Teaching Language Starts with Our Students

Teaching Language Starts with Our Students

We are all language learners. I am often reminded of that when I hear my own children talking and I dont understand the meaning of words I thought I was familiar with. I listen closely and try to figure out the new way in which they are transforming language to create their own language communities. I am in awe at the ease by which children and adolescents move across language communities and yet I often wonder why that ease is harder when developing language in school. I find myself thinking about what makes their social language experiences so successful and what can we learn from those experiences to support language learning in school and classroom contexts.

All language communities share common goals, to communicate effectively with one another to meet personal and collective purposes. Developing academic language is similar. Students are challenged with learning objectives every day in school across content areas. These objectives are rich with language demands that allow students to access the content, interpret meaning and share what they have learned using oral or written means. Though we share common purposes as members of a language community, what differs often from social language communities to more academic is the authenticity and meaningful nature of those communications. Students need to find meaning in learning objectives in school. They need to feel that what they are learning is setting them up to successfully navigate language and literacy in authentic experiences both in and out of school.

Teacher Helping Student in ClassThough there are many, many approaches, practices, and strategies for guiding the language learning process in school, we have to begin with what we know about our students and ensure that we provide varied and frequent opportunities to use language across content areas. 


1. Get to know your students

Learning about our students helps us make learning meaningful. Some of my favorite strategies are those that allow them to open up about who they are, strategies that help them discover their identities. For younger students, I encourage a personal collage. You can come up with a range of categories of what they can include on their collage:

  • Likes and dislikes

  • Favorite color, food, games, music, sports

  • Family pets

  • Family members

  • Hobbies


You can explore a range of categories with the class to add to the list of options. Remember that a personal collage is about the child, which means the medium and organization of their collage should be their own. We are not looking for a standard template, but to allow them to create and show you who they are!

Older students may be encouraged to think more deeply about what they may want to share about their identities and the vehicle for sharing it. Some ideas might include:

  • A song/lyrics that share something about who they are or what they stand for

  • A personal cultural artifact, something tangible from their home that represents something about them or their family background

  • Social media profile-share some of their stories or posts from social media

  • A piece of artwork that represents them, their ethnic, personal or social culture

  • A video montage of personal pictures

The idea is to allow flexibility in how students may want to share who they are. We try not to tell them what to share because part of their self-discovery is allowing them the choice to try and find something that represents them. Learning about students helps us build bridges from the world they know to one they are trying to navigate, that of school.


Teacher working with a small group of diverse children in a classroom2. Daily Academic Language Practice Opportunities 

Developing language across disciplines requires opportunities to use language in all content areas. Whether it is in history, ELA, science, math, the arts, physical education or a variety of electives, students should be talking about what they are learning. To build fluency in any language, we need to use the language. Though there are many opportunities within any lesson, I encourage quick daily activities at the start of any lesson to promote fluency. Some quick activities might include:

  • Four Corners: Select four images of content the students have previously studied or that are familiar from their own experiences. Present the four images and allow the class to talk as a table or with a partner about how the four images might be connected. It should be open-ended. Allow students to make any connections that make sense to them. While doing so, they will be using familiar content vocabulary to fluently discuss relationships across the images.

  • What Happened: Select an image that once again may be familiar to the students or one that relates to previously learned content. Display the image and allow students to talk with one another about what they think happened that led to the image. They will get to share what they think caused the image to happen. Again, these should be open-ended responses to allow students to build fluency in discussing the cause and effect relationships.

These types of activities are sometimes referred to as language bell ringers, or simply, quick activities” for language development. The idea is that they are quick and accessible to all students as a way to settle in prior to starting a lesson. What makes these types of activities so powerful is that students are practicing academic language daily. They are applying the language patterns of the thinking skill related to the activity and the vocabulary connected to the images selected.

To create your own quick activity” you can follow these simple steps:

  1. Select a thinking skill. For example, describe, identify, compare, contrast, explain, express an opinion, identify cause and effect.

  2. Select an image that represents learned content or familiar experiences for the students.

  3. Have students apply the thinking skill to the image by sharing orally or in writing what they think about the image (based on the selected skill).

  4. Encourage oral exchanges between partners or small groups to promote fluency and learning from one another.

Teaching and Supporting English Learners: A Guide to Welcoming and Engaging Newcomers


These quick activities are included with many more in my new book Teaching and Supporting English Learners: A Guide to Welcoming and Engaging Newcomers. I share some more activities and strategies in my on-demand webinar.



Developing Content Through Language for English LearnersWhat's Next?

Join Dr. Eugenia Mora-Flores for a free on-demand webinar on Developing Content Through Language for English Learners.

English learners struggle to learn new content and language simultaneously. They need ample opportunities to access, interpret and produce content in English. During this webinar, we will engage in a variety of strategies to support English language learners in developing content knowledge and language across the curriculum. It will provide insights into how we can maximize oral language opportunities in all disciplines through quick daily oral language practices.


In this webinar, participants will:

  • Recognize the role of teaching thinking and content in language development.

  • Engage in strategies that can support academic thinking and language development.

  • Learn five quick oral language activities for daily use.


Register Now:

Watch the on-demand webinar at your own pace.


Author bio

Eugenia Mora-Flores, Ed.D.

Eugenia Mora-Flores, Ed.D., Assistant Dean of Teacher Education

Eugenia Mora-Flores is the Assistant Dean of Teacher Education in the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California (USC). She is responsible for oversight and coordination of the teacher education degree programs. Additionally, Dr. Mora-Flores is a Professor of Clinical Education and teaches courses on first and second language acquisition, Latino culture, and in literacy development for elementary and secondary students. She has written over 10 books in the area of literacy and academic language development (ALD) for English learners, including the following popular Shell Education resources: Connecting Content and Language for English Language Learners, Integrated English Language Development, and four publications on Strategies for Connecting Content and Language for English Language Learners across the curriculum. She is also the key consultant on Teacher Created Materials’ Language Power, 2nd edition.