Within recent years, the number of newcomer students welcomed by Saskatoon schools has risen significantly, and this trend will likely continue. In September 2013, Saskatoon Public Schools alone had an EAL population of just under twenty percent of its total school enrolment (Anderson & Tilbury, 2014). Most of these students face the dual challenge of learning English in addition to learning content. Canadian-born students who speak a language other than English in the home may also require help to achieve academic proficiency in English. In order to support all of these students, who enter our schools at various ages and varying levels of English proficiency, classroom teachers need to develop an awareness of instructional strategies that best support English language learners (ELLs) at each level of the Common Framework of Reference (CFR). This essay will provide teachers with strategies that support elementary-aged students at CFR levels A1, A2, and B1, and will foster greater understanding among classroom teachers of the capabilities and needs of their English language learners.
Background on the CFR
The CFR, which is based on the reliable and reputable Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) developed in 2001, was introduced in Saskatchewan in spring of 2012. It is a language reference scale for assessing the language proficiency of ELLs and for monitoring their progress over time (Prokopchuk, 2014). Students at CFR levels A1 and A2 on the scale are considered basic users of the language. These levels are further sub-divided into A1.1, A1.2, A2.1, and A2.2. Students at level B1, which is subdivided into B1.1 and B1.2, are considered to be independent users of the language. When students have exited level B1.2, they “will have reached a level of proficiency that allows them to work more independently on improving language proficiency within the context of language instruction” (CFR, 2013, p. 3), and formal EAL support for these students is no longer provided. The CFR document indicates that “learners benefit from differentiated instruction strategies and classroom adaptations while working alongside classroom English-speaking peers who also have diverse skills and abilities” (CFR, 2013, p. 3). Providing elementary classroom teachers with ideas for such strategies and adaptations is the focus of the remainder of this essay.
The Scaffolding Approach
In her book Language and Learning in Multilingual Classrooms: A Practical Approach (2012), Elizabeth Coelho provides a scaffolding-based framework which indicates ways that teachers can adjust their instruction so that strategies are aligned with ELLs’ language abilities and success is made attainable. Her framework is based on a model created by well-known researcher Dr. Jim Cummins, whose distinction between BICS (basic interpersonal communication skills) and CALP (cognitive academic language proficiency) underlie his model’s four quadrants, which are intersected by continua of contextual supports provided i.e., scaffolding) and cognitive demands placed on the learner (Coelho, 2012). Coelho’s scaffolding framework will be used as a reference for the strategies that follow.
The A1 Learner
According to the CFR snapshot of language ability, students at CFR level A1 can understand and use simple, familiar words and very basic phrases to meet their needs. They can introduce themselves in a simple way and answer basic questions about personal information or personal items. Simple interaction is possible provided that the other person speaks slowly and provides support. Students at level A1 have limited ability to use simple grammatical structures (CFR, 2013).
In the beginning, A1 learners are primarily working on the development of BICS. Their instruction, therefore, should be designed in Quadrant A of Coelho’s scaffolding framework. In this quadrant, ELLs are provided with “maximum support or scaffolding for tasks that are engaging but not academically challenging, especially at the very beginning [and] instruction is focused on the development of everyday language plus essential academic vocabulary in various subject areas” (Coelho, 2012, p. 106). Content should be related to their own lives and immediate needs. These students, in the beginning, may not be able to attain regular curriculum outcomes. Teachers will need to modify or replace the outcomes with alternate outcomes in order for students to focus on the development of BICS (Coelho, 2012).
One of the most essential instructional strategies for A1 students in Quadrant A is to provide them with comprehensible input, which means that “the language being used for instruction (input) is at a level that is understood by learners (comprehensible), although it is slightly above the learner’s proficiency level. This approach promotes language growth” (Prokopchuk, ECUR 415.3, 2017). Teachers can reduce the language barrier by modifying their speech and language, and by providing additional contextual support through the use of visuals. Coelho (2012) explains that teachers can help learners infer meaning by facing students when talking to them, articulating clearly with a slight increase in volume, emphasizing key words, pausing slightly between phrases, simplifying vocabulary and sentence structure, and using gestures along with facial expression and mime. Visuals such as “models, toys, manipulatives, pictures, charts, flashcards, vocabulary lists, posters, and banners, as well as demonstrations and hands-on activities” (Coelho, 2012, p. 236) will help ELLs at this level to infer meaning from language and learn concepts. In Quadrant A, it is also beneficial to use L1 as scaffolding for L2 tasks. Allowing students to initially develop ideas in their first language enables them to produce more thoughtful and developed work than if they are confined to using their limited abilities in L2. Examples for the classroom include allowing students to write notes, first drafts, journal entries, and insert unknown words using their first language (Coelho, 2012, p. 212). The use of these instructional strategies will enable A1 learners to make connections to their prior knowledge and experiences which is key to helping them learn.
