Steping First into the Concrete

How do SDAIE strategies illustrate the need to teach from the concrete to the abstract?

When language is an issue, working in the concrete is essential.  Whether this means using pictures or student-centered demonstrations to instruct, anything that lets ELL’s demonstrate their capacity independent of language is helpful.  Success is the best scaffolding and beginning in the concrete is the best way to scaffold success for ELL’s. 

Díaz-Rico (2008) expresses it this way, “The challenge is to use concrete means to introduce abstract ideas (teaching with hands-on materials, visuals, and demonstrations to lead into those ideas that are difficult to demonstrate or that require more oral or written skills)” (p. 240).  As she says, once the foundation of the abstract concept is laid with these concrete means, it becomes easier to move towards the abstraction of higher understanding.  The challenge is to avoid the trap of talking more into the silence.  SDAIE includes many strategies for concrete, student-centered teaching.  The trick is to use them.

Expressing the same idea, Rothenberg & Fisher (2007) says, “science lends itself handily to concrete, hands-on experiences that build background knowledge, providing a foundation for abstract thinking and for reading and writing about academic topics” (p. 209).  Once again, we see that ideas tend to be best learned from concrete to abstract.  This is particularly true for learning with language challenges.  Fortunately, art, science, and math all lend themselves to working in the concrete.  The various aspects of ELA are more challenging, but pair, triad, and group-work add scaffolding and support to the process.  Techniques like storyboarding can be very helpful in any of the linguistic domains.  Regardless of subject, every effort must be made to begin in the concrete and use that foundation to move towards abstraction.

The idea that learning moves most easily from concrete to abstract is an old one.  Echevarria, Vogt, & Short (2008) remind us that Bloom’s Taxonomy “was formulated on the principle that learning proceeds from concrete knowledge to abstract values” (p. 102).  Using concrete learning strategies for ELL’s and non-ELL’s is just good teaching.


Díaz-Rico, L. T. (2008). A course for teaching English learners. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2008). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP Model (3rd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Rothenberg, C., & Fisher, D. (2007). Teaching English language learners: A differentiated approach. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Jeepers, Squeepers

Which techniques related to SDAIE could be used with native English speakers?  Explain your answer.

One of my favorite things about this class is there are very few, if any, instructional techniques we are being taught that are not applicable in all instructional environments.  SDAIE techniques are simply educational “best practices.”  Or as Rothenberg & Fisher (2007) said, “Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English (SDAIE) strategies are just good teaching strategies. Sheltered instruction is just good teaching” (p. vii).

My personal favorite strategy is one about which I was initially dubious.  However, over time I have grown to see its brilliance. That would be “SQP2RS” (or “Squeepers” for short, apparently).  SQP2RS is an acronym for:

  • Survey
  • Question
  • Predict
  • Read
  • Respond
  • Summarize (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2008, p. 98)

What I like about this is that it incorporates best practices for reading educational material, powerfully departing from the “read and forget” model so popular in the traditional classroom.  It’s particularly fascinating to me because a similar approach was featured in 1993 “underground” book on being a better student that I follow closely (Robinson, 1993).  Now, nearly 20 years later, this approach is being taught in graduate schools.

Another SDAIE technique I learned in Robinson (1993) is activating prior knowledge (Díaz-Rico, 2008, p. 115).  I think that is a technique that is still too little known and seems to me to be fundamental in anchoring learning and powerfully launching a lesson.

Another technique I discovered elsewhere is Mind Maps (Buzan & Buzan, 1993).  As near as I can tell, graphic organizers are similar, although more basic.  If graphic organizers become successful in my classroom, I would like to add mind maps as well.

I think “Directed Reading-Thinking Activity (DRTA)” (Díaz-Rico, 2008, p. 230) is very interesting as well.  When I read fiction in particular, I tend to try not to look ahead because I prefer being surprised. However, from a cognitive and metacognitive point of view, I think tracking not only what the author is saying but what is being telegraphed about impending content is a very effective way to empower the reader as a reader and model good habits for when that reader writes.


Buzan, T., & Buzan, B. (1993). The mind map book. New York, NY: Penguin Books, USA.
Díaz-Rico, L. T. (2008). A course for teaching English learners. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2008). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP Model (3rd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Robinson, A. (1993). What smart students know: Maximum grades. optimum learning. minimum time.. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
Rothenberg, C., & Fisher, D. (2007). Teaching English language learners: A differentiated approach. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Merrill Prentice Hall.

NCLB and ELL’s

How have changes in the law affected classroom practice in relation to ELLs?

The dominant legal change in recent years is NCLB. NCLB has a number of provisions intended to improve success rates for EL’s. Unfortunately, NCLB’s other requirements end up applying at least as much pressure on ELL’s as it offers help. The biggest problem is that setting high, uniform standards is particularly challenging for students facing the twin pressures of learning achievement and language gaps. The standards themselves are challenging enough for English speakers, but when applied identically to students who are also challenged by language comprehension and fluency issues, these standards can become almost unachievable. Compounding this particular problem is the NCLB requirement that achievement of these standards be tracked across various social and demographics groups of interest, including ELL’s. This creates considerable pressure on the schools and therefore on the students to make Herculean progress under difficult conditions.

Two of additional challenges are worth mentioning. The first challenge is the California law (upheld against legal challenges) requiring that all standards tests be administered in English. So, not only do the ELL’s have the challenge of learning in L2, they have the challenge of being test on that learning in L2. Second, we are in a world of ferocious budget cuts. At a time when the ELL population is growing far faster than the general population and the pressure (as above) to improve results in this ELL subset is growing exponentially, cash available is dropping precipitously. There is some cushion in that many ELL’s are in Title I schools, but even there, and more so across the board, schools and teachers are being asked (demanded) to do much more with much less.

To conclude, the legislative focus on ELL’s is theoretically positive but the practical aspects of the current legal climate are challenging for ELL’s nonetheless.

Cambourne in the Classroom

How may a classroom activity be adapted for students at various stages of language acquisition?  Address evidence of student comprehension and assessment methods.

Many of the techniques that improve outcomes for ELL’s are also good techniques overall.  Echevarria, Vogt, and Short (2008) take Cambourne’s “Conditions of Learning” and apply them to the ELL friendly classroom.  These eight conditions are immersion, demonstration, engagement, expectation, responsibility, employment, approximation, and response (Echevarria et al., 2008, p. 24).  I will briefly describe their application below:

1.       Immersion – Constantly use all aspects of language (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) to practice English language and content concepts.

2.       Demonstration – Show students the core learning in practice and have them model those concepts as well.

3.       Engagement – Create a safe environment, emphasize the relevance of the material, and teach it at appropriately challenging levels of difficulty.

4.       Expectation – Hold appropriate but high levels of expectation for all students.  Look past language challenges to the full capabilities of each student.

5.       Responsibility – Give students choices, encourage reflection, hold students to high standards of independent performance, and encourage critical thinking.

6.       Employment – Allow students to demonstrate the skills and concepts they have learned.  Explain real world context and value of the concepts being learned.

7.       Approximation – Encourage and reward risk taking.  Embrace “approximately correct” answers as stepping-stones to completely right answers.

8.       Response – Allow for continual constructive and focused feedback from multiple sources, including peers (Echevarria et al., 2008, p. 23).

All of these eight principles do double duty.  Not only do they promote powerful learning in ELL’s (and other students), they create better opportunities for assessment.  By recasting learning tasks away from passive into active learning, students’ proficiencies and weaknesses are more clearly observable and more easily remediated.


Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2008). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP Model (3rd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.