Video: English Language Learners: Culture, Equity and Language

Just a quick Friday message after being sick for a week and a half :(

Equity for ELLs! I love this video can't share it enough. It breaks my heart to still see ELLs sitting in the back of the room with crayons, when they could add so much to a classroom.

Then I see the other side, at one of the middle schools their newcomer is one of the popular kids. Everyone knows who he is, the students have taken him under their wings and support and look after him. I love to see that kind of caring culture in a school!

Help! I Have Newcomers...

I often get emails along the lines of: Help! I have students that don’t speak any English, what do I do? I've had 5 just this week! It can be scary, daunting, overwhelming even to encounter this scenario in your class, especially unprepared. So the first thing I do is tell them to breathe, it’s not the end of the world, and ensure them that I’ll be there to support them along the way. Then I start with my spiel.

1. Use lots of visuals, pictures, gestures, and quick sketches

If you only use words when talking to a newcomer they will likely become overwhelmed and frustrated by their lack of understanding, or bored because they don’t understand. Adding visuals of all kinds and gestures can help ELLs gain understanding of a topic, without knowing every word. I used to draw a lot on the board for my students, even with my limited art skills to emphasize that it isn’t about how well a picture is drawn, so that when students drew to show their understanding they would be less self-conscious.

2. Make use of Google: Images and Translate

There is power in being able to pull up images on the screen instantly of a variety of things. I might plan vocabulary words in advance, but my newcomer has questions about words I didn’t think even think of. I can instantly pull up many different things. Think about if I wanted to illustrate related words like the root “Tele” meaning far off, I might show a telescope, a telephone, telephoto, telegraph, and teleport. And then allow for some critical thinking about what the words have in common. Similarly Google Translate is not perfect, but there were many times in my classroom where a student and I needed to have a conversation beyond their understanding of English and we would sit back and forth with Google translate. Giving students a means to communicate and you showing a willingness to want to know what they are thinking and feeling, is powerful, especially with older students.

Another great resource is Read&Write for Google Chrome read more about it here!

3. Pair with a buddy

Preferably, pair a student with a buddy that speaks the same language as the student. Don’t be afraid of them speaking in their native languages if you don’t understand it. Be careful, having a student translate information is not a substitute for modifying instruction. If student A doesn’t understand it, and then translates that information to student B, now you have ever greater misunderstanding. Also, make sure the buddy is okay with being a buddy. Sometimes being a language buddy can feel like a burden to students, reward their extra work in class. I always say: Use them, don’t abuse them, or else you’ll lose them. Think about the power of letting your newcomer turn and talk about something in their native language before having to work with it in English. If a same language buddy isn’t available it’s okay, find a kind helpful English speaking student that you can ask to be their buddy.

4. Provide dual language dictionary

You newcomers may or may not have much literacy skills in their native language. If they can use a word to word dictionary, give them time to look up some unfamiliar words. Capitalize on the knowledge they already bring to the table.

5. Be aware of your own words

In English we use a lot of idioms. These can be very challenging for newcomers, even if they know what the words are they still might have trouble understanding what they mean. With newcomers, it might be best to avoid them, or if you find yourself using them, take a minute to explain what they mean.

Some common schools idioms are:
  • Brainstorm
  • Copycat
  • hold your horses
  • let the cat out of the bag
  • Learn (something) by heart
  • Pass with flying colors
  • Put on your thinking cap
  • draw a blank
  • think outside the box
  • go the extra mile
  • take a stand
  • see eye to eye
  • speak your mind
  • persevere in the face of adversity
  • actions speak louder than words
  • fill in the banks
  • show of hands
  • bookworm
  • hit the books
...and many more

Also, try to use consistent vocabulary. Think about all the different ways you might say a simple direction in class like, turn in your papers. Pass in your papers, hand in your papers, bring your papers here, pass your papers to the left, etc. try and pick one way to say directions, and use it consistently. This way your newcomer can learn to easily understand your directions. After they master something, try to ass in something new. They are trying to learn a lot, twice as much as all of their peers, help them out a bit.

6. Speak slowly and clearly

As teachers we tend to feel constantly rushed, or at least I did, so much to cover, so little time. I couldn’t help but talk fast just to make sure everything got said. With newcomers, slow down, they are struggling with this language. When all your words are just jumbled together it is hard for them to make sense of any of it, even words they might know. Chunk information for students, in general there is a 10:2 rule. For every 10 minutes of you talking and giving information to the students, they need a break, 2 minutes to process the information and work with it. This doesn’t mean they are doing nothing. You could have student turn and share with a partner what they just heard, stop and draw what they understood, list the 3 main points you just talked about, etc.

