Planning for Language Development

By Beth Skelton, 2019 CCIRA Featured Speaker

Screen Shot 2019-05-28 at 6.09.27 AM
Photo credit: Lorenzo Moreno, Englewood Public Schools

Much of my work with teachers this past school year has focused on lesson planning for language development. Although most members of CCIRA are certainly literacyfocused, they may not always be language focused. Adding a focus on the language students will need to comprehend and respond to text and content can support all learners and is essential for language learners.

The SIOP model, the WIDA framework, Kate Kinsellaand others have long advocated for adding language objectives to lessons. During the past school year, I have drawn on their work and collaborated with many educators to create and refine a series of questions and prompts designed to help teachers plan for language development in an individual lesson. The first three questions are generally part of every lesson planning format and the last four questions add a focus on language development.

Questions and Prompts for Planning for Language Development

  1. What should students know and be able to do by the end of the unit? What is the end of unit assessment?
  1. What should students know and be able to do by the end of the next lesson?
  2. Write a prompt for an oral discussion or a written response about the lesson.
  3. Write out a model response to the prompt.
  4. List the key content and general academic vocabulary students should ideally use in their response to the end of lesson prompt. How will you teach each of those words during the lesson? (include details on the strategies you will use such as gestures, visuals, realia, questions, etc.)
  5. Whatgrammatical or linguistic structuresin the model response might be challenging? (clauses, verb tenses, word order, etc.) What organizational features in the response might be challenging? (comparison, description, explanation) How will you teach these structures?
  6. What supports will you offer language learners as they respond to the prompt?  (labeled graphic organizer, labeled pictures, sentence frames, discussion starters, native language support, oral language practice before writing, etc.)

Backwards Design: The Unit Assessment and Content Objectives

Most districts already require teachers to plan units starting with the final assessment in mind. Once teachers review their final assessment (performance, project, paper, etc.), they are ready to plan for one upcoming lesson within that unit. The second question focuses on what students should know or be able to do by the end of one lesson. Teachers should be able to explain how those specific daily objectives help students to achieve the content objectives for the entire unit.

Planning for Language Development: The Prompt

The third question begins to add a focus on the language students will need to express their learning at the end of one lesson. Teachers should think about one ‘turn and talk’ question or an exit ticket prompt they might ask students to discuss or write about near the end of the lesson. Since teachers generally gather some kind of formative assessment on student learning each day, this prompt is often part of their plans already. This question or prompt should directly link to the daily content objective. Some of the elementary teachers I worked with recently wrote the following prompts for their end of lesson exit ticket about a narrative and informative text.

  • Describe the main character in the story and what he dreams of using details from the text.
  • What’s the difference between renewable and non-renewable resources?

These examples require students to synthesize their learning from the lesson using extended discourse of more than one sentence. Notice how these prompts require students to use language for a specific function such as describe or contrast.In order to express their content knowledge in response to these prompts, students will need to use functional vocabulary, sentence structures, and discourse markers.

Planning for Language Development:  The Response

Although most general educators are usually able to quickly write a prompt that would require an extended oral or written response, many do not actually write out what they expect as an answer before asking the question. When two or more teachers from the same team come to a planning session together, I ask them to individually write their model response before sharing out with the entire team. This response should reflect what a top student at that grade level should sound like when using appropriate academic language in their response. When teachers read these model responses, they quickly discover the vocabulary, complex linguistic structures, and discourse markers that are embedded in their responses.

I began writing my own responses to prompts about 10 years ago when I was teaching at an international school in Germany. I wrote almost every paper or short answer response with my students and shared my papers with them as well. This process gave me insight into the complexity of the language and often led me to refine my prompts or teach short language-focused lessons to support the language in their written work.

Analyze the Language in the Response

Once teachers have written a model response, they can analyze the language in the response to determine which academic vocabulary words they should directly teach, which sentence structures they may have to intentionally model, and which discourse markers or structures they should explicitly teach.

For example, the fourth-grade teachers wrote a model response to the prompt Describe the main character in the story and what he dreams of using details from the text. Both of them used a noun clause in the first sentence of their response: Leroy is a__________, who dreams of __________.  When I pointed this out, they quickly realized they should provide a mini lesson on how to use the word who to start a clause. They decided to provide a sentence frame for beginning level language learners to support their use of this complex sentence structure. Teaching students how to embed a noun clause will not only increase the complexity of their writing, but also help them understand more complex texts when they are reading.

These teachers also discovered that some of the words they used in their model response to describe the main character were not actually written in the text. Although the text provided plenty of details that illustrated the spontaneousnature of the main character, this word nor its synonyms actually came up in the text. Teachers realized they needed teach words that were not necessarily inthe text, but important for talking aboutthe text.

When third grade teachers analyzed their response to the prompt “What is the difference between renewable and non-renewable resources?”, they knew that students would have to use the key terms renewable and non-renewable, and they planned to teach these words with examples, visuals, and experiences. In addition, they noticed their responses clearly contrasted the resources using the discourse markers however and whereas to signal differences.The team decided to explicitly teach students how to contrast ideas by adding these terms to their graphic organizer and modeling ways to organize the response.

Planning for Supports and Scaffolds

After analyzing the language in their model responses, teachers will have a list of words and linguistic structures they will need to teach in the lesson in addition to their content. Then they can decide on strategies, scaffolds, and supports to teach this academic language. Many choose to add sentence frames, create visual word walls, or add discourse markers to graphic organizers. After just one experience asking these questions in lesson planning, one third grade teacher with no other background in language acquisition exclaimed, “It’s easy to add a focus on language to our lesson plans! We already have the prompt, so we just have to figure out what we want as a response. This helps us frame our teaching and the students’ thinking.” I hope you find these questions just as powerful for adding a focus on language development to your lessons.

Beth Skelton is an international consultant providing professional learning focused on creating equitable education for all students. She is especially passionate about making academic content accessible to English Language Learners. She can be reached through her website: , on Twitter @easkelton , and on Facebook: Beth Skelton Consulting

Author: CCIRAblog

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