A colleague, Karen, told me about the struggles her stepson is having in school. He is an English learner who immigrated to the U.S. in fifth grade and although he is very bright, she said, “He has been lost for 2 years in middle school.” She attributes his struggles in large part to a lack of language focus, or language objectives, in lessons. In social studies, for example, an assignment was to describe geographical features of several regions in the US. He was able to complete the descriptive part of the assignment easily. But, then he had to pick 2 regions and compare and contrast their features. This part tripped him up because he didn’t know the meaning of the terms, compare and contrast. The teacher assumed that all students, including English learners, knew how to select specific features and compare them, and how to contrast features of two different things. With Karen’s help, her stepson learned the meaning of the words, but he still didn’t know how to apply this new word knowledge to the task.
Karen said that it has been hard for her to watch, both as a mother and a professional since she is a SIOP professional development specialist who helps teachers work effectively with English learners. She said, “The teachers in his school don’t have a language development focus for their students – they just talk, talk, talk.”
Why does Karen think language objectives would help her stepson? Because, as teachers plan lessons with language objectives in mind, they are aware of the language demands of the lesson. They are more likely to think about the language students need to be successful in the lesson. Just as content objectives drive the content to be covered in a lesson, language objectives are learning goals related to language.
Most teachers think about the academic vocabulary terms students need to use in a lesson — which is important — but language objectives can be derived from other categories of language as well such as language skills and functions (e.g., describe, predict, find key details in text), language structures (e.g., passive voice, use of past tense), or language learning strategies that would be helpful (rereading a confusing passage, use of cognates).
In lots of classrooms, objectives may be posted but are essentially ignored. In contrast, language objectives should be posted and reviewed with students so that the language focus of the lesson is transparent.
Here are a few ideas for actively involving students in understanding the lesson’s language objectives. Each takes only 30 seconds to 2 minutes and is an effective way to get students engaged at the beginning of a lesson.
- Chorally read the objectives as a class. Check for understanding and clarify as needed.
- Ask students to repeat the language objectives to a partner.
- Have students do a self-assessment regarding the language objectives, i.e., Is this something that I am confident with or do I need practice?
- Have students discuss with a partner which of the 2 or 3 language objectives you’ve posted is most important to them. As they talk about the objectives, they are using academic language.
- A slight variation is to have students write on a sticky note the most important language objective and then tell a partner why they picked that one. Again, they are practicing English as they discuss the objectives.
At the end of the lesson, review the objectives and ask if each has been met. You might have students write how the objective was met, and ask them to provide evidence for having met the objective. This process serves a number of purposes: it engages students in thinking critically about what they did in the lesson, it provides practice in finding evidence for statements, students review the lesson’s content by virtue of thinking about the language objectives, and they practice using language in the process. It’s a win-win all around!
Sometimes, however, objectives are confused with activities. Language objectives are measurable and are intended to advance students’ language proficiency. Check out the following and see the difference:
- Students will be able to orally explain the difference between living and non-living things. (Language objective)
- At the end of this lesson, students will have learned to set up a Bunsen burner, fill a graduated cylinder, and use a triple balance. (Activity)
- Students will be able to define the meaning of these words: debate, veto, bill. (Language objective)
- Children will read 2 poems with a partner. (Activity)
- Students will complete the worksheet. (Activity)
The activities could be written as language objectives (LO) with some tweaking. For example,
Activity: At the end of the lesson, students will have learned how to set up a Bunsen burner, fill a graduated cylinder, and use a triple balance.
LO: Describe a process of how to…… with a partner.
LO: Write the steps for………
Activity: Children will read 2 poems with a partner.
LO: Students will be able to define key literary terms found in the poem.
LO: Children will orally discuss the main idea of the poem.
Objectives communicate to students what they are going to learn and why they are doing the activity. Activities are intended to be used as a means for achieving specific learning goals; the activity itself is not the goal.
Finally, English learners themselves recognize the value of language objectives. In one research study, we asked both elementary and secondary students about language objectives. The students stated:
“We know what to do”
“That’s how I got better in English because we had language [objectives]”
“The objectives help us to be prepared”