You Can’t Enjoy a Meal When You Don’t Know What You’re Eating: The Importance of Building Background Knowledge for Our English Learners?

From guest blogger Sarah Said


You go to a restaurant that is new to you. You’ve never heard of the restaurant before, but there is no where else for you to eat. You need to eat, because you need nourishment. You go to this place to eat because you have to eat. You look at the menu and there are foods you have never heard of before. The menu says “ghoetisvnbost.” You don’t know what these foods consist of in their composition. You need to eat, and you have to eat. Another line of the menu says “uitybnodiyth” … this doesn’t connect to anything you have eaten before. There is an aroma in the air that is uncommon to you. You don’t really know if the aroma is a good or bad scent. You are hungry and have to eat. Will you eat? Will you eat with ease? Will you enjoy eating? Will it nourish you? Hmmm…

Many of us would not eat in that restaurant with ease. As adventurous with our eating as we can be, it is not easy for us to put something into our system that we do not know, regardless of how hungry we may be. Let’s face it, you can’t enjoy a meal when you don’t know what you’re eating. When you don’t eat with ease, your system can reject the food. Therefore, you will not always be nourished.

Is this post about the latest and greatest place to eat? No, this blog post is not about the best restaurants in the neighborhood. It’s actually about the importance of building background for our English learners. Reflect on what I just asked you, “Is it good for you to eat in a place where you have no background on the types of food they are serving?”  “Is eating this food without knowledge of the type of food you are eating good for you and your system?” Nope – Probably not. So, why do we insist on introducing new content, at times, when students may not have had exposure to it?

Teachers have to work hard to build on a student’s schema of information to connect to topics they are teaching.  When that student is an English learner, they have to work even harder. You have to learn about their cultural experiences and that helps you build background.  You also have to think about what they may have learned in their home country as well as building a bridge between content and language so that the student can really comprehend your instruction.  This is a lot…

So where do you begin:

  • Look for strategies such as “Linking Journals”  These journals are part of “99 MORE Ideas and Activities for Teaching English Learners with the SIOP® Model.”  They help students link past knowledge to future knowledge.  Having linking journals with sentence starters makes content more attainable and accessible.
  • Cognates! Cognates! Cognates!  If you are a language teacher, having students look for existing cognates between their language and English will help them be more successful in the classroom.
  • Interactive word walls!!! I can’t stress this enough, but student-created, interactive word walls help students engage with and learn new vocabulary. If students are part of creating the wall, they are empowered by the fact that they helped create that wall.
Special Thanks to Ridge Lawn Elementary School K-5 EL teacher, Yadira Moreno, for classroom word wall images.
  • Using pictures in a text to create a picture walk can help students pre-read a text and connect to concepts before reading.
  • Using realia (or real life objects) that the students recognize will help you explain content more directly to students because it brings content to life.

So, why is this important?  Building background helps your instruction be more responsive to students’ cultures and needs.  When you are building background, you are helping students feel safe and confident in the classroom. The safer a student feels, the more likely they will want to take risks. Now, let’s go back to the restaurant, you realize that “ghoetisvnbost” looks like lasagna and has pasta sauce and cheese in its composition. It starts to smell familiar. Can you eat it now? I bet you can…

If a child’s brain cannot connect the content they are learning to existing knowledge they have, they will have difficulty digesting content. Our English learners have enough on their plates already. Give them something they can eat in your classroom with the instruction you cook up!

About today’s guest blogger:


Sarah has fifteen years of experience working with English Learners in the Chicago land area from all parts of the world as a teacher, building administrator, and District Level Director of English Learner/Bilingual programs. Sarah considers herself a practicioner of the SIOP® Model framework and is always willing to learn new strategies to better herself at the implementing the components of SIOP® with fidelity. She has trained teachers in and implemented the SIOP® Model in a K-8 school district. Sarah sits on the Illinois Advisory Council on Bilingual Education, where she is about to complete the first year of her three year term. She is a regular blogger for ELL Confianza.  She has also had work appear though Ed Week blogs and has worked on collaborations with English Learner Portal and Mawi Learning.  ​

You can follow Sarah on Twitter: @MrsSaid17


Why Use Content & Language Objectives in Your Classroom?

From guest blogger Valentina Gonzalez

I had an epiphany! I have to share it with you. Especially those of you that have ever wondered…

“Why do I have to write my content and language objectives on the board?”

I used to think it was for administrators to see what was going on in classrooms. That was even a rumor in the building. Teachers were all a buzz over the new expectation. 
In hindsight, it would have really helped to know exactly why we needed to put these objectives up on the board. 

