9. How do you help students perform at grade level in the content areas when they are learning through their second language, particularly when they are at low levels of proficiency in that language?

There are particular teaching strategies that allow teachers to keep the language demands low while the conceptual level is maintained at a high level. One such technique is the use of charts, tables, maps, diagrams, and other graphic organizers. Through graphic organizers, students can organize, understand, and communicate information about the content that they are learning. Such visual tools allow teachers to maintain conceptual accuracy and help learners create schemas for internalizing important generalizations, concepts, and facts about a given topic accurately and fully. Graphic organizers automatically reduce the language load because there is only so much you can write in a chart or other graphical display. The particular graphic organizer that is used is chosen to match the information structure—for example, a cause and effect diagram would be chosen to visually impart information about a particular event in history or phenomenon in science. When teachers choose appropriate visual tools, they help students internalize information in a conceptually accurate way while limiting the verbal load placed on second language learners. It is an ideal methodology when used well (see Hyerle, 2000, 2001).

In addition, because instruction is provided through both program languages to all children in TWI programs, it is possible to make content links across languages and promote the transfer of content concepts in that way. In some programs, all subject areas are taught through both languages, making it very easy to make connections across languages. In other programs, content areas are divided by language, meaning that thematic instruction is necessary in order to reinforce similar vocabulary and concepts across languages and content areas.

Whether subject areas are taught through both languages or are divided by language, when more than one teacher is involved, constant communication and joint planning is crucial in order to ensure that these connections are made clearly and explicitly. For example, a two-way immersion program coordinator in School District 54 in Schaumburg, IL worked with a second grade teacher who was planning a science lesson on rock classification in Spanish. They knew that the native English speakers would be able to group the rocks by their characteristics in their second language; however, in order to have them understand terms like luster, dull, and shiny in Spanish, the teachers knew that it would be more effective to have all of the students preview descriptive terms for the rocks in their first language during language arts (which is divided by native language in this program). Therefore, together with the English teacher, they planned to have students generate descriptive words for their rocks and write rock descriptions in their first language during language arts instruction. Later, when all of the students were grouped together for science and needed to learn these words in Spanish, the native English speakers were better able to do so. (For further discussion on the importance of communication between teachers in TWI programs, see Response #2 in the Literacy Instruction section.)

A final technique that teachers can use to promote understanding of the content taught through the second language is to keep the parents informed of the themes studied in class, and to send home suggestions for activities that can reinforce the key concepts. For example, the teacher might suggest that parents take their child to a science museum when they are learning about rocks, while cooking together could be the suggested home activity when learning about measurement.