It’s critical to provide language acquisition support to English Language Learners enrolled in literature classes. Beth Libhart, teacher at Fairmont Private Schools, notes that not only are her incoming students performing below grade level, but they are mostly passive learners. “I have to teach them not only content, vocabulary, and writing skills, but also teach them the skills necessary to participate in group and class discussions.” These skills are interdisciplinary and necessary to student success.

While more challenging for students with less proficiency, Ms. Libhart spends a lot of time front-loading vocabulary and background context pertaining to assigned text. For example, beginning her British Literature class with Anglo Saxon poetry, Ms. Libhart builds a wealth of background knowledge for students to absorb, complete with photographs, art, video clips, and more. Once students have an understanding of Anglo Saxon society, reading the accompanying poetry becomes much easier, causing students to enjoy and appreciate the unit.

Regarding the requisite skills vital to ELL, Ms. Libhart focuses primarily on how to talk about literature, ask questions, and respond to those questions. Providing students with sentence starters, frame sentences, and frame questions gives them a precise academic vocabulary to use instead of vague non-academic words. Ms. Libhart has banned words such as “good” and “nice” from her classroom, expressing that question and response is generally the hardest skill for her students to master.

Conversely, Ms. Libhart reveals that reading is the easiest skill for her ELL students to master. Heavily scaffolding the reading by projecting the text onto the classroom screen, Ms. Libhart works students through difficult passages by annotating on the screen. “I also model “think alouds,” where I verbalize my interpretation or question a prior connection, idea, or subject.”

In modeling this reading process, students are being taught the strategy of monitoring their own thinking as they read. Try introducing a passage with a video clip. It is easier to understand Macbeth’s mental state before killing Duncan if students watch a video clip before or following the text.

Below are three of Ms. Libhart’s tried-and-true strategies for teaching ELL students in a literature classroom:

Collaborative Work – Students are frequently assigned a number and work in groups of three or four. “I tell my students before they begin that I may call on number one, two, three, or four, and that each group will get points based on the response of the student that I call on. It is everyone’s responsibility to make sure that each member of the group is able to answer the questions.”

Use the Walls – Use your classroom as a space to post sentence and question frames, as well as new vocabulary. “Word Walls” work well to reinforce vocabulary at the elementary and high school level.

Socratic Seminars – For more advanced students, utilize Socratic Seminar techniques by having students formulate higher-thinking questions on something they’ve read. Have students ask and answer questions using the “inner circle and outer circle” model.

Try the following games for vocabulary building:

Vocabulary Basketball – A favorite game of Ms. Libhart’s students, you will need a small ball and a basket. Divide the class into two teams. One student from each team answers a question. Answering correctly is worth one point and gives the student the opportunity to attempt a basket. Making a basket is worth another point. If students speak in their own language, a point is deducted. A certain number of chances to ask for help from teammates is allowed if a student cannot answer a question.

Twenty Words – This is a variation on an old party game and works well with vocabulary words that need practice. Ms. Libhart uses this in her classes as a review for tests! Write each word on an index card and divide the class into two teams. Each team must have a timekeeper. There are three rounds to the game and students have only have thirty seconds. A student picks an index card from the stack and has thirty seconds to give their team clues pertaining to the word. If the team gives the correct response, the card is thrown on the floor. At the end of the round, the amount of cards on the floor equals the amount of points awarded to the team. Tell students not to spend too much time on a single word; pick another card if you cannot think of a clue. The idea is to get as many cards as possible in thirty seconds. Add variations in the next rounds with challenges such as the clue may only be one word, or the clue must be acted out.

Category Challenge – Project all the vocabulary words on a classroom screen and put students into teams. Ask the teams to put words into categories. “I want them to see relationships between words, so I ask them to be as creative as possible.” Students must give their categories a name. When the students are done, the teams present their categories and explain the rationale for grouping the words. Other groups then have an opportunity to challenge the categories.

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