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Building to Code

Virginia “Jenny” Williams uses assessment and scaffolding to support the five stages of second-language acquisition

Academic language is a necessity to convey mastery of academic content for all students, but it is especially important that students with language differences in English be allowed to “practice” their language skills in the context of the classroom. For students who are English language learners (ELLs), learning English has many levels, and academic language is one that emerges quite late. ELLs will often learn the social contexts of English long before they master the elements that they need for learning and conveying their knowledge of academic content. Academic language can take five to seven years to acquire at levels that are needed for a typical classroom in the U.S. Alfred and Nino (2011) write in their text Leading Academic Achievement for English Language Learners, that “it is important for faculty members to understand that linguistic differences are another dimension of student diversity,” and that diversity can call for differentiated assessment and instruction. They suggest that ELLs require scaffold instruction to gain confidence and skills in academic language.

This is no easy task. What is it that teachers need to do to scaffolded instruction for students who are learning English? To answer this question, we first need to think about the various levels of English learners.
1. Preproduction (also known as the silent period)
2. Early Production
3. Speech Emergence
4. Intermediate Fluency
5. Advanced Fluency

Each of these stages has distinct skill characteristics and therefore call for different instructional strategies. Interim assessments such as NWEA’s Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) and progress-monitoring tools such as Skills Navigator can help teachers identify the stage of student functioning, and the strategies that students need for support and chart their growth over time.

Preproduction: Students need structure, supports, and ongoing assessment, sometimes in both languages.

In the preproduction (silent period) phase, learners are beginning to understand English when they hear it, but they are not ready to speak. Similar to an infant learning language, they have a small receptive vocabulary of words that they recognize and can connect to the things in their immediate environment. They often attempt to imitate words, but have distorted sounds and can use them in incorrect contexts. This is the stage in which it is important to allow English learners to practice English in the classroom. Providing safe environments for students to engage in discourse with peers and the teacher not only builds English oral skills, it also provides students with the opportunity to practice academic-focused language. Because academic language develops more slowly, students need to practice using this type of language in structured ways. Students at this level need extensive graphic support. They are concrete learners, and need information presented in the context in which they are using it. Often, a list of cognates (words that have similar meanings and spellings in both languages) and false cognates (words that have similar spellings or sounds but have different meanings) can be helpful to students. Assessment for students at this stage of development might occur in both their native and second languages, especially in math, and can be done primarily through interim measures. When using both languages to assess, teachers understand the concepts that students understand in one language and not the other. This can be an important distinction, because instruction for concept development is quite different than instruction for acquiring the ability to express thoughts tied to a concept in a second language.

Early Production: Students require transitional vocabulary, visual supports, and assessment that focuses on the ability to process content in the second language.

As students enter the early production phase, they begin to speak. This is the phase when teachers often say “they are really coming out of their shells.” In this phase, they are beginning to understand what they are hearing and reading, but their expressive skills are still limited. Students in this phase are listeners and readers but not speakers and writers. Scaffolding strategies during this phase can include sentence stems, concrete learning opportunities that are contextualized, graphic organizers, and very structured opportunities for language production in relation to the academic content areas. One major difference in social language and academic language is the use of transition words. Effective academic language requires transitions between thoughts to ensure that the listeners (or readers) understand the thinking behind what the speaker is saying. For ELLs, this means that the teacher may need to pre-teach or provide a structured format for including the words in the conversation. For instance, the teacher could employ sentence starters which include transition words critical for the content. Formative assessment at this stage might begin to focus on the students’ ability to process content in the second language. Thorough analysis of written work, such as drawings, graphic organizers, and sequencing of content when using visual tools, can provide tremendous insight into a student’s understanding at this point of second-language acquisition. At this point in time, it may be beneficial to begin a structured progress-monitoring process that measures growth.

Speech Emergence: Students can rely on visual organizers and peers for support. Assessment focuses on academic content acquisition through the second language.

