Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Using informational text to support English-language learners

At a recent gathering of New Jersey educators, a teacher I had just met asked me if our approach to using informational text would work for English Language learners.

“Yes!” I responded, and then rattled off how front-loading vocabulary, focusing on text features, and building relevance, etc. were all essential strategies for ELLs.

And then I wanted to blog about what I had said because it’s a topic we haven’t emphasized in relation to our approach to using informational text.

In a post for ASCD Express, Lydia Breiseth highlights three key strategies for building ELLs’ comprehension skills: building background knowledge, teaching vocabulary explicitly, and checking comprehension frequently.

We would argue that these strategies are key in supporting comprehension and engagement for all students, not just English language learners.

And, these strategies encapsulate both why we think using informational text in the classroom is so important and how we can support student success with such texts.

Informational texts can be powerful tools in building the background knowledge that will help students access literary texts or other informational texts. In addition, they can help increase student motivation by highlighting the relevance of curricular content to their daily lives.

In our model for using informational text (detailed in our volume Connecting Across Disciplines: Collaborating With Informational Text), we begin with a range of vocabulary activities that front-load both key vocabulary and concepts that students will encounter in the informational text. This primes students for success with even very challenging texts.

We advocate focusing on 8-10 key words so as not to overload students or to make vocabulary instruction too onerous and time-consuming.

We also urge teachers to prepare the text by cutting out anything that is not relevant to their instructional goals. Teachers of ELLs or any students who struggle with reading comprehension may shy away from exposing them to challenging, diverse texts, even while knowing that their students will face such texts in their future lives. Using short, engaging excerpts with sufficient support and preparation can help build students’ skills and confidence with complex texts.

To follow-up on the pre-reading vocabulary support, we encourage teachers to provide guided reading and discussion questions alongside the excerpt that direct students’ attention to key text features and concepts. Again, this kind of support is important not just for English language learners but for all students.

We follow the reading of the excerpt with writing and discussion prompts that invite students to think critically about the text and to make connections with other curricular content.

For classroom-ready examples of these kinds of informational text units, check out our volumes on using informational text to teach To Kill a Mockingbird and A Raisin in the Sun. For detailed instructions on how to build your own informational text units, on your own or in collaboration with colleagues in other content-areas, see Connecting Across Disciplines: Collaborating With Informational Text.

Like Breiseth, we acknowledge the time and effort required to create this kind of support for our students, but we know from classroom experience that it is well worth the effort!

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