Quick Tip Tuesday: Engaging ELLs with a “class news” activity

Putting together a classroom newspaper with a group of first grade ELL students may sound like an all-day project. But Brad Buhrow and Anne Upczak Garcia do a “class news” activity nearly every morning and it takes less than 30 minutes. In their book, Ladybugs, Tornadoes, and Swirling Galaxies: English Language Learners Discover Their World Through Inquiry, Buhrow and Garcia explain how the newspaper format helps them use personal stories and shared writing to teach ELLs  things like language structures, grammar, and syntax:


Part of what we do to learn about each other is encourage the telling of stories about ourselves. Both teachers and kids share stories from day one. We do this a number of different ways, and we begin the journey within the supportive structure of shared reading and writing. Shared writing is an excellent way for ELLs to practice language structures orally and see conventional grammar and syntax modeled. We have been using a format called Class News. As a class we create daily news almost every day from day one. This routine allows the kids to contribute to a writing, reading, listening, and speaking activity that is all about them. 


Often we write our news early in the morning and find it a good way to start the day.  First we write the title of our news, for example, “First-Grade News” or “Second-Grade News” or something more exciting such as “The Class Adventures for [date].” We ask the kids to think about what news we have that we can write.  After giving them a couple of minutes of quiet time to think, we let them tell someone next to them what they are thinking.  Next, as we hold the pen we ask someone to share.  Often they like to start with the weather.  For example, “Today is hot and sunny.” We first draw lines to represent where words will go, usually using a yellow or light-colored marker.  Drawing lines for each word emphasizes spaces for words and makes a connection between voice and print.  Then we ask, “What goes at the beginning of a sentence?” We choose someone who has a thumb up. As we write, we stop sometimes to talk about letter sounds, coloring in some of the letters.  For a word such as Thursday we would talk about the beginning sound and color in the Th to make it stand out—a brief graphophonic lesson.  We also stop before the end of a sentence and ask, “What is the next word?” This gives the kids practice with semantic cues.  They need to put in a word that makes sense.  When we come to the end of the sentence, we ask, “What do writers put at the end of a sentence?” Sometimes we say, “Tell someone next to you what goes at the end of a sentence.” This gives everyone a chance to talk, and we write what they say. With this shared writing we are able to teach in-context conventions, English syntax, vocabulary, graphophonics, semantic cues, and more.  We also point out differences and similarities between English and Spanish, such as cognates and letter sounds, as a way to show the students the relationships between the two, because we have a large number of Spanish-speaking students.  Each day we choose a couple of colors such as blue and green and alternate colors for each sentence. We also draw small pictures to represent some of the words. In the sentence “Today is hot and sunny,” we might draw a sun above the word sunny and a thermometer above hot. The pictures help make the text more comprehensible to our new English learners. When we are finished, we take turns reading our news together. In twenty minutes we have already written and read a newspaper!


3 comments March 22nd, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: Supporting teachers new to ELL students

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?

Add comment March 16th, 2010

Questions & Authors: Familia in the classroom

As comfirmation hearings begin for Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Robin Turner wonders how educators can better nurture their Latino students. In his book, Greater Expectations: Teaching Academic Literacy to Underrepresented Students, Robin describes how he uses the concept of familia in his classroom to improve his students’ academic performance.

Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court has brought media attention to her identity as a Latina and has generated much more controversy than her rulings. Most people have heard of her assertion that “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

The notion that by virtue of her experience as a Latina, her approach to judging will be different has earned her scathing rebuttals from many. Implicit in her statement is the question of whether one’s culture can in fact affect how a person goes about judging, or for that matter, how a person goes about performing just about any role.

It’s a question that I think educators need to ask: does a person’s culture influence the way he/she performs as a student? And if so, how do we educators adjust our practices to accommodate such diversity?

Just about anyone in education knows the dismal college-going statistics of underrepresented students. By 2025, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, one out of four K-12 students in the United States will be Latino. Based on a study by the U.S. Senate Education Committee, if the numbers hold true, then a quarter of our school population will belong to an ethnic group that is four times as likely to drop out of high school as the mainstream.

Now, if I were the manager of a baseball team, and a large group of my players weren’t hitting, I’d talk to my batting coach and make some changes in our practices.

