Written by Marie Mugabe, FariaPD

It is generally believed that over 50% of the world’s population currently speaks more than one language (Grosjean, 2010). With this reality in mind, it is important to assess how our current practices and planning meet the needs of our culturally and linguistically diverse classroom. In most cases, the process of supporting English learners (ELs) and promoting culturally and linguistically inclusive learning begins at the planning stage. 

As most seasoned curriculum writers know, curriculum planning and unit development is an ongoing process in which you are never really “done”. As the students in your classroom change and their needs differ from year to year, your curriculum should provide clear and consistent learning goals, while also having the flexibility to adapt and meet the needs of each year’s unique learners. As you create or adjust your unit plans to support language development through content learning, it is important to look at the content of the unit through two lenses: conceptual and linguistic. Meaning that, in order to help students achieve the conceptual unit goals, you must also identify the language students will need to interact with the content in meaningful ways. By clearly identifying the content and language goals, you will then be able to include the adaptable scaffolds and linguistic supports necessary to help students grow in both content and language knowledge. 

As you develop your unit, a helpful question to ask is:
What must students know and do with language to achieve the desired results, engage in active learning, and grapple with essential questions?
 (Heineke & McTighe, 2018)

In using this question to frame your unit development work, you can ensure that both language and content supports are reflected throughout your units and instruction. When using a curriculum software, such as Atlas, there are a few tips to consider as you begin this work: 

Tip #1: Align Units to Both Content and Language Standards

Just like content standards, language standards provide clear goals and expectations to which your unit should align. Language standards help to define the language students need in order to interact with the unit content and provide clear goals for English language growth and achievement. In Atlas, you can use the Standards Flagging Feature to differentiate between content and language standards and support teachers in creating units that clearly align with both. 

image 1

Tip #2: Unpack Both Content and Language Standards into Content and Skills

Aligning units to content and language standards allows you to intentionally integrate language goals and support throughout the unit. As you begin to unpack standards into content and skills, the language standards will help you define the specific language students will need to interact with the content and achieve the desired outcomes for the unit. Color-coding in Atlas is a great feature to use to highlight language specific content and skills. If this is a new process for teachers, it also allows them to quickly see the specific language students will need in order to demonstrate understanding of the unit content.  

image 2image 3


Tip #3: Create Language-Specific or Integrated Learning Objectives 

In the learning plan or at the lesson plan level, objectives are a great way to guide student learning and promote a student-centered classroom. For an integrated content and language unit, consider not only learning objectives, but also language objectives which focus on how the students will show what they are learning. Creating language objectives can be done by determining the language function and vocabulary essential for the student to engage in the unit or lesson. This process can also help teachers identify multiple ways for students to demonstrate content understanding, based on their current English proficiency level. For example, some students may use short phrases, while others may be expected to write a full paragraph. As teachers become more familiar with language objectives, they can be encouraged to create integrated objectives which combine both content and language objectives into one.

Content Objective Language Objective Integrated Objective
The student will be able to compare and contrast physical and human characteristics in various regions around the world. The student will be able to compare and contrast through short phrases and illustration the human characteristics in 3 regions around the world. Using a Venn Diagram, illustration, and short phrases, the student will be able to compare and contrast the physical and human characteristics in 3 regions around the world.

Tip #4: Create Assessments and Rubrics that Align to Both Content and Language Standards

 As teachers create unit assessments, it is important to be intentional about which assessments are focused on assessing content understanding, language development, or both. Intentionality at this level, students and teachers are allowed to focus on what is being measured and assessed within a specific assessment. For example, on a short answer test, a teacher may not be assessing grammar and spelling, but rather just the demonstration of content understanding. On the other hand, the summative essay may focus on measuring both content and language and align to both sets of standards. By aligning assessments to both content and language standards, students are able to not only demonstrate their understanding of content, but also show their language growth throughout the unit. In Atlas, this process can be easily completed by selecting from both content and language standards when creating an assessment.

image 4image 5

In addition to aligning assessments to both sets of standards, it is also helpful for teachers to create and attach rubrics that specifically assess language growth based on students’ language proficiency levels. 

image 6

Based on WIDA ELP Standards

By using English Proficiency Grading Scales or Rubrics, you can adjust how students at varying proficiency levels may demonstrate content understanding. In the rubric example above, a Level 1 student may explain their understanding of the cause and effect of a concept through drawing and labeling, while a Level 5 student may be able to explain the concept through a more extensive, sequenced description (orally or in writing) using full phrases or sentences. In both cases, students are demonstrating their understanding of the concept, but with varying English complexity.

Tip #5: Capture Scaffolding Opportunities

As teachers create Learning Plans and Activities to facilitate student learning, intentional scaffolding can be one of the strongest ways to support student content and language growth. Instructional scaffolding is a complex concept, but put simply, scaffolding is a structure provided by a teacher or peer to allow students to engage and interact with content that they would not be capable of doing without support. Just like scaffolding used in building construction, scaffolding in education is meant to be a temporary support that is removed as students’ understanding and comprehension of concepts grows. When supporting ELs, the use of scaffolding should provide support for both content learning as well as language development. There are many ways to scaffold instruction; by notating scaffolding opportunities at the unit level, teachers can then have the flexibility to select appropriate scaffolds to meet the varying needs of students when creating and implementing lessons.

image 7

As teachers create units with a conceptual and linguistic lens, they often find that the process not only supports English learners, but it really supports all learners in the classroom. Language is the most common mode of instruction that teachers use to deliver academic content. The more we can support academic language growth, the stronger life-long learners all of our students will become. 

 For more information on curriculum mapping and unit planning in Atlas, check out our PD resources. Need additional support with creating units that address both content and language development or using scaffolding strategies in the classroom? Check out our online and onsite Language Development Workshops.  Not sure where to start? Contact [email protected] and we would be happy to chat about your school’s current needs.


Headshot MugabeMarie Mugabe
Follow @MarieMugabe
Through her diverse experience with education in the United States and abroad, Marie has seen how quality education can unlock the doors of opportunity. Her educational career stemmed from a passion for international development which led to her many roles in education, including: classroom teacher, ELD specialist, program director, curriculum developer and university professor. In her current role, as a Professional Development Facilitator, Marie consults with schools internationally and domestically supporting teachers and administrators in curriculum development and educational practice. Her lens of diversity allows her to find new ways to leverage students’ assets in the classroom, and ensure that all students have access to authentic and rigorous curriculum. Marie earned her Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice and Psychology from Loyola University in Chicago and her Educational Master’s degree from George Fox University in Portland, where she is now an adjunct professor for the School of Education.

Share This