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 "ocupación." 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!

Video: Miracle Workers by Taylor Mali

As we are getting to the end of the school year, testing preparations are underway and after burning both ends of the candle for the last 9 months, the teachers I'm seeing are tired. I can relate, I know how I felt at this time of year. "Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming." is constantly running through my head (I love Dory). 

So, I decided to share a video. This poem from Taylor Mali is just as poignant as his "What Teachers Make" and I love it. "Education is the miracle. I'm just the worker." We all need just a bit of encouragement and to be reminded of this sometimes.

Essential Tips for Mainstream Teachers with ELLs (Part 3)

This is the third part in my series on essential tips for mainstream teachers who find themselves working with English language learners. 

In case you missed them, you can read them here:

In this section, I'm going to focus on ways to help students interact with your content. 


1. Vocabulary - When it comes to English language learners, the problem is truly one of a vocabulary gap. The older the students the more noticeable this is. 

We hear a lot about 3 tiers of vocabulary, but I find many people do not have a clear idea about which words are which, and which ones to teach. It's such a confusing task that I talk about it in almost every workshop that I do.

Tier 1: (words they already know) basic sight words, early reading words, common use/ everyday language. Even if the students don't know these words, their ESL teacher is likely working with them on these.

Tier 2: (words they NEED to know) testing words and phrases like evaluate, describe, draw a conclusion, things like polysemous, multi-meaning, words, prepositional phrases, and words used in multiple contexts and content areas. 

A 6th grade ELA/SS teacher shared with us in my SIOP cohort last week about giving students state test type questions, and on one that said draw a conclusion about... 2 students actually drew pictures. One of them was not even an English language learner.

It is estimated that 40% of the English language is polysemous, it can cause confusion for an English language learner that may or may not be able to decipher a meaning from context. These Tier 2 words also carry a lot of meaning in content areas, but are often not explicitly taught anywhere.

Tier 3: (words they SHOULD know) academic vocabulary, content specific vocabulary

These are the words we want to expose all of our learners to, they are often bolded in textbooks, and the words up on your word wall (if you have one). They are the content area words you are already teaching. 

My next series is going to be all about vocabulary, so if you are looking for more information in that area, stay tuned!

2. Focusing questions - English language learners, especially lower levels spend a lot of mental energy just trying to decipher basic meaning. Often times, it is challenging to determine what is important and what is not. There are a lot of things you can do to adjust your own practices such as slowing your rate of speech, avoiding asides while presenting information, and simplifying speech. Sometimes, this is not enough, so providing focusing questions can help give students clues about what is important and what to listen for. Going over objectives and having them written out has a similar impact.

3. Teach/model how to take notes - The truth is all students need this. But just as I was saying in the last tip, it can be hard to pick out important information, so explicit instruction in how to take notes, and modeling is important.

For beginners, copying is writing. One thing that you can do if you are seeing that your students are struggling with taking notes is to provide them with notes ahead of time, or notes to copy so that they can focus on listening, and worrying less about what to write at the same time.

I had a student two years ago who was an incredibly hard worker and because of that, despite language difficulties made excellent grades in most of her classes. She came to me because she wanted help in her government class. The entire class was lecture, and they didn't use a book. She told me that she took plenty of notes, and studied. So one day, I looked through her notebook, and I realized that her notes were nonsensical. There were words and phrases written down, many misspellings, notes on what appeared to be teachers anecdotes, it was hard for me to follow to help her. We went to the teacher and just asked kindly if he could provide her with an outline of the lecture and key words. She was able to work with that and focus in on details about the key words and wasn't trying to copy down every single thing that he said. 

4. Listening stations - If you have ever learned a new language and tried to communicate with a native speaker, you probably wanted them to slow down and repeat what they said a few times. When it comes to reading assignments, an English learner's listening skills are usually better than their reading skills. This is something that worked great in my classroom and technology makes it pretty easy to accomplish. Whenever possible I would look for audio versions of texts that we were reading so that students could listen and read at the same time. This can be expensive, you can record yourself reading and share it with students too. This way they can go back and listen to it multiple times and at their own pace too.

I also used this with major project descriptions and directions. I would post the directions and the audio on Edmodo or Google Classroom which ever I was using that year.