For A1 learners who are young children and also for those who are older beginners, Coelho explains that:
…some of the strategies commonly used with young children in the early stages of literacy development are equally effective with students of all ages who are just beginning to learn the language of instruction and who may or may not have well-developed literacy skills in their own language (2012, p. 266).
When using these strategies with older A1 students, it is important that the content and resources provided are age-appropriate. A print-rich environment is important in developing reading and writing skills. Labelling in multiple languages the classroom and places in the school, surrounding learners with environmental print, and providing reading material matched to students’ ability and present level of comprehension are examples of instructional strategies that are helpful to these learners. Creating language experience stories based on personal or shared experiences, allowing students to listen to audio recordings while following text, and providing shared reading experiences with age-appropriate texts are also strategies that provide A1 learners with the scaffolding necessary to develop literacy skills (Coelho, 2012).
Cooperative learning is another Quadrant A strategy that scaffolds beginning ELLs in the development of oral language, and small group interaction also helps them learn social skills and understand the value of collaboration. The Ontario Ministry document ELL Voices in the Classroom (2009) explains that cooperative learning strategies provide increased opportunities for talk, which are especially beneficial for ELLs. Working in small groups with more proficient English speakers provides ELLs with language models and essential feedback, and occasionally grouping beginner ELLs to work on adapted curricular-related tasks can be beneficial. They suggest assigning students to groups of three to five and changing the groups periodically for different subjects and activities. It is important to establish clear routines, timelines, and expectations as well as develop conversational strategies so that these learners have the necessary social skills to express ideas and manage disagreements.
Other key instructional strategies for A1 ELLs, especially those at beginning levels, include: practicing new vocabulary by incorporating physical activity and objects as well as by using choral repetition, songs, rhymes, games, puzzles and role play; providing word banks for labeling tasks, completing sentences and graphic organizers; providing examples and modelling think-aloud processes while writing; and offering supportive, indirect feedback for oral and written errors by modelling correct forms (Coelho, 2012, p. 104).
Jane Hill (2016) in her article Engaging Your Beginners, urges teachers not to water down the curriculum for beginning language learners, but to use tiered questioning that is not only appropriate to the student’s ability, but that also promotes higher-order thinking through the use of high-level questions. The use of tiered questions as an instructional strategy will “increase students’ access to and comprehension of the content and provide English learners with opportunities to practice their new language” (p. 3). She explains that for students in the Preproduction stage of language acquisition, which would be students at the very beginning of level A1, tiered questions about content such as Show me…Circle the…Where is…? Who has…? match student capabilities. As students become more proficient and enter the Early Production stage, high level questions that require ELLs to answer yes or no, chose either-or, and answer Who…? What…? and How many…? become appropriate. Hill says that “with the aid of tiered questions, Preproduction and Early Production students can be included in all classroom instruction rather than working on a nonrelated activity” (2016, p. 3). As ELLs transition between level A1 and A2, they are capable of answering Why…? How…? Explain…and can provide short-sentence answers, all of which are examples of tiered questions from the Speech Emergence stage. Tiered questioning is also a key strategy to use when assessing ELLs.
The A2 Learner
The CFR describes A2 learners as being able to comprehend sentences and basic information related to their own needs and family activities. They are able to communicate information on matters familiar to them, including simple and routine tasks, through direct exchange with others. They can use simple language to describe their background, surroundings, and interests. They are able to use some simple grammatical structures with accuracy, but routinely make basic errors in things such as verb tenses and use of articles (CFR, 2013).
