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21st century learning and English Language Learners - How do they fit together?

21st century learning and English Language Learners - How do they fit together?  

What skills will our students need to cope with living in the 21st century and what will this mean for teaching English language learners? Our lifestyles are changing rapidly in a high tech globalised world. We see changing societal structures, increasing social and cultural diversity and the marketing of ideas and products through multimedia. We need to think about literacy for lifelong learning as information is reaching us in ways that hadn’t been invented a few years ago.  We also need to make meaning from the array of multimedia, complex visual imagery, music and sound, even virtual worlds that confront us each day in addition to written and spoken words.  Changes in society are occurring so rapidly that we need to take time to think about whether they will have positive or negative effects upon our ways of living. Asking questions such as in whose interest, for what purpose, who benefits, etc.  I think some of the skills required will be: critical thinking and problem solving; creativity and innovation; social responsibility and cultural, global and environmental awareness; communication; digital literacy; lifelong learning; self-direction and personal management; collaboration and leadership. The New Zealand Curriculum on page 8 also speaks about the skills required in the vision statement.  

I believe the general educational issues and the skills required are the same for all students whether they are English language learners (ELLs) or not. However ELLs may need explicit language teaching and scaffolding in order to access some of them and to successfully achieve in content areas when learning in their second language.

As there is an increase in global migration our classrooms will become increasingly diverse so teachers should adopt culturally responsive teaching methods. Also with an increasingly globalised society people who are bilingual or multi-lingual may have a distinct advantage over those who are monolingual.  

I like the work of the New London Group (1996) of educators the multi-literacies model they developed begins with situated practice – which is immersion in an experience which might be both multi model and using multiple technologies whilst drawing upon the student’s prior knowledge and experiences. This is followed by overt teacher instruction to develop underlying patterns of meaning in communicative practice. Explicit teaching allows students from cultures who are not part of the dominant culture to have access to knowledge.   A critical framing approach is used – explaining purposes, questioning what this communication is for, for whom and why? Asking what relevance is it to me? Ending with transformative practice where students apply the new learning to a new situation e.g. to their own lives or for the good of their own community.

Mills (2006) says that the four ways of knowing have been extended to eight subcategories by Kalantizis and Cope (2005), and are intended to correlate to each of the four curriculum orientations of the multiliteracies pedagogy. These knowledge processes are intended to enable teachers to analyse the learning that occurs when a pedagogy of multiliteracies is implemented (p.3).

1. Experiencing: a) the known, and b) the new - involves personal engagement in sensations, emotions, physical memories, involvement of the self, and immersion in the human and natural world

2. Conceptualising: a) naming concepts, and b) theorising- is the translation and synthesis of experiences, conceptual forms, language, and symbols into abstract generalisations

3. Analysing: a) functionally, and b) critically - the transformation of knowledge by ordering, reflecting on, and interpreting the underlying rationale for particular designs and representations

4. Applying: a) appropriately, and b) creatively - is the experiential application of internal thought processes to external situations in the world by testing the world and adapting knowledge to multiple, ambiguous situations.

Here are some of my ideas on what effective teaching for new learners of English in a 21st century learning approach might look like. I am sure that the list is not exhaustive so what would you add?

  • Provide explicit language and vocabulary teaching
  • Actively encourage the use of a student’s first language  to support their learning and encourage  literacy in both their first and second language
  • Integrate both language and content learning maintain the same learning outcomes for all
  • Scaffold to success building upon student’s prior experiences and knowledge
  • Provide multimodal and multimedia experiences incorporating the use of ICT and technology
  • Use collaborative approaches and pair work
  • Provide explicit information processing and study skills teaching as required
  • Encourage subject/scientific attitude and rigour
  • Inspire creative and transformative outcomes
  • Engage students in decoding symbolic conventions,
  • Active and informed engagement
  • Using and creating text forms appropriate to the topic and discipline
  • Thinking critically and use a critical literacy approach
  • Using culturally responsive teaching approaches
  • Forming effective home-school partnerships with diverse families and communities

 Digital tools – which tool?

In any 21st century classroom we would expect the use of many digital tools. Many have been developed in order to assist in the teaching of the English language and as such can be very beneficial.  In selecting which tool to use and how to use those with English Language Learners there are a few specific things to consider.  I like the following excerpt and questions from a chapter 1 from a book available online, English Learners in 21st-Century Classrooms published by Pearson Higher Ed.  

As you choose these newer tools, you will need to consider the English proficiency required for students to benefit from them and the kind of help you might offer to help them get involved. Some Internet and communication technologies can provide help themselves, such as pictures, photos, print-to-speech capability, and relevant websites in a student’s primary language. As you begin to consider new technologies to support your classroom instruction, we recommend the following questions as a guide for evaluating their potential benefits (Cummins, Brown, & Sayers, 2007, p. 109). The more “yes” answers you have to these questions, the better the tool!

1. Does the technology-supported instruction (TSI) provide cognitive challenge and opportunities for deep processing of meaning?

2. Does the TSI relate instruction to prior knowledge and experiences derived from students’ homes and communities?

3. Does the TSI promote active, self-regulated, collaborative inquiry?

4. Does the TSI promote extensive engaged reading and writing across the curriculum?

5. Does the TSI help students develop strategies for effective reading, writing and learning?

6. Does the TSI promote affective involvement and identity investment on the part of the students?

(English Learners in 21st-Century Classrooms, Chapter 1. Pearson Higher Ed, pp 32-33.)  

I hope this begins a useful discussion on ELLs and 21st century learning as it is a topic we should all be engaging in. If you know other useful research papers or readings on this topic then please share them with our community.


Cope, B. and Kalantzis, M. (2009) Multiliteracies”: New literacies, new learning Pedagogies: An International Journal, 4: 164–195.  http://idt744.wikispaces.com/file/view/multiliteracies_copekalantzis.pdf/247679093/multiliteracies_copekalantzis.pdf

Mills, Kathy A. (2006) Critical Framing in a Pedagogy of Multiliteracies. In Proceedings Australian Literacy Educator's Association/ Australian Association of the Teaching of English National Conference 2006: Voices, Vibes, Visions, Darwin. http://eprints.qut.edu.au/archive/00004844

Robertson, K. (2008) Preparing ELLs to be 21st-Century Learners, http://www.colorincolorado.org/article/21431/

 Kind regards

Janet McQueen