English Learners


Seven Essential Strategies to Strengthen Language and Literacy Skills for English Learners

January 8, 2016

by Margaret Towner

What do you picture for “See ya”?

A teacher stood at her 4th-grade classroom door to say goodbye to her students.
“See ya!” she said.
Maribel looked at her in bewilderment and said, “Silla?”
The teacher nodded and again said, “See ya. See ya tomorrow.”
Maribel nodded her head and left the classroom. The next day she brought several pictures of chairs cut out of magazines, and handed them to her teacher.
“What are these for?” her teacher asked.
” Silla, you tell me silla.”

For anyone using the Visualizing and Verbalizing® program to develop the imagery-language connection, the above exchange might have you saying “What do those words make you picture?!”

During my time at Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) in Southern California, we helped our high percentage of English Learners (ELs) meet the dual goals of English acquisition and standards-based proficiency. We worked with students like Maribel to provide them with a critical component of language and literacy acquisition: sensory-cognitive instruction.

In partnership with Lindamood-Bell, we utilized the sensory-cognitive strategies in the Seeing Stars® and LiPS® programs to address phonemic awareness, phonics, word recognition, and reading fluency. We developed the imagery-language connection with the Visualizing and Verbalizing (V/V®) program to address vocabulary development, listening and speaking skills, language comprehension, writing, and higher order thinking.

These essential strategies perfectly complement, and enhance, existing best practices used with English learners. Here’s how:

Visualizing and Verbalizing (V/V)

1. Oral Language Development – Learning a second language is a complex process, and the more ELs have opportunities to actively use English in educational settings, the more proficient they will become. V/V engages students in frequent and sequential oral practice. Steps include structured routines where students must visualize and verbalize key details of the text, recall information, sequence events, and paraphrase the story back. During these routines, students are practicing structured language well over 50% of the lesson.

2. Scaffolding – The Socratic questioning method used systematically throughout the V/V process allows you to differentiate and scaffold language depending on the English language proficiency level of students (e.g., Emerging, Expanding, Bridging). This is supported by Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. The levels of linguistic support are adjusted accordingly, from substantial support, to moderate, to light support. For example, Emerging ELs need lots of choice-contrast questioning, teacher modeling, and a heavy emphasis on vocabulary acquisition (the “bricks,” to borrow from Susana Dutro’s analogy). With Expanding ELs, there is a decrease in your prompting and modeling while transitioning more to open-ended questions. You can expect more verbalization and vocabulary development (now “bricks and mortar”).

3. Explicit Vocabulary Development – Vocabulary instruction goes beyond teaching the definition and beyond providing supplemental materials. Exploring language in context—using V/V strategies and dialogue—helps students to practice and anchor new vocabulary and language structures. For example: (T) “For this math problem, what do you picture for the word ‘perimeter?'” (S) “I see a shape like a rectangle, and I picture the four separate sides, and then I just add the four sides up to get the answer.”

Extra tip: For Spanish speaking students, teach them that this word is a cognate (“el perímetro” in Spanish).

Seeing Stars

4. Foundations of Reading – Seeing Stars systematically develops symbol imagery as a basis for orthographic awareness, phonemic awareness, and overall word reading ability. This is critical for ELs because English is orthographically complex with substantial variability, while other languages like Spanish are more predictable. The English letter “a” for example has a different phoneme/grapheme relation in the following words: “cat,” “same,” “about,” “cart,” and “father.” English also presents challenges with non-phonetic words like “laugh” or “action.” Thus focusing on strategies that emphasize orthographic processing and visual memory, which underlie automatic word recognition and reading fluency, is key to stabilizing the foundations of reading.

5. Frequent Interaction with Phoneme/Grapheme Relationship – Symbol imagery exercises utilized throughout the steps of Seeing Stars provide for frequent interaction and practice with the alphabetic principles of English, and also the phoneme-grapheme relationship. For example, during the Letter Imagery step: (T) shows a consonant/vowel card and takes it away. (S) Air writes the letter(s), says the letter name, and then produces the corresponding sound. This is useful for Spanish speakers, especially for learning vowels, because vowel names and sounds are the same in their primary language.

6. Acceleration – For ELs, symbol imagery and automatic sight word recognition are critical for accelerating decoding skills and attaining fluency. Acceleration is essential for ELs to close the gap between their English acquisition, their reading level, and their grade-level standards. While some word reading rules and expectancies can be helpful (e.g. “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking”), they can also add another level of language complexity and actually slow down the decoding process. Seeing Stars transitions ELs from decoding to high frequency Star Words for instant word recognition and fluency.

Lindamood Phoneme Sequencing (LiPS)

7. Explicit, Multisensory Instruction – When integrated with the Seeing Stars program, LiPS explicitly develops the foundations of reading, using a systematic, multisensory approach to anchor and stabilize sounds and letters, particularly those not transferable from native language to second language. Early “pruning” of the ability to perceive phonemes not present in your primary language makes it difficult to perceive those phonemes in a second language. LiPS provides a concrete, multisensory tool to strengthen phonemic awareness and aid in pronunciation. For example, students can map the /th/ sound, as in the word “Thursday,” to a label that matches the articulatory features of that sound—in this case, a Tongue Cooler. This gives ELs concrete language and sensory feedback to assist in discriminating sounds and letters within words.

By adding the missing component of explicit, sensory-cognitive instruction, we have been able to accelerate language and literacy skills for many of our English learners in LBUSD. It is so encouraging to see progress with ELs elsewhere, such as the improvements in Colorado where high EL, low-performing schools have successfully used the programs to accelerate student academic growth. Now more than ever, with the growing number of ELs in our country and the demands of the Common Core, we need to continue improving our instructional practices to meet the language and literacy skills they need and deserve to become successful in school.

Margaret Towner is a former teacher, professional development trainer, and literacy coach for Long Beach Unified School District, specializing in language and literacy development for English Learners throughout her career.

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