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.