Diverse Teaching Strategies for Immigrant Children

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Chamot & O’Malley, 1994; Crandall & Tucker, 1990; Enright & McCloskey, 1988; Gardner, 1993; Jeffers, 1991; Kessler & Hayes, 1989.

Strategy 3.3: Shelter Instruction in Content Classes. Teachers of content areas that are taught in English “shelter” their instruction by using sequences of tasks incorporating strategies designed to ensure that ELLs comprehend and master cognitively demanding subject matter. The teachers seek not only to make the content comprehensible to students, but also to expand their students’ capabilities in English.


Content classes designed for students who are acquiring English have been given several different names. The term “sheltered English” has been used frequently, most recently within the context of the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP). The SIOP model is a research-based instructional approach to sheltering content for ELLs. The eight components of SIOP (lesson preparation, building background, comprehensible input, strategies, interaction, practice/application, lesson delivery, and review/assessment) are used by math, science, social studies, and other teachers to support content instruction for all ELLs, regardless of grade level or subject area (Echevarria & Short, 2004; Echevarria, Vogt & Short, 2004; Hudec & Short, 2002). Whatever name is used, these classes serve an important function in a comprehensive program for students learning English.

Whenever possible, offering content classes in students’ primary language is the most efficient, direct means of ensuring students equal access to difficult content, especially for those students for whom even a sheltered content class would be incomprehensible. When there are not enough students of a single primary language, or when students reach an intermediate level of fluency in English, creating sheltered content classes that are taught in English makes perfect sense. Many of the strategies described in the sections that follow work equally well in native-language content classrooms, in English-language development classrooms, and in sheltered content classrooms. In fact, students benefit even more when teachers use a consistent array of strategies across content areas (Fisher, Frey, & Williams, 2002; Fisher & Frey, 2004).

Teachers of sheltered content classes need to master a repertoire of strategies to effectively teach a topic such as U.S. history, algebra, or biology in English to English learners who have been in the United States for less than two years (Jameson, 1999). “Scaffolding” is the term used most frequently to refer to the tasks that teachers design to support their students as they encounter new concepts and complex language (Bruner, 1986). Just as the name implies, scaffolds should be used as long as students need them. As students become more capable and autonomous, use of the scaffolds decreases. For example, graphic organizers (charts that organize information) of various types can help students understand confusing content. Once it is clear that the students have gained control over the concepts, the graphic organizers may not be necessary.

While all students obviously profit from good instruction, what might be sufficient to enable a native English-speaking student to understand an idea may not provide a second-language learner with enough exposure or enough scaffolding to succeed. For example, a quick brainstorming session before starting a unit might be adequate for native English-speaking students in terms of assessing and activating prior knowledge. Second-language learners, on the other hand, usually need more investigation into what they know and do not know about the same topic. For these students, a brainstorming session might be followed by an anticipatory guide (see Strategy 3.6) and a journal entry on the topic. Each task approaches the topic from a slightly different perspective, giving students multiple opportunities to grapple with the ideas and language to be studied.

Thoughtful teachers in sheltered content classes spend substantial time thinking about what to teach. Approaching topics from different perspectives, using multiple tasks to ensure comprehension and mastery, and providing students with the tools to learn how to learn—all require the teacher to filter out unimportant or extraneous pieces of the curriculum and to get to the most essential, substantial concepts (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998).

Teachers often feel uneasy at first about not “teaching the whole book.” Once they have successfully taught a sheltered class, however, they become advocates for teaching with depth rather than breadth—for all students. Teachers carefully examine their curriculum with an eye toward what their students need to know most. They concentrate on foundation concepts in their particular subject matter and ensure that they teach ideas that are critical to their students’ success. The following strategies outline different types of scaffolding that can help teachers organize effective sheltered lessons. Designing an individual sheltered lesson involves a complex orchestration of many elements. Teachers might ask themselves the following questions as they plan:

• What will I do to assess and activate my students’ prior knowledge? Can I relate course content to their personal lives?

• What are the big ideas, and how can I build my students’ conceptual frameworks so they can comprehend and work with these big ideas?

• How will I incorporate explicit teaching of learning strategies into the lesson? How will these strategies promote my students’ metacognitive development so that, over time, they will become increasingly independent learners?

• As I teach the lesson, how will I check for understanding and make sure the students are actively engaged? What kinds of pictures, graphics, and other contextual cues will help my students understand more?

• What kind of task can I give students at the end of the lesson to offer them a chance to attack the material in new or different ways?

• At the end of the lesson, how will we all assess the learning?

Classroom Examples

Mrs. Simons is a skilled teacher of sheltered content. Her primary responsibility is teaching literature to her advanced ESL students—the same literature that her students’ native English-speaking peers are studying. After five or six years, she has become adept at incorporating a wide range of tasks into her sheltered language arts lessons. She is sensitive to the fact that students need extra instructional supports—scaffolds—as they study difficult content. She is also keenly aware that most of her students will be studying in mainstream classrooms the following year, sitting next to native English speakers and expected to compete. Thus, she is committed to making sure that her students not only learn the content of the literature class, but also are as prepared as possible for all of their classes.

This week, Mrs. Simons and her students in 8th grade sheltered language arts are finishing the novel Dragonwings, by Laurence Yep (Harper &Row, 1975), the story of a young Chinese boy’s immigration to California at the turn of the century. Folders of student work related to the novel are on their desks. An examination of several folders shows the various kinds of scaffolds that Mrs. Simons has used to ensure that her students have understood the book. A reciprocal teaching chart and an active reading chart are stapled to the front of each student’s folders.

Right now, the students are working in groups of four, using reciprocal teaching to read four pages of the last chapter: One student reads a paragraph and summarizes it, another asks for clarification, the third asks two questions, and the fourth makes a prediction (Jones, Palincsar, Ogle, & Carr, 1987; Palincsar & Brown, 1984; Palincsar, David, & Brown, 1989). After each paragraph, the students change roles.

The folders reveal that Mrs. Simons has used various tasks to assess and activate her students’ prior knowledge throughout the reading of the book. There are two anticipatory guides (see Strategy 3.6)—one on Chinese immigration and one on earthquakes—with follow-up activities to show changes in students’ ideas. Several journal topics relate the story to students’ personal lives, for example, “Write about when you, or a member of your family, came to this country.”

For several chapters of the book, the students have found important quotes, written them in a reading log, and responded to the quotes using the active reading chart. They have made several storyboards for other chapters, in which important events are summarized and related by using a graphic. All of these activities will lead to essays in which the students will write about whether the main character, Windrider, will fulfill his dream of becoming a dragon again. They must provide evidence from the story to support any claims. The folders show that the students already have experience with characterization through exercises in charting what Windrider says, what he does, what other characters say about him, and how the author describes him. Next to these direct quotes from the book, the students have written what this tells us about Windrider. It seems clear that, though the students’ English is far from perfect, they are engaged in studying and mastering difficult content. They complain a little about “having to write an essay,” but the complaints are tinged with pride.

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