Students in the speech emergence phase understand more of the language they are hearing, and they begin to use that language to communicate their ideas. They can ask simple questions in class and write simple stories and paragraphs about the content they encounter. While these students still require significant support, the reliance on adults for scaffolding can slowly diminish and be replaced by consistent use of graphic organizers, word banks, and small-group work with peers. Having many opportunities to speak and write is critical at this stage of language acquisition. Utilizing formative-assessment strategies such as “Here’s what! So what? Now what?” can provide teachers with an understanding of the students’ ability to understand academic concepts in the second language. Continued progress monitoring that locates gaps in understanding can be beneficial for guiding the instruction and strategies. At this stage, the instructional strategies could still encompass graphics and drawings along with words, as students express their ideas. Some use of the native language may also be observed at this stage and should not be alarming, because students are beginning to integrate the two languages to express their thoughts.

Intermediate Fluency: Students still need support but can process at higher levels of thought. Assessment based on metacognition strategies provides guidance for instructional understanding and support.

In the intermediate fluency stage, students start to produce complex sentences. They are better able to transfer metacognitive skills for comprehending academic content, can initiate questions in class, and are increasing their vocabulary exponentially. However, their thought processes are still reliant on their native languages, and therefore they continue to make errors in sentence structure and vocabulary use. Students at this stage need supports such as extended time for processing questions and formulating answers. Instruction should be focused on increasing higher-ordered thinking in the second language and reflective self-analysis of their work. Group work with peers can begin to take the form of constructive feedback and reflective conversations regarding their thoughts and thought processes. Strategies such as “If/Then” and “MIP” or “most important point” can provide teachers and students with an understanding of the metacognitive skills that are being used in the second language to gain academic concepts. Again, it would not be uncommon to find vocabulary and sentence structure from the native language evident in student products. Because this phase is focused on increasing higher-order thinking, it is important to explicitly teach the social contexts of language. This often means that students need to have abstract language interpreted prior to engaging in discourse or print that includes these language forms. If the content contains idioms, metaphors, similes, slang, or other such abstract language, then directly teach the meaning prior to introducing the content. This allows students to understand the meaning of the content without struggling with syntax and vocabulary that have alternate meanings, and allows them to focus on the critical meaning of the content. More formal assessment at this stage may include interim measures for assessing progress toward academic standards, along with progress monitoring that is measuring gaps in learning.

Advanced fluency: Students focus on sharing of ideas and understanding others’ perspectives.

Advanced fluency, the final phase of second-language acquisition, can take five to seven years to emerge. During this stage, students take on a near-native ability in the second language when speaking, but academic language may still be developing. Continued use of visual and graphic supports is often the only scaffolding that students need, but it is important that these supports stay in place, because visual organizers support the brain mapping that is needed for concept development in the second language. Utilizing consensus clusters or “Four Sides” as assessment tools can promote deep conversation, sharing of ideas, clarification, and important background knowledge that support perspective taking. Teachers can use these formative-assessment tools to help students gain a better understanding of academic content and their peers’ perceptions. Again, formal assessment tools may include interim measures of assessment and progress-monitoring tools that target the gap areas.

With a better understanding of the various stages of second-language development, the use of assessment tools such as MAP, and Skills Navigator, ongoing formative assessment, and the use of instructional scaffolding, teachers can set students up for growth and a positive mindset regarding their academic achievement.

Measures of Academic Progress (MAP)
Skills Navigator
“Here’s what! So what? Now what?”
“MIP” or Most Important Point
Four Sides

Virginia “Jenny” Williams holds a doctorate in curriculum studies and educational leadership from Georgia Southern University. Williams has held a variety of positions within education including speech-language pathologist, lead teacher, literacy coach, assistant special education director, program specialist for a regional education service agency, and college professor. For the past eight years, Williams has been responsible for providing professional development to guide teachers through data-analysis processes focusing on instructional decision making. Williams joined NWEA three years ago and leads professional-development trainings for the not-for-profit organization.

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