But when it hit me, it hit me! It wasn’t for the administrators at all. Here’s what happened…

I went grocery shopping WITHOUT a list! YES, that’s when it hit me.

Think about this…A time when you went to the grocery store without a list. What happened and how did you feel? 

If you’re like me, you walk around grabbing everything in sight, feeling overwhelmed and leave realizing you didn’t get what you really needed for dinner. And somehow, tons of junk ends up in your cart. I’m serious…for example, chocolate bars and Oreos (I’m speaking from experience).  This is not a lie. It’s what happens to me all the time when I go without a list… JUNK! I lose focus and I get distracted by all of the surroundings. 

Now think of a time when you went to the grocery store with a list. What happened and how did you feel?
For me, when I go with a list, I know exactly what I’m there for, and I get everything I need. I leave feeling successful. 

What does this have to do with content and language objectives?? Well…our classrooms are full of information. They can be confusing and overwhelming ESPECIALLY to students learning English as another language and content at the same time. If we don’t tell them what the goal or target for the day is, they can be grabbing ideas throughout the lesson instead of focused on the learning. I don’t want them grabbing for junk. “I wonder if my job today is to understand that adjectives can make a sentence more descriptive. Or am I supposed to understand that verbs can be irregular? Or is my goal today to build sentences that are compound?” 

When we explicitly tell our students what the goals are for the day or class period, it’s like giving them the target. They know what to reach for so they can aim appropriately. And they are not focused on everything all at once. As we know, learning English is a huge task while at the same time learning content. The more support we can give our kids, the better. Giving them content and language objectives is another scaffold, a support. 

I want my students to walk in and know what is expected of them. Nothing is a surprise. 

So that’s why we should post our content and language objectives. But take it one step farther. I learned that kids need to read the objectives out loud at the beginning of class. Otherwise, the objectives become wallpaper after time. Kids need to talk about the objectives and reflect on them at the end of the class period. “Did I hit the mark?” “Do I still need to work on this objective?”

If anyone ever questions why they should put up objectives-there it is! They are like targets. They give students something to aim for during the day.

About today’s guest blogger:


Valentina Gonzalez has been in education since 1997. Her work spans across multiple grade levels. She started her teaching career as a third grade teacher but has also taught second and fourth. Valentina Gonzalez has also served as an ESL Specialty Support Teacher where she co-taught in first through fifth grade rooms. She served Katy Independent School District as an ESL Facilitator traveling the district and supporting ESL teachers and their campuses. Valentina Gonzalez is currently a Professional Development Specialist for English Language Learners in Katy, Texas. She has had the pleasure of presenting at district, local and state conferences. She is a life-long learner who is passionate about advocating for all students.

You can read more of Valentina’s work on her blog, English Language Learners, and by following her on Twitter: @ValentinaESL

Honoring Judith B. O’Loughlin

by Leticia M. Trower

Judith B. O’Loughlin, Pearson Education Specialist, was recently named one of TESOL’s “50 at 50” – fifty educators who have made significant contributions to the field in the last fifty years.


I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Judith about this honor, and about her long and distinguished career in the field of teaching English as a second language. Here are some highlights of our conversation:

On being honored by TESOL:
JO: The very first winner was James Alatis. I remember quite a few years ago I met him. And he was quite a person! He talked a lot about the TESOL affiliates and their support for English learners. So I’m really impressed being in this company!

James Alatis was a founding member of TESOL International. Click here to view the list of honorees – Judith is in very good company indeed! Anyone familiar with linguistics or language teaching will recognize many superstars among the fifty honorees.



On how she became an ESL educator:
JO: It was sort of a fluke thing! I was at home with two children under five, and I went to my town’s library and started a conversation with another person who was there. I said “I’m very antsy to get back into teaching.” I had been a middle school English teacher and a high school English teacher. My maternity leave was up, and my job had been absorbed due to low enrollment. So this person mentioned that there were adult ed positions in Hackensack, New Jersey. She had just gotten hired as an ESL teacher, and she asked if I’d like to go down and see about getting put on the substitute teacher list. I went down with her that night, and somebody quit that night and the director asked me if I’d be interested in the job! So that’s where I started. I worked there at night for seventeen years believe it or not, two nights a week, two to three hours a night, working with adults. We had rolling enrollment, so they came and went; one night I’d have twenty-five students and the next night I might have ten. Really challenging, but interesting!

The director kept telling me to go get my ESL certification so I could teach in the daytime too, and after about five or six years I did; I got my Master’s in Bilingual/ESL Education at William Patterson University, and I started working days and nights. I taught K-8 during the day, and two nights a week I worked with adults.

