WIDA Voices from the Field: Focus of Instruction

October 21, 2022

When You Know Better, Do Better   

When I think about lesson planning for our multilingual learners, I am reminded of this quote from Maya Angelou: “When you know better, do better.” After working with the WIDA English Language Development Standards Framework, 2020 Edition, I can honestly say that I am empowered to be a better language teacher than I ever have been in the past.   

Reflective Practice 

As I reflect on past practices, I can now clearly see some of the mistakes I was making in supporting my multilingual learners. Often my instruction would focus on supporting mainstream content without an emphasis on language, or perhaps only teaching the necessary vocabulary words of that content. On the other hand, I planned language lessons that were in isolation and had nothing to do with grade level content. But the truth is – I didn’t know better, and I was doing the best I could given the tools at my disposal at the time.   

Lifelong Learning 

Our multilingual learners are the reason we show up every day. We want to make sure we are setting them up for the best chance of success, so of course we are always looking for how to improve our own teaching to meet their needs. Because of this, our department of English language development (ELD) teachers spent the last year familiarizing ourselves with the framework and identifying ways to create units based on the framework. While we now know better and are trying to do better, we also know that we will continue to evolve. 

Planning Language Units Using the WIDA ELD Standards Framework  

We determined that it is essential to start with the content and the purpose for using language within that particular content. From there, we can identify the specific language development that needs to happen for our students to be successful given the content and purpose. Whether ESL and content teachers are co-planning and co-teaching in the content classroom, or whether ESL teachers (consulting grade-level academic content standards) are designing content-driven language development units for dedicated ELD, we use the same set of guiding questions.   

What is the grade-level content or standard our students need? 

Our multilingual learners deserve to be taught using grade-level and developmentally appropriate content! Also, we have to ensure that our language teaching is integrated with the learning that is happening all day for our multilingual learners. For some of us, this means that we are integrating language learning directly into the content units. For others, it means that we are using grade-level academic standards and practices as a basis for creating language development units. Either way, content and language are so intertwined that we really can’t separate them meaningfully.  

How is language being used in this context? Or what is the purpose for language use?

Luckily, WIDA has identified four main key uses of language within the academic setting: Narrate, Inform, Explain and Argue. We start there and then try to analyze the language of the content even further. We look at the end goal and how language can be used to demonstrate learning in this particular content. 

What language functions or features are essential to this content? 

Once we know the end goal, the real fun begins! We start to identify the specific Language Functions or Features that students need to know to be successful in using language in this content. We use the Language Expectations and find the Language Functions and sample Language Features associated with the content. Additionally, we consult the Proficiency Level Descriptors to identify language goals. In our setting, we find it helpful to break these language skills into the three dimensions of language (discourse, sentence and word/phrase) to ensure that we are being comprehensive (and not just focusing on vocabulary!). 

How do we scaffold this for multilingual learners at different proficiency levels? 

Of course, when planning a unit, we need to consider who our students are. Once we have our language goals, we need to determine how students will meet those goals and that will depend on their proficiency level. Multilingual learners at all proficiency levels should receive appropriate scaffolds to interpret and express their learning in English – we can support all students in using their full linguistic repertoires, including other languages and multimodal communication. Students at earlier proficiency levels will need extra language scaffolds and supports, such as sentence stems, model language, and word banks to meet the Language Expectations in English. We might also differentiate what Language Feature we are focusing on depends on the language strengths and needs of the student. The most important thing to remember is that all students can and should use language to meet the content and language goals. We just need to adjust how they will get there. 

“we are shifting to a much more targeted approach to language learning to hopefully empower our multilingual learners to be more fluent and fluid language users. ” - Kait Zanzerkia and Molly Ross 

Once the unit goals are established, we plan intentional language practice to meet those goals throughout our daily lessons. As we teach, we are assessing that the language goals are being met (through formative and mid-unit assessments) and adjusting our practice accordingly. The key here is that we are shifting to a much more targeted approach to language learning to hopefully empower our multilingual learners to be more fluent and fluid language users.  

Informing in Science: Life Cycles  

 Kait Zanzerkia, a kindergarten and 1st grade ELD teacher, started her unit planning with a science standard focused on students recognizing that all plants and animals grow and change over time. She identified that this science unit would be using language to Inform and more specifically to sequence how animals change through their life cycles. When determining the specific Language Functions and Features to focus on, Ms. Zanzerkia also took into consideration the language proficiency levels of her students.   

Ms. Zankerkia consulted the Language Expectations for grade 1 science in the Key Language Use Inform. From there, based on the task and her students’ strengths and needs, she selected and finessed the language focus.  For example, some of the language objectives throughout lessons included:  

Introduce the topic with words or phrases  

  • Pictures and diagrams with labels to support or add information  
  • Declarative simple sentences   
  • Verbs in present tense to label actions  
  • Sequence words (first, and, then, next, last) to clarify sequence of events 

When planning her language lessons, she determined ways for her students to meet these language objectives. For example 

  • Child's drawing of a winged insect, labelled fly, on a leaf, labelled leaf, and words below that say first the butterfly is in the egg. The egg is on the leaf.
    A student's drawing of a butterfly (labelled 'fly') on a leaf (labelled 'leaf') and words below that say "First the butterfly is in the egg. The egg is on the leaf."
    students read texts on animal life cycles and identified the declarative sentences and verbs  
  • students practiced using this language orally with a partner using realia and a word bank of sequence words and verbs  
  • students created a book with a title, labeled pictures, and written declarative sentences using the verbs and sequence words they had practiced using orally 

As we mentioned in the beginning, we’ve been teaching with the motto: “When you know better, do better.” We’re always asking our students to reflect and improve and we’re also asking all teachers to do the same. How are you reflecting on your own practice? How can you use the WIDA ELD Standards Framework to help you reflect on your language instruction? What is one way that you can improve your instruction to better meet the needs of our multilingual learners?  

About the authors 

Molly Ross is a high school ESL teacher in Randolph, MA as well as a lecturer for Boston University.  Kait Zanzerkia is an elementary ESL teacher in the Randolph Public Schools with more than 15 years of experience as a language teacher. 

About the series: Voices from the Field 

Fernanda Marinho Kray, WIDA ELD Standards Framework program lead, has been hearing from a variety of educators about how they are making sense of the 2020 Edition. In response, the program established this “Voices from the Field" series to present ideas, practices and tools for educators as they explore various avenues for standards implementation.

To stay informed about WIDA ELD Standards Framework resources, tools and services and receive WIDA’s quarterly standards newsletter, The Big Idea, use the news sign up form to manage email preferences and select “WIDA ELD Standards” as an interest area.


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