Quick Tip Tuesday: Supporting teachers new to ELL students

March 16th, 2010

In this week’s Quick Tip, Pat Johnson, author of One Child at a Time and the upcoming Catching Readers Before They Fall, talks about how she supports teachers who are new to working with ELL students. She discusses book introductions as a way to help ELL students – and their teachers – talk about a book before they begin reading.

Last year I had the privilege of working with Katie Keier, an excellent teacher new to the school. During Katie’s thirteen years of prior experience teaching primary grades, her classes often contained students with special needs—learning disabilities, emotional problems, poverty issues—but she had never worked in a classroom where the majority of students were ELLs. As she began teaching second grade at our school, one of her goals was to learn as much as she could about supporting them as readers and writers. Katie was open to watching me work with some of her second language learners and equally open to letting me watch her. She was also excited about hypothesizing and experimenting with a variety of ways to support ELLs. The sections that follow include some of the things we learned during our year of studying together: first, information on book introductions, because those played a significant role in our teaching; then, common issues in texts that often cause difficulties for ELLs; and finally, a suggested teaching move and sample scenario that Katie and I decided to try.

Book Introductions

In her book By Different Paths to Common Outcomes, Marie Clay writes: “Book introductions are an authentic social interaction about the new book; but when they provide an orientation to novel features of stories and of texts, they are also a kind of teaching. Readers should remember that although the interaction flows like a conversation and leaves room for the child’s input to inform the teacher, it also includes deliberate teaching moves.” (1998, p. 175)

Clay defines book introductions first as “social interactions.” The teacher begins by giving the title and brief summary. Starting off this way helps activate students’ prior knowledge, which facilitates future comprehension. Think of how your comprehension and the ease with which you read something are affected based on whether you have prior knowledge of the topic. After the title and summary, a conversation ensues as the children begin to discuss the cover and the pictures. The children might make connections to something the teacher said in her summary, or they might answer a question that the teacher posed to stimulate interest or inspire discussion. All of this is done conversationally.

Second, Clay says that book introductions are a “kind of teaching” because teachers make “deliberate teaching moves.” The teacher can intentionally decide to include some of the vocabulary or language structures from the text in her conversation. The teacher is also listening to what each child is saying to gather information that will inform her teaching decisions. What information or vocabulary does the child have related to the topic? Did the child have a similar experience that will support comprehension of this text? Does the child need clarification or elaboration of terms or ideas before beginning to read?

Several questions arise when discussing book introductions with new teachers. Some wonder why we don’t let the children figure out the title. One reason is that the titles of books are often harder than the level of the text. For example, an emergent book’s pattern can be: “The bear lives here, the lizard lives here, the alligator lives here,” and yet the title of the book may be “Animal Habitats.” Other teachers question the summary part of a book introduction, asking, “Aren’t you giving away too much of the story?” The title and brief summary put the meaning of the text in the head of the child so that he can draw upon meaning as one source of information to understand the book and solve the words. Children are “entitled” to a book introduction (Clay 1991). The summary also opens up opportunities for students to connect the ideas in this book to their own prior knowledge. It’s been my experience that the summary and conversation stimulate interest in the book and hook the children in and, when asked to read the text on their own, the students do so willingly and enthusiastically.

A book introduction also acts as a way to level the playing field for ELLs. Think about this example. Native English-speaking children who are about to read a text about a boy playing soccer would bring a fair amount of vocabulary with them (goalie, uniforms, shin guards, goal post, passing, heading the ball). Many of these terms would not necessarily be part of an ELL’s vocabulary. The ELL may know the concepts but not have the English labels for those terms. Therefore, the teacher can use these words in her part of the conversation.

Another question teachers ask is, “The book introductions connected with standardized assessments, like the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA), are extremely brief compared to the kinds of book introductions you are suggesting. Shouldn’t we prepare kids for that testing situation by not telling them about the book?” Keep in mind that guided reading is not a testing situation. It’s instructional time with the student, time to teach and support readers. We don’t prepare students for a writing prompt test by giving them constant writing prompts, but rather by developing strong writing workshops that include instruction on writer’s process, author’s craft, and mechanics. In the same way, we don’t use guided reading instructional time to practice for a benchmarking test. We use instructional time to teach reading strategies and behaviors that the child can use on any text, even ones they encounter in a testing situation.

Book introductions were something both Katie and I already used regularly in our guided reading and individual sessions with students.

However, our research led us to ask these questions:

Is there space in the book introduction for supporting ELLs?

What might that support look like?

What types of things might be added to a book introduction to support the English language learner’s successful reading of the book on his own?

Entry Filed under: Differentiation & ELLs,Quick Tip Tuesday

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