This tip could unlock productive language for your ELs.

harry potterBarbara R. Blackburn offers three tools for working with ELs in this post. Tools #1 and #3 are familiar–use graphics and visuals to scaffold language acquisition, and use texts with varying complexity to activate background knowledge and ensure new content concepts are understood.

Tool #2 is actually two tips in one. One is to be conscious of the language we use as teachers. The other is a practical language teaching tip:

Ask students to complete a thought, rather than generate a new idea.

At first glance, the difference between completing a thought and inventing an idea seems subtle, and I almost skipped over it. Besides, wouldn’t we prefer to see students express organic thought? Isn’t that a more desirable outcome for learning? But as I read Blackburn’s examples, I realized the extent to which scaffolding is built into completing thoughts. We set our students up for success when we incorporate such subtle differences into our planning.For example, instead of prompting students with “Who is your favorite Harry Potter character?,” we substitute it with, “Do you like Hermione or Harry better?” For ELs with a limited vocabulary, this modification makes a lot of sense: Now, they can meet the expectations of the task by using broader content words with more diverse meanings, contrastive language, and both positive and negative grammatical structures in their responses.

I recall an early frustration in my own language learning being the limited number of adjectives available to me. In that era, I would have described Harry as nice and brave, and Hermione as smart and talented. I would have lacked the linguistic depth and articulation to use more “academic” words like pleasant and courageous, or brilliant and resourceful. If the exercise required me to talk only about my favorite character, I would fall short, stumped with only two words to describe them, and basic grammatical structures. By allowing me to talk about both characters, I not only have four adjectives available to me, but can use them differently; rather than simply saying that Hermione is smart, I can now say that Hermione is smarter than Harry. I can say that Harry is a good friend, and Hermione can help me study for a test.

By asking students to complete a thought, the bounds of the prompt are marked, yet expanded, and they have more points of departure when productive language is the expectation. As they develop the tools available to them in English, generating new ideas will happen naturally, and that scaffold can be phased out.

How do you scaffold your students in productive language tasks?

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