Making Academic Language Meaningful for ELLs
In “G is for Grammar“, at the ABC of Teaching Children blog, Carol Read offers an engaging post about teaching grammar to kids. Usually, I read how teachers explain the concepts of grammar to children by having them basically memorize what a noun, adjective, verb is, etc. But as someone who does not subscribe to traditional grammar theories, I find it unhelpful to have kids memorize rules that are too often broken in English. So, Carol’s post was really refreshing, because she places emphasis on the importance of teaching grammar in contextualized, meaningful ways. I posted a comment there about our school’s juicy sentence approach, and I thought I’d elaborate in a post since it’s a bit involved and I’ve never really explained it here before…
First, the basics: My school, like maybe a dozen others, is part of a pilot approach to teaching academic language referred to as “Juicy Sentences” – it’s developed by Dr. Lily Wong-Fillmore, and many of the teachers who incorporate it, feel it has been successful in improving how our students think about complex sentences, such as those using Tier 2 words, or that use clauses. Given that it’s a pilot program and Dr. Fillmore’s research, I’m not sure how much I can make available publicly, so I am leaving out some of the detail, but the framework here is rich enough, i think, to make it clear enough for you to get an idea.
So what makes a sentence juicy?
Historically, approaches to ESL instruction relied on watering down complext texts into shorter, simplified sentences that students could comprehend more easily. While it may have helped get the content across, it was not teaching the students the kind of sentence structure they’d see in grade-level texts and tests. So, kids would come across sentences like, “The thicker the glacier the faster it moves,” and think it was about “the thicker” (that’s an actual sentence example taken from studies done with kids), since they were so used to reading sentences that were like, “The thick glacier moves fastest.”
So, how do you teach kids sentences like that, or that start off with words like, “Although”, “However”, or have structure like, “If it were….then it would be….” and such? Well, you do it using actual text, in context, and you make it meaningful. To choose the sentence, find one that has complex structure but also that holds the essence of the text, or some really pivotal information. Now, I’m basically going to do the opposite and explain juicy with lots of examples from articles you haven’t read. Sorry :)
The approach: It relies heavily on instructional conversations and student interaction. Basically, we start by reading a short, on-grade-level non-fiction text during shared reading (Although you can also do it during a read aloud or small group work). There are 3-4 days of different activities to dig into the article (you only do this twice a week, so the article gets spread out over 2 weeks — I recommend this over trying to do more per lesson, or trying to do all 4 lessons in one week). Beforehand, you choose a juicy sentence that you won’t use as part of a think aloud or turn-and-talk; you leave it alone because you want to leave that for Day 2.
Day 1: Word Play. Here, you introduce the article and vocabulary (about 6 terms depending on the article and kids). You do some word play, such as choosing a Tier 2 word and having kids act out the differences between it and a BICS counterpart (like, “It says the frog leapt up to catch the fly — what do you think it looks like to leap instead of just jump?”). Or, you might have a sentence like, “Sometimes it hails” and ask kids how the sentence changes when you take out the word sometimes.
Day 2: Juicy Day. You write the sentence or sentences you have chosen for students on chart paper. You should have only one language goal. Then you ask kids to write, “I think this sentence means…” You read some examples, and ask kids to explain their thinking by pointing back to language in the sentence. Sometimes kids will write about other information from the article, so, you will have to model more than once how to focus in on the language in the sentence alone to make sense of it, or “unpack” its meaning, helping them to clue in on terms that change the meaning of the sentence if misunderstood or removed. As you discuss it, you can write BICS words as explanations above the academic language you have on your chart.
Then, you can use the structure of that sentence to create a sentence frame for students to use in their writing. This way they can see how it can be used in other contexts, and get practice writing more complex sentences.
Day 3: Accountable Talk. You re-read the whole text and they discuss it and jot down their now-deeper understandings.
Here’s an example of a juicy sentence. I read a text to my class about dinosaur poop. The sentence from the text was something like:
“Previously, scientists believed dinosaurs swallowed the bones whole without chewing, but after examining the coprolite, they realized they crushed mouthfuls of flesh and bones.”
As part of our discussion, after they wrote down their ideas of what it means, I focused in on the word realized, a word many of them would have known and used it to discuss how it’s different from the word “know” because it tells me there’s new information. So, we had to figure out what the new information was, and one student noticed “after examining the coprolite”, which they said that meant they were looking at it closely. So, I got them to look and see what happened “before” and what happened “after”. I wrote the word “before” above “previously”, and the kids’ language of “look closely at” above “examining”. Once I felt they understood the sentence, I asked them to write in their books, next to where they had written, “I think this sentence means…” to write, “Now I know it means…”
Then, I had them write their own sentences using, “Previously…. but after ….. I/they/we realized…. ” Some kids wrote things like, “Previously, I thought NYC was small, but after I came here, I realized it’s huge.” and “Previously, I thought Ms. Flecha was mean, but after coming to class the first day, I realize she’s nice.” (haha, had to share that one!)
You can use this to teach any grammar form you feel students need. All you need is a text that contains it, which makes it meaningful.
So, that’s Juicy, super-condensed :) If any of it is unclear, please feel free to ask! I have used this with math word problems, and in every other content area text. I’m told this is also done at the high-school level.
There’s nothing published on this yet, but you can read more by Dr. Fillmore in this pdf file of her paper, What Teachers Need to Know About Language. A more nicely-formatted version can be downloaded here.