Coelho’s Quadrant A is designed for students at both CFR levels A1 and A2, therefore instruction for A2 learners will also require maximum scaffolding, and the instructional strategies suggested above for A1 learners will also be required for these students (Coelho, 2012). It is important to remember, however, that A2 students have more developed BICS than A1 students, and are growing in their ability to complete tasks that are more cognitively challenging. Instruction in this quadrant will still focus on BICS, but instructional strategies that develop CALP will be increasingly applicable as they align with students’ growing proficiency.
In addition to the print-rich environment strategies that help level A1 ELLs develop literacy skills, A2 learners are increasingly able to benefit from intensive (guided) reading as an instructional strategy, in which “the teacher intervenes between students and text, guiding and helping them as they read. Additional support may be provided through the use of key visuals” (Coelho, 2012 p. 273). Before reading, teachers prepare ELLs for the text by pre-teaching key words, using visuals or other sources to build background knowledge of concepts, finding out what students already know about the topic possibly through jointly completing a KWL chart, surveying the text to learn about its organization and features, as well as predicting what they will learn from the text (Coelho, 2012). During reading, the teacher guides ELLs as they learn how to read material in different ways depending on the purpose for reading, an example of which would be skimming a chapter to understand its main idea. Other strategies that provide scaffolding are: providing guiding questions or prompts before reading paragraphs; teacher modelling of pronunciation, rhythm, and intonation as well as think-aloud modelling of useful reading strategies; providing graphic organizers for students to complete as they read; stopping after each section to check for understanding and answer student questions; and modelling think-aloud strategies for dealing with new vocabulary (Coelho, 2012). After reading, teachers can provide questions that encourage students to re-read specific sections. It is recommended to limit reading aloud by students during the initial reading of a text; however after reading, students feel more comfortable with the text and can be asked to locate and read aloud specific sections of the text. Teachers can select vocabulary words or phrases to study which will be useful in other lessons or subject areas, and can provide blank or partially-completed graphic organizers with information from the text for students to complete (Coelho, 2012).
An after-reading comprehension task appropriate for an A1 learner might be to arrange pictures from the story in order, while an A2 ELL is capable of not only ordering pictures, but matching simple text to the pictures as well. To help students develop their writing at the sentence level, teachers can provide level A2 learners with writing frameworks that provide scaffolding such as sentence combining that helps them write longer sentences, sentence completion activities that teach how to construct sentences of various types, as well as simple paragraph frames that include series of prompts (Coelho, 2012). Since students at level A2 are able to understand and answer questions at the sentence level, Hill’s Speech Emergence tiered questions described in the previous section should continue to be used as an instructional strategy to help increase comprehension of content (Hill, 2016).
The B1 Learner
B1 learners, according to the CFR, are able to understand the gist of clear regular speech if the topic is familiar. They can use language to handle most in-school and after-school situations that may arise, can describe experiences and events, and can briefly justify and explain their opinions and plans. They are able to write simple, connected text on familiar topics or those of personal interest. Their use of structures and patterns is reasonably accurate in routine or predictable contexts (CFR, 2013).
ELLs at level B1 can now be supported by instructional strategies in Quadrant B of Coelho’s framework, in which “students continue to receive maximum support for comprehension and language production, but the tasks become more academically challenging, so that students begin to accelerate their acquisition of academic language” (Coelho, 2012, p. 106). Coelho also advises that by continuing to provide quality scaffolding, teachers are able to help B1 learners achieve many regular curricular outcomes, unless the subject or topic is culturally or linguistically demanding. Coelho further explains that many of the strategies central to Quadrant A remain important for B1 learners. Specifically, she suggests that continuing to provide comprehensible instruction, supportive feedback, strategic use of students’ first languages, and cooperative learning will help students in Quadrant B cope as learning tasks become more demanding (Coelho, 2004).
Intensive reading is a key instructional strategy for helping level B1 students get meaning from complex text. The above-mentioned before, during, and after reading strategies apply to these learners as well, and can be extended to match their growing capabilities. Key visuals remain important. Webs, t-charts, Venn diagrams, and story maps are “content-specific graphic organisers that provide a visual representation of key ideas and the relationships among ideas in a text, a lesson, or a unit of study, making visible the underlying organization of ideas” (Coelho, 2012, p. 281). Using key visuals during intensive reading reduces the language demands and enhances ELLs’ understanding of the text. After-reading strategies beneficial for B1 learners include: encouraging students to make inferences beyond and form opinions about the text; using role play to re-live the text and encourage the use of new words; focusing on transition words and teaching their use; and completing blank or partially-completed graphic organizers with information from the text (Coelho, 2012 date). Word banks for completing increasingly complex sentences and graphic organizers based on the content of a lesson can be used. The word banks can provide more word choices or forms of a word, and can manipulate grammatical endings such as plurals (Coelho, 2012). Coelho also explains that research indicates grammar instruction integrated into daily lessons is more effective than isolated instruction. During intensive reading, teachers can help B1 students learn grammar by looking at patterns such as various verb forms that recur in a text, and then reinforce learning by finding examples in other texts and completing extension activities such as cloze passages.
