Making Meaning in Content Classrooms - Velàzquez Press | Biliteracy

Making Meaning in Content Classrooms

By: Alejandro Valtierra, Velazquez Press

Science and math are content classrooms that pose peculiar challenges for ELLs not only because of the specific academic vocabulary but the layers of meaning required to truly excel. At the WIDA 2016 National Conference, Rita MacDonald, on behalf of WIDA, centralized her presentation not on the content of math and science but on process of establishing meaning among students in those content classrooms. Her insights came after a three-year NSF project, on which she was Lead Developer.

Behind her vibrantly hued glasses, Rita’s eyes beamed with excitement to be with fellow nerds who shared her interest in math and science. More importantly, she was eager to help those in attendance replace old ways of listening and responding with procedures to enhance classroom discussions with deep and collaborative reasoning. To stimulate reasoning-focused discourse, incorporating open-ended questions was the most useful measure. For this reason, Teacher Discourse Moves was a guide that demonstrated how to help students identify, clarify and publicize their ideas on an individual level. It then moved to more collective understanding by encouraging students to rephrase and speculate alternatives to ideas. The final steps deepened meaning and fostered the application of peer-to-peer talk.

One of Rita’s most compelling assertions was to position ELLs as meaning makers while doing and through doing. She acknowledged the perception some may have had of manipulatives being elementary but clarified they give access to powerful thoughts and life source’s engagement. Even a simple search of meaning making activities had provided the WIDA researcher with a wealth of opportunities to promote student driven deeper level thinking. Upon concluding, Rita left her guests with an achievable means of guiding ELLs to successful levels proficiency in the content classroom.

For tips on K-12 engagement in science, visit

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