5. Use manipulatives - When you talk about something, it can be very abstract and you are relying on the English language learner having a good grasp on whatever vocabulary you are using. Manipulatives help to make the abstract concrete. Post-its and index cards with words that could be moved around, categorized, matched, etc. can make as great manipulatives it does not have to be expensive "toys." When working with manipulatives with groups not only are they seeing the information in a new way, they might be hearing it in a new way too.

6. Get them talking - If they can verbalize it they can internalize it. Talking about content is a great way to process information and get it moving from short term to long term memory. For English language learners, it is practice with language and content. Let's look at it another way, speaking a foreign language is mentally exhausting. So when your student is talking to friends who speak the same language and their family who might only speak their first language, what language are they speaking? You guessed it, not English. That means your classroom is the only place they are practicing academic English, if they aren't getting it there, they aren't getting it anywhere.

Along these same lines, no opt-out. Don't accept "I don't know," teach them other ways to respond or how to find the information.  

7. Higher Order Thinking - Just like all students English language learners need to be engaged in high order thinking activities. A lot of times with English language learners, the types of questions they are asked are literal and basic recall. However, you can ask questions that have a low linguistic demand but are still higher order thinking questions. Things like charts, diagrams, and drawings are great for students to show their reasoning skills in non-verbal ways.

Combine this is visuals, word banks, and sentence stems for responses and your English language learner can soar.

Essential Tips for Mainstream Teachers with ELLs (Part 2)

This is part two in my series of posts highlighting essential tips for mainstream teachers to work with English language learners and help them thrive in their classes. 

My first post focused a lot on creating a welcoming classroom environment, you can find that here. This is so important because no learning will happen if a student does not feel safe enough to take the risks necessary to learn. 

I'm going to break this one up into tips for comprehensible input and output for students. Comprehensible input is important for English language learners, the content and language must be accessible to students for students to learn in. I can reflect back onto my own language learning experiences and saying silly phrases like "La souris est sous la chaise" because that is what I could handle. Along those same lines, the task that students do, and the language they are asked to produce also needs to be comprehensible. As essay is not an appropriate task for a newcomer, etc.

Comprehensible Input/Output

1. Use Visuals - Incorporate visuals into everything. Instructions. Procedures. Reading. Everything. Spoken language, especially if it is not modified, can be difficult for English language learners to follow. Having directions written is good, having directions supported with pictures is even better. Giving directions is good, modeling and showing our students what they need to do is better. Sometimes that is all they need to be able to do something. Making it visual does not have to just be pictures. I can make it visual by demonstrating with my body or with classroom objects too.

In many of my workshops for teachers I go through a full lesson in German. Whether it is my lesson on Unser Sonnensystem or gleichwertige Brüche the one thing participants say as soon as I open up reflection is the visuals made all the difference. Most go as far to say that without the visuals they could not have completed the lesson, let alone pass the quiz at the end (no one has ever failed one of the quizzes)

I just recently did my workshop for teaching mathematics to English language learners and I shared with them a problem I saw a teacher give on a worksheet. The lesson just crashed and burned at this point, and we as a group reflected on why. 

A farmer has 52 chickens and oxen combined. They have a total of 148 legs. How many of each animal does the farmer have

There are many native English speakers who do not know what an oxen is, in fact there was not a student in the classroom who did. The problem is, that knowledge is necessary for solving the problem, because you have to know how many legs it has to get the answer. I know you can make a logical guess that they have 4 legs, because lets face it, many farm animals do, but the difficulty disappears by adding a picture of an oxen and a chicken with the problem.

2. Provide Sentence stems/frames - providing sentence stems/frames for oral and written responses gives students an opportunity to practice with academic language and sentence structures. All students need practice with academic English. I say over and over again to teachers all students are academic language learners, these strategies really do work for all students. I gave my students sentence stems for talking about content:

The tone of the _______ is _________. In the text it says, "..." This means ___________.

Guess what my students were also learning to do: cite text evidence and write a paragraph.

I gave them sentence stems/frames to talk about cognitive and meta-cognitive strategies:

I predicted _______. My prediction was (not) confirmed.

I was confused by _________, I thought __________.

I also gave them sentence stems/frames for classroom discussion:

I agree with _______ because ________. I respectfully disagree with what ________ said because _________. 

I get more push back from teachers on this point than I would have expected. They tell me this is seems to babyish. When I get them to try it, they are always amazed. If it has never been the norm for students to use complete sentences and have academic conversations, you have to teach them how. Sentence stems/frames take the guess work out of that for students, and they know exactly what is expected.

