The Winter 2008 issue of JSD: The Journal of the National Staff Development Council selects as its theme English Language Learners and includes an excellent article, “Asking the Right Questions,” which proposes that smart questioning by teachers can build the English skills of second-language students. Jane D. Hill and Kathleen Flynn (authors of the 2006 best-seller Classroom Instruction That Works With English Language Learners) set the stage this way:

How often are English language learners (ELLs) relegated to the back of a mainstream classroom to talk over, in their native language, what the teacher has been discussing in English? The teacher is hoping that at least one of these students knows enough English to translate for her and also has enough know-how to lead a small-group conversation. All of this follows a lesson where the teacher taught without using any visuals, made notes all over the white board and called only on native English speakers.

Hill and Flynn don’t leave the ELL kids in the back of the room. They offer an instructional strategy they believe will help teachers across the curriculum “engage ELLs in learning, thus increasing their own belief that they can effectively teach English language learners.” The authors then describe in satisfying detail a PD activity “that will cement this strategy in teachers’ minds.”

The beauty of this strategy, which focuses on questions in the classroom, is that it helps teachers specifically address the needs of ELLs while also meeting the needs of every student in the classroom. It allows teachers to integrate learning for ELLs in mainstream classrooms and to help these students achieve academic success at the same levels as their native English-speaking peers. Finally, it shows teachers one direction for creating a supportive environment for English language learners.

The article is supported by several helpful charts — one matching the stages of second-language acquisition to tiered questions teachers can use; and another adapting Bloom’s taxonomy to the stages of language acquisition. It’s a free download at the NSDC site.

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