Keeping Class in Order

Francisco Ramos offers a framework to help develop well-sequenced lessons for all students

For the past twelve years, I have been teaching courses on second language acquisition methods in universities in Miami and Los Angeles to a variety of students: Undergraduates, graduates with and without experience in the classroom, recent graduates in fields foreign to education, teachers in traditional and Catholic schools, and other students merely enrolled in my classes to earn the credits needed to complete their respective programs of study. Despite their different motivations and backgrounds, a common concern among these students has been their self-acknowledged lack of direction when preparing lessons despite their familiarity with a variety of activities and strategies for the development of listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills. Hence, a typical question for me at the beginning of each semester is: How can I effectively implement the strategies I have learned in my courses so far?

The following paragraphs encompass my attempt to provide a response to the question above. Accordingly, I will try to describe in simple and practical terms a framework for developing well-sequenced lessons I have used over the last decade. The framework uses information from two books: The CALLA Handbook (Chamot, 2009) and Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP model (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2013). From the CALLA I adopted its Content-Language-Strategy sequence; from the SIOP, its Preparation-Delivery-Review/Assessment approach to preparing lessons. Despite being originally conceived to teach English Language Learners, the framework’s emphasis on the use of strategies makes it appropriate for all kinds of students, regardless of their linguistic or academic proficiency (Ramos, 2009a; Ramos, 2009b).

Rationale for and components of the framework
Second language acquisition research consistently points to the need for teachers of ELLs to establish clear, specific links between students’ background knowledge and the content of lessons. This permits teachers to better connect students’ lives to the topics covered in class.

A second important issue is scaffolding, teachers’ provision of temporary help for students, aimed at giving students the guidance they need to become self-sufficient learners, eventually able to complete assigned tasks independently (Walqui, 2006). Lastly, the use of cooperative groups in class exposes ELLs to large amounts of linguistic and academic input and output. Hence, these three elements, students’ prior knowledge, scaffolding, and group work are integral components of well-developed second language acquisition lessons. As such, they all have an important presence in the three sections of the aforementioned framework: Into (activation of students’ prior knowledge), Through (explanations related to the text), and Beyond (application of the knowledge gained in the Through to new situations requiring students’ use of higher order thinking skills).

Two effective strategies to gather students’ prior knowledge during the Into are the Language Experience Approach (L.E.A.) and Webbing. The L.E.A. consists on the formulation by the teacher of several open-ended questions to elicit students’ previous knowledge about the content of the lesson. As students respond, the teacher copies their answers on the board, reads them aloud and, most importantly, instructs students to copy them in their notebooks. In so doing, all students have access to the same material, and this largely levels off preexisting individual linguistic differences. Students can then be placed in small groups to, for example, compare, contrast, or organize the information compiled.
Webbing is similar to the L.E.A. in that it intends to elicit students’ prior knowledge about the lesson, yet does so by placing students in small groups to complete charts, webs, or diagrams. It seems necessary to note that, while the L.E.A. benefits all students, especially those with low English proficiency levels, webbing is more appropriate for students with a certain degree of fluency in English. Very limited ELLs, on the other hand, may lack the necessary linguistic abilities to perform required tasks.

Following the completion of the Into, a transition is needed to the text itself (the Through). To make the transition less abrupt, the Through is divided into three subcomponents: Pre-Reading, Reading, and Post-Reading.

Three useful strategies for the Pre-Reading are Summaries, Picture or Text Walks, and Marginal notes. A Summary is a brief overview of the lesson, featuring its major points, ideas, and academic vocabulary. During a Picture Walk, the teacher helps students connect the illustrations in the book to the text. Similarly, in a Text Walk, the teacher dissects for students the structure of the text by pointing to the title, headings, subheadings, highlighted or bolded vocabulary, and illustrations. Finally, Marginal notes are teacher-dictated brief notes summarizing the content of selected paragraphs that students write on the margins of the page next to the respective paragraphs.

It is upon the completion of this preliminary work, intended to scale down the level of difficulty of the text, that the actual Reading takes place. Either traditional (Choral, Echo Reading, Popcorn Reading, Jump in, Round Robin) or more innovative (Hot Seat, Pair Reading, Grand Conversation, Jigsaw) methods can be used for this purpose.

Teacher-elicited questions may be formulated during the Reading, yet it is also necessary to consider that the brains of ELLs are conducting several processes concurrently, namely paying attention to intonation, rhythm, and/or punctuation, while working on comprehension. This accumulation may prove overwhelming for them. Therefore, it may be a good idea to allow students some time to reread the text in order to better process it prior to having to answer questions about it. Moreover, while ELLs may be able to answer reasonably well questions pertaining to the lowest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (Knowledge or Comprehension), they may find questions at the Synthesis or Evaluation levels (justify, critique, evaluate, rank, etc.) more problematic due to their limited English proficiency. A more effective route may be, then, to formulate these questions in writing and allow students to respond in small groups. This constitutes the Beyond section of the framework.

In the Beyond students can be asked to, for example, participate in debates, create a machine with a certain purpose in mind, develop a new ending for a story, justify a decision, or prepare a speech. Scaffolding is critical at this time to help students complete assignments to satisfaction. Some teacher-developed guidelines to facilitate students’ work in this regard are:

1. Title of task including the “key” word (“Justify…,” “Evaluate…”)

2. Description of “key” word in simple terms (“Justify means…”)

3. Break down task into simple steps (“In order to justify, first…; then…; after that…; finally…”)

4. Important vocabulary to complete assignment (connectors, transition words,…)

Finally, a rubric tied to the assignment will let students know the teacher’s criteria to grade their efforts. A well-developed rubric should include:

1. Title of task or prompt (“Justify…,” “Evaluate…”)

2. Criteria (i.e., “Focus,” “Organization,” “Spelling,” “Capitalization”)

3. Definition of individual criteria (“Focus means…”)

4. Rating system (“A 4 means…”; “A 3…”)

After twelve years as a classroom teacher and nearly as many as a university instructor, the framework has proven extremely useful for me and very effective for my students. I hope it can be equally helpful for the readership of Language Magazine.

Chamot, A. U. (2009). The CALLA handbook: Implementing the Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach (2nd ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson Longman.
Echevarria, J., Vogt, M.E., & Short, D. (2013). Making content comprehensible for English Language Learners: The SIOP model (5th ed). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.
Ramos, F. (2009a). “Una propuesta de AICLE para el trabajo con textos en el aprendizaje de segundos idiomas.” Porta Linguarum 12, 169-182.
Ramos, F. (2009b). “AITBA: Un modelo efectivo para el trabajo con textos en segundas lenguas.” Segundas lenguas e inmigración en red, 2, 104-122. Available at:
Walqui, A. (2006). “Scaffolding instruction for English Language Learners: A conceptual framework.” The International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 9(2), 159-180.

Francisco Ramos is a professor in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education at the School of Education, Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles California and a regular contributor to Language Magazine