I had a place in my room for sentence stems/frames that students would need regularly. But just like my word walls these were fluid, as we mastered these things I could take them down and add more. I also always gave my students the option, to try something beyond the sentence stem/frame if they were able. 

The participants of my German lessons are asked to write complete sentences, and they always tell me, I couldn't have done that without sentence stems, and once again, no one has ever failed the post-quiz. The best part is now in their notes they have it written out completely and correctly to refer to later. For my German lesson it isn't a big deal, they don't need to know it later, but for students they do. 

3. Allow use of their native language - I know this has been the subjected of heated debates, but the native language has its place. First, if the student is a newcomer and you tell them to quit speaking in their native language, you have cut off their primary form of communication. Second, instruction should be in English (and modified), but clarification is fine in the native language, a language buddy can be a great thing. But remember, use them, don't abuse them, or else you'll lose them! I even allowed students to write responses/plan first in their native language so that they could get their ideas out before having to worry about English. 

I hear over and over again, I don't speak X, how do I know they are on task? Or how do I know what they wrote is appropriate? etc.  Allowing native language use just might be the difference in a student fully participating and engaging, and tuning out. It's all about setting expectations for students, and encouraging them.

Essential Tips for Mainstream Teachers with ELLs (Part 1)

I'm compiling a list of essential tips for teachers working with English language learners. These are the things I find myself telling teachers repeatedly. Or things I'm noticing when I do observations. Some of them may seem like common sense but in the trenches it is easier said than done, and that doesn't mean it is always done, and some of these are just overlooked, or go completely unrealized.

Because this runs the risk of being a really long post, I'm going to break it up into several parts. Starting with the beginning, something that needs to happen before any learning can go on, creating a welcoming classroom environment.

Creating a welcoming classroom environment: 

Creating a welcoming classroom environment is one of the most important things you can do when working with English language learners. We need to feel safe and comfortable in order to take the risks necessary to learn. 

1. Smile - Especially if you are new to working with ELLs and the task seems daunting. It is a new learning experience for you, and is not something that you should dread. I am well aware of the stresses placed on teachers in the classroom, and I know what it feels like to be in the middle of a large class and in walks a brand new student that doesn't speak any English right in the middle of a Beowulf unit, or a week before finals, and that feeling of just wanting to scream. When an ELL walks into your classroom, if you look at them with a sense of impending doom, they will see it. We all smile in the same language, and a smile goes a long way towards creating a welcoming environment for students.

The same is true for ignoring the students. One year in the spring semester at my school, the failure rate for ninth grade English learners was so high the administration took pictures of all of the students and printed them, and at a staff meeting asked the teachers to pick up all of their students. Each student had 8 teachers, surely they could all be claimed. Wrong, at the end there were 5 students left over that none of their teachers recognized. Surprisingly, these students were receiving failing grades in most of their classes. I'm sure if you asked those students, they were aware of their teachers' indifference towards their education. Sometimes ignoring the students is not intentional, but a byproduct of assuming the student doesn't understand English.

2. Learn how to pronounce the student's name - Even if the name is hard to pronounce or sounds funny to you, take the time and make the effort to learn to pronounce their name correctly. Ask the student if you are saying it right, they will appreciate the effort.

3. Increase your knowledge - Take time to learn as much as you can about the language and culture of your students. A quick search for something like "Hmong culture" can give you valuable insights. This might even open up opportunities to bring the student's home language and culture into the classroom. All students will benefit from this. Also be aware of effects of culture shock which can manifest with physical ailments and behavior outbursts.

4. Don't assume he/she does not speak or understand English - Take the time to find out. Ask about the language proficiency level of your students. This will be necessary for planning appropriate accommodations.

One year, again in the spring, a student with rather low English language proficiency - she came to me in the beginning as a beginner, but she was intermediate level at the time - said, "Ms. E, you are my favorite teacher." so I asked her why was that, what did I do that was so different from everyone else. She didn't even hesitate when she answered, "you're the only one who talks to me."

5. Recognize that students will make language mistakes - model correct grammatical form in a supportive, friendly and respectful way. Being overly corrected, and getting writing back full of red ink doesn't make anyone feel good. Consider a conversation like this:

Student: I goed the store.
Teacher: Oh, you went to the store! What did you buy?

