Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What should I know about my ESOL students?

As we return to school each year, we face the daunting task of getting to know our students. Teachers can have anywhere from 20 to 120 students to get to know each year- the task can be fun, but that's a lot of kids to learn about!

Knowing specific information about your ESL students in particular can help you to better serve them. Here are some things that you might want to find out about your ESL students:
  • Home language- Knowing a student's home language can help you when communicating with family, but it can also help you instructionally, especially when the student is literate in his or her native language. For example, Spanish speaking students can benefit from knowledge of cognates. Knowing a student's home language can also better help you understand some of the student's language difficulties as well. For example, many Asian languages do not use articles, so many Asian ELLs have difficulty using articles in English. 
  • English speakers in the home- Knowing whether or not a parent or someone else at home speaks English not only facilitates communication with parents and guardians, but it also can give you an insight into how much academic help is available to the student at home.
  • Student's country of birth and family country of origin- Did you know that many students who receive ESL services and who speak another language in the home are born in the United States? That is not to say there are plenty born in other countries, but a good portion of the ESL population is American-born. However, their parents usually came here from another country and it is important to know which country, so that you can better understand the family culture. For students who did come here from another country, understanding the student's culture can help you to build a stronger relationship with the student.
  • Student's entry date into US Schools- In most cases, this is a good indicator of how long the student has been in US schools. The rare exception is the student who was in US schools for a year and then perhaps returned to the home country for another year or more. Knowing how much schooling a student has had in the US can be a good indicator of whether or not the student is progressing steadily in his or her English language development.
  • Who the student lives with- Understanding the family dynamics can better help you to understand any problems the student may have and can better help you understand whether the student is struggling because of language, or because maybe something else is going on in the home. Many ESL students may have left parents or siblings behind in another country, and may be living with aunts or uncles. Some students may live with extended family. Some students may have many younger siblings and be expected to help with their care. Knowing these things about your student may help you to understand why homework is not completed or why a child falls asleep in class.
The more we know about our students, the better we can understand them. When we understand where our students are coming from, we can provide the best instruction and support possible.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Riding out the storm...

Well, we made it through the earthquake earlier this week....Now I'm riding out Hurricane Irene. You know you've had a tough week when someone texts you, saying "Are you alright?" and you wonder if they're referring to the earthquake or the hurricane!!

We are currently in sustained winds of 50+ mph and gusts over 70 mph. We just had a tree fall on our apartment, (it shook the whole building) right in between our balcony and the next one over, so I'm signing out for now.

I'll be back on when this is all over, and maybe I've had a day to rest!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Strategy of the Week

Strategy 1-
Vocabulary Sort
This strategy is deceptively simple, and can be used for a variety of purposes:

  • Reviewing content vocabulary
  • Reviewing story vocabulary
  • Reviewing testing vocabulary
  • Reviewing parts of speech or other grammar functions
  • Practicing word families
  • Practicing Prefixes, suffixes and affixes
  • Looking at vocabulary in new ways

In order to complete this activity, you will need a list of important vocabulary and a minimum of two categories that these words can fall into.
Type the words in a large typeface and the categories in a larger, bold typeface. Cut out the words and categories, mix them up, and place them in an envelope. Give groups of students an envelope, a large piece of paper, and a glue stick, and instruct them to place the words in the appropriate categories.
For example, while reading Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman, I realized that my middle school ESL students might have difficulty distinguishing the differences between the words Italian and Italy, or knowing that a Slovak is a person. So, before reading the chapter, I had students do the following vocabulary sort (all of the words came from the chapter):

  • Italians
  • Slovaks
  • Romanians
  • Police
  • Neighborhood
  • Gibb Street
  • Mexico
  • Cambodia
  • Guns
  • Money
  • Drugs
  • Treasure

While students work, I circulate, and if I notice things in the wrong categories, I ask them to explain their reasoning. Often while talking, students will realize their mistake and are able to correct it. If possible, you can create multiple vocabulary sorts for the different vocabulary, or use the same vocabulary but give different categories to different groups.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Shaking things up...LITERALLY!

So, this post really has nothing to do with ESOL at all, but more to do with my first EARTHQUAKE!!

