Application for ELLs - Nonlinguistic Representations

All the senses come into play in learning. In most classrooms, however, reading and lectures dominate instruction, engaging students through the linguistic mode. Learners also acquire and retain knowledge nonlinguistically, through visual imagery, kinesthetic or whole-body modes, auditory experiences, and so forth. Teachers who wish to take advantage of all modes of learning will encourage students to make nonlinguistic representations of their thinking. These can take many forms. When students make concept maps, idea webs, dramatizations, and other types of nonlinguistic representation, they are actively creating a model of their thinking. Computer simulations also encourage exploration and experimentation by allowing learners to manipulate their learning experience and visualize results. When students then explain their models, they are putting their thinking into words. This may lead to new questions and discussions, which will in turn promote deeper thinking and better understanding.

Non-linguistic Representations and English Language Learners:

(Summary from Classroom Instruction that Works with English Language Learners; Hill & Flynn; Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development; 2006; pp. 38-43)

  1. Use graphic organizers to represent knowledge. Graphic organizers, which include Venn diagrams, charts, webs, and time lines, can be designed to make complex content more understandable for ELLs. Textbooks can often be too complicated for these students. However, do not automatically assume that ELL students know how to use graphic organizers. A study by Tang (1994) found that intermediate social studies textbooks in Hong Kong, Japan, and Mexico contain few graphic organizers, meaning you will need to model their use for ELLs from those countries and possibly others.
  2. Use symbolic representations, such as pictures, pictographs, maps, and diagrams. In order for ELLs to understand text, they must make connections between what they already know and the new information presented. Because ELLs enter the U.S. school system with background knowledge in their primary language, pictures and pictographs related to this knowledge can help bridge the language gap.
  3. Teachers should help students generate mental pictures. When ELLs listen or read, creating a "movie in the mind" helps them to understand and store knowledge. Using all five senses can help produce rich mental images.
  4. Make physical models. Physical models are concrete representations of what is being learned. When students use manipulatives, they are making a physical model to represent knowledge. Any three-dimensional form can be a physical model. For ELLs, the very act of constructing a concrete representation establishes an "image" of the knowledge, so they do not have to depend solely on words.
  5. Engage students in kinesthetic activities in which they represent knowledge using physical movement. Total Physical Response (TPR) has been a popular ESL approach over the years. Developed by James Asher (1977), TPR uses kinesthetic activities to teach English. Kinesthetic activities can also be used to improve content knowledge. For example, have a Preproduction student act out how an electric circuit works, or have students act out an event or a story in history or language arts. Acting out an event helps generate a mental image of the knowledge in the mind of the learner.

Classroom Adaptations by Language Proficiency Level:

  • Preproduction: Students need to have pictures associated with the topic of study. During class discussion, you can engage these students by using "Show me" or "Point to the" prompts.
  • Early Production: Students benefit from the pictures associated with the topic and need to be encouraged to use the vocabulary. A cloze technique is effective in eliciting one-word responses. For example, you can lead students with phrases like: "A reptile breathes with..." or "The reptile's body is covered with..."
  • Speech Emergence: Students will be able to comprehend the passage, particularly given the assistance of a graphic organizer. They can answer questions requiring a phrase or short sentence, such as "Tell me about reptiles." Using questions that start with "Why" and "How" works well when eliciting responses at this level.
  • Intermediate and Advanced Fluency: Students will understand the passage and the graphic organizer, and can therefore be prompted with questions such as "How are they the same/different?" "What would happen if...?" or "Why do you think...?

Imaging: (Chamot & O'Malley, 1994) is a strategy that encourages students to create an image in their minds to support the understanding of concepts or problems to be solved. Once images are created in the students' minds, the teacher encourages the students to describe what they can see. This gives the teacher an opportunity to interact with the students to support their understanding. Research in reading comprehension (Irwin, 1991) has shown imaging as an attribute of effective readers, which is often not employed by lower level readers. For this reason, it is an important strategy to teach. It is especially important to teach the strategy and discuss the images, or mind-pictures, with English language learners because they may form faulty images due to misconceptions related to language misunderstandings.; (pdf)

Classroom Recommendations for ELLs (pdf)