By Mary Catherine Lockman, fourth grade teacher in Metro Nashville Public Schools
As teachers, we know that differentiating instruction is challenging—but important—work. Many times, I felt like it was an experiment and that I was flying by the seat of my pants. A questioning strategy or sentence stem that would work for some students wouldn’t necessarily work for others. I was always left with the question,
“What else can I be doing to support my students’ learning, especially for my English Learners?”
Luckily, I wasn’t the only teacher asking myself this question! After listening to teachers from across the state, Commissioner McQueen and her team have provided us with a comprehensive guide for best practices in teaching English Learners (ELs). The Teaching Literacy in Tennessee: EL Companion not only provides information on best practices in EL instruction and the research supporting them, it also features activities and resources to immediately bring into my classroom.
One part of the document that I’ve found very useful is the Classroom-Level Decisions section. It walks the reader through the specific considerations that need to be made for ELs during the unit planning process. The use of specific examples through each step of the process makes it very easy for me to visualize how I may think through the specific needs of my ELs as our team plans units for the first nine weeks of the school year.
This section also features a chart that specifies how each element of a Balanced Literacy Block can be differentiated for ELs. While I’ve already been using some of the suggestions, others were new, helpful scaffolds that I hadn’t thought of before. For example, during shared reading, students can act out punctuation to reinforce the intonation in their voice. I’d never thought that something as simple as a hand gesture could have such a large impact on fluency.
While the overarching ideas and broad suggestions around differentiating instruction are very useful, the document also features a vignette in which the reader can see in a very specific and targeted way how language scaffolds and considerations are used during a typical literacy block in the classroom. I was skeptical that the vignette would have direct application to my classroom until I found the resources that Mr. Hermann, the teacher featured in the vignette, used were very similar to ones I had used in my classroom on a daily basis. Examples of language scaffolds that I can use in my classroom right away are embedded within the vignette. I specifically liked the accountable talk sentence stems. In fact, I’m going to start teaching my students how to use “I agree/disagree because…” this week!
The final section that I found extremely useful is the teacher think-aloud where the reader gets a bit of insight into how and why the teacher made certain instructional decisions within the vignette. It discusses what Mr. Hermann thought through before teaching, during teaching, and after his instruction. What I found most helpful about this section is that it gave me specific examples of closure activities for my lessons. I feel like I can get in a rut with lesson closure, usually asking my students to write down three things they learned or two questions they still have. This always causes a challenge for my students who struggle with writing. But the document provides specific examples of different ways to assess student understanding, but in a way that can be very short and/or not require them to write anything at all. I especially like the sample teacher checklist with students’ names on one side and the desired skills on the other. The simplicity of checking a box to record student thinking seems so easy, but can prove such a powerful tool in whole-group and small-group instructional planning.
Differentiating instruction for a wide-range of learners, including ELs, is no small task. The needs of our students drive us as teachers to widen our skill set to ensure we provide supports for students to grow into readers, mathematicians, and most importantly, critical thinkers. After reading this document, I have more strategies to try and more confidence in myself that I can provide all of my students with high-quality, differentiated instruction.