It’s probably time to do that with education.

A recent report by The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute noted that young Latinos relied “on the family for emotional support, to contribute to the well-being of the family, and to stay physically engaged by either living at home or visiting often, participating in family events, and staying in touch.” In my observation, family events often have a much more communal feel to them than similar gatherings from other ethnic groups. Anyone who has witnessed firsthand a quinceañera, as opposed to a “sweet sixteen,” has probably seen the difference.

As a result, a classroom that makes use of community will probably produce more successful students than one that does not. While there are scores of students that still thrive in independent, non-social, learning-in-solitude kinds of classrooms with straight rows, the numbers are thinning by the year. In the age of Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace, the social dimension can’t be overlooked.

In my classroom, we call this realization of being knit together into a community of collgebound students familia, and it’s one of the ways that I have altered my instruction to accommodate students from various cultural backgrounds.
A classroom with familia offers explicit instruction with multiple opportunities for input from both peers and teacher when it comes to writing. Students use class time to speak with each other—not just with the instructor—about their writing. In a class with familia, students regularly interact and assess each other’s writing as they go through the process, focusing on aiding each other rather than competing with each other. Activities like literature circles, writing/reading workshops, Socratic seminars, and pair-shares offer students the opportunity to operate in an environment that accomodates and utilizes cultural strengths rather than lamenting a perceived lack of motivation.

For example, in my earlier years, I struggled with teaching Animal Farm. I would attempt to walk students through the novel, pointing out the various passages that I thought related to today, in an attempt to make the book come alive. After trying to push them through the book, I’d assign a paper—something like, “how do the pigs capture and maintain their power”—and then watch the disliking of the novel intensify. With no invoking of familia, it was a lifeless experience.

This year, after reading Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide, I pulled way back. My freshmen simply made T-charts based on what they noticed as they read. Every day, we started with them sharing their T-charts, in groups and then as a class. Amazingly, nearly all the concepts that I would’ve chosen were noticed by my students and created great teachable moments—the ones prompted by students asking questions that they really want answers to. At the end of the novel, I did have them write what message they see in the book, but we spent a great deal more time discussing what the overall messages were, and then in small writing groups responding to what we were producing. I wrote with them, as a member of their community, and modeled revising strategies throughout the process. Their papers were deeper and more well-developed than in past years.

At the conlcusion of teaching Animal Farm, nearly all my students actually enjoyed the novel and appreciated its content. Let me repeat that, my freshmen actually liked reading Animal Farm. All I did was get out of the way and let the force of community, of familia, do the work.

Sotomayor, in another statement from a speech in 1996 that has been garnering media notice, related that she “found out that my Latina background had created difficulties in my writing that I needed to overcome….My writing was stilted and overly complicated, my grammar and vocabulary skills weak.” That starting point is probably a common one for many of our students. The only question is whether or not the educational institutions can turn from their test-happy ways and really engage the full range of students through familia and other adjustments to pedagogy.

Add comment July 13th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Classroom rituals

In Becoming One Community, authors Kathleen Fay and Suzanne Whaley provide guidance for teachers whose classrooms include children who are just learning English. This week’s Quick Tip comes from Chapter 3 of their book, where they discuss how small classroom rituals and remembering each student’s name and its proper pronounciation creates a classroom community where all learners will thrive.

Ralph Peterson writes: It is not unusual in today’s classrooms to find three, five, and sometimes more cultures represented. Bringing students together as a group and nurturing tolerance for their ways and beliefs while celebrating their differences challenges the talents of the most experienced teachers. Teachers who make communities with their students are cultural engineers of sorts. The primary goal at the beginning of a new year or term is to lead students to come together, form a group, and be there for one another. (Peterson 1992, p. 13)

Peterson’s suggestion to create rituals of belonging and understanding is important in all classrooms, but it’s especially important in classrooms with English language learners, for two reasons. First, if the teacher considers how children participate and talk with one another, community-building activities can level the playing field so that each member of the class can realize that he or she is a valued contributor. ELL students will realize this of themselves, and—just as important—the non-ELL students in the class will also realize that English language learners are capable participants. The second reason is a simple one: when students participate in meaningful activities, English language understanding and speaking ability will improve.

