Shared Experience: A Link to Text

By Kira Cunningham

As a classroom teacher, summer was always my time to let ideas for next year’s units percolate.  Paddling down the Colorado River, I would be thinking about the materials, picture books, and activities that would bring topics alive for my culturally and linguistically diverse group of students.  One thing I wish I had known in those summers was the power of the following three instructional strategies. While not completely new, these tweaks to instruction make an important difference for English language learners (ELLs).  Two years ago, I was privileged to watch a first grade team enact these tweaks. Their classes contained many ELLs including Karime and Aldair, two students who had just arrived in the United States from other countries.

Launch and develop the unit with shared experiences

“…To learn what things mean, then, and what language means- to create meaning – requires immersion in experience.”   (MacDonald & Molle, 2015)

Frequently we plan a culminating experience, such as a field trip to a local mine, to provide an opportunity for our students to see the ideas of a unit in action.  Rather than saving that shared experience for the end of the unit, position these visual and first-hand experiences at the beginning of the unit. When we launch units with shared experiences before launching into content instruction, language learners have “Velcro” to which they can attach new language about the content.  The language and conceptual understandings built during these shared experiences are what students will encounter and use in content-area texts they are reading and writing. As Pauline Gibbons noted in her book English learners’ academic literacy and thinking:  Learning in the challenge zone (2009), “Effective writers…know something about the subject they are writing about.”  

Let me share what that looked like in first grade:

In March, Karime and Aldair’s classes were beginning a science unit in which they would learn how an organism’s physical characteristics help it survive.  By the end of the unit, the first graders would research their own animal, write a book, and craft a multimedia presentation to share with kindergartens and at a community celebration of learning.  To apprentice students into that literate practice of scientific research and writing, they began the unit researching and writing together about trout, a native Colorado species.

To provide all of the diverse learners in their class with equitable access to the content, the first grade team launched their science unit with videos of trout, a song that served as an anchor text, an analysis of many photographs and diagrams of trout, and a field trip to the fish hatchery.

For Karime and Aldair, chunks of language for this unit began to stick to the images and experiences they had.  Fins, gills, on the head, up and down, mouth, black and white, swim in the water, they have gills to help them breathe– the language they would need to successfully read and write in English began to have meaning in context.

As educators, we develop our students’ subject knowledge in many visual and experiential ways.  As your unit ideas percolate this summer consider the tweak of launching and continuing your units with:

  • Field trips
  • Virtual field trips
  • Videos
  • Hands-on investigations
  • Analysis of key photographs, illustrations or diagrams

Encourage students to tap into their home and community knowledge about content in any language.

Students’ families and communities hold a wealth of knowledge and experiences.  As students are developing their deep understanding of a content area topic, encourage students to tap into those resources to add to what they learn at school.

On the translated permission slip for the fish hatchery visit, the 1st grade teachers encouraged adults at home to talk with their children about fish, fish body parts, and how fish survive in their habitat.  The next day, Karime came to school bursting! In Spanish she recounted everything that she and her mother had talked about. I was aware that through that home interaction in Spanish, Karime now had even more hooks for new words and ideas in English.

You can encourage students to tap into home and community knowledge by:


  • Sending home a translated newsletter inviting adults to talk about a content area topic with their children in any language.
  • Sending home copies of compelling images related to the topic and inviting students to talk with adults in any language about what they’re learning.
  • Be sure to follow up at school and provide opportunities for students to share what they learned.


Link the oral language of shared experiences and home/community knowledge to text experiences in the classroom

Students’ work with text takes on new meaning in the context of shared experiences and background knowledge.  As educators, we can help students connect ideas from experience and oral language to text, continue to help students build content understanding through reading, and help students learn about writing the discipline-specific text types by noticing how the authors of mentor text use and organize language.

During the visual and first-hand exploration of trout, Karime and Aldair’s teachers built labeled anchor charts (and labeled body parts in the fish song), read aloud mentor texts and helped first graders notice that the authors wrote multiple sentences about the same body part and organized them on the same page.  Those sentences often described what the body part looked like, where it was located, how it was used, and why trout needed it. As all of the students in the class wrote multiple, related sentences about each body part, so did Karime and Aldair (with the help of sentence frames).

You can help students link oral language to text in the following ways:

  • As you review experiences you have had as a class, attach academic language and text to it.  Add labels, create anchor charts, or participate in shared writing about the experience.
  • Cue students to make connections between shared experiences and text.  For instance, when preparing to read a scientific text about rainbow trout, ask students “Since this book is about trout, what words and sentences might we expect to find?”
  • Help students be aware of the language choices made by authors of the type of text students themselves are expected to write.  Leverage mentor texts and notice and name what the author is doing as a writer.

In these three ways, we can plan units that set ELLs up for meaningful connections to text in the content areas.  Now let those summer ideas percolate!
Gibbons, P. (2009).  English learners’ academic literacy and thinking:  Learning in the challenge zone. Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.

MacDonald, R. & Molle, D. (2015). Creating meaning through key practices in English language arts: Integrating practice, content, and language. In L. C. de Oliveira, M. Klassen, & M. Maune. (Eds.) The Common Core Standards in English language arts for English language learners: Grades 6-12 (pp. 39-52). Alexandria, VA: TESOL International.

MacDonald, R. (2017, January). WIDA Focus on STEM discourse: Strengthening reasoning, strengthening language.  Retrieved from:

Paugh, P. & Moran, M. (2013).  Growing Language Awareness in a Classroom Garden.  Language Arts, (90)4. 253-167.

Kira Cunningham spent 10 years as a classroom teacher and two years as an English Language Development teacher in Colorado elementary schools.  She is currently a Professional Learning Specialist with WIDA, focusing on supporting educators who work with English learners in K-12 classrooms.  Kira lives with her husband in Durango, CO and enjoys paddling, hiking, and biking as much as possible.

Author: CCIRAblog

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