A Shared Pedagogy for Language Learning: Making It Visible with Inquiry

Cross-posted from Language and Literacy for Learning

As I go in and out of classrooms, and talk with colleagues, I watch and test how my understandings about language and learning are made visible. I look at children engaged in a learning experience or I talk to a colleague and I build on something I already knew, adding new examples that justify or challenge it. And then, as it often goes with learning, I end up with more questions. My professional blog is my tool for learning, it is a place I try to make my learning visible, to reflect on what happened in the classroom and to relate it to previous learning, or new understandings.

I like to engage in discussion about my understandings about language and learning that have evolved over the years, so that I can learn. In a social constructivist learning environment, we empower our students socially and cognitively, we design interactive learning experiences that help them build understanding, practice thinking, explore ideas and concepts. That is exactly how I like to learn too. I came across this quote which captures my thinking:

“Teaching is never about ‘getting it right.’ It’s about inquiry: using children as our curricular informants to continue to grow and learn as professionals.” (Short, 1996)

So what are my understandings? The IB’s stance on language and learning is the one I like to use as a guiding principle, although there are others that I go to, such as the SIOP model. This visual, based on the work of Cummins (2007), is taken from the IB Language and Learning Guide:

Additionally, over the years, through my own learning, there are things I have engaged with at a deeper level, such as the importance of talk and engagement for English language learners. So together with the IB and my own learning, I’m going to try and list what drives my practice:

  • Interaction and engagement are hugely important. Conversation is language at work. It is not so much evidence of language acquisition, but a pre-requisite for it. We need to give children as many opportunities as possible to talk. Talking facilitates clarifying, questioning, negotiating, hyphothesising, critically analyzing, deducing, risk taking, constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing. Talking is also a bridge to reading and writing.
  • Language is a learning tool and not an end result (Haliday, 1980). Language is a process through which we learn about the world. It develops our creative and critical thinking skills and it is the means through which we acquire information. In the classroom, language is a learning tool and we need to create meaningful learning experiences and incorporate interactive experiences that build vocabulary and understanding.
  • Tied in with both these ideas, is that learning is creation, not consumption, as this visual shows:


  • Skills and language should be explicitly taught but they should always be tied in with the context of the child’s learning and inquiry.
  • EAL teachers need to be literacy experts to understand how to stretch a child’s language. We need to know how language works (such as the language and structure features of texts) and be able to break it down. We also need to know about how language becomes more complex on a continuum (BICS and CALP). Our job as EAL teachers is to analyse the point where the child is at and the point he/she needs to get to. Is he using those academic words and structures? What language does she need to be able to perform this task?
  • Scaffolding and building background knowledge help learners access, produce and stretch language.
  • Comprehensible input, the zone of proximal development (ZPD) of language learning, is the language input that can be understood despite the learner not understanding all the words and structures in it. It seeks to effectively integrate new and unknown words and phrases with familiar ones to make the received input just a bit more difficult.  According to Krashen’s theory of language acquisition, giving learners this kind of input helps them acquire language naturally, rather than learn it consciously. This means as teachers we need to know the level of English of our learners so that we can make new input just a little bit more difficult.
  • Earlier I mentioned how teaching is about inquiry, not about ‘getting it right’. In my experience, the best working relationships are those in which we engage in this type of discussion, where we use our students as our curricular informants. I think that is what lies at the heart of true collaboration and these types of teacher relationships move learning forward, for teachers and students.
  • I feel strongly about the need to engage our learners with their century– we must explore new literacies and technology and how children interact with these now and in the future. We need to understand how literacy is changing into a participatory experience, participate in it ourselves and use this to our advantage to facilitate learning for our students.

As an EAL teacher, the questions I ask myself are: Are we stretching the language? Are we building and connecting to background knowledge? Are we scaffolding and providing comprehensible input? Are we creating a multilingual learning environment in which all identities are affirmed? Are we providing learning experiences in which language is a tool, not an end-result, such as activities that promote thinking, questioning and inquiring? Are we explicitly teaching the skills and language necessary for the learning experience? Is the model of literacy we are presenting our learners with relevant to their future?