Shannon Blaney’s class started a morning ritual when a new student, who spoke little English, arrived from Somalia. A few students spoke Arabic, and they taught the class the greeting “Salam Alaikum” and the response “Alaikum Salam,” which is used by Muslims everywhere, regardless of native language. The class decided to collect various ways to say “Good morning” and “Hello.” Shannon took the opportunity to create a new ritual to begin their mornings. For the first few days, they practiced saying all the greetings together as a group before individual students greeted each other, and sometimes they pulled down the map to see which countries might use that greeting. Eventually this ritual only took a few minutes, but they continued to do it every day.

Once the morning announcements were over, the ritual would begin. The class gathered on the rug in a circle. Shannon sat in the circle, quietly reminding students to move here and there so that no one was sitting outside the circle. When it was quiet, she would ask softly, “Would someone like to start?” On this particular day, Betsy raised her hand. She turned to Mariana at her left, shook hands, and said, “Buenos días, Mariana.” “Buenos días, Betsy,” came the reply. Mariana then turned to the student at her left and said, “Good morning, Abdirizak.” “Good morning, Mariana,” Abdirizak replied, giggling a little, looking at the list of greetings and then at his teacher. Shannon reassured him with a smile. Then Abdirizak turned to José: “Bonjour, José.” “Good morning, Abdirizak.” José turned to Jackie; he hesitated, then turned around to whisper with Abdirizak. When he turned to Jackie again he said, “Salam Alaikum, Jackie.” Jackie paused and looked at her teacher. “Al—Al—” Abdirizak whispered the response to her and she softly repeated, “Alaikum Salam.”

Acts as simple as saying hello or as complex as altering daily plans to make time for someone to share who ordinarily doesn’t speak up are ways teachers help to create a comfortable environment. But simply making time for such acts isn’t enough; you must believe that these acts are important, because your attitude will affect how you respond to children. Shannon’s ritual with her students teaches them to respect and communicate with each other, not just with her. She has made a conscious decision to give everyone an opportunity to participate.

“Your Name Is Important”

Our names are an important part of our identity, so being conscientious about using your students’ names is one way to begin to know them. Teachers of English language learners have to be particularly careful to take the time to learn how to say a child’s name correctly. Many of us have stories of someone calling us a nickname (one we like or one we don’t like) instead of our real name or mispronouncing our name. Our school secretary, Susan Litwin, came to the United States from Vietnam as a high school student. She told us about when and why her name was changed from Chau, the name her family gave her, to Susan. In her American high school her ESOL teacher read the class list and then told the students, “You each get to pick an American name.” She had some suggestions for them to pick from; in some cases she assigned a name: “We’ll call you Susan.” Occasionally I share this story with students if, for example, I am taking the time to learn how to pronounce a new student’s name. I want everyone to feel pride in his or her name. I don’t want kids to be passive abouttheir names, saying, “Sure, that’s fine,” with a shrug of the shoulders, when their name is mispronounced. The truth is, some names are difficult to pronounce exactly the way it is said by a native speaker. Some can hear the differences better than others—whether the language is English or something else. For example, my sister’s name is Erin, and I have a cousin named Aaron. In northern Virginia, both names are pronounced similarly (air-in). But my cousin is from New Jersey. We pronounce the Aa in his name like the a in at. We try to emphasize the difference to my brother-in-law Mike, who is from New Orleans, by saying both names over and over, exaggerating different parts. “Listen: Erin [air-in]. Now listen: Aaaaaaaaron.”

Mike cannot hear the difference. He thinks we’re nuts. It’s important not to joke or take the easy way out with children’s names, especially if the student is new to the school or has a particularly difficult name to pronounce. Thinking about Jorge in the poem by Jane Medina, I say to the students, “Your name is important. I want to say it the way you say it” or I’ll ask, “How does your family say it at home?” This lets everyone else in the class, as well as the child, know that respect for others starts with respect for their names. And children appreciate such respect.