It shows an interest in what the student is talking about and is giving extended opportunities for them to practice their English.

6. Do not force reticent students to speak - Give students plenty of opportunities to speak in low risk settings, casual conversations, and with a buddy, etc. Increase wait time to allow students to process a response, and respond positively to student's attempts. Most newcomers go through a silent period that might last months, where they aren't producing the language yet, but they are listening and taking in their environment. If they are not comfortable with speaking, give them other ways to show their understanding of content. Allow them to do activities with pointing, matching.

7. Give lots of praise and encouragement - celebrate successes and give praise for what students can do. Create opportunities for students to be successful in the classroom. Grade for content not language.

Top 10 Immigrant Countries

I came across this video recently, and I found it very interesting. I even learned some things about immigration around the world. 

In my classroom I did a whole unit on immigration, framed by the wordless novel, The Arrival, by Shaun Tan. We read nonfiction articles about reasons why people immigrate and who immigrates, and then read short stories and poems that highlighted immigrant experiences. I feel like this would have made a great addition to that unit, because it gives a very global perspective. When things slow down a bit around here, I'll put together the whole unit.

My students and I always enjoyed the unit, everyone had different levels of experiences. Some were recent immigrants, some came as babies, some were born here, but their parents were immigrants, some had horror stories of their experiences. But through this unit it gave a place for students to share what they wanted from their own experiences, and provide personal insights into the reading. I think it helped others make more empathetic insights about their peers.

Six Tips to Scaffolding Writting for ELLs

The inevitable fact of education today is that students must write. They are being asked to write in a variety of different ways, and teachers are looking for more depth in the writing. So, what does that mean for English language learners?

At the middle and high school level it is incredibly stressful for both the student and the teacher to reconcile the demands of the standards with a student's language proficiency level.

Here are my 6 favorite strategies for scaffolding writing.

1. Allow use of native language (L1) first.

This is a great strategy for students with lower proficiency levels. Students may have a prior knowledge of the subject matter in their native language but lack the means to say it in English. In this case you are allowing students to still engage in the content. Students with the lowest proficiency levels might even be allowed to put their response into a translator, this should be a support and not a crutch. If they know how to say something, they should not be putting it through a translator.

With many of my students who were Intermediate and Advanced level, they would tell me that they would lose their train of thought with their writing because they spent so much time focusing on content and language. So I would let them quickwrite and plan in their native language, with the expectation that what was turned into me would be in English.

2. Speech to Text/Dictation

Once again, English language learners often come to class with a wealth of experiences, and oral language tends to be stronger than reading and writing skills. This recommendation comes from the language experience approach, which promotes reading and writing through oral language. This is an oversimplification of the process but, the student gives an oral response that is recorded exactly as they give it, and then read back to them. This can be done with the teacher, or an aide, or with technology it can be done that way. Read&Write for Google offers Speech to Text, as does Google Docs, there are also more expensive options like Dragon speech recognition software.

3. Sentence Stems

Sentence stems and frames are an incredibly powerful tool for scaffolding. It increases the language output of students at lower proficiency levels. This helps to reduce stress for the student, and allows for teachers to get a better understanding of content knowledge because language will not play much of a factor in their answers. It never fails that the more students work with these scaffolds the more they can begin to internalize language structure and even apply it in other situations. Sentence stems are appropriate for all language learners, but they should be simplified for lower levels.

I get asked a lot for sentence stems that teachers can use, and I have some general ones, but they are easy to create for each lesson. Thinking about your content objective for the day, you probably have a list of questions you want students to be able to answer to show that they have mastered that objective.

Content Objective: I will identify causes of the American Revolution.
Question: What is one cause of the American Revolution?

A sentence stem is created for the answer you would like to receive.

Sentence Stem: One cause of the American Revolution is _____________.

I love sentence stems for all students for written and oral responses because it takes the guess work out of what I'm looking for. That means instead of playing guess what is inside the teachers head, the students are engaging in content and it is a truer representation of what they think and know.

4. Outlining

When considering writing assignments for English language learners, take a look at Can-Do descriptors or proficiency level descriptors for their level. For lower level students it can be beneficial to allow students to write their written responses as an outline with bulleted lists, instead of a complete written response. This way they can focus on expressing what they know about the content instead of language. As a teacher with less experience with the writing of English language learners, this can also make it easier for you to read and check for content understanding, because many times with lower level students meaning can be obscured when they try to write above their ability levels.