In case you're out of the loop, the VA-MD-DC area was hit today around 2 pm with a 5.9 magnitude earthquake. For me, that was right in the middle of dismissal at the new elementary school I'm working at. This is really significant for several reasons:
  • I've never experienced an earthquake before, and it took me a minute to figure out what was happening.
  • It is only the second day of school, so we haven't done any safety drills, and I'm new to PG county schools, so I have no idea what the earthquake policy is.
  • We just moved to the DC area, so my second thought (after "Earthquake!!) was "Terrorists!!"
After I figured out that yes, the building is shaking, I quickly herded all the kids in the hallway around me into the doorway, and then when the shaking stopped, into the nearest classroom to get under desks. I've never experienced an emergency-type situation while at school before, so it was a new experience to have to push down my own fear and figure out how to keep the children safe and calm when I wasn't even sure exactly what was happening (earthquake? terrorists?) or what would come next (gunfire? aftershocks?) and my own heart was beating a hundred miles a minute!! Right after the quake, I couldn't get a call or text message out on my cell phone.

My classroom suffered only minor damage- books falling off shelves, drawers shaking open, and some ceiling tiles coming down.  However, I can't say the same for my apartment!! When I arrived home to my hubby, I found that most of the items on shelves had fallen off, the kitchen cabinets had shaken open and several dishes and glasses were broken, unpacked boxes fell out of closets and broke items inside, and one TV nearly shook right off of the stand it was on.

All in all, no one at my school or home was injured, and we've got an exciting story to tell. Schools are closed tomorrow for- get this- an earthquake day! so that the county can check the buildings for structural or safety issues.
What an experience!! Did you feel the earthquake? Where were you? I want to hear your earthquake stories!

Monday, August 22, 2011

ESOL Mythbusters

It is time to go back to school, and that means that many teachers are meeting their students for the first time. Some teachers may be surprised to learn that they have more students in their class who speak a second language in the home than they expected.

According to the National Council for Teachers of English, English Language Learners (ELLs) now comprise 10.5% of the K-12 student population. Furthermore, in grades 7-12, the number of ELLs increased 70% between 1992 and 2002. So, it makes sense to take a closer look at some of those myths about ELLs and BUST them!

Myth: A student has acquired a second language once he or she can speak it.
As I discussed in this article, there are two types of language that we acquire when learning a second language. The first is Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS), which allow us to complete everyday tasks like following directions, making small talk, and asking and answering questions. The other type of language we acquire is called Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALPs). This is the type of language that allows us to be successful in a school environment- academic vocabulary and structure. Research shows that it takes approximately 1-2 years to master BICS, and 5-7 years (or more) to master CALPs. Educators must be aware of and make the distinction between the two types of language in order to properly assess their student's level of language proficiency. A good example for most teachers is to think back to your own foreign-language learning in high school or college. Unless you majored in foreign language, you likely acquired only enough of that language to be a successful tourist or at most, a conversationalist. If you were placed in an academic environment with that level of language, you would have a very difficult time, despite the fact that you "speak" the language!

Myth: Second language learning processes are the same for all students.
As teachers, we know that no two students are the same, and this goes for ELLs as well. Just because they have a common problem (a lack of English proficiency) does not mean that they all need the same materials and methods. Just as we are expected to differentiate for other students at different levels, we must also differentiate among our ELLs. Many teachers make the mistake of giving the same modified work to all ELLs in the class, regardless of their level of proficiency. This means that all of the ELLs are not having their needs met. A classroom teacher should consult with the ESOL teacher at his or her school to get copies of the results of the yearly English Language Proficiency test for each ELL in their class. If necessary, the teacher should ask the ESOL teacher to explain what the different levels of proficiency mean. Once the classroom teacher better understands the different levels of proficiency represented by the ELLs in his or her class, then he or she is better able to make appropriate differentiations to meet the needs of all ELLs in the class.

Myth: Teaching English Language Learners means focusing primarily on vocabulary.
While explicit vocabulary instruction is important and vital for English language learners, the teacher must remember that the vocabulary means nothing if the students are not able to understand it and use it in context. This means that they must also acquire the content of the subject area, and not just the vocabulary. Word walls are a great tool for newcomer ELLs, but I like to recommend sentence walls for older ELLs, especially in content area classes. Sentence walls can help ELLs put the vocabulary that they've used into the correct context and sentence structure for the content area.
Myth: Using strategies to help ELLs in my class will only benefit the ELLs.
The truth is that English language learners aren't the only ones struggling with reading, writing and understanding academic language- many of the native English speaking students in our schools are deficient in academic language. Using strategies and activities that help to teach and reinforce academic vocabulary and language structures will help ALL students who are behind in understanding and using academic language. 