I am working in Samantha Finney’s third-grade class. A new student has arrived since my last rotation. Samantha introduces Mahek to me as the kids gather on the rug. Once everyone is settled I want to review all the kids’ names. They are used to this ritual—it’s a little game I play, since I work in so many classes. The children love to see if I’ve forgotten their names, so I always start with my tricks (telling them all to say their name the first time, even if they know I know, so no one feels forgotten; searching the classroom for names on the wall; asking for the first letter as a hint). When I get to Mahek, the new student from Pakistan, I pause (I’ve already forgotten how to pronounce her name). I smile and tentatively say, “Mehok?” The other kids giggle and say it correctly for me. Mahek looks at me with wide eyes and a slight smile. I want to hear her name again, but from Mahek herself. I ignore the others and ask her, “Please tell me your name again.” Nothing. Someone yells out, “It’s Mahek!” I respond, “I want to hear how she says it,” and turn again to Mahek. I point to my chest and say, “My name is Ms. Fay. Ms. Fay. What is your name?” She says her name. The other kids by now have settled down. Then I try to say it and point to her again, and she says, “Mahek.” I say it a few more times to make sure I have it; Mahek nods. The next time I see Mahek is at our weekly third-grade sing-along. Her class is at the front of the group. I smile and whisper, “Good morning, Ma—Mah—?” I’ve forgotten how to say her name again! She whispers back, “Mahek.” “Good morning, Mahek.” “Good morning.” I whisper, “Ms. Fay.” She smiles. No one else notices our interaction, but Mahek is grinning from ear to ear. It’s as if she’s thinking, “She knows me.”

When I first met Mahek, I consciously tried to ignore the other students who wanted to help and focused my attention on Mahek herself. She can, of course, say her own name, and this is often the first opportunity for a teacher and a new ELL student to have a genuine, meaningful interaction. It’s easy to let a child’s shyness dictate our actions. I should note here, however, that if a child seems upset and looks away, I would not persist. Mahek was engaged, though, making eye contact with me and smiling, and during our interaction she successfully communicated with me. Also, the other students saw that I expected Mahek to be a participant in class—a subtle but powerful message in that simple initial interaction.

Add comment May 19th, 2009

Article: Emancipating the English Language Learner

“As you cooraptoriliate these words, make sure you flimp the scoglottora in proper schimliturn. You will only understand this column if hickitow glisps in baggaduanation. Use your joomering and begin.


In the April issue of Middle Ground Magazine, Rick Wormeli describes how ELL students feel when faced with a text they don’t understand and how teachers sometimes may make the situation worse by supplying a remedial magazine or book for second language learners.

“We need to be mindful of the emotions at play when asking students to do all this thinking aloud in a language and culture foreign to their own. Students are stressed not only about learning a new academic concept, but also about having to adjust to different cultural expectations in which they may not succeed,” writes Rick.

Read this great article where Rick offers simple strategies and some common sense responses to help ELL students learn and thrive in any classroom.

To find out when Rick’s new book about teaching with metaphors becomes available, click here!

Add comment May 14th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Making ELL students feel safe

Many ELL tudents in Tess Pardini and Emelie Parker’s elementary classroom arrive midway through the school year, unfamiliar with American schools and the English language. Even simple things like the bustle of the cafeteria line can be stressful for these students. In this week’s tip, Emelie and Tess, authors of The Words Came Down!” offer ways to comfort these students and help them get used to their new school environment.

Nonverbal Ways to Help Children Feel Safe, Secure, and Welcome

When children come to our school, we have to know that they may never have seen a water fountain, ridden on a school bus, walked down a cafeteria line, eaten a pizza or hot dog, seen a fire alarm box, heard a fire alarm, or encountered a jack o’lantern. During all these new experiences, we have to be there gently for children in case they need us. This awareness and meeting of unspoken needs is the way a strong classroom community wraps its arms around newcomers.

Making sure children that have just arrived in our country are not the first in line at the water fountain on the first day and making sure they find something that is appealing to eat in the cafeteria is part of helping children learn to trust us and know that they are safe. During the first fire drill, we stand close to the newest children and are ready to comfort them. We warn them with hand signs what is coming. As we hold their hands, touch their shoulders, or stand next to them in line, the children will know we will protect them.

