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How to Embed Foundational English Skills In Meaningful Work

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Students at San Francisco International High School work on a split dictation activity to practice tricky consonant groups. (Teaching Channel)

Many teachers are seeking ways to better help their English language learner students, who often have additional challenges to overcome. These students are learning English alongside all the content standards, and some have had their education disrupted by life transitions. The challenges that face them are many, but there are strategies to help them develop language and academic skills.

San Francisco International High School, a public district school, caters its instruction to students newly arrived in the United States. Teachers there have developed strategies to focus on literacy development, but within the context of interesting and meaningful work. Christopher Maldonado teaches ninth and tenth grade literacy, often focusing on fluency and phonemic awareness, but within the context of collaborative reading and discussion. This Teaching Channel video provides a good overview of some of the strategies Maldonado uses to get his students, who speak three different languages, talking to each other in English as they improve their reading comprehension.

Maldonado uses a "split dictation" strategy to help students practice listening comprehension in English. He has intentionally chosen some difficult consonant blends so that students have to practice their pronunciation. Set up like a word game, the activity gets students using various strategies to fill in the missing words on their sheet and interacting with one another as they do so.

Maldonado also encourages students to draw their ideas when they are having difficulty making themselves understood. To facilitate this side of their thinking, he has painted all his classroom tables with whiteboard paint. When Maldonado sees a student struggling to express himself, he tosses over a whiteboard marker and asks for a visual representation.


Teachers at San Francisco International High School have the opportunity to hone strategies that work with English learners because their entire student population is learning English. But teachers do everything they can to make even the most basic language acquisition lessons engaging and rooted in bigger ideas, trying not to rely on rote memorization or repetitive exercises. They have found students are more motivated to learn English if they are excited about the ideas they want to express in their new language.

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