Thursday, May 24, 2012

Engaging English Language Learners In Discussion Related to Prior Knowledge and Experiences

Engaging English Language Learners
In Discussion Related to Prior Knowledge and Experiences

By Jackie Wissman, SWCS District Trainer

Are We Asking the Right Questions?

Though tapping prior knowledge to connect new learning and understandings to existing schema is important for all students, it is highly emphasized in readings related to meeting the needs of our growing English Language Learner (ELL) population.    In fact, tapping student’s prior knowledge is one of ten accommodations that have been proven effective for English Language Learners (Laturnau, 2003).  Often, there is the misconception that ELL students abstain from conversations related to prior knowledge because they lack related experiences or background knowledge.   We need to realize, however, that the ways in which we elicit information greatly impacts the level in which students can connect, discuss and engage.    Helping children connect to the larger themes and overall ideas of stories will help all students, including English Language Learners, make meaningful connections and take part in valuable discussions that enhance comprehension.  If we want to engage our English Language Learners, we need to think carefully about the questions we are asking!

Connecting to the Literal Meaning Vs. Overall Theme: A Case Study Comparison

Recently, I had the opportunity to see two teachers introduce Snow on the Hill to two different guided reading groups of mostly ELL second graders.  The text is about a family whose car gets stuck in a ditch while driving to town on a snowy day.  While waiting for the tow truck, the children use plastic bags to sled down the hill.  In the first introduction, the teacher elicited background knowledge by asking if the children had ever been sledding.  The teacher and one student talked about sledding for about a minute.  The other students, 3 of 4 who were ELL, listened respectfully but did not contribute to the discussion.  They had no prior experiences or connections to sledding.

In the second introduction to a group of 5 students, 4 of which were ELL, the conversation related to prior knowledge was quite different.  Instead of asking the students to connect to the literal meaning of the text, the teacher asked them to connect to the larger theme, “ Have you ever had to make the most of a bad situation or had something good come from something bad?”  After the teacher shared a time where her family made the most of a two-day power outage, they all had something to say.  One student shared the time that she forgot her lunch and was quite upset until all of her friends gave her a small part of their lunch.  “It was my most favorite lunch ever!” she exclaimed.  This is certainly an example of something good coming from something bad!  The students all participated in a 5-minute conversation connecting to the big idea of the text before the teacher moved to a more literal discussion and introduction of unknown vocabulary and concepts including sledding, ditches and tow trucks.  

Why is Discussing the Overall Theme Prior to Introducing Literal Meanings so Important?

Cummins (1994) shares that we must provide instruction which values the educational and personal experiences of our ELL students rather than ignore or try to replace these experiences.  Going beyond the literal level and helping kids think about the larger themes and ideas makes it possible for all students to connect and discuss.  This values their experiences and knowledge even if it is different than our own.

Key Vocabulary and Concepts:

This is not to say that talk related to literal meanings and concepts is not important to ELL students.   In fact, teaching key vocabulary and concepts is another one of the ten accommodations proven effective with ELL students (Laturnau, 2003)!    Meaningful vocabulary and concepts must be included in instruction including book introductions and interactive read aloud discussions if our ELL students are going to truly comprehend.   We must remember, however, that though it is quite necessary, there is much more to building background knowledge than introducing vocabulary!    We need to help students think within, beyond and about the text!

Links Across the LC Framework:

The idea of tapping prior knowledge beyond the literal level can easily be applied across the framework. 

Guided Reading: The Snow on the Hill example demonstrates how helping students connect to the overall theme in book introductions can result in more meaningful engagement and comprehension. 

Interactive Read Alouds and Shared Reading: We can certainly engage students in intentional conversation that allows them to connect to and think about larger themes and author’s purpose during our interactive read alouds or shared readings.  We can also model our own thinking as a means of lifting the thinking and connections of the students.  In addition, we can help students begin to see the connections between themes across texts; that authors often write about universal themes such as friendship or overcoming obstacles.