5. Graphic Organizers

This is similar to allowing students to create an outline. Once again it is giving the student an opportunity to show what they know, and what they can do without worrying too much about putting it into a complete written response. This could be a web with the main idea in the middle and supports branching off of it. Or something that 4 Corners that might lend itself to more writing. This is another thing that can be scaled up and down as far as language output goes to meet the students language proficiency level.

6. Vocabulary/Phrase banks

Finally, makes sure that the wording in your writing task is clear and that students understand all of the vocabulary in the prompt. It takes make repetitions of words to master them fully, so check in with your language learner and make sure that it is clear from the start. Give students word banks of target words and phrases for them to use. Giving students a word bank helps take the guess work out of what you are looking for. It also reduces anxiety of things like spelling. Providing phrases that they might need helps them practice using English correctly. I found that if I challenged students to use a certain number of words in their response, or a challenge to use the most, I was usually pleasantly surprised by the number of connections they could show between the words and concepts. 

These can be combined for powerful results. And when your students complete writing assignments with on level content successfully their confidence and abilities grow.

It is important to remember, these are scaffolds, not crutches. Allowing English language learners to do these things is differentiating, it is not giving them unfair treatment. It is unfair to expect from products from English language learners that are beyond their language ability. And it leads to make of the things we hate as teachers: cheating, plagiarism, and student apathy because it is easier to fail than try. 

Also, all English leaners are not the same and do not need the same things, just because it helps one doesn't meant that it will work for all. These are also not excuses for students to remain stagnant. If a student is beyond one of these lower level examples I've shared, raise the expectation while keeping in mind the reasoning behind these scaffolds.

These are things that can help English language learners, but might help other struggling students as well. 

Using Animated Videos in the Classroom

I am always a big fan of using pictures and videos in the classroom with my students. Using videos in the classroom has many benefits. Today’s students are used to so much visual stimulation that they respond well to visual supports and visual activities. I found it a great way to teach concepts, and engage students in creative activities.

Here are some of my favorite animated videos and some suggested activities I liked to do with them. I liked to expose my students to different artistic forms, it helped expand their horizons a bit.

1. Simon’s Cat – (Series) short videos that depict a hilarious relationship between a man and a cat. You can check out the YouTube channel here.

2. La Linea by Osvaldo Cavandoli– (Series) The character, created from a long, unbroken line, reacts to the off stage cartoonist, and encounters a variety of different things.

3. The Red Thread by Kazuhiko Okushita – A single line animation depicting the story of a boy growing up, getting older, and in the end going full circle.

4. Eat by Jeff Liu – A short film about exploring new things.

5. The Hardest Jigsaw by Eric Anderson

6. Acorn by Madeline Sharafian

7. Omelette by Madeline Sharafian

8. The Mew-sician by Madeline Sharafian

9. A Cloudy Lesson by Yezi Xue

10. Red by Hyunjoo Song

11. Clocktower – by Cara Antonelli


  • Using these videos as a writing prompt, have students write the story.
  • Have students write a story about what happened before or after the videos.
  • Have students write a script or internal monologue sharing what characters are saying.
  • Practicing Inferences – as a discussion or in writing, students make inferences and use evidence from the video to support their inferences.
  • Practice inferring Character traits and using evidence from the videos.
  • Align videos with concepts taught, imagery, theme, etc. Have students discuss these elements in the videos before delving into larger texts.
  • Choose videos with shared themes to a story and compare and contrast how it was developed.
  • Using them as a brain break – a teacher I work with uses Simon’s Cat at the end of the day as she passes out homework folders.
  • With beginners and low levels – using it as a vocabulary tool. Brainstorming vocabulary words that we know and I add to the list new words. Practicing with vocabulary by pausing the video and labeling things on the smart board.

Argumentative Writing

So often, my students would write essays and their lack of planning was evident in their lack of focus. They would struggle to get something on paper, so it was near blasphemy to suggest editing. Not that they knew what/how to edit anyways. Sound familiar? This was especially true of my English language learners' writing in the beginning, and worse if you are familiar with ELL writing, you know how difficult it can be to make sense of it sometimes. 

One of the things I always had to teach was the argumentative essay. My high schoolers were so good at arguing, how could their essays be so bad? Many of my students had trouble picking sides. They would run out of things to say for one side so they would start writing about the other.