7. Respect the silent period

A silent period, where students are taking in a lot of language, but not producing it yet is normal. It can even last for many months. It is important to respect this silent period, and allow students ways to respond non-verbally. This way you can still monitor their understanding. Students can point, they can do matching, etc. Along these same lines, we want to give students opportunities to speak (where they aren’t on the spot in front of the class), and encourage them. Increase wait time, model words and correct grammar for them, respond positively to student attempts at speaking.

8. Don’t correct language errors

When a newcomer does make attempts to speak. Getting overly corrected, and told they are doing it wrong is not going to encourage them to continue speaking. Instead, praise the effort, respond positively, and model the correct language. If you ask a question like what did you do on Friday, and the student responds “me go store” a simple reply like “Ah! On Friday, you went to the store? Did you buy something?” (or some other follow-up that shows interest) can go a long way, not only in building confidence, but also in exposure to correct language usage and in building relationships.

9. Writing is a complex process, baby steps!

Remember you must crawl before you walk, and walk before you run. Writing is a challenge, especially if your newcomer comes from somewhere that used a different alphabet. Copying is writing, labelling is writing. Provide word banks and provide sentence stems when you want a written response. Start small with simple sentences.

10. Adjust workload to meet proficiency level

Take a look at the newcomers language proficiency levels to see what they can do. Adjust their learning goals accordingly. This does not mean water down their content. If an objective is to identify and describe something, the newcomer can match the word with a picture that is representative of it. They can label diagrams, and sort words and pictures into categories, there are many ways to allow a newcomer to work on grade level content, and for you to accurately assess their understanding. Newcomers in your classroom are responsible for your standards. We have to teach language and content together, it takes a bit of up front effort to determine exactly what you want to teach them and how you will assess it.

You can find grade appropriate Can-Do Descriptors from WIDA here.

11. Celebrate successes

Learning a new language is challenging and frustrating. For many newcomers, school is overwhelming. I have lost count over the years of the number of student who have come to me crying about the stress of school, or telling me stories about going home and crying every night. Take time to celebrate a newcomers successes, no matter how small. Tell them how proud you are of their effort.

12. Keep a positive attitude

Newcomers can read body language, and facial expressions even if they don’t understand all your words. People know whether they are accepted or not, whether you are genuinely supportive or not. Smile, don’t let having a newcomer overwhelm you. You can have a big impact on their educational trajectory.

Video: Confession: New Teacher of Newcomers

I felt like sharing this video this morning, because it is something that is so relevant to teaching newcomers. It is Michelle Benegas at TEDxUMN. She discusses her own experiences as a new teacher of ELLs, and her own learning about culturally responsive teaching. 

This video resonated with me, it echoed my own thoughts about my first year teaching. Over and over I thought I was not prepared to meet the needs of the diverse learners sitting in front of me. There are gaps in this area in teacher preparation programs and, with a rapidly growing population, more and more teachers will have newcomers in their classes. 

I was just at a school yesterday day discussing this very thing with teachers. I recommended that they learn about his culture and his story; that they find ways to let him express himself. 

Video: The Danger of a Single Story

Now that things are finally starting to settle back down on my end. And school is under way, I thought I'd share a video that always resonates with me this time of year. 

A TED Talk from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the dangers of a single story.

I love this video as a reminder of the impact of the words we choose, the examples we use, the stories we tell, and the questions we ask.

This is one of the reasons I don't ask the question at the beginning of the year: "What did you do this summer?" 

Vocabulary Instruction: Part 1

In my upcoming posts, I'm going to highlight some tips for vocabulary instruction that work, and resources that I love.

For anyone who has been to one of my workshops, you know I say over and over again. The ELL achievement gap is largely a vocabulary gap. But, I see a lot of uncertainty about what words to teach, and how to effectively teach vocabulary.

The challenge with English language learners is their vocabulary gap. Let us take an average native English speaking kindergarten age student (5-6 years) they probably have 2,000-2,500-word expressive vocabulary and 20,000-word receptive vocabulary. By the time that child is 12 years old, they will likely have around a 50,000-word receptive vocabulary. As you can imagine, these numbers only grow the older students get.

