8. How do you challenge native speakers while keeping the language level manageable for second language learners?

In order to challenge native speakers, yet keep instruction manageable for second language learners, teachers must engage in double planning: First they plan the lesson with native speakers in mind and then they return to the plan and make accommodations for their second language learners. Through this process, they will think about the background knowledge and experiences of each group of students, the materials they will use to support instruction, the scaffolding techniques they will use for the second language learners, the grouping arrangements that will support both groups’ learning, and the assessments they will design.

One key strategy that teachers use to challenge native speakers while keeping the language level manageable for second language learners is to vary their questioning techniques. For second language learners, teachers pose questions that are at their level of language proficiency, ranging from those that require only a physical response (such as pointing) or one-word answers for students at the lowest levels of language proficiency, to questions that require longer, more elaborated responses for those at higher levels of language proficiency. At the same time, teachers ask more linguistically sophisticated questions to the native speakers, thus ensuring that they are using rich academic language and continuing to develop their first language skills. In either case, it is important for the teacher to be sure that she is promoting higher order thinking through her questioning techniques for all students. This is more difficult to do in the case of students with limited language proficiency, but it is still possible (e.g. “Point to the largest animal;”  “Would you rather live in the desert or in the mountains?” or (using a graphic organizer such as a T chart and labeled pictures of many animals) “Which animals live in the desert? Which animals live in the mountains?”)  For both groups of learners, effective teachers use questions that are interesting to answer and cognitively and conceptually challenging, and they avoid low-level display questions that ask children to parrot back information that is self-evident.

Another helpful approach is the use of flexible grouping. There may be times when grouping by native language is appropriate for specific purposes. For example, two bilingual fifth grade TWI teachers realized that their native English speakers needed basic grammar instruction; they also realized that these grammar lessons would be boring and unnecessary for the native Spanish speakers. Therefore, they divided their students by native language background for two 45 periods each week for a period of several weeks. One teacher worked with the native English speakers on aspects of Spanish grammar in context (in Spanish), while the other teacher worked on critical thinking and academic vocabulary development with the Spanish speakers, also in Spanish.

As in this example, however, it is important to keep in mind that this type of homogeneous grouping is only appropriate for short periods of time when there are clear pedagogical reasons for it. Otherwise, there is the risk of compromising the model, both in terms of the amount of time that the two native language groups are integrated and the amount of instruction provided to all students through both languages. This is particularly the case in 50/50 programs, where the amount of instructional time in the partner language is already at the minimum and/or where students are already separated for a good portion of the day for literacy instruction through their native language. Ensuring that specials (art, music, PE, library, etc.) are included in the time allocations for each language is one way to help ensure that the chosen language balance (i.e. 90/10, 50/50, etc.) is maintained.