Teaching vocabulary as it arises, and focusing on those words that will be transferable to other academic contexts is an important instructional strategy for B1 learners. Roessingh (2016) draws on the model of tiered vocabulary developed by Beck, McKeowen, & Kucan (2002) to encourage the teaching of these Tier 2 vocabulary words because of their high utility and recurrence, and their importance in further developing students’ CALP which leads to academic achievement. Examples of Tier 2 vocabulary words, which are often verbs with Greek or Latin origins and relate to procedures, are “investigate, experiment, analyze, and prepare” (Roessingh, p. 69).
Instructional strategies that scaffold specific forms of writing are helpful, especially for B1 learners in the older elementary grades, as they are expected to go beyond writing expressively and narratively and write non-fiction forms such as explanation and persuasion (Coelho, 2012). Teachers can help B1 learners understand how these types of writing should be organized by providing writing frameworks and templates for paragraphs, as well as composition templates that help older students write pieces that are two or more paragraphs in length. Coelho (2016) suggests providing completed models of writing for ELLs to see, as well as modelling the writing process by thinking aloud and demonstrating the steps in process writing. She also explains than another important Quadrant B strategy is to teach and guide students in a structured way through group and individual research projects, as this type of learning may be unfamiliar to ELLs. Providing students with alternative resource material may be necessary.
Coelho (2012) says, “Language learning is a long-term process. While the help of a specialist language teacher is invaluable, especially for the first few years, language support must be provided over an extended period of time, by every teacher, in every classroom, in every subject area (p. 64).” Through scaffolding, providing comprehensible input, and offering contextual supports, classroom teachers can implement instructional strategies such as those suggested in this paper to differential learning for their ELLs at CFR levels A1, A2, and B1 therefore helping them to develop language proficiency in English and achieve academic success. It is important to note that ELLs may be functioning at different CFR levels within each of the four strands of listening, speaking, reading, and writing, and this will need to be taken into consideration by teachers when planning strategy use. Another important consideration that teachers may need to address, highlighted by Helmer & Eddy (2012), is that differences in the backgrounds and culture of ELLs may influence their familiarity with and appreciation for some of the strategies used and valued in Canada, such as cooperative learning and group discussion.
Due to the confines of this paper, only general suggestions for all elementary aged-students have been given; some instructional strategies will require adaptation to make them applicable to younger or older students within each CFR level. A deeper look into strategies that promote vocabulary development is also needed. In my role as an EAL teacher, these are areas I plan to focus on in the future in order to continue providing specific and effective support for classroom teachers and the EAL students they serve.
Teaching is a demanding and complex job, and the growing number of EAL students in classrooms with diverse language needs and cultural experiences places additional burdens on teachers. Armed with instructional strategies such as those suggested in this paper, however, elementary teachers will be better equipped to meet the needs of English language learners at all ages and stages of development.
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Prokopchuk, N. (2017). ECUR 415.3: Current issues in EAL [class handout]. Retrieved from: https://bblearn.usask.ca/webapps/blackboard/execute/displayLearningUnit?course_id=_110328_1&content_id=_1886594_1
Roessingh, H. (2016). Academic language in K-12: What is it, how is it learned, and how can we measure it? BC TEAL, 1(1). Retrieved from http://ejournals.ok.ubc.ca/index.php/BCTJ/article/view/235/260
Saskatchewan Ministry of Education. (2013). A guide to using the common framework of reference (CFR) with learners of English as an additional language (EAL). Regina, SK: Government of Saskatchewan. Retrieved from: http://publications.gov.sk.ca/documents/11/82934-A%20Guide%20to%20Using%20the%20CFR%20with%20EAL%20Learners.pdf