Q6: How much and what kind of professional development is necessary to teach #ELL?

Q6: How much and what kind of professional development is necessary to teach #ELL?

Tchrs must learn to make tchng comprehensible to diff proficiency levels: use visuals, repetition, models.

We need to help our ELLs to keep up with content learning even as they are acquiring English.  That means we have to go beyond traditional approaches to presenting content: oral explanations and written directions.  Instead, we have to tear down those language barriers by using a variety of techniques that make our meaning plain to students who do not necessarily share our language.  Teachers need to accompany linguistic information with pictures, graphic organizers, and demonstrations.  They need to encourage their students to clarify their understanding by discussing content with peers, in English or another language.  They need to keep posters around the room that students can use as “anchors,” visual reminders of how to do important processes and engaged with key concepts in your class.

But teachers can’t be expected to figure all this out on their own.  For mainstream teachers of ELLs, professional development should be focused on teaching them how to ensure their ELLs don’t fall behind.  I like SIOP and Universal Design for Learning as approaches to planning for full access.  What tools do you turn to?


Q5: What resources or support do you WISH you had to make teaching of #ELL more successful?

Q5: What resources or support do you WISH you had to make teaching of #ELL more successful?

More texts & tchng materials in their home language. This forms a base for English success.

I’ve seen it again and again: kids who can read in their home language learn to read much more quickly and easily than kids who can’t.  But beyond that, including students’ home languages in our classrooms helps them feel more connected to school.  If all the materials at the school are in English, or there’s just one small section of the school library with lower-level books in Spanish, what message are we sending to kids about the kinds of people who belong in academic settings?  People who belong here speak English; to belong here, you need to let go of your way of speaking.  A balance between English and other-language resources (including not just books but websites, worksheets, textbooks, posters, notes home, etc.) tells students that their languages are also tools for learning.

Q4: How do you scaffold reading & writing instruction for English learners?

Q4: How do you scaffold reading & writing instruction for English learners? 

I want them to use their L1 to help them rd & wrt in English. Rd in Eng, wrt in Spanish, or vice versa.

When I work with newcomer students, we just don’t have time for them to learn English before they start doing meaningful academic work.  Additionally, they are already mature speakers of another language that can be useful to their academic development.  We make full use of their home-language skills in my newcomer class: when we read or view in English, we write about it in Spanish.  This gives me a better sense of my students’ comprehension–their ability to understand usually runs ahead of their ability to produce.

On the other hand, when I do want students to produce in English, I give them access to Spanish-language resources for research and reading.  When they understand the content they want to speak or write about, they feel more confident and able to share what they know in a new language.

Q2: Do your #ELL struggle with first-language literacy?

Q2: Do your #ELL struggle with first-language literacy?

L1 literacy enables L2 literacy, but we don’t teach it enough.

Bilingual education has been somewhat politically unpopular in recent decades, but the science is clear: students who can read in their first language have a much easier time learning to read in their second language.  Ask any bilingual teacher working with students who started reading in Spanish first and are transitioning to English: those who can read well in Spanish have no trouble picking up English reading, while those who struggled in Spanish also struggle in English.  One teacher I know has even observed a specific fluency cut-off: his first-graders who can read at least 50 words per minute in Spanish easily learn to read in English, while those below that threshold do not.

It might seem intuitively sensible that students who spend more time learning in English will ultimately be better at English, but this just isn’t the case.  When I studied Spanish in high school, I spent an hour a day learning in that language. This didn’t make me 1hr/day less good at English than my friends who didn’t study a foreign language, because language skill isn’t the simple result of the number of minutes spent using that language.  While exposure matters–kids in Russia aren’t going to spontaneously start speaking Swahili–it’s not the whole story.

The problem is that the testing and accountability system puts pressure on educators to get immediate results, and it’s true that bilingual education will not bring that kind of instant gratification.  When testing (in English) starts in third or even second grade, ELLs who have been in bilingual classes do do worse than ELLs who have been in English-only classes.  However, by 5th grade, those differences evaporate, and from middle school and beyond, kids who have ever been in bilingual classes do better than their English-immersion peers.  Importantly, we only see this benefit if kids can stay in bilingual programs through 5th or 6th grade.

Bottom line: L1 literacy enables rather than detracts from L2 literacy.

Q3: How do you include listening & speaking into your reading/writing instruction for #ELL students?

Q3: How do you include listening & speaking into your reading/writing instruction for #ELL students?

We cross modalities: if we rd, we talk about it; if we watch a video, we write about it.

