English Language Learners

What About Comprehensible Output?!

I train all teachers and leaders all over the world and focus so much on comprehensible input for our learners...most recently I began to dig deeper into COMPREHENSIBLE OUTPUT...yes, it exists.  So what do you need to know? There are many popular theories about second language acquisition. In this blog we will learn about the comprehensible output hypothesis and research-based strategies to develop ELL students' communication skills.

How Do ELL Students Learn English?

As an ELL educator, you probably wish you had the key to how students learn English. Wouldn't it make teaching English easier? That's one reason why researchers have studied second language acquisition for years.

Scholar Merrill Swain proposed the comprehensible output hypothesis to describe how a second language is acquired. According to the hypothesis, ELL students learn language when they realize there is a gap in their language skills. For example, a student makes a language mistake, becomes aware of the mistake because of feedback, and then tries again. Producing the correct message through trial and error enables the student to modify language appropriately in the future.

Although this hypothesis is only one of many, let's take a look at how it works and how you might apply it to teaching.

Functions of the Hypothesis

The comprehensible output hypothesis has three functions:

  • Noticing function
  • Hypothesis-testing function
  • Metalinguistic function

Noticing Function

The noticing function is when language learners realize there is a gap between what they want to say and what they are able to say. Speakers use this function when they are unable to correctly communicate a message and know they are making a mistake. Imagine Eh Ta Khu and Abdi,  ELL students, are talking about cars. Eh Ta Khu wants to describe a type of car, but realizes he doesn't know where to place the adjective in his sentence.

Hypothesis-testing Function

The hypothesis-testing function describes when the ELL student speaks a sentence to test whether it is correct. If it is incorrect, the other speaker will give feedback by correcting the sentence. Think back to the car conversation. Eh Ta Khu says, 'I want to buy a car blue.' According to the hypothesis-testing function, Laura will fix the mistake by correctly using the phrase 'blue car' in her response.

Metalinguistic Function

Using the metalinguistic function, ELL students reflect on the sentences they produce and the feedback they receive from others. In our example, Eh Ta Khu becomes aware that he made a mistake and what the correct language should be. In the future he will say 'blue car' and not 'car blue.'

Applying the Hypothesis in the Classroom

The comprehensible output hypothesis demonstrates the importance of feedback and interaction for an ELL student. You must give ELL students the opportunity to practice using the language in a variety of settings. In addition to reading and writing about new vocabulary, ELL students should also use vocabulary words when speaking. For example, you could ask the class a higher-order thinking question using the target vocabulary and have students discuss the answer aloud with a partner.

Small groups are great way of getting ELL students interacting with others. Benefits of small groups include allowing the speaker to more easily adapt the message to the needs of the ELL student, and allowing for more frequent check-ins.

Cooperative learning teams are a type of small group that would help ELL students. In cooperative learning teams, students work together to complete a task, which offers plenty of opportunities for communication for every level of ELL student. Beginners can use gestures or short words to communicate while more advanced students can use more complex language. Another benefit to cooperative learning teams is the immediate feedback ELL students receive.

Take Away

The comprehensible output hypothesis argues that language is acquired when a learner becomes aware of gaps in knowledge. It is broken down into three functions: the noticing function, the hypothesis-testing function and the metalinguistic function. You can apply the comprehensible output hypothesis to your teaching by using cooperative learning teams, which give ELL students many opportunities to practice listening and speaking skills.

How Can Wagner Educational Consulting Help Your School or District?  Contact us for Information.

Dr. Martina Wagner | Wagner Educational Consulting | www.wagneredconsulting.com 

Whatever It Takes: Advocacy is Imperative

As a teacher or leader of English Language Learners (ELLs), you can often find situations that make you feel like you need to speak on behalf of your students. This blog will discuss the different situations in this lesson and some recommendations so you can play your role as an advocate in a professional manner.

Why Speak on Behalf of ELLs?

Imagine you are teaching a class of English Language Learners and you notice that the materials the school provides for English as a Second Language instruction are not adequate. This makes the struggle of your students even worse. In this kind of situation, you should not be afraid to say something tin education we often where many hats, hence advocacy should be one that is a well defined platform for change.

Advocating on behalf of ELLs for different reasons is imperative. The primary goal to advocate for your students is to ensure their academic success and equitable access to resources essential to their well being. Let's look at some common situations to understand when and how to advocate for our ELLs.

