History-Social Science in the Language Diverse Elementary Classroom

By Valbuena, Rebecca | Social Studies Review, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

History-Social Science in the Language Diverse Elementary Classroom


Valbuena, Rebecca, Social Studies Review


425 first languages! According to the U.S. Department of Education (2009), that's what five million students bring to U.S. classrooms. Students who speak a language other than English at home and who are not proficient in English are known as English learners (ELs). ELs have always been in California classrooms. Olive Mann Isbell, the teacher in the first American school in California, had 56 students in her classroom. None of them spoke English! Today in California, nearly one third of elementary school students are ELs. We are much better equipped than Miss Isbell, with curriculum, materials and the understanding of pedagogy. We know that for students to master the English language and the content standards, we must integrate content instruction with language development. In effective teaching, every part of a lesson is deliberately planned to introduce, practice or extend language skills at the same time that content is being taught. With careful consideration of research-based best practices, elementary teachers can plan and teach lessons that promote English language development while making history easy, understandable and relevant.

Getting Ready to Learn

Researcher Alfie Kohn (1999) writes, "Where interest appears, achievement usually follows." This is simply stated, but carries a lot of weight. History is about people and people are intrinsically interesting. History is the story of ourselves and, presented well, one that children love to hear. With this in mind, lessons often start with a personal story or a piece of literature. Children listen with fascination to the main characters, the setting, and the plot of content-based stories. For example, while studying migration patterns to California, start by telling students a personal migration story with a map, letters, and pictures. Analyze these primary source documents and take notes along the way on a class chart. Students naturally begin thinking about their own family's migration/immigration story. Brainstorm interview questions (after a mini lesson on interrogative sentences), chart responses as information comes in (learning to capitalize proper nouns), and look for historical patterns (while writing compare/contrast sentences). The children are personally involved, interested in the content, and the language instruction is naturally imbedded! Students are far more eager to practice language skills in this context than on workbook page 12.

Tapping and building prior knowledge is the first step in successful teaching. Effective teachers build schema for students to attach and retain new information. Only when there is an idea in the brain to connect the new knowledge, can children learn. Teachers must start with what a student knows, what is comprehensible, and then build upon it. Stephen Krashen (1991) termed "comprehensible input." Comprehensible input is that input which is slightly beyond the current level of competence of the language learner. If i is the language learner's current level of competence in English, then i + 1 is the next immediate step along the development continuum. Since the goal is to move a child to the next level of English development, it is essential to provide the student with comprehensible input [i +1].

Using a teacher-made big book is one tool that allows the teacher to engage students in a language activity and introduce vocabulary in context. When the book is teacher-made, the vocabulary is controlled, specific content is introduced, and meaningful, personalized graphics are used. Including a repetitive phrase or predictable pattern in the book allows for oral language practice in class. These teacher-made big books are sometimes the most popular books in the classroom!

The Carousel is another favorite introductory activity. Prepare six pieces of butcher paper with graphics such as magazine pictures, maps, primary sources, etc., at the top. Place these posters around the room and divide students into small groups of 4-5. …

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