Here is how I found to introduce argumentative writing, it made it clear and concise, and greatly improved their work, while reducing a lot of the strain on them.

I use 3 different colors of post-it notes, yellow, pink, and green. You can choose any colors, but I color code things in my classroom. Since I like making reading/writing connections, I grab a short picture book that is controversial. I like William's Doll by Charlotte Zolotow. It's about a little boy who wants and doll and his family and friends make fun of him, and don't want to give him a doll,  until his grandmother comes and gives him one and makes a very logical argument for it. 

My students always have various opinions on the topic of whether the boy should have the doll or not. 

Next, we brainstorm a T-chart of reasons for an against William having the doll. We started with the reasons given in the book, and then added more.

Next it's time to pick which side to represent. I have students star that side and circle the strongest 3 reasons they have for it, and the strongest 2 against it. This is where the colored post-its come into play. On the yellow post-it, students write their thesis. I believe in K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple students) for planning so I went with "Boys should be allowed to play with dolls." Then on the green post-its students write their 3 strongest supporting reasons, in complete sentences. And then the same for the opposing reasons on the pink.

You end up with something like this. And now we are ready for a hands-on practice for organizing essays. 

As a class we walk through each of these organizational patterns and the students manipulate their post-its to match the pattern. Notice the color coding?

This allows students to manipulate their structure without redoing anything. They can begin to see how different elements of the paper work together to plan better and can tweak to make necessary adjustments. As students pick a pattern they think will be appropriate they record it so that we can come back later and flesh out their reasons into paragraphs.

I found doing this really helped my students from bifurcating and sounding like they can't make a decision. I know it's a big word, but my students always found it funny and would snicker, but they would remember it. 

This activity can be used with upper and lower grades, so I hope it helps!

Review: Quill Writer

Writing is meant to be a social process, we write to communicate. This is something I firmly believe and incorporated into my classroom often.

Today I will look at a website I found over at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation site: Quill Writer, a cooperative writing game, that allows students to work in partners to create a piece of writing given a starter, and target vocabulary words. It's still in beta, but there is a lot of potential here. I tried to incorporate a lot of technology into my classroom because we live in a digital world that is ever evolving, and I noticed great variety in tech savviness with my students. Some could work a smart phone but when asked to save a document, looked at me like I was speaking Greek. 

The real beauty of this tool is the ability to create your own activities, which means activities using your vocabulary, your definitions, and on the skill level of your students.

I thought about a non-fiction piece I used with my advanced ELLs. It was about the Alamo, because I love anything I can do cross-curricular. In different years I did different skills with the article, fact and opinion, sequencing, main idea, summarizing, even persuasive writing. 

I settle on a main skill of summarizing and sequencing, and a supporting language goal of using sequence signal words, i.e. transitional phrases, in their summary to organize the information.

The whole process of creating the activity is super easy and I love the amount of customization. At the end of creating the activity it asks for a target number of words for students to use in the writing, I chose 10, and when the activity created it says 6, the default, so I was a bit disappointed with that, but it is nothing I couldn't tell my students. Anyways you end up with something like this:

My lovely colleague and I practiced with a default story to test features. I really liked being able to mouse over words and get a definition. I also liked that it tracked my usage of the words in any form, and bolded them in the story. ELLs can really struggle with suffixes and changing word forms, so this is excellent practice. 

I also loved another feature that asks students to review the other student's sentence.

This one activity hits so many different standards! I am not about using technology to say that I used technology, but this is an activity with some real value. Could it be done without this website? Sure, the same thing could be done on pencil and paper if you lack technology, or on a single computer, or in Google docs. But, the ease of use and quality of activity make it definitely worth mentioning.

My Top 9 Favorite Websites for Simplifying texts

As class sizes grow and the complexity of standards increase, the need for differentiation rises, and the time to be able to do it drops. So, I always try to find resources to help adapt the same materials for different reading levels so that all students can be successful with the same content.

Here are 9 of my favorite websites and tools for simplifying texts. I will highlight some pros and cons of each as I’ve encountered in my own classroom.

Rewordify will simplify complex vocabulary to make a difficult text easily to understand. You can customize the amount that is simplified and the way it looks – As an English teacher, I like the side-by-side text option. There are also various pre-made activities cloze reading etc using the original vocabulary that might help with supporting vocabulary development. Why this is at the top of the list – you choose the text to simplify

Offers a selection of fiction and non-fiction texts at various reading levels that can be sent out to students on any device. Why I like this one – my district went BYOD so there is a lot of technology available, and it includes many of the texts in a secondary ELA curriculum, it is not just elementary.

