Friday, January 20, 2012

Why should I incorporate ESL strategies into my class plan?

This is a question that I have heard from many teachers in my career. "It's not my job to teach English- why should I incorporate ESL strategies into my lesson plans?" There are several things wrong with this statement. First and foremost, I want to say that while the ESL specialist's job is to provide language support and to help students master English, the responsibility is not theirs alone. In fact, the responsibility for helping an ESL student master English is the responsibility of each teacher that works with the student.

This means that at the elementary level, the responsibility (in most cases) is shared between a single classroom teacher and the ESL teacher. A reading specialist can also be a powerful resource, and most schools have at least one in bigger districts. At levels where teaching is departmentalized, usually at the secondary levels, the responsibility is shared by a team of teachers that includes the ESL specialist, and each of the content teachers that the student sees throughout the day or week. In some cases, grades 3-5 are also departmentalized, and share the responsibility with the ESL specialist for the student's language development.

Now, with that being said, I feel that we can move on. Here are some primary reasons you should incorporate ESL strategies:

The use of ESL strategies can benefit more than just the ESL students.
No matter how many ESL students you have in your classroom, using ESL strategies can benefit every student you teach. In recent years, the ESL world has made a move from a Social language model to more of a focus on academic language. This is not to say that Newcomers do not still receive the benefit of learning Social and Instructional language as well as American culture in an ESL setting; but that students at the intermediate and advanced levels now receive more focused and explicit instruction in academic language. Most of the students who struggle with reading and school struggle because they cannot grasp academic language. The majority of the ESL strategies that are popular today are designed to make content comprehensible and accessible to English language learners (ELLs). What educator can't see the value of comprehensible and accessible content? Making the content accessible to your ELLs can also make it more accessible to your other struggling students as well.

Using ESL strategies does not mean "dumbing down" the curriculum.
One common misconception that I have found in many teachers is that if they make content comprehensible or accessible, then they are "dumbing it down". This is simply not true. Making content comprehensible to your students not only means finding (or creating) material at their level, but also explicitly teaching them the skills they need to understand and use the language of the content area. As an ESL teacher myself, I often have difficulty finding grade-level appropriate material that is comprehensible to my students. As a result, I often create my own readings and resources. There are many ways to adjust a grade-level text to make it comprehensible to an ELL, and none of them involve "dumbing down" the text. You can expound the text by adding additional information to further explain difficult ideas or terms. You can simplify the language while leaving the content in tact. There are many other ways, but suffice it to say that ESL strategies can be incorporated without compromising the curriculum or the rigor of your classroom.

ESL students are legally required to receive modified teaching and curriculum- and you can balance student needs with district pacing and testing demands.
"I don't have the time or energy to incorporate new strategies- I have curriculum to cover and a test that my students have to pass." This is an excuse I often hear. And it is just that- an excuse.
Regardless of anyone's personal feeling on standardized testing, it is a reality of our school systems for now, and something that all teachers must contend with. If your job or pay depends on your standardized test scores, you have my deepest sympathies. But, we all must take a minute to remember why we got into teaching- for the students. Whatever we do in our classrooms must be about them and in their best interest. This means we must do whatever it takes to help them be successful, even if it means taking time to learn and incorporate or teach our students new strategies. These strategies can ultimately help students acquire the necessary skills and language to make better test scores, if that is your ultimate goal. I realize that, especially for my ESL students, these standardized tests are not always a true measure of their abilities, so I make it my goal to help them become better readers, writers and speakers rather than better test takers. As far as curriculum pacing, sometimes we as teachers know our students better and need to make sound decisions about our own pacing, as long as they can be supported with anecdotal evidence and data. One way I balance district pacing demands with student needs is that I have chosen 5 power standards that I spend a lot of time on throughout the year. I still cover the other standards in between, but we cover our power standards for at least one week each when I initially teach them and practice them all year long by continually coming back to them. These 5 power standards that I have chosen are based on knowledge of my student's needs, research into best practices, and they are designed to help my students become better readers while developing those skills that are most heavily tested.

You can't build a house without the foundation.
That is exactly what you're trying to do when you're teaching students without making the content accessible and comprehensible. Students must master the basic skills of your content area- the language and the vocabulary- before they can access and learn the content. Just as builders use scaffolding to erect the walls of a house or building, we must use scaffolding to build our students' learning. Incorporating ESL strategies into your lesson plans provides the necessary scaffolding to make the learning comprehensible, accessible, and most importantly, meaningful.

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