Different Scenarios

You might encounter countless situations in which you'll be called upon to use your advocacy skills. However, before you decide to speak on behalf of your students, make sure you take these basic actions:

  • Identify a legal right or an ethical need ELLs have are not being fulfilled. (i.e. inadequate materials, ELLs in your schools are being segregated, etc.)
  • Identify the person(s) to whom you can speak. (i.e. grade teacher, your school administrator, the Department of Education, etc.)
  • Prepare a few options to propose so that positive change occurs (i.e. you suggest a specialized printing house for materials, you propose a model to include students in regular English classes, etc.)

These steps ensure that your advocacy is reasonable and effective. Now, let's look at the possible scenarios in which advocacy might be required.

Under-prepared Instructors

Very often, school teachers and administrators are not fully prepared to understand the struggle of ELLs. Diplomacy when advocating is key so that other professionals do not feel threatened. The best strategy is informed content to help those under-prepared persons in your school.

To illustrate, let's meet Susie. She is a third grade teacher who has a total of six ELLs in her class. Her ELLs struggle with math and science in particular. Susie knows her ELLs have limited English proficiency and she is not prepared to deal with them because she is a grade-level teacher. Susie's ELL students are lucky because they also have Hoda, a specialized ELL instructor. However, Hoda wants to see progress in her ELLs as soon as possible. When she notices progress does not happen fast enough, Susie begins to suggest to the Literacy Department that her ELLs should be tested for learning disabilities.

Now, let's analyze this case. There is nothing wrong with grade teachers being unprepared to deal with ELLs because even grade teachers who have ELL certifications may feel overwhelmed when working with ELLs. However, teachers can too often suggest learning disabilities in ELLs. In our case, Hoda first talks to Susie. Hoda shows understanding about Susie's frustration and explains to Susie how language lack of proficiency can affect academic progress of ELLs. Hoda also gives some tips and easy strategies for Susie to apply with her ELLs. This way, Hoda advocates for the six ELLs by talking to the grade teacher and by offering solutions to the slow academic progress ELLs make.

Inadequate Policy

Very often, federal, state, or school policy can be inadequate. Remember that policy is issued by human beings and error is a possibility. The good news is that policy is not unchangeable. We only have to keep in mind that policy change requires presenting good arguments in favor of change and following the right steps, which vary depending on each situation. Local authorities usually have the knowledge to guide us through the correct path to follow.

Let's look at this case: Hoda, our ELL instructor, has noticed that the state policy for ELLs is inadequate because it mandates ELL instructors to teach ELL students entirely outside of the regular major classes: science, math, and social sciences. This means that ELL instructors suddenly face the responsibility to teach like grade teachers do for those subjects. The situation is overwhelming for ELL instructors but also for ELL students because they are being segregated from their peers.

Luckily, Hoda knows she is not the only instructor who has concerns on this issue. Other colleagues in her school have her same view, plus she knows a number of colleagues in the school district who want to advocate for a policy change. The instructors find support with their administrators, and there are many among them who know how to prepare a policy memorandum to present to the Department of Education as a first step towards change. Luckily, they will succeed within a short period of time.

Inadequate Materials

Sometimes, schools purchase materials for ELL teaching that do not meet the academic needs of students. This can happen because the quality of the teaching material is not appropriate for the different levels of English proficiency, because the material is outdated, because there is not sufficient quantity of materials, etc. Either way, ELLs have the right to receive appropriate instruction to address their language proficiency issues, and this goal can only be obtained with the right materials.

Let's look at a specific scenario. Hoda notices that the school materials for ELL teaching are not grade-appropriate. She and the other ELL instructors suggest some better printing houses the school can do business with. To suggest this, Hoda evaluates the cost of the new material against the allowance the school district has for ELL materials. This way, Hoda ensures that her proposal is reasonable and feasible.

Other cases

Let's keep in mind that any case, whether it is about the school ELL instruction program or about a single student (such as the case of a student who has been placed in the wrong proficiency level) is a sufficient reason to speak on behalf of ELLs.

Teachers and leaders of English Language Learners advocate for their students in order to ensure their academic success. Before teachers or leaders speaks on behalf of their student(s), it is recommended to do the following:

  • Identify a legal or ethical reason to advocate
  • Identify the person(s) who can help change the situation
  • Propose specific action that leads to positive change

Scenarios that are good reasons for advocacy vary, but the most common include under-prepared instructors, inadequate policy, and inadequate material. Other cases include but are not limited to wrong placement of student(s), lack of sufficient teaching materials, wrong approach to ELL teaching programs, etc.

Food for Thought:  Does you district have appropriate ELL programming?  Perhaps reimagining programming is essential to level up opportunities for all staff and for all students to be receiving equitable and rigorous teaching opportunities.  

How can Wagner Educational Consulting help Facilitate these conversations.  Contact us for details.

Dr. Martina Wagner | Wagner Educational Consulting | www.wagneredconsulting.com 2018