Children often come in late in the year. We greet new students with their names already written at a table, their own coat hooks, book boxes, and journals. We sit them next to a child who speaks their language if possible. The class practices pronouncing new students’ names correctly. Two students give a tour of the room. The rest of the day children squabble over who will get to take them through the lunch line, eat with them at lunch, be their friend at recess, introduce them to the music teacher, or buddy read with them. Having a language buddy or another student buddy can help children through their first days.

A new student is like a breath of fresh air coming into the class. During the first day the teacher will make informal assessments as the child interacts with children, uses books, and participates in workshops. We will observe what he or she knows about books, reading, writing, math, and oral language. This helps us know where to start when planning for the child’s instruction on the next day.

Some children experience a very rough beginning as they join our school community, and we have to work extra hard for them to feel safe and secure. Antony arrived at Tess’s door one morning, midway through first grade. He was terrified and his fearful crying made it difficult to continue teaching that morning. Thankfully, the other children were deeply concerned and patiently tried to help in any way they could. Antony survived lunch because Tess stayed at his side throughout the lunch period. A large cafeteria like ours has to move children quickly through the lines and out into a large seating area in order to operate efficiently, so it can be an overwhelming experience for young children, especially children new to our school culture.

Later that afternoon when Tess took the class to the gym for their PE lesson, Antony broke down again and clung to her as she tried to leave. Tess took him back to the classroom with her. They were both exhausted. She would need to come up with a plan to help both of them.

Tess remembered another student who had arrived under similar circumstances several years before. Julio was now in fifth grade. After school, Tess caught Julio and asked him if he would be willing to help her with Antony since he had been through a similar experience. Naturally, he said he would. Tess went to ask Julio’s teacher if she could borrow Julio for some brief blocks of time over the next two or three days. She also checked with the PE and music teachers to make sure that they would not object to Julio accompanying the class to their lessons.

Julio waited with Tess the next morning to greet Antony, and he sat next to him in the circle as the class held their morning meeting. He rejoined them at lunchtime, and Antony was willing to sit next to him in the cafeteria. Once Tess knew Antony was calm, she was able to leave. Julio held Antony’s hand as they went to the gym later that afternoon and stayed with him for PE. Because Julio was able to help Tess foster a sense of trust in Antony, the school experience became a little less frightening for him, and he gradually settled into the routine.

Emelie remembers when Huy arrived from Vietnam. At school, he was screaming and crying, kicking his feet on the floor, running away at recess, and pulling out his hair. She solved the problem by inviting his mother to come into the class and stay. For two weeks, Huy and his mother squatted together on the floor and learned about school in America. Later on during a home visit, Emelie discovered that his mother had learned to speak English by practicing the songs and poems on the charts Emelie had sent home. They were hanging on the wall in the living room. Huy, now in high school, gives back to Bailey’s through a service club called Raider Readers. Raider Readers is a club at our neighboring high school for ELLs, sponsored by their ELL teachers. The high school students choose and practice reading picture books for Bailey’s kindergarten. The students walk to Bailey’s once a month to read and discuss the books with two or three children. This club benefits both high school and elementary students.

Add comment February 17th, 2009

Questions & Authors: Getting parents of ELL students involved in the classroom

Parental involvement and support plays an important role in the success of every student — and teacher. But what is the best way to get parents involved in their children’s lives at school — especially parents who might not speak English? What challenges does this mean to teachers? Robin Turner, author of Greater Expectations and Academic Literacy addresses this important question and suggests ways for teachers to break through the language and cultural barriers when reaching out to parents.

This struggle is a familiar one to anyone who works with underrepresented students — and to be honest, there’s no easy answer.

Bringing parents in to the educational experience despite language barriers requires a reexamining of what it is we want them to do and what their role is in the overall academic process.

Often, what we want is for parents to be enforcers of our assignments, to ensure that their children have materials, attend school with punctuality, do homework, and treat their instructors with respect.

It’s a fairly limited and somewhat menial set of expectations to which we too often limit parents of underrepresented students. It seems to me that, while these facets of parenting schoolchildren do matter, they certainly can’t be the sole functions of the mothers and fathers and guardians of our students. Their relationships with our students are so much deeper, and the benefits of working with those relationships are enormous for all involved.

