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Chapter 2: Understanding English Learners and Supporting What They Can Do

Imagine being a student and moving to a foreign country where the language, culture, and places are unfamiliar. In your new home, you’re expected to study academic subjects and communicate with teachers and peers in a language you may have never used before — all while acclimating to a new culture.

As you might envision, being an EL is challenging. Students might face many obstacles, like learning English from the beginning. ELs may also be trying to make new friends as they develop language skills. With these obstacles, EL students might feel lonely, stressed, anxious, or homesick. These tough emotions can interfere with learning and make responsibilities at school and home seem even more demanding.

Despite the challenges, teachers can help ELs transition into cyber school and reach academic goals by embracing WIDA’s Can Do Philosophy. The Can Do Philosophy focuses on ELs’ strengths and abilities and includes them in classroom activities to foster growth. If students feel supported and appreciated, they are more likely to be confident in their skills, motivated to learn, and engaged with the coursework.

This chapter explores the Can Do Philosophy and how teachers can apply this idea to the online classroom. If you would like to learn more about CCA and how we focus on students’ unique abilities, please contact us.

Are you ready to enroll in a cyber charter school that appreciates language diversity and offers tailored EL programs? Start your application today.

The Can Do Philosophy

The WIDA Can Do Philosophy focuses on what ELs can do and empowers them to share their backgrounds and experiences. Educators who support the Can Do Philosophy believe every EL brings valuable assets to the classroom and can enrich the learning experiences for all students and teachers.

Teachers need to recognize the potential of students’ assets and focus on nurturing their skills. For example, students who understand multiple languages and cultures can potentially communicate across various contexts, build global relationships, and enjoy success beyond the classroom.

Families also benefit from the Can Do Philosophy because it empowers them to be advocates for their children and their academic goals. Parents can encourage students to share their cultural, experiential, and linguistic assets with peers and teachers, creating a richer community overall.

Graphic: WIDA Can do philosophy.

At CCA, we understand all students bring value to the classroom and the communities they live in regardless of their cultural background or English language abilities. Our teachers use the Can Do Philosophy to teach ELs and nurture their unique skills, knowledge, and interests in a virtual environment.

The Four Big Ideas

In addition to the Can Do Philosophy, WIDA also uses four Big Ideas to support their framework, which are:

  • Equity: It’s essential ELs have equal opportunity to actively participate in learning and equal access to high-quality, standards-based content. Equity of opportunities and access helps ELs succeed academically and allows them to share their assets.
  • Integration: Teachers can integrate language learning with academic content to promote language development and interaction with other students. Content-language integration is critical in planning curricula and instruction methods.
  • Collaboration: All stakeholders involved in an EL’s development are responsible for their academic success. Language and content teachers can collaborate to plan instruction and set common learning goals.
  • Functional Approach: A functional approach to language development highlights the purposeful use of language. In other words, teachers can focus on showing students how to use language to achieve particular goals.

The Can Do Philosophy and Big Ideas support student-focused learning experiences and help ELs feel confident, understood, and valued.

The Importance of Understanding Students’ Backgrounds

Part of the Can Do Philosophy is understanding the cultural and language background of the learner. Teachers are encouraged to learn about EL students’ backgrounds as much as possible. By understanding each EL’s past experiences, teachers can create comfortable and welcoming learning environments, adjust instruction accordingly, draw on their assets, and offer support to meet their needs. Teachers can also activate prior knowledge for English learners and help them attach what they already know to new material. Teachers should learn the following about each EL student:

1. Proper Spelling and Pronunciation of the Student’s Name

Teachers need to ensure they get the student’s name right, both in pronunciation and spelling. Correctly pronouncing and spelling a student’s name affirms their identity and helps ensure accurate school records. Teachers should ask ELs their formal names and what they would like to be called in class as soon as they arrive.

2. Home Country, Language, Culture, and Customs

Educators need to know where ELs came from. When teachers know where students are from, they will have clues about other important details, such as previous schooling and cultural traditions. However, finding the answer to this question may not be as easy as it seems. Students may have moved between various countries or frequently traveled within the U.S. Teachers might obtain this information by directly asking the EL or their family members or looking at student records.