All of the 4 following are very similar and allow for teachers to access a variety of non-fiction and news articles in a variety of levels. Each has slightly different functionality and I have ranked them in order of my favorites.

3. News in Levels – not only has the different levels but has videos to match the levels and questions after that encourage students to write and speak.
4. Newsela – has the many nice features, like quizzes afterwards, but there is a fee for creating the virtual classrooms and tracking student progress
5. For The Teachers – I used to print these out as anchor activities, for extension and further independent practice with skills.

The next 2 create summaries of text on webpages, or that you can copy and paste.
7. Text Compactor – copy and paste, works pretty well sometimes summaries are not perfect
8. TLDR – works with websites, works pretty well sometimes summaries are not perfect

9. Finally, there is a feature in Read&Write, it increases white space, and reduces the number of sentences. Works pretty well, but as all of these tools, it is not perfect

I've added this to my collection of Technology Tools for English language learners

Using QR Codes with English Language Learners

I was sitting in a training session yesterday where the presenter reiterated an idea that I stand on my soapbox about rather frequently: All means ALL. All students deserve access to a rich and meaningful education. At my table this brought up a lot of lively discussion, not because anyone disagreed, but it was clear that many people did not know how they could differentiate for the variety of learners in their room, and other were so weighed down by the concept of time, they would not even consider it.

So I wanted to highlight another way we can differentiate for all learners, and provide students access to things they need to be successful. In light of my district going BYOD, I am going to highlight a tech tool: QR Codes. There is a fantastic QR generator template created by Tammy Worcester at Tammy's Technology Tips for Teachers. It is very easy to use, and makes creating and organizing QR codes a breeze. Students just need a barcode scanner or QR scanning app on their device.

Scannable QR codes provide students with opportunities to quickly and easily access and interact with a variety of content. QR codes can open web pages, launch videos, and give access to files to download. Here are 7 uses to use QR codes in your classroom to help English language learners.

1. Vocabulary lists

Previously, I have written about Read&Write for Google and its ability to create a vocabulary list, with visuals in your drive. Provide students who need extra vocabulary support a QR code linking to necessary vocabulary for the lesson.

2. Word Walls

Have a QR code attached to the word that links to a pronunciation of the word. This of course could also be done with a vocabulary list. Depending on the students first language proficiency, it could link to a translation of the word too.

3. Audio support

Previously, I have written about Snapverter and its ability to turn any writing into a readable document with Read&Write. Provide students with a link to this converted document for additional audio support. This could be directions for homework/projects as well as reading assignments. You can also record yourself reading directions in the same way.

4. Building Background

One of the largest challenges with English language learners is building background knowledge. The older the ELL, the larger the gap may be. It is important to build background for all students, but English learners may need more support. You can provide QR codes that link to videos, articles, every resources in their native language to give them additional information about a topic. This could also be used to extend and enhance information.

5. Student Response Cards

Most of us in the classroom have tried different ways to elicit student responses to check understanding. White boards for students to write their answers, even those little ABCD cards students hold up. One problem I saw was students would look around and change their answers. Plickers is a simple tool where teachers pose a question and scan students QR code answer cards, no one can look around and see anyone else’s answer.

6.  Scavenger Hunt/Treasure Hunt

This idea could look a lot of different ways. Simply put, place QR codes linked to questions around the school and have groups of students search for them and answer them within a set time. has a nice QR treasure hunt generator you can use as well, it does not require the internet on the students phones.

7.  Talking “Museum”

We live in a multimedia world, so why not let students share their knowledge in such a way. QR codes allow for student to attach an audio explanation of their learning to a physical product. We used this is a lot of ways in my classroom. One of my favorites was a project designed by my students to welcome newcomers to class. They created videos introducing important people around the school, and explaining things like how to go through the lunch line, and check out a book from the library. We posted these QR codes around the school and when a new student would come they would get a school tour with instructions from my students.

Along this same line we have created an interactive bulletin board outside our office that highlights many of the students at the Newcomer Center. It is still a work in progress but a quick scan of the QR codes around the map bring up videos of the students talking about themselves and the things they are learning in school.