Meanwhile, English learners come with diverse life experiences, and multitudes of different education backgrounds. Whether they have no English knowledge, or just a little, there is likely a gap in both their expressive vocabulary and their receptive vocabulary compared to native speaking peers.

This is why vocabulary instruction is so important for English language learners, and why ESL teachers cannot be the only ones teaching vocabulary. So often from teachers I hear things like, “Juan is their [the ESL teacher’s] student. It's not my responsibility."

First, here are some important things to remember when it comes to English learners.

Explicit, Direct Instruction - English learners need direct instruction of vocabulary, even more so than native speakers. 
Learning in Context - We learn vocabulary better within a context. As tempting as it might be to give lists and lists of words to learn to make up for the vocabulary gap, it is not very effective.

Having students look up definitions in dictionaries, in a language they do not understand well, is not leading to any meaningful learning. That does not mean that it is not a skill to learn, it just isn't going to yield great learning.

So here are some tips to keep in mind. In the next post, I'll share some activities and how this might look in a classroom.

1. Make it visual - I say this over and over, and teachers in my workshop tell me they didn't really understand the power until I went through the German lesson with them. I share my bad drawings, and poor acting skills with students and groups of teachers to illustrate the meaning of words. We can make use of a variety of resources at our fingers to illustrate what a word means.

2. Pre-Teach Vocabulary - Choose essential new or challenging words students will need to teach before a chapter or unit. Overwhelming students is not worthwhile, neither is teaching words they already know, or focusing on non-essential words. I tried to stick to around 5 words a day. Pre-teach these words in a familiar and meaningful way, and then review and provide opportunities to practice with the words in the lessons.

3. Give ample opportunities to work with new vocabulary - Students need to practice using vocabulary words in order to internalize their meaning and how to use them. Give students plenty of opportunities to work with new words, in multiple language domains (reading, writing, listening, and speaking). Consider having students to produce visuals and non-linguistic representation of words and phrases.

4. Cognates - cognates are words that are in different languages that have the same root or origin, they look and/or sound very similar in both languages. This is a great bridge to language learning. For example, in several cases the academic language we use is English is a cognate in Spanish. Consider the everyday language "job" and the more academic "occupation" in Spanish is "ocupaciĆ³n." There are false cognates for example "Smoking" in German is "Tuxedo" in English.

Magazines in the Classroom

I recently was contacted by someone wanting to donate to my classroom their entire collection of National Geographic magazines from 1964 to 2014. That's 600 issues spanning 50 years of history. I was super excited about the prospect. I could think of plenty of ways to use them in my own classroom. I asked if I could break up the collection and if he minded if I asked other teachers I knew if they wanted some of the set. I am always happy to make another teacher's day.

I drove down to get them, and I felt like a kid at Christmas when I brought the boxes into my office and finally got them open. Of course I kept a few that I thought the girls would be interested in, mainly anything with dinosaurs. And of course the Apollo 11 one from 1969, because how could I miss that opportunity. 

Special delivery! The man even donated a new class pet for one of our newcomers classes. And quite a few laughs in the office as I might have screamed a bit. 

(Yep, that's a southern devil scorpion, probably about full-grown)

There was a bookstore in Houston that used to donated boxes of old magazines to teachers that I used to get all sorts of magazines from. I used them for a variety of activities. I had a handful of Life magazines from the 1960s and 1970s that my students always enjoyed looking at. When they were born in the 1990s and even in the last few years I started having students born after 2000. These time periods just seem so foreign to them. I know in this digital age it is easy to pull up images on a computer screen, but I feel there is something to be said for the usefulness of magazines in the classroom.

So I thought I'd quickly share some ways I used them in my room.
  1. For Visuals - I talk over and over about the importance of visuals. Magazines provide tons of visuals to support building background knowledge for content and vocabulary learning.

  2. As part of your classroom library - magazines like National Geographic make great additions to a classroom library. Even younger students and students with lower language proficiency levels can appreciate the pictures.

  3. As part of a Science/Social Studies learning center - magazines like National Geographic provide plenty of visuals and and maps to support student learning. 

  4. As mentor texts - there are a variety of non-fiction articles to read, and use as a guide for non-fiction writing

  5. As a reading text - Magazine articles provide short texts that can be used to practice a variety of skills, especially summarizing, which can be a big task for English language learners. I used to laminate interesting articles and organize them into a reading crate for students if they finished work early. 