[The night I got the job] I was sort of pinching myself. I said to my husband, “I think I have a job,” and he said “Great!” It wasn’t anything I originally thought I would do, but it became my passion.

It did indeed become her passion! Judith has been in the field of second language learning ever since. She now works for Pearson as an Education Specialist, traveling nationwide to deliver workshops on the SIOP Model, the only empirically-validated model of sheltered instruction for English learners. She also facilitates webinars for elementary bilingual certification candidates at the University of Ohio, and is a certified trainer for WIDA. Judith has written extensively about language learning too, and has published book chapters, articles, a book, and blog posts. Her most recent publication is a blog post for Colorin Colorado. With so many accomplishments already behind her, I asked her to reflect on everything she has done so far, and tell me what she is most proud of.

JO: When I lived in New Jersey, TESOL came out with the first iteration of national ESL standards. I still have that book here! I was on the board of NJTESOL and I was convinced that in order for ESL to be recognized as a viable content and course in New Jersey, we had to let all the county superintendents know that, just like any other content area, we had standards. It was a real perception problem in public schools, that we were support personnel rather than certified teachers; classroom teachers felt you [as an ESL teacher] were there as an aide. I did a whole letter-writing campaign to every county superintendent in New Jersey, and with the help of NJTESOL I purchased 55 copies of the book and mailed one copy to each county superintendent with the letter. Then I followed up with a phone call to make sure they had received the book and understood that now ESL has standards. So, I think for me, that was a really important accomplishment. And since then, New Jersey has adopted the WIDA standards, and teachers can now talk with their districts about the importance of those standards, and not just teaching on the fly.

On her “second family”:
JO: I think one example of the impact that I felt I’ve made is that there are at least five of my students [from Asian countries] who have come back to the United States to work, and I feel so proud of them. I have an electrical engineer, a physical therapist, a professor… I’m really, really proud. My former students write to me, and I’ve visited them or they’ve visited me. My husband used to say that I had two families – the my first family was our kids, and my second family was my school kids. That was really important to me.

I asked Judith what she would share with those who are new to the field. I asked, “What do you wish you had known, when you first started working with English learners?”

JO: Oh my goodness. I wish I had known more about the people I was working with. I wish I’d had a better understanding of their struggles. Relocation, getting settled, stuck between their culture and American culture – all of that took time to learn, and I wish I had known more about that sooner.

My mother’s parents came from Turkey, and I never thought about that as a kid growing up. When I started working with kids, I started thinking about that: all the kids I was teaching were in two different worlds. There was the world they were in at school, and the world they were in when they went home from school. And it kind of hit me because as a little girl growing up I went from school to my grandmother’s house after school and I didn’t speak her language, and I never thought about it as entering a different world until I started working with kids, how a six-year-old has to negotiate these two worlds. I still think about it all the time. It’s a big responsibility to be able to live in American classrooms and then go home to your country in your home in America. Everything is different, everything you do is a little different, everything you think about is a little bit different.

Also, this may sound silly, but I wish I’d known more about English grammar! When I first started working with adult English learners, I had to study my own grammar – the grammar I was supposedly taught in high school. It was more about learning how to teach, not just the grammar itself, but how to help my students communicate, as well as understanding more about their culture.

I asked Judith how teachers can make a difference in the lives of English learners, especially in the face of all the challenges she described. She had some words of wisdom for her fellow educators, and left us with what may be the next big question in the field of teaching English as a second language:

JO: Resilience! That’s the big thing I’ve been thinking and reading about lately. Trying to figure out why some students succeed and some students don’t. I want teachers today to think about how to help their students become resilient, to be able to succeed when they have adverse learning situations, when they don’t feel that they belong, etc. To create an environment in which students feel comfortable experimenting with language, and making errors, and know that they have support, not only from their ESL teachers but from a community within the school – to help students build resilience and be able to succeed. Something that surprised me is that resilience is almost more important than the academics. How do we provide our students with that?



What happens at a SIOP II institute?

by Leticia M. Trower

workshopIf you are considering attending the SIOP II Institute coming up in Alexandria, Virginia on October 8-9, 2015 or one of our 2016 SIOP II trainings but would like to know more about what you’ll do and learn at this event, read on!

Just like a SIOP I Institute, or any of the various SIOP workshops that Pearson offers, a SIOP II Institute is fun, meaningful, and energizing. SIOP Institutes offer educators the opportunity to work directly with a SIOP author, and include a wide variety of engaging and relevant activities that participants can then use to facilitate learning for their own students or teachers. The Alexandria event is presented by Dr. Deborah Short, SIOP author, and Andrea Rients, SIOP consultant. In addition to working with Pearson to provide SIOP support to educators nationwide, Andrea is also still working directly with teachers and students in her local school district as an instructional coach. This combination of experts in the field who are working directly with schools, and experts in the field who are on the leading edge of the latest research, is one hallmark of a SIOP Institute.

