• by Paula Johnson, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • January 2016 •

In my early years as a high school math teacher, I often felt that I was short-changing my students whose first language was not English as they transitioned into my classroom. Not being fluent in any other languages, I didn’t feel confident in my ability to deliver instruction to English learners. I had not received professional development that would have given me the proper tools to increase my instructional capacity for scaffolding information.

Over the years, I have taken every advantage of opportunities that would add to my “toolkit” of strategies. These practices are useful for teachers across disciplines and for

Building Critical Thinking through Visual Literacy – IDRA Classnotes Podcast
Substantive Conversation in the Classroom – IDRA Classnotes Podcast

students of all ages. All teachers can successfully contribute to the development of academic language and vocabulary.

Effective teachers scaffold instructional content for English learners by supporting development of academic language and objectives by first modeling a desired task, then gradually shifting responsibility to the students. For example, sentence stems may at first be provided to assist students in formulating responses to questions. These may either be posted around the room or listed directly on learning materials. Over time, these stems will be reduced and later removed once students have mastered this skill. This article highlights three teaching strategies that have been proven effective in scaffolding instruction for English learners in the classroom. Each of the strategies below includes a brief description, counter examples and benefits for English learners. It should be noted that these practices support learning for all students, not just English learners.

Authentic Learning Experiences

If we want students to be actively engaged in the instructional process, we must strive to present information in a way that is relevant to them and that they can find purpose in (Petersen, 2007). Authentic learning experiences are achieved when a task, activity or assignment is associated with a result or outcome that has clear meaning and relatively immediate value to the student.

Rigorous, thought-provoking and reflective problem scenarios enable students to see the connections between the content they are studying and the world they live in. Exploring multiple applications of subject matter in the real world stimulates excitement and encourages further investigations.

Authentic learning experiences are not:

  • Securing compliant behaviors on the part of the students that make them appear to be interested in the lesson;
  • Using the word problems at the end of each section; or
  • Having students simply complete a task or assignment by following procedures.

Authentic learning experiences are critical for English learners because they enable students to actively participate in their learning, drawing on their personal experiences, as they develop conceptual ideas and academic language surrounding relevant topics while interacting both with the content and their peers.

These learning events provide opportunities for students to choose activities based on their interests and readiness levels that promote looking for connections, making new associations with concepts, and exploring new contexts in which to apply conceptual understandings.

Visual Literacy

For students to derive meaning when learning, information must be combined with conceptual understanding using an organized framework. This is how our brains process new information (Vasquez, Comer & Troutman, 2010).

There are three types of visuals: pictures, diagrams (simple and analytic) and graphic organizers. And we must give students explicit opportunities to interpret, extrapolate, evaluate and express understanding of these visuals so they organize raw sensory data into meaningful patterns.

Building visual literacy is highly beneficial for students: their understanding of spoken words can improve six fold (Baylor College of Medicine, 2009) as 70 percent to 90 percent of information received by the brain is visual (Hyerle, 2011).

Visual literacy is not:

  • Assuming textbook visuals can be interpreted by students;
  • Providing over-copied, ink-blot visuals as an accompaniment to an activity or investigation;
  • Posting student work that is never discussed or interpreted as a class (i.e., data charts and graphs);
  • Showing pictures on a PowerPoint presentation to break up the monotony of lecture notes;
  • Displaying vivid posters and graphics in the classroom without ever referencing or interpreting them; or
  • Having students copy and label items in interactive notebooks without justifying the visuals.

Visual literacy is critical for English learners because it provides a safe space to take language risks as students develop their academic voice through observation, thinking, listening and communication skill-building when linking images to content. It also carries the potential to engage all four parts of academic language – reading, listening, speaking and writing.

Substantive Conversations

Substantive conversations require considerable interaction that is on task and involves higher order thinking processes during the negotiation exercise (i.e., drawing conclusions, challenging ideas, asking questions). The discussion can be guided but should not be completely scripted or controlled by the teacher.

These exchanges require students to generate genuine discourse in a coherent manner to promote an improved collective understanding of the content (Johnson, et al., 2013). They provide learning opportunities for students to interact with the content and with each other through authentic dialogue guided by an essential question or learning outcome.

Substantive conversation is not:

  • Lecture-heavy teaching where students are recipients of facts and information that is copied into a notebook or journal;
  • Just reading about a topic or discussing factual results of an activity (i.e., lab investigation) in small groups or partners;
  • Providing lists of questions on a worksheet;
  • Asking close-ended questions with one word responses or questions where the teacher self-answers; or
  • Copying definitions out of the book as a vocabulary-building exercise.

Substantive conversations are critical for English learners because they provide specific opportunities to practice and build on listening and speaking skills using academic language that coincides with language learning standards and converges common core and state standards.

Bonus: Building Academic Vocabulary

The key to deep, powerful, long-term vocabulary learning is movement. Total Physical Response (TPR) links vocabulary learning with physical movements and is especially helpful for English learners (Cook, 2008). By combining strong physical movements and sounds with understandable new vocabulary, we create deep connections in our brains and bodies.

As this is done repeatedly with students, it reinforces the memory, connecting the new word to the physical motion. Each time students hear or use one of the new terms or phrases, have them use the same physical movement and/or sound practiced when it was introduced. This technique connects various learning styles and is fun for students.

The strategies outlined in this article are meant to provide a strong foundation on which teachers can build their instructional practices supporting English learners. It is crucial to keep in mind that the development of these skills takes time to master – and not all at one time. The willingness to find multiple pathways that enable students to access content knowledge is the first step in fortifying the skills that will assist English learners in mastering the content.


Baylor College of Medicine. “Visual Cues Help People Understand Spoken Words,” ScienceDaily (March 6, 2009).

Cook, V. Second Language Learning and Language Teaching (London: Hodder Education, 2008).

Hylere, D., & L. Alper. Student Successes with Thinking Maps: School-based Research, Results, and Models for Achievement Using Visual Tools, second edition (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press, 2011).

Johnson, P., & V. Betancourt, A. Villarreal, R. Rodríguez. A Synthesis of Effective Teaching Strategies and Practices – A Handbook for Secondary Mathematics and Science Teachers (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2013).

Peterson, L. Authentic Learning Environments, website (2007).

Vasquez, J.A., & M.W. Comer, F. Troutman. Developing Visual Literacy in Science K-8 (Arlington, Va.: David Beacom Publisher, 2010).

Paula Johnson, M.A., is an IDRA education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at paula.johnson@idra.org.

[©2016, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 2016 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]