Building Academic Language for ESOL

Embracing diversity and helping students to be biliterate

Across the United States, general education classrooms are receiving non-English speaking students at an increasing rate. In comparison, the number of educators who are bilingual or multicultural is on the decline.

In many cases, general educators do not have the pre-service training or resources to meet the needs of linguistically and culturally diverse students. While legislation requires educators to meet the instructional needs of these students as well as attend to the needs of other minority and disenfranchised populations, it’s more than likely teachers are left wondering what to do.

Following are some practical tips for meeting the needs of ESOL students (and your other challenging minority populations).

  1. DO NOT PANIC! You are probably already differentiating instruction, and many of the same strategies can be implemented with your emerging bilinguals.
  2. Most ESOL students have little or no formal school instruction in their home language, but your new mission is biliteracy. Research shows that building literacy in both their native language and English at the same time is the best way to help students reach academic vocabulary proficiency and build cognitive skills.
  3. Vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary! ESOL students need access to vocabulary in both their first language and English. Google Translate is a helpful tool, and many content textbooks have access to Spanish translation. Using the Marzano vocabulary strategy, have students write the content-specific vocabulary in both English and their home language, draw a picture of it, and use it in a context-based sentence.
  4. Include language goals. Most districts require objectives or outcomes to be posted daily. While you are posting the learning goal, include a language goal too! Have students keep a running list of language goals in a notebook or agenda, and check in at the end of class to be sure the goal was met.
  5. Create an academic language bank next to your word wall. Much of the academic language we use in English is difficult for ESOL students to navigate, because in English we like to have words with multiple meanings. An academic word bank should include words that have specific meaning in academic context (i.e., point of view, greatest, perspective, and hypothesis). It’s likely that your entire student group will benefit from such rich academic vocabulary.
  6. ESOL students need context. Most students will develop conversational English first because they have peer-to-peer interaction. However, academic language rarely has rich context for developing meaning. Hands on activities will help build context and academic understanding.

Finally, it is important to help our emergent bilinguals navigate the middle school world. For native English speakers, middle school is already difficult, and the rigors of academic accountability are demanding.

As educators we should embrace the diversity of culture and language and help students move beyond simply being bilingual and help them become biliterate. Biliterate students, those who can read and write in both their first language and English, have a better chance of becoming productive citizens locally and globally.

If you are a teacher, you already believe that children are the future. In the 21st century intercultural communication will be the path to success. ESOL students and students of culturally diverse backgrounds will be the norm. Resist the urge to have an English Only classroom, build bridges rather than barriers to content.

Help middle schoolers develop a sense of belonging, value who they are and where they come from, provide opportunities for them to shine, highlight their cultural diversity, and find ways to support the development and retention of both languages.