Finding the focal point in language and content

Finding the focal point in language and content

As I walked into the sheltered high school science class, students from five different countries worked in groups to design an experiment to test focal points of various lenses and build a tool to measure the focal length of a lens. While they built their tool, they spoke in five different mother tongues and switched to English whenever they interacted with speakers of another language. Cardboard boxes, tape, scissors, lenses, rulers, and other tools were strewn around the lab tables and freely shared among the students. Students concentrated on building their own contraption and walked unobtrusively around to gather ideas and equipment from other teams. They debated the design of their measurement tools and the results of their experimental trials. The teacher circulated from group to group asking questions to challenge students’ thinking and formatively assess students’ concept development.

As I watched what the students were doing and how they were working together, I realized that the project on focal points was also a metaphor for teaching a sheltered content class. Sheltered instruction has to have dual focal points: language and content. I noticed how engaged the students were in experimenting with the focal point concept and the language they were using to understand. Using their mother tongues during this exploratory phase of the lesson certainly supported their concept attainment. When they spoke English to communicate with students from other language backgrounds, they used mostly social language to share supplies or ask for help with building their measurement tool. I wondered how these students would transfer their concept knowledge to academic English.

At the end of the lesson, the teacher asked the students to explain what they had designed and how it would demonstrate the focal point objective of the experiment. One student confidently said, “When it gets closer, it gets bigger.” The teacher completely understood this response and gave the student positive feedback. Although I had a basic grasp of the focal point experiment, I wasn’t able to fill in the details of the student’s general answer. So I asked the student, “What gets closer?” He pointed to the lens showing me he understood the question and the answer, but he was unable to name this object in English. Upon further questioning and probing, it was clear that without some extra support, this student was unable to use academic English to express his understanding of the concepts.

Like many English Language Learners, the student in the example above needed to focus on the vocabulary level of academic language development. One analysis of science textbooks found that a year of secondary science class introduces students to more new vocabulary than a year of a foreign language class! Each of these vocabulary words represents dense content concepts that often require exploration and experimentation to grasp. As students grapple with hands-on activities designed to help them grasp the concepts, the teacher can also provide language supports to help them acquire the new English words connected to these concepts. Since the analysis of the science textbooks was based on new vocabulary for native English speakers, not English Language Learners, teachers can assume that all students would benefit from this focus on academic vocabulary.

After the class, I had the chance to talk to the science teacher about the dual goals (or dual focal points) of the sheltered science class: build an understanding of science concepts and develop students’ academic English. The teacher had provided concrete, hands-on, collaborative tasks for students in order to develop their concept understanding, but he needed to add a few extra supports and an additional focus on vocabulary to ensure that they also developed the academic English necessary for expressing their understanding. In the next class, the teacher decided that a word bank with the key vocabulary and a couple of sentence frames would support these students in expressing their content knowledge in English.

Finding the focal point for language and content instruction requires teachers to conduct ongoing experiments and closely observe how students are using language. When students struggle to explain a concept, teachers have to discern if they actually understand the concept but need language support, or if they still need support with the concept itself. Many experts in the field have created tools for finding the focal point for both content and language instruction including the WIDA standards, the SIOP model, project GLAD, CREDE standards, and the CALLA approach. These instructional designs can all help content teachers adjust their lens to create a clear focus on both language and content.

6 Comments

  1. This was a really interesting article. Thank you for sharing.

  2. This is excellent food for thought! I think that some of this additional scaffolding might be very useful for many of our students, particularly our younger MYP students and those who are starting in mainstream science classes after they leave the Newcomer Center. Trying to write about science (additional language 1) in academic English (additional language 2) is such a challenge–I hear and read answers like “When it gets closer, it gets bigger” in tasks quite frequently. Thank you for sharing!

    • Thanks, Erin. The situation described was also at an IB school in a 9th grade class. The students are so capable of grasping the content, they just need additional language supports to express that understanding.

  3. Great metaphor – easy to picture the balance needed.

    • Thanks, Paul! It’s note always an easy balance to find.

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