Just like we teach reading and writing conventions, we need to teach conventions for listening and speaking.  I coach my newcomer students on how to pick out key words from the stream of speech: words that are said loudly or repeatedly, or words that appear at the end of a sentence and are emphasized.  They also know when watching videos that they should look for the main topic of each section.  When they must listen to each other, I teach my students how to look at the speaker, think about what s/he’s saying, and add to it or ask clarifying questions.  I also try to let my students have open-ended discussions.  It can be hard to let go and let kids discuss, but if our goal is for them to learn to construct and defend arguments in writing, we need to give them a chance to do it in speaking.

Because written and oral language are related but present different challenges, I let my kids cross modalities in their work: if we’re going to be reading a lot, we also talk about the text frequently.  If they need to do a lot of writing, maybe we will listen to a video or a read-aloud to get ready for that.  This way, the different types of language are constantly supporting and reinforcing each other.

Bottom line: listening and speaking instruction should be seamlessly integrated with reading and writing instruction.

TONIGHT: Twitter Chat on ELLs with the International Literacy Association

Tonight, I’ll be participating in a “twitter chat” about ELLs and literacy with the International Literacy Association (#ILAchat http://www.reading.org).  I wanted to offer some more detailed answers to go along with the 140-character tidbits I’ll be tweeting out. Follow @ingridobrien on Twitter around 8 pm Eastern tonight.

Here’s a peek at some of the topics I’ll be covering:

  • What’s the big deal about learning to read in a new language?
  • Does first-language literacy help or hurt ELLs?
  • How do listening, speaking, reading, and writing relate to each other in ELL literacy?
  • What can I put in my classroom to help my ELLs?
  • What can I start doing tomorrow to help my ELLs?
  • What should I start doing long-term to help my ELLs?

See you tonight!

Read what you love, the skills will follow

I used to tell kids all the time, “You need to read every day because it makes you smarter.”  Kids would share related reasons for reading that were perhaps more connected to the markers they understood as indicating smartness: “reading makes your fluency go up;” “you need to read so you can get to Level P,” “you have to read so you can do well on the state test.”  The newcomers I work with now talk about how reading will help them learn English.  Of course, I had defined my goals for students, for myself and for them, in reference to these scoring systems.  They knew we were trying to grow our fluency by 50 words per minute, or grow two grade levels in one year, or move up one band on the CST.  That’s what I wanted for them, and because of my enthusiasm, they wanted it too.

But why?  Why do they need to read faster, or read more challenging books, or do well on state tests?  I know that that’s not the end goal for literacy: those are simply measures of skills that usually go along with what we really want for kids: to love language, and to love reading and writing, and to use these powerful tools to achieve their personal goals.  I want kids to read every night not because they’re obedient, but because they can’t even begin to put the book down.

Will a reading habit help students with long-term economic and career success?  Yes, of course, and a crucial part of our jobs as educators is to prepare children with the skills and knowledge that will give them freedom as adults.  But a reading habit will just not happen if reading is treated solely as an instrument to achieve good grades or a good salary.  Ironically, kids will develop the reading they need for life success only if they read for love, not for reward.

Deci and Flaste (1996) wrote about their experiments with reward and motivation.  They found that, contradicting the traditional behaviorist view of motivation (think: give the dog a cookie for rolling over; Pavlov’s dogs; etc.), promising a reward actually undermines humans’ interest in doing things that they otherwise find inherently enjoyable and would do on their own, like drawing.  When we talk to kids about the extrinsic rewards of reading, we might be undermining the very thing we most want to promote.

Maybe from my own perspective, I’m still thinking of reading as a means to an end: I know that my kids will need to be strong readers to have the kinds of options and freedoms that I want for them in life.  I also know that they’ll only get that good at reading through mountains of practice.  But since I also know that they’ll never get that practice unless they love it, I’ve stopped talking to my kids about reading in terms of extrinsic goals.  Instead I ask, “What are you reading?  Do you like it?  Why?  If you don’t, you can switch books!”  If they’re not reading, I ask, “Do you have books you like?  What kinds of books do you want me to get from the library for you?”

Of course, wanting children to love what they read does not mean we never challenge them with difficult literature or with genres outside of their current preferences.  Part of our job is to help kids expand their knowledge of the written world so they can find new things they love.  But you know what?  They don’t have to mostly read what we want them to.  They should mostly read what they like to.  I’m grateful that teachers exposed me to historical fiction, as I continue to be a huge fan of the genre; but despite my teachers’ best efforts, I just don’t like reading poetry.  But I don’t have to read it, because I’m an adult, and I get to make my own choices, and the lack of poetry in my life is not holding me back or making me unhappy.  Let’s allow our students the same freedom of choice, right now.  The first focus of reading should be love.