The SIOP II Institute is designed for educators who are already familiar with the SIOP Model, and have already attended a SIOP I Institute, three days of SIOP Training for Teachers in their district, or a similar level of professional learning. At the SIOP II Institute, participants deepen their understanding of the Model and enhance their implementation of SIOP in their school or district. Activities include rating SIOP lessons in order to develop inter-rater reliability; developing an action plan in order to effectively support SIOP instruction in your school or district; reviewing and revising lesson plans in order to maximize differentiation and “SIOPize” instruction; and integrating technology into SIOP lessons in meaningful, effective ways.

Are you a SIOP educator looking to take it to the next level? Consider attending the SIOP II Institute in Alexandria, VA on Oct. 8-9! You can register here.

SIOP Strategies Support 21st Century Skills!


Communication and collaboration are among the top skills identified to be successful in the 21st Century; for English learners, these skills can be quite intimidating in the classroom. Academic language must be supported and scaffolded to help not just English learners but ALL learners in the classroom. The SIOP Model provides many different techniques to get English learners engaged in these skills. Below are my go-to techniques to get English learners collaborating and communicating in my classroom.

Inside Outside Circle:

What it is: For this teaching technique, the class is divided in half; the first half forms an inside circle, and the second half forms an outside circle around them. Each student pairs with the person across from him or her in the opposing circle.  After students respond to a question prompt from the teacher, the inside circle or outside circle rotates to form new partners.

Why it’s effective:  Speaking in pairs is less intimidating than speaking in front of the whole class. English learners have time to listen to their partner first, to hear an example if needed, and have a safe place to respond. After rotating, the English learner has 2 different responses to share with their next partner, and confidence has been built. This also is a safe place for students to work together and to work with many other students. By rotating pairs, all students see that working together with everyone is a class expectation. This not only helps students learn the content, but it also builds community in the classroom.

Variations: Teachers can use personal whiteboards for math problems; provide sentence stems for students to include, or practice specific vocabulary; teachers can have students prepare questions to quiz one another with as a form of review; teachers can use this with vocabulary cards as a form of vocabulary review; teachers can use this to have students share prior knowledge on a subject before starting a new unit, or share research from an article in preparation for a Socratic seminar. (more…)

The Amazing Talents of Teachers

By Jana Echevarria, Ph.D.

Those of us who have the privilege of working with teachers know that there is a plethora of talent in our profession. In addition to being excellent teachers, many are also very creative and use their creativity in ways that benefit their students. In this case, a creative “student” amazed his “teacher.” What do I mean?

Aaron Reid is a teacher who was taking an online SIOP class, called a SIOP Virtual Institute. SIOP professional developer Amy Washam was his “teacher” or the facilitator of the Virtual Institute. As part of the week’s assignment, students were asked how implementation of the SIOP Model’s features lead to differentiated classroom instruction and language development for English learners? Here is Aaron’s a creative and poetic response.

A SIOP-less Class

by Aaron Reid

Are you surprised at the amount of teachers who don’t prepare lessons for their students…?  That’s not even fair. Now consider yourself a student whose is not a native speaker, listening to the inane prattles of an unprepared teacher!

Spouting facts and figures, clumsily put together, rather than intriguing content and meaningful endeavors. Imagine your background not considered, your culture ignored, strange vocabulary without scaffold written on the chalkboard.

Words approaching so fast, you can barely make them out. No models, no visuals, you’d definitely be filled with doubt. Only one way to complete tasks that you don’t understand. No scaffolding, no support, no one lending a hand.

Question asked…you’re thinking… but given no “wait time”, Teacher glares…you’re sinking… is thinking a war crime? Collaborative conversations don’t exist so you’re the “dumb” kid. Never speaking, in the corner, determined to stay off the grid.

Manipulatives make it easy but you don’t know their operation. The only time you see manipulatives is during your teacher’s observation. Unsure of what you’re supposed to know, terrified to do your best…Another English learner victim of the reading benchmark test…

 Whew…!  That’s a lot!  But that was just a nightmare. After all, that would be more than you could bear. 15 years of SIOP has made the classroom a brighter place so optimized learning English learners can embrace!

Content and Language Objectives in the ELA Classroom

Schoolchildren Studying In Classroom With TeacherA few weeks ago we added a post to the blog in which SIOP professional developers Amy Washam and Lindsay Young discussed the reasons behind having separate content objectives and language objectives. An English/Language Arts (ELA) teacher wrote back with the following question:

What about in an ELA classroom? Language is our content. Teachers often complain that the two objectives say the same thing.

Here are Lindsay and Amy’s responses and a final thought by SIOP author Jana Echevarria. (more…)

Another Career Saved Through Effective Professional Development

By Jana Echevarria, Ph.D.8170_lpd_HR_mod_Page_1_Image_0003

The title of this post may sound hyperbolic, but the truth is that teaching can often be an isolated and lonely profession, especially when teachers feel that they are not reaching their students or seeing the learning results that inspired them to become teachers in the first place. That’s where ongoing professional development comes in.

When teachers have the opportunity to learn and grow professionally, to try out research-validated practices that are effective in helping students make academic gains, and in the case of English learners, improve their language proficiency, it can be immensely rewarding.

Recently a teacher who took an online PD course emailed the instructor to express thanks for helping her to create lesson plans that incorporate features of the SIOP Model, features that ensure that lessons are comprehensible for English learners and concurrently develop academic English proficiency. She added, “ I am really delighted with the SIOP Model and will practice it until I have it down completely. I have applied all that I understand about it thus far to my lesson plan.”

After implementing the lesson plan the following week, she sent the update below to the instructor:

I implemented only some of the lesson to my freshmen class to try it out and it made me feel so much more successful than I have ever felt in the full 15 years I’ve been teaching. I think you and your colleagues are on to something with SIOP! T-H-A-N-K Y-O-U! You came into my life just in the nick of time. I was headed out of teaching all together after this year because I didn’t believe that I could help students anymore. SIOP has given me hope!:)

SIOP trainers often hear stories like this one about how the right PD at the right time has dramatically affected teachers’ practice and outlook.

 Effective professional development provides teachers with a setting through which to collaborate with other educators, acquire new knowledge to deepen their understanding of best practice, plan and analyze lessons, and discuss implementation successes and challenges. The process offers teacher the tools and support they need to work more successfully with students. Without it, they can become disheartened, and worse, leave the profession.

Can Content and Language Objectives be Combined?

Anyone familiar with the SIOP Model knows that content objectives (COs) based on academic standards and language objectives (LOs) designed to build students’ academic language skills are integral to all effective SIOP lessons. Some educators have wondered whether COs and LOs need to be separate or if they can be combined into one objective. Recently, a teacher posed this question to SIOP contributing author and professional developer Amy Washam and provided these examples of combined objectives:

Students will orally explain, using sequential words, how to solve a system of linear equations by graphing

Students will be able to (SWBAT) orally compare and contrast the physical adaptations of whales and sharks using conjunctions

Amy Washam and fellow SIOP professional developer Lindsay Young weigh in on this question below.

Amy Washam

In my opinion, these examples are LOs, and pretty good ones, especially given that we should help students learn conjunctions. During SIOP professional development sessions, after talking about SIOP research, I usually explain to participants that we have one objective for content and one for language so that teachers will not forget to teach language. I’m concerned that it will be easy to focus only on content with combined objectives and neglect explicit language teaching.

I am also concerned that combining the two would shortchange the content. If you look at the Next Generation Science Standards, the science objective the teacher used as an example does not really cover any of the NGSS listed. I worry that if teachers begin combining content and language objectives, curriculum folks will determine that language objectives water down the content. For me, this is a second argument for why content and language should be separate.

Lindsay Young

I would echo Amy’s sentiments. I have also had inquiries about combining objectives. As SIOP author Deborah Short has stated, if they’re combining objectives they are not doing SIOP. I’m going to continue to emphasize the research evidence on the SIOP Model. In those studies, teachers separated the COs from the LOs. Doing so is not only more effective but very doable.

Climbing the SIOP Mountain

By Amy Washamamy_washam

“I have been SIOP trained!” Whenever I hear educators say these words, the follow up question is, “Do you implement the features of SIOP into your lessons, and if so, to what degree?” Receiving SIOP training is only the first step to becoming a high-implementing SIOPer. I often use the analogy of climbing a mountain, a SIOP mountain. For most educators, the SIOP training only makes you aware that the SIOP Mountain exists. You do not begin to ascend the SIOP Mountain until you implement the features consistently into your lessons. And you do not summit the SIOP Mountain, become a high-implementer, without lots of experience implementing the features.

While I know quite a bit about implementing the SIOP Model, I am not an experienced mountain climber. So to continue this analogy, I searched, “How to climb a mountain,” and found some striking similarities between the extreme sport of mountain climbing and learning to implement the SIOP Model to a high degree (see (more…)