EAL · ELL · writing workshop

English Language Development Frames

When my sister and I were kids, we played Super Mario Brothers on Nintendo. I witnessed her saving the princess at least three times during our summer video game marathons. I watched as she passed through all the levels seamlessly. She knew what was expected of her at each level that would prepare her for the next. For me, I could not make it past level eight with all those black bullets flying in from the left screen. I couldn’t figure out how I could not make it beyond this level. I wasn’t sure what it was precisely that prevented me from moving to the next level. I recollect thinking, “What is the one thing I’m not doing?”

In life, moving up levels help us monitor how much growth we have made. For example, this summer, my daughter moved up from level one swim team to the level two team. From what we noticed the difference in levels was that level two required more stamina. Another example you might think about is moving grade levels. My daughter is now in 4th grade. She is considered an upper grader. As a result, the expectations for upper-grade students are more rigorous at her school. Levels seem to help guide what is expected of students and what are our next steps to take.

In school, we use levels to identify our multilingual learners. In California, there are proficiency level descriptors that provide descriptors along a continuum for English Language Development. They are identified as emerging, expanding, and bridging. According to the California Department of Education, the definitions of levels are as follows.

Emerging: Students at this level typically progress very quickly, learning to use English for immediate needs as well as beginning to understand and use academic vocabulary and other features of academic language.

Expanding: Students at this level are challenged to increase their English skills in more contexts and learn a greater variety of vocabulary and linguistic structures, applying their growing language skills in more sophisticated ways that are appropriate to their age and grade level.

Bridging: Students at this level continue to learn and apply a range of high-level English language skills in a wide variety of contexts, including comprehension and production of highly technical texts. The “bridge” alluded to is the transition to full engagement in grade-level academic tasks and activities in a variety of content areas without the need for specialized ELD instruction. However, ELs at all levels of English language proficiency fully participate in grade-level tasks in all content areas with varying degrees of scaffolding in order to develop both content knowledge and English.

Within each proficiency level descriptor, it emphasizes that our multilingual learners are capable of “high level thinking and can engage in complex, cognitively demanding social and academic activities requiring language, as long as they are provided appropriate linguistic support” (California Department of Education). Each level of support requires a different gradient of support. At the emerging level our students need a substantial amount of help from the teacher. Expanding level requires the teacher to provide a moderate amount of support and the bridging level requires a light amount of support. Although these descriptors are helpful, it does not explain how we can scaffold our instruction to meet our students’ individual needs. Nor does it explain how to support our students to move from one level to the next.

So, how can we move our students up in their proficiency levels? The first step is to identify what they are already doing to see what the next steps might be. My favorite strategy to use is the English Language Development Frame. It was first brought to my attention by our district’s Project GLAD coach, Rhonda Barnes. This past summer she coached and guided me in teaching ELD summer school. Rhonda shared with me that this frame is best used shortly after a narrative story has been read-aloud in class. Additionally, this strategy is used one on one or in a small group setting. Here is a step-by-step delivery approach when using ELD frames:

  1. The story should be close and visible for the students to access.
  2. Students are close to the teacher.
  3. Let students know the procedure.
  4. Use leveled questions.
  5. Begin with a teacher-written topic sentence, highlight main key ideas with student input.
  6. If working in a small group of four or five, use a different colored marker for each student’s oral statement. If working one on one, use one color.
  7. Ask the student, tell me what happened in the story and write what students to you.
  8. Students sign and date at the bottom of the completed ELD Frame.

In the picture, Rhonda is working with a small group of four students retell a story about the San Francisco earthquake I had recently read. As mentioned, a topic sentence was provided. Each student held their a colored marker. She began by asking the first student, “Tell me what was happening at the beginning.” When the student spoke, she passed her marker to Rhonda. Rhonda wrote down exactly what the student said.

Based on the sentence structures and patterns of speech, we can see what students are already doing and thereby identify their proficiency level. In addition, we can make plans for what might be next steps. For instance, in this case, the student with a purple marker said, “So Jacob brought a stray dog home and his dad told him to return it to the market where he found it. Umm, when Jacob returned the dog the ground started to shake.”

 I can tell this student had a comprehension of the story as she identified the beginning of the story when the character began to face trouble. She said the character’s name and determined that he had to return the dog and an earthquake occurred. The student is working at the bridging level. The next steps I took with her is using academic language such as “At the beginning of the story” or “At first.” If you notice, she begins with “So” and inserts “Umm” to add more to the beginning of the story.  

The rationale behind this strategy comes from Project GLAD. This strategy provides authentic assessment with timely feedback, allows students to take risks in a low-risk environment and ultimately moves students into reading and writing independently.

4 thoughts on “English Language Development Frames

  1. I think these stages can be helpful for teachers who are just learning about multilingual learners, especially if they struggle with individualizing instruction or teaching in a student-centered way where you get to know all students. Because language learners as people are more fluid and adaptable than the levels allow for and can often pigeonhole teachers and students. (For context: I have taught MLLs from grades 1-5 and now high school). Most can read and write independently when given more time and, when possible, subject matter they are interested in and choose. This includes newcomers – I highly recommend looking into the work of Ofelia Garcia because she really breaks down the benefits of viewing language learning in a way that is less about stages and more about how the individual can grow depending on the environment – her work on translanguaging is really right on.


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