The Importance of Authentic Collaboration for Language Building in ELs

Research suggests many teachers worry that they are ill-equipped to handle the growing number of English Learners (ELs) in U.S. public schools. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2019 more than 5 million students in U.S. schools were considered English Learners, a number that grew from 4.5 million in 2010.


At first glance, having ELs in a regular education classroom may seem like an insurmountable challenge. There are communication struggles; potential learning gaps that result in compromised literacy skills. Some ELs are grappling with trauma that interferes with their learning. All of this abuts the demands of standardized testing and the close eye on student performance. I know I worried I didn’t have the chops to meet the needs of these diverse learners when I moved from a rural school district in Pennsylvania to an urban district near the nation’s capital. Sadly, my concerns were not unique. I wanted my students to feel connected, safe, and appropriately challenged in my classroom. 


So, how can teachers tap into the rich cultural differences that ELs bring to a classroom and approach instruction with an asset mindset? One way could be through High-Quality Project Based Learning.


HQPBL emphasizes intellectual challenge and accomplishment, project management, and reflection as students collaboratively work through creating an authentic public product. While HQPBL targets a wide range of skills for all students, one of the high-leverage aspects allows for ELs to practice their listening and speaking skills with their peers.   


This authentic collaboration is one of the best tools to build language confidence in ELs. In small peer groups, students may be more apt to participate orally. They can practice listening and reading skills, too. In fact, the teacher who is intentional about assigning each student’s role on the team (that’s the authenticity connection) can reinforce equal participation and build student engagement. With all of these components in place, ELs can be meaningfully engaged, appropriately challenged, and authentically involved in learning.


Wondering how you can harness this meaningful discourse in your classroom? Here are three ways Defined Learning can be leveraged to support authentic language and background building for ELs:


1. Partners for the win

The structure of performance tasks begins with an overview where students can get a synopsis of the work ahead and a clear connection to content-focused learning targets. One approach could be for teachers to partner with students to review the introduction to the task (typically a paragraph or two). During this opportunity for engagement, each partner can take turns reading and summarizing or pulling out key details of the task. This pairing ensures each student has a chance to practice listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Students can identify keywords, unfamiliar vocabulary, and work on summarizing skills. It’s a short activity that packs a rich opportunity for practicing a variety of skills in a comfortable environment.


2. There's a video for that

 Some of the challenges for ELs come from varied background knowledge. To help tackle unfamiliar content, each task also includes a visual connection that can familiarize ELs with the necessary background information related to the task. Perhaps it’s a new career or an understanding of a different skill set. The pairing of images and audio builds important understanding for students to be able to enhance background knowledge. Teachers should encourage students to watch the videos to establish a foundation for their understanding of what’s ahead. They can discuss with teammates afterward to deepen their learning. 


3. Student choice of tasks

Here’s another way to optimize the skills of your ELs: Consider how you can honor their rich cultural differences and tap into their individual talents. Language skills may be developing, but an EL can demonstrate their understanding in other creative ways. What a powerful way to celebrate student abilities, interests, and gifts! Throughout this process, build in opportunities for collaboration that will engage ELs in language acquisition.


American classrooms will continue to become increasingly diverse. As districts emphasize the skills necessary for the 21st-century graduate, authentic collaboration is key. HQPBL and Defined Learning can be implemented to reinforce key skills and authentic learning opportunities. For ELs, this combination can provide a meaningful and engaging learning experience that encourages language development. 






About the Author:

Dr. Joy Carey is a 20-year veteran middle school English Language Arts teacher and currently serves as the Secondary Literacy Coach for Arlington County Public Schools in Virginia. She is passionate about writing and building connections with students. Her research focuses on how PBL influences literacy skills for middle school ELs. Always up for a learning challenge, Joy is currently working on agility training with her Border Collies.


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