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What language do we need to teach?

What language do we need to teach?

As I continue my series on Planning to support English language learners (ELLs)  across the curriculum I want to focus on knowing what language we should be teaching. My last update in this series looked at Why we need to teach language across all subjects ? In that update we briefly looked at page 16 of the New Zealand Curriculum where it states

In addition to such help, students who are new learners of English or coming into an English-medium environment for the first time need explicit and extensive teaching of English vocabulary, word forms, sentence and text structures, and language uses.

In my experience many teachers are now familiar with teaching various genres and text forms and include some vocabulary teaching particularly topic vocabulary. However they are less likely to support students to understand word forms, sentence structure and language uses. They are also unsure about what features of various text forms are particularly difficult for ELLs and therefore need teaching.

To help teachers to know what other language features to look for and what may need teaching there are some great Ministry resources available.  In particular teachers should be familiar with The English Language Learning Progressions (ELLP) in order to know what English as a second language stage the student is working at which will then help them to determine appropriate next language learning steps. They will also help teachers to know what output is appropriate for a student working at a particular stage. Using ELLP will help teachers to set appropriate language learning goals.

The English Language Intensive Programme (ELIP)- Primary Resource or years 7-13 ELIP – (Be careful not to confuse this with ELLP the acronyms are very similar.) provides guidelines for teachers by selecting some language outcomes and language learning focus points at each phase of English language learning. The ELIP resource includes:

  • an overview of the language outcomes focussed on in each Stage
  • an Orientation to Learning section at each Stage
  • example texts related to a range of curriculum areas for oral interaction, reading, understanding and responding and writing, at 3-4 four levels of English, with annotations on text structure, language features and grammar scope to support each language outcome
  • suggested teaching components, sample strategies, suggested themes and experiences
  • suggested assessment tasks.

I find the annotated examples very helpful in order to understand the various language features that may need to be explicitly taught.  The examples are fairly easy to follow and there are loads of suggestions as to various ways you may go about teaching the language features. It would be helpful for ESOL teachers/specialists to guide teachers to recognise what language features should be taught either as they work alongside them within the classroom or as a part of ongoing professional development.

As an aside the text models are also great photocopied (or used as a text reconstruction) which students can stick in their exercise books and the teacher can then get them to highlight in different colours the various language points and language features. My year 7/8 students found these very helpful and often referred back to them when writing.   

Supporting English Language Learning in Primary Schools (SELLIPS) This resource gives suggestions for developing students’ academic language in curriculum contexts. We will look at this resource further when we look at sequencing a unit of work.

How do I decide what language to select as a focus?

There are two main questions that I ask when deciding what language to focus on within a unit of work:

  • What are the language demands of the curriculum/unit of work?
  • What are the language needs of the students?

I usually first decide upon my curriculum objectives for the unit of work and then I decide what language functions, structures and vocabulary will the students require?   

The function is the purpose for which the language will be used e.g. agreeing and disagreeing, apologising, asking for permission, classifying, comparing, describing, questioning, evaluating, expressing position, identifying, hypothesising, reporting, sequencing, giving and following instructions, explaining and predicting etc.  

In order to determine what language structures will be required I think about the typical wordings required, the many different ways you might express a similar idea.  For example,  

  • It rained. The soil got washed away.
  • Or it rained and so the soil got washed away.  
  • The soil got washed away because it rained.
  • Because it rained, the soil got washed away.
  • As a result of the rain, the soil was washed away.
  • The soil was eroded as a result of the rain. Etc…..

Each of these wordings represents a different way of expressing a similar idea, but each change of wording also changes the meaning slightly because it gives a different focus to the idea. Part of planning is making decisions about the sort of wordings (language structures or sentence patterns) that are likely to occur through teacher modelling and group activities. (Pauline Gibbons, 1991. Learning to learn in a Second language, page 15.)