Myth: Making modifications to lessons and classwork takes too much time.
I won't tell you that making modifications doesn't take time, because it does. However, many teachers often teach the same grades and/or classes for years at a time, and once you've modified some material- you have that modified material to make use of year after year. Some teachers become frustrated when talking about modifications because they picture themselves spending hours and hours creating special assignments for their ELL students and falling behind in creating assignments for other students. As with most things, there is a learning curve. I will say that the more you modify assignments and the better you know your students' abilities, the easier it will become to make appropriate modifications. I've written several articles about how to make simple modifications that you can read back on, but I'll quickly remind you that there are three specific ways you can modify an assignment:
  • Change the language process needed to complete the task- for example, instead of having students write a sentence to go with a picture, you might have an ELL match a picture to an already written sentence
  • Change the grouping strategy- for example, instead of having a student work independently, have ELLs work in pairs or triads, either with one another or with a native language buddy
  • Change the content delivery- for example, instead of the grade level text the rest of the class is using, ELLs might benefit from a lower-level text covering the same material, or you can change the text by simplifying or expounding the text
As always, I hope that this article helps you to better understand and serve your ELLs. If you have any questions, feel free to ask!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Choosing testing accommodations for ELLs

With the back to school paperwork, one thing that teachers are often asked to do is to make recommendations for the ESOL teachers on appropriate accommodations for English language learners. However, research shows that many teachers are not appropriately equipped to choose appropriate testing accommodations for their students, often assigning the same accommodations for students who vary widely in ability and skill.

In my own personal experience at my last school, where an ESOL teacher was not on staff at the time accommodations were assigned, many students were assigned inappropriate accommodations without any consideration to their ability level. For example, one student was assigned the accommodations of scribe (someone else bubbles in the answers) and test administrator reads-aloud the entire test verbatim. When the English language assessment results (on which the student does not receive accommodations) came in at the end of the year, the student tested out of ESOL. Were the accommodations this student was receiving appropriate? Absolutely not. Other students had the accommodation of native language dictionaries, despite the fact that they did not read or write in their native language.

First, here are a few things to know about testing accommodations:
  • Testing accommodations must be given on ALL tests- classroom, district, and state
  • Testing accommodations should be explained to the student and the student should be comfortable using the provided accommodations
  • Students (and parents if possible) should have some input into the decision making process on which accommodations they will receive
  • According to federal law, all students who are eligible for and assigned accommodations must receive them
 When choosing testing accommodations for your students:
  • Become familiar with the testing accommodations available to your ESOL students. Available accommodations vary from state to state, but there is commonality. Know what each testing accommodation entails- for example, if a student has the accommodation of "student reads test aloud to self", this usually means that he or she will also receive "testing in a separate setting", so as not to disturb other students while reading aloud.
  • Get to know the student's strengths and weaknesses. Testing accommodations are not usually due until the first formative assessments, thus giving teachers some time to get to know their students before making recommendations on testing accommodations. Observe your ESOL students carefully and make notes about what they struggle with. Informal assessments and anecdotal notes, as well as past standardized test data and English language proficiency scores can come in handy when making decisions about testing accommodations. 
  • Know your student's educational background and abilities. Does the student read or write in the native language? If so, a native language dictionary is probably a reasonable accommodation. If the student does not read or write in the native language or does not know how to use a dictionary, then it is not an appropriate accommodation. If a student needs to be explicitly instructed on how to use an accommodation, you should do that before implementing the accommodation. If the student has never taken standardized tests before, then a scribe accommodation may be appropriate until he or she learns how to bubble answers or use appropriate writing conventions.
  • Don't be afraid to make adjustments to accommodations throughout the year. Accommodations are not set in stone, and should be reevaluated at least once during the year (preferably halfway through). As students learn, grow and change, you may find that accommodations that were once necessary are no longer used, and thus no longer needed, or you may find that a student is more successful with an accommodation that you initially did not think was necessary. Do not be afraid to communicate and work with your ESOL teacher and testing coordinator to make adjustments to testing accommodations. However, if you make a change to the student's testing accommodations, the parents must be notified, and if possible, the student and parent should be consulted before the change is made.
The idea behind testing accommodations is not to give students a "leg-up" but rather to level the playing field. The accommodations in place for a particular students should make it easier for that student to express the knowledge that he or she possesses about the content with as little linguistic interference as possible.