Unit three - Making subject content accessible to ESL students

Unit goals

At the end of the unit the participants will:

Classroom practices conducive to ESL student learning

Model for assessing task difficulty


Click in the quadrant to see task examples
Clear examples

Explanation: According to this model (first devised by Professor J. Cummins) classroom tasks can be categorized in two ways:
  • according to the cognitive demands they make on students
  • according to the degree of contextual help available to the students.
Most difficult for ESL students will be tasks that are both decontextualized and cognitively demanding. (Quadrant D)

Teachers of beginning ESL students should aim to increase the contextual help without reducing the cognitive quality of a task.

More on Cummins' model and its implications for teachers.
- face-to-face conversation
- classroom yes / no questions
- PE / art tasks
- math tasks with manipulatives
- visually-aided instruction
- graphic organizers (Venn diagrams)
- telephone conversation
- copying from the board
- filling in worksheets

- "busy work"
- explanation of abstract concepts
- lectures
- written texts with no illustrations

Task embedding

Assume, as an example, that students are given a transcript of the Martin Luther King "I have a dream" speech and their homework assignment is to paraphrase part of it. Here are some classroom strategies that could be used to embed (scaffold*) the task:

*Much more on scaffolding

Graphic organizers

Graphic organizers provide ESL students with a method of organizing information (including thoughts and ideas) in visual form, so that the information can be better understood, analysed, learned and applied. Here are some common examples:

Teachers can download printable versions of many common graphic organizers at the Everything ESL website. Alternatively, the Upper School library has a book with pages of photocopiable graphic organizers entitled Ages 12 through 15 - call number: PRO 371.332 POG.

Cooperative learning

A cooperative activity is one in which students work together in pairs or groups in order to complete a task or a series of tasks. Research "provides overwhelming evidence that cooperative learning experiences promote higher academic achievements than do individualist or competitive learning experiences."*

* For links to the research and a good overview of the topic go to The Cooperative Learning Center of the University of Minnesota. Alternatively, the Upper School library has 3 useful books:
- The Collaborative Classroom - PRO 371.3 HIL (The quotation above is from this book.)
- Cooperation in the Classroom -PRO 371.3 JOH
- Advanced Cooperative Learning - PRO 371.3 JOH




A question came up as to how much time to devote in class to ensuring that ESL students understand the task, concept, new information, instructions, etc.

There is no easy answer to this, but basically mainstream teachers should neither water down the cognitive demands of the tasks they expect their ESL students to do, nor slow down in order to make sure every ESL student is "on board". If they do this they risk not covering the syllabus.

The suggestions made in this workshop can be used in good conscience by mainstream teachers because they are, for the most part, beneficial to native-speakers too, and neither reduce cognitive demands nor brake syllabus delivery. ESL students whose English is not yet strong enough to benefit even from these accommodations can be helped in the mainstream class and in ESL class by an ESL teacher.

Please contact the child's ESL teacher to take advantage of this extra support for our ESL beginners.