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Teaching students academic language

26 Jun

Until this summer I have never felt very successful at teaching students how to effectively talk and write about their learning. This is an essential test taking skill for all subject areas. Whenever they are asked to do a math problem and “explain how you found your answer,” or asked to respond to a question about a reading passage and “support your answer with details from the story,” they need to know the academic language that the rubric (scoring guideline) requires. This is the second area in which my teaching has taken a leap forward this summer.

In literacy, I have learned to use two tools that I think will be effective during the more hectic school year. Neither one is new to me, but during this summer experience I have become more competent at using them.

One tool is a weekly dictation passage that the students write each morning. It is carefully chosen or constructed to provide a model for a few specific language features. For example, one week I selected a passage that contained dialog so students could learn the conventions of punctuation, paragraphing, and speaker tags for writing dialog. Another week’s passage included language for comparing and contrasting, the often confused word “though,” and the use of “For example,” to indicate details that support a main idea. Because the ability level of the students varies widely, the goal is for each student to fix a few mistakes each day rather than for everyone to have a perfect paper by Friday.

The other tool I practiced using is having students turn and talk to each other about their ideas before I ask anyone to respond to the whole group. This is especially helpful for English language learners, because it allows them to practice the words they are going to use in relative privacy before their public response. I often coordinated this by framing my questions to use the structures they were practicing in their dictation.

In math, we are using WestEd’s math intervention program called Math Pathways and Pitfalls. In this program each two-day lesson has students try a “Starter Problem.” They are then shown a model of a student explaining how he or she found a correct answer and then a student explaining an incorrect answer. By discussing the two models, the class figures out the “Pitfalls” for this kind of problem and writes one or two “Things to Remember.” It is these “Things to Remember” that form the basis for explaining their answers as students work the problems in the “Our Turn,” “My Turn” and review and assessment segments. The day my students realized that they now had the language to give a proficient explanation of their thinking, all the frustration that working with fractions often produces suddenly evaporated.

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