So now we have that out of the way, I’m eager to share with you an example of where my understandings became visible:Recently someone who I am lucky to frequently engage with in true collaborative discussion about learning, shared with me a blogpost of student learning.

I had been involved with this unit of inquiry Clues from the Past before and loved seeing children being engaged with it once again. As I talked with her about how this student got to this point, sharing his understandings in front of the class, we talked about what kinds of engagements preceded it. Many of my understandings about language learning became visible, so to share this with you, I decided to go back and interview Anita for the purpose of this blogpost. The student on this video, an EAL student, had been tested using the WIDA and his level is roughly described as:

M: What was the unit of inquiry the students are engaged in?

A: The inquiry falls under the transdisciplinary theme “Where we are in place and time”.  The central idea is:

Evidence from the past helps us understand the place we live.

This learning engagement required students to inquire into the different sources we use as evidence.
M: How did the students practice thinking and explore ideas?

A: Students were introduced to a bag of artifacts as part of a language provocation. A story was created about the bag and students used “think, pair, share” to make predictions about the bag, what is in it and who it belonged to. They referred back to the sources and evidence collage they had created previously. As they shared with each other they were given the prompt “what makes you say that.” This routine helped children practice their thinking because they were given a language structure. 

M: So you were creating an authentic context for the children and using language as a tool, not an end-result.

M: How were the students encouraged to build understanding and vocabulary?

A: The bag was slowly unpacked with the class and students recorded questions, comments, thoughts and ideas on post-its. The artifacts were placed on a board. In mixed groups students then took artifacts and their post-its to their large paper and created a see- think- wonder routine. Ipads were available to undertake picture research to support students’ inquiry. This group found the label Hermes on the scarf and looked up images of the shop and the scarf and discovered the design was old and the scarf, quite valuable. As the group discussed they changed and refined their thinking. Part way through the activity each group member was given a number and then a dice rolled to see who would present the findings. Students were given support from their group members and teachers to do this, which you can see happening in the video of Sak presenting.

M: Good to see you were using accountability strategies so that all students got to practice their speaking.

M: What skills that were explicitly taught helped this student stretch his language?

A: Before this learning engagement students had inquired into the unit vocabulary and written their own definitions of words such as artifacts and evidence. They created digital collages of types of evidence. Sak might not have known all the language but the pictures and the collage helped in building his vocabulary. As students shared their thinking about what was in the bag, I recorded some of the sentence starters on the board e.g. “I think…because… ‘ “evidence shows.” Sak took out his vocabulary sheet with the words from the unit and his reading goals (following the words with his finger and stretching out the sounds). His group worked with him to use these as he practised presenting.


M: So you built their background knowledge and vocabulary before the engagement. The sentence starters gave everyone the tools to succeed in presenting at and the same time practice new structures. Support was given by the whole community of learners, students and teachers. Things that had been explicitly taught were directly useful to Sak, because he could apply them in an authentic way.

M: What role do you think the bag with artifacts played in giving this child comprehensible input? How about the interactive activities?

A: The artifacts supported vocabulary because they provided context. Because they were doing it interactively and collaboratively, Sak was provided with the opportunity to practice language skills such as negotiating and classifying and his peers modelled that for him. For example, he didn’t know the word for scarf and used the Khmer word and then someone else in the group said ‘no that’s a scarf’. The artifacts, as well as the input Sak was receiving from his peers made it possible for him to make meaning.

M: And that’s what’s called comprehensible input
M: You also mentioned something about technology?

A: While I was watching the children researching the artifacts on the Ipad, I noticed they were picture researching- if they didn’t know what a ration book was, for example, they typed in book, war and food, then ration books came up. They didn’t know what it was but they worked out it was something they could have a little bit of at a time. I had seen them discover the word cyclo by typing ‘bicycle and chair’. It provided a lot of insight into how children use technology as a tool- I’d never thought of doing it that way before, but they had found a way to figure words out.


I’d love to know what your beliefs are about language and learning? How do they become visible in your classroom?


© 2016 SPELTAC

Log in with your credentials

Forgot your details?