Writing Workshop:  We must recognize and value different perspectives and experiences.  Students need to connect with topics in order to invest in them!  Though we help kids think about ideas worth writing about, we cannot rely on prompts! 


When we help kids connect to the big ideas and overall themes, we open the possibilities for response and honor the experiences and prior knowledge of all students, including our English Language Learners.   We must remember that the ways in which we elicit background knowledge and experiences will certainly impact if and how students respond!


Cummins, J. (1994). Knowledge, power and identity in teaching English as a second language.
In F. Genesee (Ed.), Educating Second Language Children.  New York:  Cambridge University Press. 

Laturnau, J. (2003). Standards-Based Instruction for English Language
Learners. In G. G. Garcia, & G. G. Garcia (Ed.), English Learners: Reaching the Highest Level of English Literacy (pp. 286-305). Newark, DE: International Reading Association, Inc.

Smith, A. (1997). Snow on the Hill. Illustrated by Greenhatch, B. US Edition: Rigby

Pinnell, G. S., & Fountas, I. C. (2001, 2008). The Continuum of Literacy
Learning Grades PreK-8: A Guide to Teaching
. Portsmouth: Heinnemann.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Understanding Orthography and its Implications for English Language Learners

Understanding Orthography and its Implications for English Language Learners

By Wendy Sheets, Intermediate Literacy Trainer 

In understanding approaches for reaching our English Language Learners, I’ve been doing some studying lately. The book English Learners: Reaching the Highest Level of English Literacy, edited by Gilbert G. Garcia (2003), is a useful resource. As I looked at chapter four, written by Donald R. Bear, Shane Templeton, Lori A. Helman, and Tamara Baren, I was able to glean (and would like to share) a better understanding of orthographic development and its implications for the support we give to our English Language Learners. As educators, we may be better equipped if we understand how orthography propels reading development and how word-study instruction can be a powerful practice to increase literacy learning.

Understanding the Layers of Orthography    

Although there are many different orthographies, most of them are composed of sound, pattern, and meaning, which are evolving layers of information. A shallow or transparent orthography is one that is highly regular in its sound-symbol correspondences, such as spelling in Spanish or Italian. In these orthographies, it is easy to decode written words because there are fewer sounds and a direct correspondence between sounds and letters. A deep or opaque orthography, such as French or English, often includes a less direct correspondence between letters and sounds. Chinese, which is also a deep orthography, includes characters that represent morphemes, and they contain sound, pattern, and meaning layers. Semitransparent orthographies, such as German, are characterized somewhere between shallow and deep orthographies. According to Rieben, Saada-Robert, & Moro, the progression within a student’s literacy learning often takes place in stages or “phases of dominance” (as cited in Garcia, 2003, p.73). Those reading and spelling stages are a progression from sound to pattern to meaning, and may be broken down to include the following: Emergent, Letter Name-Alphabetic, Within Word Pattern, Syllables and Affixes, and Derivational Relations. If you have used Donald Bear’s or Kathy Ganske’s developmental spelling inventories, you should be familiar with these stages of spelling and reading.

I found it interesting to consider the impact on development that a deeper or more opaque orthography has. For instance, in English, patterns are examined earlier and for a longer period of time than in more transparent orthographies, such as Spanish. Where a character represents a single syllable, such as in Chinese, young children may make the match between the sound and written symbol early (around age 4). Within a shallow orthography, emergent readers and spellers may appear more advanced because of their ability to track text and make a few sound-symbol correspondences. We see faster reading rates among Spanish readers because it is easier to read more words accurately within a shallow orthography. However, reading with expression and building an extensive sight vocabulary is more complicated.

