Building Confidence and Skills for English Language Learners

Student participating in a Junior Great Books Classroom during the new school year

Teachers who engage students in the Shared Inquiry™ activities we have created for all Junior Great Books® programs can help English language learners gain the confidence they need to work in English. ELL students typically have greater ability in receptive skills, such as listening and reading, while struggling with productive skills such as speaking and writing. But teachers who use Shared Inquiry can help ELL students join the conversation with their classmates by playing to their strengths.¹

Receptive skills precede productive ones, so ELL students can be perceived as not having the ability to work at the same level as native-English-speaking peers. But with targeted support, ELL students can succeed at the same levels. The thinking skills of English language learners are not dependent on language acquisition. Struggles to articulate their thoughts through speaking or writing in a foreign language may seem to hold them back, but supporting ELL students through Shared Inquiry activities will allow them to be successful. By supporting students in productive activities, you will bolster confidence and help them take needed risks for language acquisition and mastery.

You can give your ELL students a voice in the classroom using the Shared Inquiry activities detailed below. We will use the story “The Gold Coin” by Alma Flor Ada from Junior Great Books Series 3 to walk you through a progression of activities that can boost ELL students’ skills. You can download the sample lesson plans booklet on this page that contains the full text of this story now and try it with your class!

Listening and Reading

ELL students can comprehend texts well given time and exposure; maybe not every word, but given adequate support, they can understand enough of a selection to complete interpretive activities and contribute to class discussions. Even native speakers of English do not comprehend every word or understand every nuance in a text.

But Junior Great Books texts are all accompanied by recordings that can be used for extra listening practice. Listening to a text while following along helps ELL students put together the way a word is written and how it sounds (no small feat with the English language!). Allowing ELL students extra time to work on a text will also help prepare them for other activities.

Junior Great Books Session 1

  • Prereading
  • First reading with Sharing Questions
  • Vocabulary

The prereading activity helps ELL students by activating their prior knowledge of the subject of the text. ELL students can use their native and target languages with peers to have a short discussion and practice using vocabulary and themes used in the text. For example, in “The Gold Coin,” the prereading activity takes students on a picture walk through the story. Teachers are guided on how to do this using sample questions, including “Why might the man be looking under the bed?” or “Who do you think lives in the hut?” Using the artwork that accompanies the text makes this a perfect activity for ELL students.

Following along in the text as they listen to it being read is excellent practice for ELL students learning to read and pronounce English. Using the recordings available for Junior Great Books materials to engage in extra listening and reading practice will help your ELL students get ready for further exploration of the text. Encouraging ELL students to ask vocabulary, language, and comprehension questions in the Sharing Questions activity can help teachers understand their students’ knowledge gaps. By not frontloading too much vocabulary and structure, you can better understand students’ abilities and provide targeted assistance.

Junior Great Books Session 2

  • Second Reading 

Second, third, or fourth readings of the text for ELL learners can incorporate language learning and interpretive goals. In “The Gold Coin,” the note taking prompt asks students to mark places in the text where Juan, the main character, helps himself or someone else. In addition to the note-taking activity, teachers can ask ELL students to highlight phrases or words that they do not know. Using the artwork can help students gain additional comprehension of the text.

Move! and Share! activity options give ELL students additional ways to understand a story. For example, the Move! activity for “The Gold Coin” asks students to act out the scene where the main character, Juan, shakes hands with another character. Paired with the provided follow-up question—Why does Juan feel “suddenly warmed” when he and the young man shake hands?—this simple activity can provide important insight.

Junior Great Books Session 3

  • Shared Inquiry Discussion

Supplying your ELL students with the focus question before discussion can help them compose their claims in English with enough time and confidence to be ready for the discussion. The focus questions we provide for teachers in “The Gold Coin” teachers’ edition are:

  • Why does Doña Josefa give the gold coin to Juan?
  • Why does Juan give the gold coin back to Doña Josefa?

Please note: teachers are always encouraged to ask their own focus questions based on themes raised by students during the Sharing Questions activity, but the provided focus and cluster questions are field-tested and will work well for you!

In discussion, encourage your ELL students to read their answers to the focus question aloud to the group. Taking notes during the discussion can help students follow the ideas that come up. Keep in mind that you, as the discussion leader, should also be very mindful of the pacing of the discussion. Keeping discussion at a slower pace will support ELL students better.

In all the activities be sure to offer ELL students:

  • Extra time
  • Question and sentence stems for younger and older learners
  • Opportunities to work in their native language to solve problems of meaning
  • Peer support and review

English language learners bring a wealth of ideas and perspectives to your classroom. Keeping them engaged in Shared Inquiry and giving them a voice in the discussion will bring benefits to all your students.

Please get in touch with the Great Books educational consultant for your state or region by clicking below to set up a meeting. We will help get you started or arrange for additional training to help all students benefit from participating in Junior Great Books and inquiry-based learning!

  1. Jack Richards. Bridging the gap between receptive and productive competence. World of Better Learning, August 27, 2015.

Professional Learning Consultant Teri Laliberte has over 20 years of experience working with learners from a variety of backgrounds. Prior to working abroad, she earned her master’s degree in language and linguistics from the University of Georgia. With 15 years of experience working with English language learners, she has supported language growth and acquisition in her students, along with the needed academic skills of critical thinking, listening, and speaking. Prior to rejoining the Great Books Foundation, she spent 15 years working with adult learners in higher and continuing education, honing her skills by meeting the needs of various learners in literacy, communication, and critical thinking.