For instance, much research reveals that underrepresented students rarely see their worlds, their neighborhoods, or their heritages represented in academic classes. The more we teachers get them thinking and writing about those topics, though, the more they develop their composition skills through an intrinsic motivation AND the greater their ability to think reflectively becomes. Through these writing experiences, the parents and families of our students can be great resources, regardless of language.

In my sophomore English classes, students interview parents and/or grandparents in order to research how their own family made the trek to the United States. These conversations often become precious memories for my students and create a sense of academic purpose for the parents.

Often, their role becomes magnified, as they move from simply monitoring their kids’ completion of homework to ensuring that the family history is told accurately. They know that their children’s papers will be read by other members of the family, and thus they frequently become enmeshed in the academic process.

Likewise, when I have students interview their parents about leaving home for a distant university, the resulting conversations can be powerful, and in many cases, it frees up parents usually divorced from the university experience to share their fears and hopes, their pride and their anxieties, and have an authentic conversation — beyond “did you do all your homework tonight?” — about the importance of school. As a first-generation college student, I can attest to the power of these talks.

Parents don’t need to be experts on the academic world in order to contribute to academic success. But we educators need to strategic in making the overall academic experience as rich and powerful for our underrepresented students as for our students that come from a background of collegiate achievement, which means expecting more than just ensuring good behavior and consistent attendance.

How do you reach out to your students’ parents? Share your ideas and thoughts in the comment section!

1 comment January 29th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Independent reading with ELLs

This week’s Quick Tip about working with English Language Learners comes from Emelie Parker and Tess Pardini, authors of “The Words Came Down!” English Language Learners Read, Write, and Talk Across the Curriculum, K-2 (2006). Throughout the book, Emelie and Tess discuss ways to use daily routines, visual cues, and physical action to build a classroom community where primary ELL students thrive. In Chapter 5 on reading workshop, for example, they provide this example of using a “bubble space” metaphor to introduce independent reading time:

After the whole-group read-aloud and mini-lesson, it is time to break up for independent reading. At this time, the students read from their own reading boxes. The boxes contain familiar books that they reread for practice. Each time they reread a book, their understanding deepens and their control of phrasing, fluency, and expression increases, so this is an essential element of our reading time. Their reading boxes also contain books that are at their instructional level, requiring them to do some reading work that is appropriate for them. We have introduced all these books during guided reading lessons. Even the students who are preemergent readers have their own reading work to do independently. If they do not have appropriate-leveled text to hold their attention, they will become bored, reluctant to engage with the text, and possibly resort to distracting behavior.

A favorite lesson for some primary teachers at Bailey’s [Elementary School in Fairfax County, Virginia] to introduce children to the expectations of independent reading is a reading response to a Big Book called Bubble Gum by Gail Jorgensen. The children in the book learn to blow a bubble bigger and bigger and bigger. The last page has a great illustration of a popped bubble all over the children. The class enjoys acting out an innovation on the text of Bubble Gun. Without speaking, they pretend to unwrap gum, stick it in their mouth, and blow and blow. As they blow, they spread their arm outs wider and wider. They carefully walk with their arms spread out to a place in the room where no one can pop their bubble. If a child steps into or sits too close to someone’s “bubble space” then the balloon pops. Loud words can also pop a bubble.

After the children can do this without fuss, the teacher explains that they will now take books inside their bubble to read alone. Later, after children learn to read independently in a bubble space, we show them how to let a friend come in and sit shoulder to shoulder in their bubble for buddy reading.

Add comment December 16th, 2008

Questions & Authors: Setting up an ELL classroom – Part II

“Classroom space impacts everything: Instruction, behavior, and our sense of well-being,” writes Debbie Diller in her new book, Spaces & Places. Creating a classroom environment that supports instruction and allows students to be comfortable and take risks without stress, is not an easy task. Mix in even just a few ELL students into that classroom, and the task becomes even more difficult.

To support ELL students in their learning, Debbie suggests including specific literacy stations in the classroom, adding books that especially support ELL students to your library, and finding a quiet place where second language learners can take a break from the commotion of a busy classroom.

Read more of Debbie’s ideas in Part II of our Questions & Authors installment focused on ELL classrooms.

