Three Pillars of Support for Middle School English Learners 

6 Min Read
teacher with students in classroom

When I think about today’s middle school English learners (ELs), I’m struck that they are just like any other middle school student, experiencing rapid biological, emotional, and social transformations. However, this population does face other unique challenges. English learners come from widely diverse backgrounds, representing vast differences in language proficiency and academic growth. They may come to school with compounding hurdles such as trauma resulting from being a refugee, anxiety due to immigration, or the adverse effects of poverty. It is important to keep in mind that the social and cultural challenges our English learners may be facing don’t serve as reasons to compromise their academic goals and achievement.

Keeping English learners engaged in academic content while they experience profound personal challenges makes our role as educators even more complex and crucial. Research leads us to be optimistic about the impact certain practices can have on middle school ELs.

Three Pillars of Foundational Support to Help EL Middle School Students Succeed

Here are three areas in which educators can make a significant difference in the lives and learning of English learners in middle school:

  • Instruction that is relevant to the dynamic and universal transformations middle schoolers experience
  • Time and opportunities to grow deep knowledge
  • Active engagement with language and content that also calls for students to make personal connections to the tasks at hand.

Help Students Make Connections with Relevant Instruction

Educators agree that as middle schoolers begin to pay attention to the wider world, we can channel their energy and social engagement into academic topics that draw upon themes of identity formation, belonging, justice, and survival. Unit topics such as The Stuff of Consumer Culture, Risk and Exploration, Guided by a Cause, Approaching Adulthood, and Culture and Belonging, can compel students to connect with the content of instruction within each thematic umbrella. For English learners, this focus can tip the scale, because when content is relevant, when the text and media within each unit’s topic are current, somewhat edgy, and speak to their hearts and minds, it’s easier for all students to stay focused through the challenging parts—those sections of a lesson that can accelerate lasting academic growth.

The ways in which our ELs discover, learn, and apply skills and concepts also need to be relevant. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by ensuring that the curriculum enables students to engage in communicative tasks for authentic purposes that nurture the growth of their own ‘voices’. For example, a writing project that involves composing letters to a newspaper, policymaker, or civic leader, based on what students have been learning and on their own experiences as immigrants, enables an authentic learning cycle to come full circle (Armstrong, Thomas. The Best Schools: How Human Development Research Should Inform Educational Practice. ASCD, Alexandria, VA, 2006). Using high-quality technology and digital lessons that are designed to leverage learning supports the types of authentic student responses Armstrong advocates for and enhances engagement by pairing instruction with 21st-century students’ preferred communication modes.

Plan Lessons That Offer the Time to Grow Deep Knowledge

In terms of curriculum design, when relevant topics become the focus of a four- to six-week unit, English learners have sufficient time to effectively develop a repertoire of academic language that helps grow ever-expanding networks of related vocabulary terms and concepts. Students are able to engage in collaborative discussions with their classmates while simultaneously engaging in their grade-level content. This model means that a focus on learning academic English does not preclude staying on track with grade-level progress.

Within the span of each unit, when the curriculum provides varied scaffolding pertinent to specific tasks—support that doesn’t compromise rigor—we can go a long way toward accelerating both our ELs’ academic language and their content-area growth.

There are numerous tools and appropriate types of scaffolds that fall within this pillar. One of the most important supports English learners in using what they know about their first language in order to expand their academic English. When students make cross-language connections (through purposeful and intentional instruction of cognates), compare and contrast linguistic structures across languages, and share cultural connections, they leverage deeper, more connected, and more meaningful learning. This allows them to navigate between both languages. Known as translanguaging (Garcia, O., Johnson, S., & Seltzer, K., 2017), this process not only honors what students bring to the classroom, it also supports continued use of their first language, while enabling them to participate actively in academic discussions. In addition, English learners’ identities and social-emotional development evolve as they grow to see themselves as linguistic and cultural beings.

With new performance standards focused on proficiency in reading and analyzing increasingly complex text, it is essential to offer ELs instruction that helps unpack the language of the text, while not oversimplifying the reading task. Teachers with these skills and resources are better positioned to adjust, monitor, and direct their instruction to scaffold the language, literacy, and content development central to acquisition of academic language.

Programs that chart this content for teachers in advance of the text and during instruction ensure that no potential stumbling block is left unturned. Instruction that segments texts and asks high-level questions is part and parcel of this approach (Lesaux, Nonie K., Harris, Julie Russ. Cultivating Knowledge, Building Language. Heinemann, 2015).

Promote Active Engagement with Language and Content

Today, most educators agree that for students in general, fostering a climate that engages them in active application of the content they are learning is essential, especially for ensuring high depth-of-knowledge learning, such as analyzing and synthesizing complex text. For English learners, in addition to helping them grasp meaning, active application of content is critical to language development. Language does not occur in a vacuum. To risk stating the obvious, communication requires more than one participant, and we must give them classroom time to interact.

English learners need to actively process the academic language and content they are learning via ongoing and frequent engagement with all their age peers, not just other ELs. Collaborative discussions need to be a central routine in today’s middle school classrooms. These can take the form of ‘turn and talks,’ or involve more structured small-group activities. Teaching students how to conduct these discussions is key to their success.

Other effective routines involve the incorporation of periodic projects and performance tasks. These are also great opportunities for promoting cooperative learning, because students can’t help but apply the concepts, language, and content they are learning to the natural give-and-take of oral and written discourse. This is the ultimate goal!

The social-emotional and cognitive changes our middle school students experience underscore the importance of planning for engaging, motivating, and active learning in our classrooms. This means shifting from lecture-based instruction to more relevant and active engagement that supports growth over time. We can make the middle years a time of rapid and meaningful growth that fosters a lifetime of curious, passionate learning. For our English learners, this foundational triad is essential during their school years to ensure lifelong success.

A Resource for You

Are you looking for a tool to help plan and track effective, rigorous instructional practices? Educators use the Rigor Relevance Framework® to develop both instruction and assessment, to select strategies for differentiating instruction for ELL students, and to facilitate higher achievement goals.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

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