Helping English language learners to achieve the same learning outcomes

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Helping English language learners to achieve the same learning outcomes

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Author: Breda Matthews, EAL Specialist

Teaching in a way that is responsive to the diversity in our classrooms has a huge impact on the learning outcomes of English language learners. Strong school-family relationships, culturally responsive classrooms, and the deliberate use of effective teaching strategies can help English language learners to succeed at school. 

English as an Additional Language (EAL) specialists are often the professionals within schools who, with the support of senior management, can lead the development of such approaches and ensure the same outcomes for English language learners as for other students. 

Students in schools are asked to write many different kinds of texts. Depending on the subject being studied, these could be essays, experiments, information reports, book reviews, recounts, instructions, narratives and so on. 

As EAL specialists in schools, we can help our colleagues to become more aware of the text types students are asked to read and write. This can be done through directly sharing knowledge of text types and their associated language features. 

There are many different text types and each has its own structure and language features. For example, a recount is a retelling of past events. It starts with an orientation that usually identifies who, what, when and where, e.g. ‘Last Saturday, I went to the zoo with my family.’ This is followed by paragraphs that retell events in time order. A recount often, but not always, ends with a reorientation that evaluates the event, e.g. ‘It was a great day and we all want to go there again.’ The language features of a recount include the use of past tense verbs, e.g. wentwe saw or they ate, and the use of time markers, e.g. after that, then and finally.

By contrast, a procedure is a text that tells someone what to do. In a school context, this could include instructions for an experiment or a recipe. It may start with a sentence that identifies the purpose of the instructions and individual instructions may be numbered. The language features of a procedure include the use of imperative verbs, e.g. ‘Put a tablespoon of water into the mixture‘, and use of technical language, e.g. whisk or bunsen burner. Procedures also often use prepositions and adjectives or adverbs describing time and place, e.g. into the bowl or mix slowly.

The resource accompanying this article is a quick professional development activity that can be completed with your colleagues. Covering three common text types, it asks teachers to match a text type to the function of the text type, and gives an example of that text type and its language features. 

But how can teacher knowledge of text types help students in classrooms? English language learners need support to organise their speaking and writing, to select the correct language and, eventually, to speak and write independently. Awareness of the types of texts students have to produce enables teachers to provide that support and to plan learning tasks so that all students are actively involved.

A writing or speaking frame provides a structure that helps students organise their ideas; they can contain questions, key points or helpful language. Writing and speaking frames support students in becoming familiar with a specific text type. As the students become increasingly confident in dealing with that text type, the level of support can be gradually withdrawn. 

Using different levels of support within a class allows each student to achieve the same learning outcome. Different levels of support that can be offered within a writing or speaking frame include:

  • Sentence frames: where students are given whole sentences with gaps in for them to complete.
  • Sentence starters: where students are given the first word, or first few words, of a sentence.
  • Paragraph starters: where students are given the first few words of each paragraph.

To create a speaking or writing frame is not necessarily difficult. It can be as simple as asking yourself ‘What does my student have to say or write?’. However, it can be helpful to actually write a model answer. This can then be used to decide which of the words and phrases would be most helpful to give students and which students can write themselves. 

Two examples of writing frames in use in classrooms can be found on English Online (a New Zealand Ministry of Education website). You can view the videos here.

Writing frames can be used across the curriculum for the productive skills of speaking and writing. In addition, increased familiarity with different text types has the added advantage of assisting students to understand the texts they listen to and read. Writing frames are helpful for students who are just beginning to learn English, and for right up to pre-university-level study. 

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