Teachers should also think about what kind of language is appropriate for a particular activity or for a particular year level. … Many abstract concepts cannot be developed from personal and concrete experience alone, and language itself is the means whereby children learn to recognise and name more abstract ideas. If there is a gap in the student’s language resources and then the thinking processes that are dependent on them will also be restricted. (Gibbons page 17)`We need to model language that is beyond what the learners are currently able to produce for themselves. It is important to provide children with new language to use.

I also think about the specific individual language needs of my ELLs? What can they currently do and what are their next language learning steps that I have identified. I gather this from a number of sources e.g. previous assessments, formative assessments at the start of a unit of work, from observing my students closely, and from referring to ELIP and ELLP. ELIP helps me to identify what language features and forms may need to be taught and ELLP helps me to know whether they are appropriate as next learning steps for my students. It also helps me to differentiate the learning requirements for various students.

From all these ideas I try to narrow down and identify some particular language objectives to focus on. This may include vocabulary, word forms, sentence, text structures, and grammar and language uses. Some objectives will apply to all students e.g. the structure of the text form that they will be required to produce or the academic vocabulary that needs to be understood. Other objectives may only apply to one group of students’ e.g. the use of time connectives at the start of each paragraph when writing an argument; or a feature such as the use of past tense –ed ; or a small chunk of language e.g. I want to go… etc.   You may also have one or two individuals that will require additional help. It is not often possible to focus on everything so I usually choose the most important features or most urgent.  For those one or two individuals with a specific need I note in down in a box in my plan so they are not overlooked.

Pauline Gibbons, page 19 has a language Framework chart that she uses to help determine the language required in a unit of work. This chart uses her example-


 (the topic….)


 (includes these activities….)

Language Functions

 (which require these language functions….)

Language Structures

 (which will be modelled using this language


 (vocabulary required to support this topic and the language structures….)


Arranging attribute blocks (as a matrix or in sets)


Barrier game: give partner instructions



"What’s Missing?’ game





Giving instructions

Describing position







 they are all (blue)

they are all (triangles)


drawa …

colour it …

draw a triangle under the…

beside the…

between the …


it’s a big, red circle (order of adjectives)












 Another resource I found helpful was Genre, text, grammar: technologies for teaching and assessing writing by Peter Knapp and Megan Watkins (2005).

I would love to hear your ideas and suggestions on how you go about writing language objectives in curriculum areas.  Also, on how ESOL teachers support other teachers in their school to write suitable language objectives?  Is this an issue- Do most teachers include language objectives in all units of work?

Questions for Reflection

  1. Do I have language objectives in all learning areas?
  2. Do these reflect the language needs of the students?
  3. Does the language you use sufficiently extend and challenge the children?
  4. Are your expectations of the learning outcomes for second language and bilingual students sufficiently high?
  5. Do I have a sufficient knowledge of English language structures, form and grammar in order to know what to teach and how to explain it to my students? (If not, where could I learn this from?)
  6. If I am an ESO teacher – how can I help the teachers in my school to write adequate languae objectives across all curriculum areas?

School leader reflection questions

  1. Do all teachers in my school write suitable language objectives?
  2. Is any form of professional learning and development needed for teachers in my school in order to write suitable language objectives?  Where can I get support to do this?

Last week on the Primary ESOL online Community

We had the latest Pasifika and Māori updates and I forwarded a number of useful discussions on some other communities as our own community was very quiet.

  • The next AKTESOL event on Thursday 19th June at AIS St Helens (Mt Albert).
  • A post on Matariki resources which was full of useful links and ideas. This year, the new moon can be seen for the first time on the Piripi 28th June 2014.
  • Sheena Cameron - Personal Choice Writing a guest post on literacy online similar to writing for fluency.
  • The latest literacy for Māori learners update also on Matariki and Puanga
  • The latest Pasifika Update and challenge Michelle’s challenge this week is to share your best Pacific topics. What topics do you make 'Pacific'? What texts or subjects do you “Poly-nize” to make accessible?

Other Online Communities

Secondary ESOL:


Secondary literacy: