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Unlocking English Learners' Potential

Unlocking English Learners' Potential
Strategies for Making Content Accessible

Foreword by Lydia Breiseth

Additional resources:

April 2017 | 288 pages | Corwin

A once-in-a-generation text for assisting a new generation of students
Content teachers and ESOL teachers, take special note: if you’re looking for a single resource to help your English learners meet the same challenging content standards as their English-proficient peers, your search is complete. Just dip into this toolbox of strategies, examples, templates, and activities from EL authorities Diane Staehr Fenner and Sydney Snyder. The best part? Unlocking English Learners’ Potential supports teachers across all levels of experience.

The question is not if English learners can succeed in today’s more rigorous classrooms, but how. Unlocking English Learners’ Potential is all about the how:

  • How to scaffold ELs’ instruction across content and grade levels 
  • How to promote ELs’ oral language development and academic language
  • How to help ELs analyze text through close reading and text-dependent questions 
  • How to build ELs’ background knowledge
  • How to design and use formative assessment with ELs

Along the way, you’ll build the collaboration, advocacy, and leadership skills that we all need if we’re to fully support our English learners. After all, any one of us with at least one student acquiring English is now a teacher of ELs.

“Schools are not intentionally equitable places for English learners to achieve, but they could be if the right system of support were put in place. Diane Staehr Fenner and Sydney Snyder recommend just such a system. Not only does it have significant potential for providing fuller access to the core curriculum, it also provides a path for teachers to travel as they navigate the individual needs of students and support their learning journeys.”
Douglas Fisher, Coauthor of Visible Learning for Literacy

About the Authors
Chapter 1: Why You Need This Book to Support ELs
What Is the Framework for Equitable and Excellent EL Education?

What Is the Sense of Urgency Around ELs’ Equitable and Excellent Learning?

How Are ELs’ Demographics Changing?

What Are ELs’ Opportunity and Achievement Gaps?

What Shifts Have Occurred in Content Standards, and How Do These Affect ELs?

What Are the Guiding Principles That We Use to Frame Our Work With ELs and This Book?

How Do I Get Started Using All Five Guiding Principles?


Reflection Questions


Chapter 2: Using a Culturally Responsive Framework to Meet the Needs of ELs
What Is Culture?

Why Does Culture Matter for ELs’ Teaching and Learning?

How Can I Begin to Understand How My Cultural Expectations May Differ From Those of My ELs and the Impact This Will Have in the Classroom?

What Is Culturally Responsive Pedagogy?

What Are the Guidelines of Culturally Responsive Teaching?

What Is the Role of Collaboration in Developing a Culturally Responsive Classroom?

What Is the Role of Equity, Advocacy, and Leadership in Developing a Culturally Responsive Classroom?

Next Steps


Reflection Questions


Additional Resources

Chapter 3: Scaffolding Instruction for ELs
What Is a Scaffold?

What Are Different Types of Scaffolds?

What Types of Materials and Resources Can I Use to Scaffold Instruction?

What Instructional Practices Can I Use as Scaffolding?

How Can I Use Student Grouping to Scaffold Instruction?

What Steps Should I Take to Scaffold a Lesson?

Steps for Developing Scaffolded Lessons Plans

How Do I Select the Most Appropriate Scaffold for a Task for Each Modality of Language?

What Is the Role of Collaboration in Scaffolding Instruction for ELs?

What Is the Role of Equity, Advocacy, and Leadership in Developing Scaffolded Materials?


Application Activity Responses

Reflection Questions


Additional Resources

Chapter 4: Academic Conversations: A Tool for Fostering ELs’ Oral Language Development
Why Is It Important to Focus on ELs’ Oral Language Development?

How Do I Develop Effective Oral Language Activities for ELs?

What Practices Can ELs Engage in to Support Their Participation and Engagement in Oral Language Activities?

What Are Some Activities for Supporting ELs’ Oral Language Development?

How Can I Collaborate Around ELs’ Academic Conversations?

What Is the Role of Equity, Advocacy, and Leadership in Supporting ELs’ Oral Language Development?

Next Steps


Reflection Questions


Chapter 5: Teaching Academic Language to ELs
What Is Academic Language?

How Is Academic Language Different From Social Language?

How Is Academic Language Structured?

What Is the Interplay Between Scaffolds, Errors, and Academic Language?

What Is the Word Level?

What Is the Sentence Level?

What Is the Discourse Level?

Why Is Academic Language Important?

Why Don’t ELs Just Need Assistance With Vocabulary?

What Does It Mean That Acquisition of Academic Language Takes Place Within a Sociocultural Context?

How Do I Increase My Awareness of the Academic Language ELs Need to Access Challenging Content?

How Can I Figure Out What Academic Language Might Be Challenging for My ELs?

How Do I Teach Sentence-Level Academic Language to ELs?

How Do I Teach Discourse-Level Academic Language to ELs?

What Steps Should I Follow When Planning Instruction That Integrates Instruction of Academic Language Simultaneously With Content?

How Can I Coplan Instruction of Academic Language When My Time Is Limited?

How Can I Infuse Equity, Advocacy, and Leadership to Promote Academic Language?

Next Steps


Reflection Questions


Chapter 6: Vocabulary Instruction and ELs
What Is Academic Vocabulary?

Why Teach Academic Vocabulary to ELs?

How Should I Select Vocabulary for In-Depth Instruction?

How Can I Assess Students’ Initial Understanding of These New Words?

What Strategies Should I Use for Teaching Academic Vocabulary?

What Activities Can I Use to Help My ELs Practice New Vocabulary?

How Can I Help My ELs Become Independent Learners of New Vocabulary?

How Do I Put All of the EL Vocabulary Strategies Together?

What Is the Role of Collaboration in Teaching Academic Vocabulary to ELs?

What Is the Role of Equity, Advocacy, and Leadership in Teaching Academic Vocabulary to ELs?

Next Steps


Reflection Questions


Additional Tools and Resources

Chapter 7: Teaching ELs Background Knowledge
Reflection: How Do I Feel About Teaching Background Knowledge to ELs?

How Can I Raise My Awareness About the Importance of ELs’ Background Knowledge?

What Does the Research Say About Background Knowledge?

What Is the Close Reading of Texts?

What Is the Role of Background Knowledge in ELs’ Close Reading of Texts?

How Do I Match ELs to Texts?

What Is a Framework I Can Use for Building ELs’ Background Knowledge?

Step 1: How Do I Find out My ELs’ Prior Knowledge on a Particular Topic or Text?

Step 2: How Do I Decide How Much Background Knowledge to Provide to ELs?

Step 3: How Do I Activate ELs’ Background Knowledge That They Already Possess?

Step 4: What Are Some Strategies for Concisely Teaching ELs Background Knowledge?

What Are Some Examples of Teaching Background Knowledge?

How Can I Apply the Four-Step Framework When Teaching Background Knowledge to ELs?

How Do I Build or Activate ELs’ Background Knowledge in Mathematics?

How Do I Construct Less Biased Mathematics Problems for ELs?

What Is the Role of Collaboration in Teaching Background Knowledge?

What Is the Role of Equity, Advocacy, and Leadership in Teaching Background Knowledge?


Reflection Questions

Application Activity Responses


Chapter 8: Supporting ELs’ Reading for Multiple Purposes Through Using Scaffolded Text-Dependent Questions
What Does It Mean to Read for Multiple Purposes?

How Can I Specifically Scaffold My Instruction of ELs to Support Their Reading for Multiple Purposes?

What Are TDQs?

What Type of Questions Should I Ask to Create TDQs for ELs?

How Do I Scaffold My ELs’ Responses to TDQs?

What Steps Should I Take to Create TDQs for ELs?

How Do I Apply What I Have Learned About Creating TDQs for ELs?

How Do I Collaborate to Create Effective Scaffolded TDQs for ELs?

What is the Role of Equity, Advocacy, and Leadership in Creating TDQs?


Reflection Questions

Application Activity Responses


Chapter 9: Formative Assessment for ELs
What Is Assessment as, of, and for Learning?

What Is Formative Assessment?

What Does the Research Say on Assessment for ELs in General?

What Is the Role of Formative Assessment With ELs?

How Do I Structure the Formative-Assessment Process for ELs?

How Can I Interpret Formative-Assessment Evidence to Inform Instruction of ELs?

What Is Assessment Validity for ELs, and How Can I Ensure My Formative Assessments Are Valid?

How Can I Ensure That Formative Assessments Are Valid for ELs of Varying Proficiency Levels?

How Do I Scaffold Formative Assessments for ELs?

How Does the Formative-Assessment Process for ELs Unfold in a Classroom?

How Can I Support My ELs on Computer-Based Formative Assessments?

What Is the Role of Collaboration in Creating and Using Formative Assessments for ELs?

What Is the Role of Equity, Advocacy, and Leadership in Creating and Using Formative Assessments for ELs?

What Are the Next Steps to Design Formative Assessments Specific to My Context?


Reflection Questions




"Much may be debated about what English learners need in order to be successful in school, but while that debate continues, teachers need access to sensible and accessible assistance to teach language and content to English learners right now. This new book by Diane Staehr Fenner and Sydney Snyder is the book to fill that need. In clear prose, accompanied by lively classroom examples and a series of engaging application activities, the authors target the topics of culturally responsive teaching, scaffolded instruction for oral language and reading, understanding academic language, and how to formatively assess student development in these areas. There is something here for both novice teachers and their more seasoned colleagues as Staehr Fenner and Snyder skillfully bring together the necessary ingredients to help teachers advance the language and content learning of their English learners."

Alison L. Bailey, Professor Human Development and Psychology
Department of Education, University of California, Los Angeles

"Staehr Fenner and Snyder have written a much needed and illuminating text in the field of EL education that challenges educators to re-think language pedagogy in new ways that never dichotomize theory and practice. Not only do the authors provide numerous, sound and exciting hands-on instructional recommendations but they impressively model for educators what it means to link theory to practice by anchoring their applications to a comprehensive equity and cultural wealth framework."

Lilia I. Bartolome, Ph.D., Professor of Applied Linguistics
University of Massacusetts Boston, College of Liberal Arts

"There is so much to love about Unlocking English Learners’ Potential. Diane and Sydney have created a truly readable text packed with practical suggestions for all educators who teach ELs! ESOL educators will find the focus on advocacy and leadership provides them with new ideas to take their practice to the next level. Content educators will appreciate the many easy-to-incorporate strategies for developing oral language and reading within their own academic content classes. And finally, the emphasis on teacher collaboration is vital to get everyone on board with an agenda that stresses equity and excellence for our culturally and linguistically diverse learners.  This text will undoubtedly be a hit with school PLCs and teacher education programs."

Tim Boals, WIDA Executive Director
University of Wisconsin-Madison

"With so many resources available today and so little time to review them all, it becomes harder and harder for educators to know what to read and when to read it. What Diane and Sydney offer to educators of English Learners with this book is the unique opportunity to find in one resource a synthesis of the current research, examples of its impact in the classroom through authentic classroom vignettes, and a wealth of tools to get started in their own classroom.  Diane and Sydney have successfully combined their own expertise with that of colleagues and educators to bring to the field a valuable tool for professional growth and collaboration. Thank you!"

Mariana Castro, Director of Standards
WIDA Consortium at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research

"Continuing their advocacy for English learners to obtain an equitable education, Diane Staehr Fenner and Sydney Snyder offer a remarkable framework to guide teachers to better understand the complex nature of teaching diverse students. This book not only examines why a supportive school environment matters but also offers detailed, research-informed instructional strategies applicable to every class. It is must read for all teachers of English learners!"

Maria G. Dove, Ed.D., Associate Professor and Coordinator
Molloy College, New York, Graduate Education TESOL Programs

"Unlocking English Learners' Potential: Strategies for Making Content Accessible offers a treasure trove of practical resources and ideas for all teachers - and not just those with ELLs in their classrooms."

Larry Ferlazzo, Teacher and Author
ESL/ELL Teacher's Survival

"Staehr Fenner and Snyder masterfully unravel the intricacies of teaching and supporting English learners (ELs). Seen through a series of guiding principles within an equitable educational framework, each chapter reveals an important theme in enacting effective instructional strategies that advance EL learning. Their focus on teacher collaboration in furthering students’ language development and academic achievement provides insight into implementing their carefully delineated steps. With its many application activities, this book offers both content and language teachers a myriad of ideas for working with ELs integral to their classroom practices."

Margo Gottlieb, Co-founder & Lead Developer, Corwin Author

"Staehr Fenner and Snyder have created a practitioner-friendly guide for educators of ELs to help create welcoming school and classroom environments, build cultural responsiveness, and increase educators' toolboxes for serving ELs. The authors speak with experienced teacher voices and have a gift for making the complex simple through explicit explanation, classroom examples, and use of tools for instruction and assessment. This is a must-read for both pre-service educators of ELs who are seeking authentic professional learning to meet the needs of their ELs."

Janet E. Hiatt, EL/Title III Consultant
Heartland Area Education Agency, Iowa

"Unlocking English Learners' Potential: Strategies for Making Content Accessible not only offers a fresh perspective on approaching the education of English learners, but also provides readers with practical and comprehensive guidance on how to ensure success for ELs. I am honored to endorse this new book from leading experts Diane Staehr Fenner and Sydney Snyder, who continue to demonstrate uncompromising dedication to and advocacy for ELs, while also offering ready-to-implement strategies and examples of successful practices."

Andrea Honigsfeld, Associate Dean and Ed.D. Program Director
Molloy College, New York

"In the current ESSA era, all teachers are charged with teaching both the language and content featured in standards-based instruction and assessment. This timely work, grounded in extensive EL vignettes and readily implementable examples of useful pedagogy, shines a welcome light on this topic, particularly for teachers of language, and yet who recognize the urgency to provide ELs access to the Core curriculum. This comprehensive educator tool represents a significant contribution to the field and will be a well-used desk reference by K-12 teachers."

Stephaney Jones-Vo, English Learner/Title III Consultant
Heartland Area Education Agency, Iowa
Key features
(1) Presents an array of research-based strategies that content teachers can apply to their lessons to help ELLs successfully interact with grade level content.
(2) Strategies focus on scaffolding academic content to help ELs meet today's more rigorous content standards.
(3) Scaffolding techniques can be used across multiple content areas and grade levels.
(4) State-of-the-art coverage includes learning to analyze academic language demands in texts, close reading and ELs, and promoting oral language development.
(5) Throughout the book, the need to foster collaboration between content teachers and other educational professionals is underscored.

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ISBN: 9781506353005