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High-Leverage Action #3

Posted by Freddy Hiebert on 14 November 2009

Elfrieda H. Hiebert

TextProject & University of California, Berkeley

My third high-leverage action from the CREATE 2009 conference is the need for a wealth of multimedia experiences for English Language Learners (ELLs). ELLs may have the concepts of a topic but simply give the concepts different labels than the English ones. In a unit on the human body, native Spanish speakers know about a skeleton. When the teacher is talking about “skeleton,” they may not connect it with the word they know — esqueleto (a cognate—but not as transparent as some). Showing an illustration of a skeleton may get ELLs onto the page a lot more quickly than a long explanation. As the aphorism goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” 1

There is a substantial amount of evidence that pictures aid in learning. This research base has been the basis for foreign language instruction of both adults and adolescents. In programs where adults are taught English, pictures are a staple. But I’ve found that, at least in the core reading programs into which many English Language Learners are transitioned, this aid is not provided. In an analysis of a fourth-grade reading unit of the newest copyright of a core-reading program, 12 of the 44 focus, instructional words were very pictureable. But, not only did the publisher not provide pictures for the ELLs (or other students who may never have seen a wharf or frost), the same set of activities was recommended for all 44 words—define, describe, write, and so forth.

In her presentation at CREATE 2009, Diane August 2 described an intervention (Project QuEST.), aimed at middle-grade students’ science learning. Lessons within the intervention ensure that, whenever possible, definitions and discussions are derived from visuals. For example, a lesson in a unit on geology with sixth-graders begins with a presentation of several photos of erosion. Students are reminded that the Spanish word for erosion is spelled the same (with the addition of an accent). A topic of discussion between peers is what evidence they can detect in the photos that erosion has occurred.

Illustrations and photos are also used consistently during the introduction of critical vocabulary. In the lesson that August used as an illustration at CREATE 2009, the vocabulary glossary consisted of three words: microscope, concept, and organ. Each was accompanied with an illustration. Concept was accompanied by an illustration of a person with a bubble by his head that contained a question mark that reinforced the definition, “A concept is a general idea or understanding of something.” In the case of organ, the illustration was of a lung.

With digital technology, the use of visuals can go beyond pictures. Research evidence that ELLs benefit from video clips and animations is also accumulating. One of the CREATE interventions deals with the content of social studies—an area, as presenters and participants at CREATE 2009 reminded us, where textbook treatments of critical content can leave students disinterested and uninformed. The CREATE intervention makes consistent use of videos. But a critical feature of this intervention is that the videos don’t take up a whole class period (which was the case in the comparison classrooms that the researchers studied). The video clips that are part of the lessons that Sharon Vaughn 3 and her colleagues designed for seventh-grade social studies were short: 2-3 minutes. The video clips were not intended to carry the weight of the lesson. Rather, the video clips served to as an “anchor” for students—to help them get a grasp of the fundamental content. These video clips were shown after the teacher introduced the big ideas of the content and they were followed by discussions where students talk about critical questions (that were raised before students watched the video clips). While the video clips weren’t the only component of the project, Vaughn and her colleagues report that they did generate discussion and supported students’ active involvement in content. The project showed significant differences in favor of the students who participated in the treatment classrooms that included the video clips.

The use of visuals in Diane August’s project and the use of video clips in Sharon Vaughn’s project demonstrate the importance of multimedia experiences for ELLs. I’m on the lookout for additional projects about research-based multimedia projects that have proven effective with ELLs. Share them with me for future editions of Frankly Freddy.

1 In doing research for this article, I learned that the original aphorism (attributed to one Frederick R. Barnard, Printers’ Ink, 1927) was: One picture is worth ten thousand words. (Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, retrieved 11.10.09 at www.askoxford.com)

2 August, D. (October 6, 2009). Developing science knowledge and vocabulary in English-Language Learners: Project QuEST. Presentation at the 2009 CREATE Conference, Austin, TX.

3 Vaughn, S., Martinez, L.R., Linan-Thompson, S., Reutebuch, C.K., Carlson, C.D., & Francis, D.J. (in press). Enhancing Social Studies Vocabulary and Comprehension for 7th Grade English Language Learners: Findings from Two Experimental Studies. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness. (SREE)