How Bilingualism Affects Development 

It is helpful for educators to have knowledge about the spoken and written languages of their students in order to understand their development. The interaction between spoken languages has an impact on what students hear and how they pronounce words. For example, a teacher may hear the short i in hit, but to her students, it may sound more like a long e (as in heat). There are several sounds in English that may be difficult for Spanish-speaking students to pronounce. Those include /d/, /j/, /r/, /v/, /z/, /sh/, /th/, /zh/, /ng/; beginning and ending with s, and ending sounds with r. Knowing that it may be logical for the j as in jump to be pronounced like chump, for example, can be helpful for teachers. The good news, according to Tolchinsky & Teberosky (1998), is that in comparative studies of orthographic knowledge, bilingual learners negotiate between languages and literacies (as cited in Garcia, 2003, p. 75). Instead of different orthographies causing confusion, learners apply their knowledge about spelling and reading from one language to another. There are some cognitive advantages to bilingualism in growing a stronger knowledge base with respect to each language. In young children, the phonetic or sound quality of words should be emphasized, as those phonological processes create a foundation for reading.

Word Study Activities  

In order to develop a word-study program, it is recommended that a spelling inventory be used to reveal what students know about English orthography and their primary language. I’ve found useful spelling inventories in the publications: Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction and Word Journeys: Assessment-Guided Phonics, Spelling, and Vocabulary Instruction. Words that can be spelled can also be read, so spelling assessments reveal a measure of word reading or decoding. Bear, Templeton, Helman, and Baren suggest engaging students in instructional activities of sorting and charting to explore patterns and facilitate vocabulary development. Emergent learners may explore and make distinctions through concept sorts, using objects and pictures such as buttons, plastic animals, and macaroni according to different criteria. They may play “Concentration” games, sort by the way pictures or objects sound at the beginning, or by other criteria, such as size. Later, sorts may become more abstract, with the purpose of examining contrasting words with stress assignment, or words in the past tense. Beginning charting experiences include shared opportunities for students to talk about what they know, watch a teacher or another student model the writing, listen to syllables, think about word parts, and use analogies to spell. They may build webs together and may chart known words from around the world. These experiences also broaden English-speaking students’ vocabulary and appreciation of other languages. Collecting and charting interesting words and clarifying meaning (through questioning, discussion, noticing relationships, and using a dictionary or thesaurus) is a way older students may explore vocabulary as well. Students may learn to make meaning connections between words for various reasons. As they notice connections and relationships between words, they understand more about the structure of words and are able to pose important questions about word meaning. Word study is not a matter of naming rules, but of discovering patterns. Physically manipulating words provides the active process of construction to take learning beyond the verbal level, leading to automaticity. Sorting and charting activities may be explored within content area studies as well. Throughout all of these activities, it is important to support English language learners with practices that use oral language to bridge an understanding to the written.

Talk, Talk, Talk!

It is imperative to note the understanding that learning is a social process, and that English language learners (along with all of us) need multiple opportunities for discussion and interaction with others. As we consider orthography and the acquisition of language, we also must remember that while a student is able to decode or write a word, without building meaning, the process is not truly reading. Although I am able to “decode” text in Spanish, my understanding is quite limited. I have to agree with Marie Clay’s assertion that “Reading is a message-making, problem-solving activity, which increases in power and flexibility the more it is practiced” (Clay, 1991). In order to build comprehension and engage students in making meaning, much conversation needs to take place. “Dialogue seeks to harness the ‘collective intelligence’…of the people around you; together we are more aware and smarter than we are on our own” (Isaacs, 1999, p.11).  It is through purposeful talk with others that we construct ideas and visions of possibility for ourselves and each other.  As we do this, we create that habit of mind to think reflectively and critically, rather than passively absorbing information in isolation.  We know that new knowledge connects to previous knowledge. As our English language learners synthesize by building on oral language resources, background experiences, and literacy in other languages, it is my hope that we, too, may create new understandings as we strive to improve our practices to best support all of our learners.


Bear, D.R., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F.R. (2000).
        Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling
        Instruction. Upper Saddle, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Clay, M. (1991). Becoming Literate: The Construction of Inner Control.

Ganske, K. (2000). Word Journeys: Assessment-Guided Phonics, Spelling,
        and Vocabulary Instruction. New York: The Guilford Press.

Garcia, G.G. (2003). English Learners: Reaching the Highest Level of English
        Literacy. International Reading Association.

Isaacs, W. (1999). Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together. New York: Random