3. Family Background

It’s helpful to know a student’s family background and become aware of their responsibilities at home. ELs might have many responsibilities outside of school, like caring for younger siblings or being a translator for family members. Teachers can use this information to collaborate with family members and find solutions to situations that conflict with school-related activities. Colorín Colorado recommends teachers find out the following:

  • Who the student lives with
  • If they live with a family member who speaks English
  • If they have family members who live far away
  • If the student has a job or responsibilities at home
  • If the student faces stressors at home that might impact learning

Even if teachers can’t find out everything about an EL’s home life, they should prioritize knowing who they can build relationships with on the student’s behalf.

4. Prior Schooling and Education Experiences

It’s useful for teachers to know an EL’s educational background, including any gaps in schooling. Teachers can ask students and parents for more information or possibly contact the school from the EL’s home country to learn more. If the student has already spent time in the U.S., teachers may gain information from student records. Educators can try to discover the following:

  • Years of schooling
  • Types of schools
  • Academic record and favorite subjects
  • Reading and writing skills
  • English instruction
  • Giftedness
  • Special needs

Teachers may also wish to learn more about a student’s behavior in school, any subjects they may have struggled with, and activities they enjoyed.

5. English Language Proficiency Level and Assessment Scores

Teachers should work together to support an EL’s language development, which requires an understanding of their English proficiency level. Content teachers can collaborate with ESL instructors to interpret English language proficiency assessment scores and determine a student’s strengths and weaknesses. Using their insights, teachers can develop personalized learning plans.

6. Strengths, Interests, and Goals

Helping a student succeed academically takes more than knowing their educational background. Teachers can help students feel more engaged, cared for, and accepted by incorporating their interests, goals, and dreams with learning. Educators might ask students about their favorite hobbies or sports or consider books or school activities they enjoy. Parents may also talk about their child’s favorite activities and goals. Either way, knowing who the student is enables teachers to initiate conversations and connect with students on a deeper level.

Can Do Descriptors

WIDA’s Can Do Descriptors describe what EL students can do in reading, writing, listening, and speaking as they develop language skills. The Can Do Descriptors are meant to enhance WIDA’s standards during instruction and help teachers design a curriculum based on a student’s English proficiency level.

To illustrate, let’s look at Can Do Descriptors for the grade 1 level in the listening domain, organized by the arguing Key Language Use. At different proficiency levels, ELs can process arguments by:

  • Level 1 (Entering): Answering questions about preference and identifying words that convey opinions.
  • Level 2 (Emerging): Evaluating options to make choices and using gestures to show agreement or disagreement with short oral statements.
  • Level 3 (Developing): Following modeled oral instructions and conditional directions and classifying objects according to oral descriptions.
  • Level 4 (Expanding): Organizing objects or people based on oral comparisons and identifying claims about events or objects based on experiences or observations.
  • Level 5 (Bridging): Identifying claims and reasons for choices from oral stories.
  • Level 6 (Reaching): Distinguishing between opinions and reasons in oral discourse.

You can find the various editions of Can Do Descriptors for grades K-12 on the WIDA website.

Tips for Applying the Can Do Philosophy

If you’re a teacher looking for ways to apply the Can Do Philosophy in cyber school, here are some tips:

  • Take the time to get to know your students so you’re better equipped to meet their needs and build on their strengths and interests.
  • Give assignments or play games that encourage students to share information about themselves.
  • Pay attention to what students say and show you’re listening by asking questions.
  • Provide opportunities for students to teach peers phrases or words from their first language.

Lastly, it’s essential to maintain high expectations for ELs and expect the same level of critical thinking as other students. Try following these three steps to ensure ELs are challenged:

  • Identify the thinking required to complete an academic task.
  • Determine what the student can do.
  • Create opportunities for the student to use their skills to finish an assignment.

The point is not to make academic content easier for ELs but to make it possible for them to participate.

As a cyber school teacher at CCA, you’ll have the chance to collaborate with families and students and create personalized curricula developed around a student’s strengths. If you’re a Pennsylvania-certified teacher, we encourage you to contact us about joining the CCA team.

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