  6.  For visual writing prompts - This could look different ways. First, if there is a really interesting picture students could make inferences about it and use it as a visual writing prompt. Second, if it is a magazine that you don't mind students cutting, they could create collages to make their own picture of whatever the topic is and then use that as a spring board for writing. For lower proficiency levels labeling parts of a picture with words or phrases is writing. (this can also be used for speaking practice too.)

  7. For looking for rhetorical devices - the non-fiction writing in magazines offers a variety of examples of different rhetorical devices for students to identify and practice with.

  8. For discussion/debate - magazine articles can provide great practice for English language learners to discuss what they read and maybe even have a debate. Current events can be great ways to spark discussion and debate.

  9. For language practice - I had a stack of pictures cut out from magazines that I used with my newcomers and I would ask things like: what is he doing? to practice present continuous verbs. Or I'd ask them to describe the picture depending on vocabulary we were practicing. For example when we learned about family vocabulary with my newcomers I would ask them to imagine the people in pictures were a family and have them describe their relationships.

  10. Comparisons - magazines can be useful for comparing two people, two pictures, two situations, or even two sides of the same story. No matter whether this is used with inferences with pictures, or by sharing two articles the skill of comparing and contrasting is another important skill for students.

  11. To practice questioning - magazines can be a great tool to discuss questioning, because we naturally ask questions to learn more about topics we don't understand.
I'd love to hear how others use still use them.

Alternative Assessments: Othello Foldables

I recently had a lively discussion about alternative assessments with a group of middle and high school teachers. It is always a touchy topic because in education so often assessment is such a dirty word because of standardized testing, penalties for not meeting AYP, and all sorts of other initiatives aimed at monitoring student progress. It was a common sentiment in the group that they felt they spent more time testing than teaching. That's definitely understandable as testing season is in full swing. 

I shared some ways that I used alternative assessments in my own classroom. At first this was met with some skepticism, "The test isn't differentiated, it's not in an alternative format, how will that prepare them?" I've been asked this many times, the problem is, you see, the test was never my goal post. I decided I would teach my students to read and think critically, I didn't ignore the test, but it was not the end result.

Before you ask, yes, I taught a tested area. In fact it was their English test required for graduation. No joking matter, but also a low goal. I knew what objectives my students needed to master, the power objectives if you will, the ones that showed up over and over again. They were always on my mind. But I never felt like traditional assessments showed my English learners knowledge, or language growth. 

I grabbed a file folder, large manila envelope, some glue and some construction paper and I walked them through an assessment I could use with the unit I was sharing with them. I had taught this unit, or elements of it for years, and these are based on some of the things I had my students do in their interactive notebooks. We talked about all the skills the students would work on when creating their project, and the study tool they were creating, and how adaptable this was to different content.

The cover can be decorated to yours or their liking. Mine just includes the title and some important themes from the play. They could have drawn important symbols/themes/you name the skill you want to highlight. I did this pretty quickly, don't be too harsh on my art skills.

When you open it up, you can see it is very organized. The left hand side include places to summarize information from pre-reading lessons to build background for my students. The top one concerned Shakespeare's life, a brief history of the time period, and the theater. The bottom left is concerned with the history in the play. It has a map that shows Venice and Cyprus, but also the Ottoman Empire and Mauritania. It unfolds to leave room for students to summarize important information about these places.

Gluing the manila envelope down on only 3 sides creates a pocket in the middle. In there is housed a worksheet my students completed after a matching and sorting activity of basic drama terms. 

In the middle, on the front of the manila envelope is a place for students to summarize each act of the play to keep the events straight. You may have noticed we are hitting retelling and summarizing quite hard so far in this, and that is because it is a challenging and yet important skill to master. Being able to pick out important information and put it into your own words is challenging for ELLs. It is also something that can be scaffolded to support students no matter what level of language proficiency they are at. 

On the left hand side is a table for students to record all of the names other characters call Othello, and then make inferences about what they mean, and how they feel about Othello. They also have to decide the significance of it.

When you open the manila envelope, there is a place to record information about characters. There is also room for students to create a character web that tracks how characters are related to each other and how they interact with each other. 

When you open the manila envelope again, there is a place for students to record examples of the 4 primary themes that we follow throughout the play. There is also room for an analysis of the themes, what the message is about each one and why it is important. I did a writing assignment with my students that prompted them through answering these questions.

Then finally inside the half of the manila envelope that is not cut to make the book is a pocket for students to store important quotes from the play. I chose several from each Act and students had to record information about. Here students had to look at literary devices and determine things like purpose and tone.

I hope you enjoyed it!