Much of my work with teachers this past school year has focused on the power of lesson planning for language development. In this blog post, I will explain how to use a simple tool to add a language focus to any lesson plan and provide the necessary scaffolds and supports to ensure that all students can be successful with the expected language outcomes of the lesson. The questions on the lesson planning tool I will be describing can be found at the bottom of this post.

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Language Objectives

The SIOP model, the WIDA framework, Kate Kinsella and Tonya Ward, Jeff Zwiers, and Confianza have long advocated for adding language objectives to lessons, and they have created useful tools for how to do this. Despite this strong support for language objectives, writing and teaching them often remains a difficult challenge for many general educators and content specialists. During the past school year, I have drawn on the work of those mentioned above and worked with many educators to create and refine the following tool as a simple, practical way for deciding what might be included in a language objective for one lesson and planning ways to support students in meeting the language demands of a content lesson. This tool uses a backwards design to get at the language students need to be successful in a lesson.

Backwards Design: The Unit Assessment and Content Objectives

Like any lesson plan using the Understanding by Design Framework, this tool also starts with the end in mind. Since most districts and international schools already require teachers to plan units starting with the final assessment in mind, the information for the first row of the form should come directly from the teachers’ prepared unit plans. Once teachers review their final assessment (performance, project, or traditional test) and jot down what students should know and be able to do by the end of the unit, they think about one upcoming lesson within that unit. The second row of the form asks teachers to record what students should know or be able to do by the end of one lesson. In teams or individually, teachers should explain how those specific daily objectives help students to achieve the content objectives for the entire unit.

Planning for Language Development: The Prompt

The third row of the tool adds a focus on the language students will need to express their learning at the end of one lesson. Teachers should think about one Turn and Talk question or an Exit Ticket prompt they might ask students to talk about or write about near the end of the lesson to gather formative assessment on their learning for that day. This question or prompt should directly link to the daily content objective listed in the second row. Some of the elementary teachers that I worked with during recent planning sessions created the following prompts. These examples require students to synthesize their learning from the lesson using extended discourse of more than one sentence:

Explain how to create equivalent fractions using shapes.

What is the difference between renewable and non-renewable resources?

Describe the main character in the story and what he dreams of using details from the text.

Describe how the native Americans lived in the river valley in the 1750s.

Notice how each of these prompts starts with a specific language function such as describe or explain or asks students to contrast or compare. These language functions dictate the type of language students will need to use in order to effectively address the prompt. Students will need to use appropriate grade level content vocabulary, sentence structures, and discourse markers in order to effectively and academically respond to each of those prompts.

Planning for Language Development:  The Response

Although general educators are usually able to quickly write a prompt that would require an extended response, they rarely write or think through what they expect as an answer before asking the question. Since every content area standard has different expectations for how students should respond to these prompts, I ask the teachers to write out an ‘ideal response’ to their own prompt. I began writing my own responses to prompts about 10 years ago when I was teaching at an international school in Germany. I would write every response with my students and share my papers with them as well. This process gave me insight into the complexity of the language and often led me to refine my prompts or teach short language-focused lessons to support their answers. Although this is a practice I have used for many years, I credit the WIDA Consortium for the term ‘ideal response’.

When two or more teachers from the same team come to a planning session together, I ask them to individually write their ideal response before sharing out with the entire team. This response should reflect what a top student at that grade level should sound like when using appropriate academic language in their response. The teachers should write what they would love to hear or read as a response to the prompt. When I script their responses, the teachers immediately understand how much language is embedded in their responses, which academic vocabulary words they should directly teach, and which linguistic structures they may have to intentionally model during the lesson.

For example, as an ideal response to the prompt, “Explain how to create equivalent fractions by using shapes,” teachers wrote several different possible answers. Then, they created differentiated sentence frames and sentence starters to support the language necessary for a clear response. They also realized that these sentence frames and starters supported the thinking necessary to successfully complete the hands-on task. One possible frame for Level 1-2 students was:

I can trade _______ ___________ for _________ _______. 

       (number) (shape)               (number)     (shape)

And for students at higher language acquisition levels, they created the sentence starter: I can create an equivalent shape by using ________________.

For the prompt asking students to describe main character in the story, both teachers used a noun clause in the first sentence of their response and realized they would have to provide a mini lesson on how to start a clause using who as in their ideal response: Leroy is a__________, who dreams of __________.  Teaching students how to embed a noun clause will not only increase the complexity of their writing, but also help them understand more complex texts that frequently use noun clauses (like this sentence just did!)

Analyze the Language in the Response

Once teachers have written an ideal response, they can analyze the language in the response at the word level, sentence level, and discourse level. As a team of grade level or content area teachers, they can use the form to plan strategies for directly teaching the vocabulary students will need in order to respond successfully to the prompt. The teachers may also determine that some words do not need as much explicit instruction because students will not be expected to use the words in a written or oral response and only have to comprehend the vocabulary in context.

For example, when a team of fifth grade teachers wrote their ideal response for the prompt, “Describe how the native Americans lived in the river valley in the 1750s,” they realized that they did not need to spend as much time on some of the new vocabulary words in the text as they had originally thought. Although words like quenched and knelt did come up in the text and needed some defining for comprehension, the students would not need to use these words in their responses to the end of lesson prompt. When the teachers realized this, they changed their vocabulary focus in the lesson and spent more time on the general academic terms the students needed to clearly describe the native Americans’ life along the river.

Fourth grade teachers wrote an ideal response to the prompt “What is the difference between renewable and non-renewable resources?” When they analyzed their answers, they realized that students would know the key terms renewable and non-renewable by the end of the lesson, but would need additional support with discourse markers such as however and whereas. The teachers on this team decided to explicitly teach students how to contrast ideas, so that they would have the language necessary to contrast renewable and non-renewable resources.

Often teachers discover that the words and sentence structures students need to successfully respond to the prompt are not part of the written curriculum. For example, in order to describe the main character, students would need to use the word spontaneous or a synonym. Although the text provided plenty of details that illustrated this character trait, this word and its synonyms do not come up in the text. Teachers who wrote out their ideal response realized they should teach words that are not necessarily in the text, but necessary for talking about the text.

Using the Planning for Language Development Tool

After analyzing the language in their ideal response, teachers will have developed a list of words and linguistic structures they will need to teach in the lesson in addition to their content. They should also make note of any strategies, scaffolds, and supports they will use to teach this academic language. After just one experience using this tool, one third grade teacher with no other background in language acquisition exclaimed, “It’s easy to add a focus on language to our lesson plans! We already have the prompt, so we just have to figure out what we want as a response. This helps us frame our teaching and the students’ thinking.” I hope you find the tool just as useful.

Prompts from the Planning for Language Development Tool

  1. What should students know and be able to do by the end of the unit? What is the end of unit assessment?
  2. What should students know and be able to do by the end of one upcoming lesson?
  3. Write a prompt for an oral discussion or a written response during the lesson.
  4. Write out an “Ideal Response” to the prompt.
  5. List the key content and general academic vocabulary students should ideally use in their response to the end of lesson prompt. How will you teach each of those words during the lesson? (include details on the strategies you will use like gestures, visuals, realia, questions, etc.)
  6. What grammatical or linguistic structures in the ideal response might be challenging? (clauses, verb tenses, word order, etc.) What organizational features of the response might be challenging? How will you teach these structures?
  7. What supports will you offer language learners as they respond to the prompt?  (labeled graphic organizer, labeled pictures, sentence frames, discussion starters, native language support, oral language practice before writing, etc.

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Beth Skelton

Author Beth Skelton

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