  • “Be sure to plan for a comfortable, well-organized whole group instruction area where the whole class can gather for meetings and instruction. I often invite ELL students to sit near the front and have native English speakers all around them. I’ve found this creates a “surround sound” type of setting. Sometimes I’ve noticed ELL students choosing to sit near the outside of the group, but bringing them in helps them be more included in the group. Place the whole group teaching area near a bulletin board/wall/dry erase or chalkboard, so you can post anchor charts and refer to them while teaching. Use cooperative learning and group goals to increase interaction across students of different cultures.
  • Have music materials (CD player or tape recorder and music) readily accessible in the whole group teaching area, especially if you work with young children. Use these for transition times and to allow students to move and use their bodies. ELL students can use their bodies to interpret stories and songs even if they don’t know all the English words yet.
  • Create anchor charts with students, being sure to elicit ideas from your ELL students. Use their language, so they understand what you’re teaching. Pay close attention to language complexity. Use concise and deliberate vocabulary. Remember to include pictures on your anchor charts. This helps all students remember, and can be especially helpful for ELL students.
  • Create charts that show connections between English and students’ native languages. For example, make connections to cognates, grammar, punctuation, expressions, and word order.
  • Make “I Can” lists with your class, too. Again, get ideas for what kids can practice at literacy work stations and use their language on these lists. Be clear and concise. Don’t be too wordy. Add digital photos to the list that illustrate students doing these activities at the station. A picture is worth a thousand words and will help all children understand what to do for independent practice.
  • When teaching new vocabulary words related to literature or content areas, include a digital photo whenever possible to help illustrate the word and anchor it in students’ memory. I like to use Google images to find these pictures. Post a chart with this week’s words on it, and include kid-friendly definitions (as suggested by Isabel Beck in Bringing Words to Life as she writes about Tier II words) as well as a picture beside each new word. Refer to the chart constantly as you teach with it. Teach related words from ELL children’s first language to help them make connections.
  • I always include the following literacy stations in an ELL classroom, and sometimes even have multiples of these to give students more opportunities to hear and use English as they practice: listening station; computer station; drama or retelling station; science or nonfiction reading station; creation station. Have a space for each, so students know where to find and work with the materials. Include students in showing the rest of the class how to use each station as you introduce them to the whole class.
  • In the classroom library, have a few special baskets that will especially support ELL students. Include the following kinds of baskets: books by student authors; wordless books (for telling stories); books we love (from read aloud that are familiar); books written in two languages; as well as other categories of fiction and nonfiction books and magazines. Always label the baskets and have students help you sort the books to put into these. Fasten a label on the front of each basket that includes the type of book along with a picture representing this genre or group of books to help students find and return books. Also, be sure to include books representing the cultures and heritage of all students in your classroom.
  • Be sure to include a small group teaching area. All students will grow when provided with differentiated small group instruction that meets their needs. ELL students will benefit from this type of teaching and sitting around a table together will help to facilitate discussion which builds oral language and vocabulary.
  • Have a space in the classroom (perhaps the classroom library) where students new to U.S. can take a short break during the day. It can be tiring trying to listen most of the day to a language you don’t understand. Let them sit quietly and look at books.
  • For classrooms with limited space, use wall space outside of the classroom (or in the school lobby) to communicate to parents what students are learning. Use pictures and text (perhaps in English and multiple languages for parents) created by students in displays. Include an accordion folder with take-home sheets for parents explaining what students are studying with suggestions of things to try at home related to the learning displayed.)”

How do you accommodate ELL students in your classroom?

3 comments November 3rd, 2008

Podcast: Robin Turner

“Every population has students who are in a subculture where college success is not part of the game. One of the things I try to address is how do we reverse that culture–how do we get into that culture, find its strengths, celebrate those strengths, and still propel students to academic success?”

In today’s podcast, Robin Turner reflects on the obstacles he overcame to gain a college degree and how the successes he experienced applying the principles of California’s Puente Project inspired his book, Greater Expectations.

Get a glimpse into Robin’s classroom at Magnolia High School in Anaheim, California. We’ve also just posted a sample clip from his new DVD, Academic Literacy, due out early next month.

Listen to the podcast

Add comment October 28th, 2008

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