English learners have double the academic load: they are learning new, rigorous academic content like other students, but they are doing it in a language in which they are not yet proficient.
In addition to the complexities of learning through a second language, some English learners are making up for lost time due to interrupted or limited formal education. Others are learning in a new way, e.g., the process for solving math problems differs from how they were taught in their home countries. Many are young children exposed to formal schooling for the first time. All of these situations, and others, impact learning in unique ways for these students. The nature of learning through a new language requires additional time to practice and engage with new concepts, vocabulary terms and skills. So, it is critical that learning opportunities are maximized for English learners.
Most teachers feel pressed for time but don’t realize how a few minutes squandered here and there can, when used productively, provide the additional instructional time that they desire.
Here are a few ways to increase the actual time that learning happens in the classroom:
- Use every minute of each period wisely. Okay, I understand that “every minute” may not be possible but it should be the goal, a goal that is constantly on the teacher’s radar. Too much time is wasted by having students participate in activities that aren’t related to the lesson’s objectives or those that are of questionable value. For English learners in particular, instructional time should be boosted in order to advance their language proficiency, literacy development, and academic knowledge and skills.
When we were creating and field-testing the SIOP Model, we observed classes where teachers used effective instructional techniques for English learners and the lessons would have been scored fairly high on the observation protocol for most SIOP features. However, use of instructional time had to be taken into consideration. In one high school biology class, for instance, the teacher differentiated instruction for English learners, delivered a well-prepared lesson that included group work and hands-on activities, she circulated amongst the groups and checked for understanding, and wrapped up the lesson with a review of the objectives and concise summary of the lesson. But, the class period began with the teacher using almost 10 minutes for taking attendance, making announcements, asking who was going to the upcoming dance, and so forth. Then, with about 7 minutes left in the period the teacher told students they could “clean up” which resulted in them organizing their backpacks and chatting with friends. Imagine the additional learning that could have taken place!
That observation was the impetus for SIOP feature #25, Students engaged approximately 90% to 100% of the period. By this we mean that students are paying attention and on task. It doesn’t mean that they need to be highly active the entire time. But, they are engaged in the lesson and are participating in the activities as expected, which might include reading and writing but might also include brainstorming or quiet reflection, discussing a topic with a partner or group, or creating visuals for a presentation. Bottom line: English learners simply cannot afford to have instructional minutes thrown away.
2. Allow appropriate time for tasks. Students are more likely to be actively engaged in learning when the lesson’s pace creates momentum. Conversely, they are easily bored, off-task or disruptive when the activity lags because too much time is allotted. Knowing how much time to give students to complete a task can be tricky at times. It may take some effort and experience to pace lessons well. However, there are some “no-brainers” that can increase instructional time immediately.
- Make sure that the right amount of time is allocated for student-to-student talk. In the following examples, time is wasted. An elementary task might be, “Turn to your partner and use a describing word, or adjective, to tell something about the main character.” Or, in secondary, “Tell your partner the two main methods to estimate sample size.” In both of these cases, it takes students about 30 seconds to turn and say a sentence or two, but it’s not uncommon to observe classes where 3-5 minutes pass before the teacher calls students back together. If a lesson has several turn-and-talk opportunities, many instructional minutes are lost.
- Use a timer so that you don’t lose track of time. Let students know how much time has been set for completing the task, then use a bell or other signal to mark the beginning and end of the activity. In the example above, the teacher would say, “You have 30 seconds to tell your partner….” Ding. This kind of pacing conveys to students that there is serious work to do and that their time is respected.
- Make transitions efficient so they don’t eat up time. In some of the most productive classes I’ve observed, from kindergarten to high school, students have been taught how to smoothly transition from one activity to another saving countless instructional minutes. Even young children can learn routines for distributing and collecting materials, moving from whole class to small group, and taking on roles in discussion groups. Giving students responsibility has the added benefit of raising students’ sense of autonomy and agency.
- Teach using the mantra of a teacher that we profile: As fast as we can; as slow as we must. Keep the pace moving but make sure all learners are supported.
- Be prepared. For each lesson, post and review with students the content and language objectives so expectations are clear and learning is transparent. Also, show instructions visually, including the steps to follow, so that students have something to refer to instead of interrupting the lesson’s flow to ask for clarification. Visual presentation is particularly important for English learners since oral instructions alone are difficult to follow or remember. When students don’t know what to do, they will find something else to do!
Further, have necessary materials on hand and ready to go. When students are working on one part of the lesson, begin distributing materials for the next part so no time is lost.
I know, I know, some of this is Teaching 101. However, the suggestions made here were motivated by recent classroom observations. The biology lesson I described earlier took place way back in 1996, so using time wisely continues to be an issue that warrants attention.
As a final reminder to teachers: precious instructional moments add up significantly over the course of a day, a week, a year – and an educational career.