formal letter.

Yes, it is absolutely a challenge to have children in your classroom whose first language is not English. But all that diversity is also a gift! And with the help of the experts, the challenges can be lessened, while the gifts can be better appreciated.

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Rae Pica has been an education consultant specializing in the development and education of the whole child, children's physical activity, and active learning since 1980. A former adjunct instructor with the University of New Hampshire, she is the author of 19 books, including the text Experiences in Movement and Music and, most recently, What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children's Lives. Rae has shared her expertise with such groups as the Sesame Street Research Department, the Head Start Bureau, Centers for Disease Control, the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues, Gymboree, Nike, and state health departments throughout the country. She is a member of the executive committee of the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences and is co-founder of BAM Radio Network, where she hosts Studentcentricity, interviewing experts in education, child development, play research, the neurosciences, and more on teaching with students at the center.

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Guest Monday, 18 March 2019