Strategy 3.4: Use Instructional Behaviors That Promote Equity, Comprehension, and Active Participation. Teachers of second language learners understand the special role they play in delivering a stimulating and cognitively demanding, yet comprehensible, curriculum. They consciously teach in a way that actively engages all students in the content and provides rich cues to meaning through context; they may use a variety of strategies to check for understanding.
Teaching cognitively demanding subject matter to students learning in a second language requires tremendous skill. Teachers develop a wide repertoire of behaviors that assist student comprehension.
One effective strategy is to develop routines used in structuring the daily lesson and weekly plan. When students know the classroom routines, they are better able to tolerate ambiguities naturally encountered in learning a new language. If students know, for example, that the routine for the beginning of class every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday is journal writing, and they know the routine for checking the overhead to see the topic and the routine for passing out and collecting the journals, then they are able to concentrate on getting their thoughts on paper.
Increasing wait time (the time the teacher waits between asking a question and getting a response) gives second-language learners the extra time they sometimes need to construct a response in English. When teachers increase their wait time from five to seven seconds, they see student responses grow longer, a wider variety of students participating in discussions, and even an increase in student questioning.
In sheltered content and ESL classrooms, teachers need to be sensitive to the range of language proficiency levels. For students in the earlier stages of acquiring English, focusing on the meaning of their contributions rather than on grammatical accuracy lowers anxiety. When the teacher repeats, rephrases, and uses many examples throughout instruction, students understand more.
Teachers who call on all students in a systematic way know that this practice raises performance, especially of students who are considered low achievers. Attention to how students are seated in the classroom and in cooperative groups can also reap benefits (Johnson & Johnson, 1987; Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1993; Kagan, 1994; Slavin, 1989-90, 1990; see Strategy 3.5). Teachers who promote equity in the classroom carefully plan cooperative groups and other activities so that “low status” students have equal opportunities to perform “high status” jobs.
Skillful teachers of sheltered content employ a variety of methods to check for comprehension. A simple “thumbs up, thumbs down” (indicating “Yes,” “No,” “I understand,” or “I don’t understand”) gives the teacher immediate feedback. Using visuals, pictures, body language, snips of video, graphics, and models provides a rich, contextualized experience and greatly increases the possibility of student understanding.
Finally, the best teachers model everything for students, including procedures and processes. They show students, step-by-step, how to accomplish a task, including what each step looks and sounds like. They also teach and model how to ask for clarification if students don’t understand. A teacher might even post possible clarification statements on the wall for students to see and use: “I need help with _________, please.” “I don’t understand this word (or sentence or paragraph).” “I am confused about __________.”
Watching Mr. Jimenez and his students at work is a joy. As the students enter, the procedures for free voluntary reading are displayed on the overhead. The students get their books, sit down, and are reading when the bell rings. When the 15-minute reading period concludes, Mr. Jimenez moves to instruction. He is teaching the class how to use a compare and contrast chart. He speaks in a natural way and at an even pace, but his speech is sprinkled with such phrases as, “Let me say that another way” and “Compare means to show how things are the same” (and “how things are equal” and “how things are similar”). Mr. Jimenez not only uses extensive paraphrasing and rephrasing in his instruction, he also repeats key words and phrases that are crucial to understanding. Several times he repeats the phrase, “Contrast means to show how things are different.”
Each student is assigned a number, which is written on a small card and placed in a box. Mr. Jimenez randomly draws numbers as a means of calling on students, but he also appears to target several who are not his top students. He consciously selects students who are struggling in class so that they have equal opportunities to respond. His questions are a mix of lower- and higher-order questions. Some center on ensuring that students are “with him” in the instruction, such as, “What does the word contrast mean?” Other questions ask students to think in new ways and to stretch their understanding of the topic: “What two characters in the story we’re reading would make an interesting compare and contrast diagram? Why?” Or “When would this not be a good chart to use?”
Mr. Jimenez uses wait time to good effect. He understands the value of giving second-language learners extra time to construct an answer in their heads before responding. He tells everyone to think before answering, and he waits many seconds before calling on a student. He checks frequently for comprehension, asking students to respond nonverbally to such questions as, “Contrast means to show how things are different. Show me thumbs up if you say yes, thumbs down if you say no.” Mr. Jimenez models explicitly how to fill out the first two parts of the compare and contrast chart. He says, for instance, “This is how I think about a comparison,” or “This is not a comparison.” And then he explains why. When the students move to work in preassigned pairs to complete the task, Mr. Jimenez refers to a poster on the wall that spells out the norms for working in pairs, asking several students to say what each pair should do and why.