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.

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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!

Schrodinger’s Kid, or, Why Formative Assessment Matters

Shrodinger’s cat is a paradox that I cannot claim to totally understand, but for the purposes of this post, it’s a thought experiment/paradox that says that a cat in a box with poison, which could be either alive or dead, is simultaneously both alive and dead until you check, when it becomes one or the other.  Something like that.  It involves quantum mechanics.  And you can go ahead and try to explain it better in the comments if you like!

No, I do not want you to put any of your students in a box with a flask of poison.  But I do want you to look in the box.  As I explained in Nobody’s Teaching if Nobody’s Learning, you can’t stand up in front of your students talking, or give them things to do that keep them occupied, and claim it’s teaching.  It doesn’t count if being in your class that day didn’t somehow change their skills or knowledge or academic dispositions.  But how do you know if they’re learning?  Until you check, it’s Shrodinger’s kid: you have to assume they’re all learning and not learning until you check.  And you don’t want to wait too long to look in the box, or you might find out they haven’t been learning at all.

This is the essence of formative assessment.  People often contrast summative and formative assessment by saying one is assessment of learning while the other is assessment for learning.  Honestly, it’s kind of misleading to even call them the same noun.  Summative assessment is basically testing; formative assessment might be more transparently called checking for understanding, and it should be completely woven in with the daily work of teaching and learning.

In her classic article “Formative Assessment: An Enabler of Learning,” Margaret Heritage explains the key traits of formative assessment:

  • It’s related to a learning objective.  You’re checking kids’ understanding of what they’re supposed to be learning, and trying to uncover the root of any problems you see.
  • It’s on-going.  You should be doing it all the time.  That doesn’t mean you’re giving quizzes–it means you’re trying to listen to your kids and understand their thinking at least as much as you’re making them listen to you.
  • It informs instruction.  You need to take the information about your kids’ learning and use it to change your instruction–to reteach a point (to everyone or just a few people), to find a new way to explain, to cut out something that’s too easy, to know when to move on.

Formative instruction should also involve the kids.  Ideally, they’re self-assessing along the way.  Kids need to learn how to notice when they do or do not understand, and when to ask questions.  Kids can also give feedback to their peers, though they have to be trained on how to do it tactfully and usefully (a topic for another post).  Finally, and this is most important: as you are checking kids’ understanding, you need to give them feedback that includes guidance about what and how to improve.  Just as you need to know how your kids are doing, they need to know how they’re doing, so they can be involved in making sure they master the learning goals.

How do you formatively assess students?  Here are just a handful of ways:

  • Have one kid read to you and think about if the book is a good match for the kid.  If there’s a problem, what is it?
  • Ask a kid to show you where in his writing he applied a lesson you taught–e.g. “Show me where you used transition words to help your reader follow your argument.  How did you know to put one there?”
  • Give kids a discussion topic–ideally, something without a fixed answer, or at least not a clear one–and then listen in to who says what.  Take notes on any misunderstandings you’re seeing.
  • For short-answer kinds of questions (e.g. “What’s an antonym for ‘clever’?”, “Who was the main character of this book?”), have all your kids write their answers on personal white boards and hold them up at once.  Then you can quickly see who knows what antonym or main character mean, and who still needs help.

Here’s one example: A first-grade teacher is working with a small group on the a_e spelling.  After giving a blending lesson, where all the students read a set of words chorally, the teacher has each student come up to the board and choose two words to read and erase.  Before they can erase, they must look at their peers for approval of their reading.  Karina comes up and reads “name” correctly, eliciting thumbs-up from all her peers.  She then reads “cap” for “cape.”  Three students give the sign for disagreement, but Keonte shows a thumbs up.  Ms. March can see that three of the students seem (so far) to be solid on a_e, but that both Karina and Keonte need a reminder.  “Karina, you said cap.  You made the short a sound.  Who can give a letter hint?”  Michael offers, “a_e says ay” and Luz says, “the e makes the a say its name.”  Karina then reads “cape” and everyone, including Keonte, gives a thumbs up.

The point is, your checks for understanding should relate to your learning goals, inform your instruction, and give information to kids on how they’re doing and how to improve.  Open that box and see what they know!


P.S. Check out this great video of Margaret Heritage talking about the importance of getting to know your ELLs in order to teach them properly.  It’s just 2 minutes!

Nobody’s Teaching if Nobody’s Learning

Man #1: I taught my dog to whistle.

Man #2: Really!?  Can I hear her?

Man #1: Well, I taught it, but she didn’t learn it.


Of course, Man #1 in that joke is very silly.  If his dog can’t whistle, then he didn’t teach her to whistle.  But sometimes we forget this simple truth in our own classrooms.  If nobody’s learning anything, then you didn’t really teach anything (just like in the picture at the top, if no one’s in the room you can’t really claim you taught a lesson.)

Scenario #1: “I taught it, they just didn’t learn it.”

Sometimes you’ve explained an objective every way you can think of, and your kids are still totally confused.  This can be incredibly frustrating, because it can cause you to start to question your own competence or your kids’ capabilities, both of which are dangerous paths to go down.  They can learn, and you can learn how to teach them.  If something isn’t sticking or making sense, you might need to take a step back so you can think it over, study the curriculum materials, or talk about it with a colleague, but don’t give up.  You haven’t taught it until your kids have learned it.

Scenario #2: “We’re drawing Pilgrims”

As elementary teachers (heck, this is probably true of all teachers), we need to incorporate some FUN into our day.  We have to make sure kids get to do things, talk to each other, and move around.  We have to make sure that what we offer kids is engaging, or they will direct their boundless energy elsewhere.  Plus, with huge number of minutes we must put toward literacy and math each day, we have to find ways to sneak social studies, science, art, music and P.E. in during the day.  However, we have to avoid scheduling activities just for the sake of activities.  Activities must be in service to learning objectives that are aligned to standards.  Maybe instead of having kids “just draw Pilgrims,” you’re having them practice an art standard about color and shading.  Maybe it’s a social studies standard related to learning about life long ago vs. life today.  Maybe they have to read for details and then draw to show they’ve understood the text.  In any case, whatever you’re doing has to have a learning verb attached to it.

Scenario #3: “We’re doing worksheets”

Just as teachers can go a little too carried away with “creative” activities, we can sometimes lose sight of our real goals for kids as we focus on covering the material.  Our job is not simply to finish the math workbook before June, or to have kids fill out the cause-and-effect graphic organizer correctly (“It’s EFFECT because CAUSE, not CAUSE because EFFECT!!”–me).  Our job is to ensure they master the core concepts of the grade-level curriculum, that they advance significantly in their reading and writing.  They need to use cause-and-effect understanding to make sense of text; filling out a worksheet correctly may or may not mean they have the fundamental understanding.  That’s why we need to step out of our comfort zones as educators and become more adept with practices that promote critical thinking: open-ended questions, peer-to-peer discussions to build knowledge, having kids speak and write to argue from evidence, giving kids real books to read and write about.

Next time I’ll talk about how to tell if your kids are learning anything.  For now, remember: talking to kids, giving kids fun things to do, or giving kids worksheets are not the same thing as learning.  Your teaching is successful when your kids understand or are able to do something that they could not before your teaching.