Concept Attainment—The ELL Way

April 18, 2019
Maria Lee

One of my favorite strategies to use with English Language Learning (ELL) students is Concept Attainment. This strategy helps ELLs connect prior knowledge with new concepts. The Concept Attainment strategy is based on Jerome Bruner’s research into a psychological process called Concept Formation. In order for humans to cope with their diverse environment, people group information into categories based on common characteristics. I use this strategy because it allows ELL students to explore critical concepts deeply and actively.

Step 1: Presenting Examples and Non-Examples

The first step in the Concept Attainment strategy is to present examples and non-examples of a concept or theme. For ELL students, examples are reduced to a simple “yes,” to indicate that it fits the concept, and non-examples are reduced to “no,” to indicate that it does not fit the concept. For example, in literature, the concept of characterization can be presented in two parts: Emotion versus Trait. Emotion describes how a character feels at a certain time and Trait describes the character’s personality. Let’s start with just looking at how to get ELL students to identity what a character is feeling—the concept of Emotion. Begin by showing pictures or visuals to help ELL students to see what fits the concept of Emotion and what does not. You can do this by using an Emotion Chart that has faces of different emotions, and other images of non-examples, such as kicking, stomping, and jumping. For more advanced ELL students, you can provide word banks. This way ELLs will not have to struggle to come up with their own words. When showing these two categories of examples and non-examples, it is important to not tell students which are the examples of Emotion and which are the non-examples of Emotion. The goal is to get students to identify which grouping of images (or words) are the examples and which are the non-examples.

Once visuals or word banks are presented to students, ask ELL students to compare the examples and non-examples of the concept Emotion. Once students have discussed what makes each group of images or words similar, then have them decide which group fits the concept of emotion (the “yes” group) and which group does not fit (the “no” group). Sometimes providing a sentence frame, like the example below, can help your less advanced students.

The images _______________________ are “yes” examples of emotions. The images _______________________ are “no” examples.

Step 2: Practice Identifying Examples

The second step is for students to identify additional independent images or words of emotions and non-emotions as “yes” or “no.” Again, sentence frames can be helpful here:

______ (Yes/No), this image shows ______________ (emotion/non-emotion).

You can also ask students to explain how they identified each image or word. Or you can restate the definitions of the concept and explain how the example fits or the non-example does not fit the concept.

Step 3: Identifying Examples in Literature, Part 1

After practicing several times, then students can move on to generating their own examples of how a character feels in a story read aloud. You can provide the sentence frame:

I can tell that _______ feels _______. I know this because in the story, it says __________.

Step 4: Identifying Examples in Literature, Part 2

Similar to Step 3, students are creating their own examples from a text. However, this time they are doing it with an independent reading book or one being studied by the rest of the class. You can ask your ELL students to describe how a character feels at a certain time in the book or for them to track how a character feels as the book progresses.

Posted By Maria Lee | ESL Teacher

Maria Lee has taught English as Second Language for 19 years. She received a master’s degree in Elementary Education with an ESL endorsement from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has taught grades from kindergarten to eighth grade. Recently she has retired from her school district in Illinois to become an education blogger. She is looking forward to this next stage of her career and new adventure.

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