Posted in Education, Humanities, Language, Learning, Professional Development, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Summer Reading Professional Development Text: Educating English Learners

After a lengthy hiatus brought on by the craziness that is teaching sixth grade at a boarding school, I jumped headfirst right back into Educating English Learners, by Nutta, Strebel, Mokhtari, Mihai, and Crevecoeur-Bryant, now that summer vacation has begun.  While it was quite dense and loaded with vocabulary more geared towards English as a Second Language Teachers, I learned a lot about how to better support and help the English language learners in my class.  I would not recommend this text for light reading as I found myself having to reread several passages because of the syntax and verbosity of the language used.  It’s a great resource for any teacher who works with non-native English students in their classroom.  Although the book doesn’t include neat and easy to use remedies and strategies, it provides the reader with much food for thought and fodder on how to create a caring and supportive environment for all students in the classroom.

My takeaways:

  • English language learners will struggle less when learning English if their native language literacy skills are strong.  While this seems quite simplistic and obvious, when I read this knowledge nugget, I felt as though someone had slung a bag of bricks at my head.  So, the stronger the EL student is in his or her native language, the better equipped he or she will be to tackle the intricacies of the English language.  Knowing this will help me better structure mini-lessons or plans for the ELs in my class.  Talking to parents and looking at student files ahead of time might provide me with the answers I need regarding this issue.
  • To help EL students feel more welcomed and safe at the start of the school year, labelling objects around the room in the native languages represented in the classroom is a good first step in setting up the classroom.  This will help the students know how much I care about them and want them to be successful.  It’s a little thing that is sure to go a long way.  It’s also great for vocabulary development for those EL students in my class.
  • Things that native English speakers take for granted are truly difficult for EL students to learn.  For example, native English speakers know the difference between words when they are used in social contexts or in academic settings.  A party is a social gathering when discussed amongst friends, but in the social studies classroom it refers to a group of people with similar beliefs.  Although the definitions are closely related, to non-native English students, how is it possible that one word can have more than one meaning?  The English language is full of rules, idiomatic expressions, and exceptions to every rule.  Being aware of these challenges will help us better empathize with and support the ESL students in our classroom.
  • If we know that most native English speakers don’t fully grasp why we say what we do and how we say things in English and our ELLs need much help understanding rules of grammar when learning English, why don’t we do more formal instruction in the classroom on the rules and structure of English?  Why don’t we teach the parts of speech and how to use them?  Why don’t we help students learn how to diagram sentences to understand the hows and whys of English?  Why don’t we teach the English language to all of our students?  As I’ve often wrestled with these questions over the years, I’ve suddenly realized that I don’t formally teach grammar and English to my sixth grade students.  Sure, I brush over it at various times when I’m conferencing with students in Writer’s Workshop or helping an ELL in my class; I don’t however, do any full-class instruction on this.  I need to bring back the formal grammar instruction, but I want to make sure I do so in a meaningful, relevant, and engaging way.  Having the students complete worksheets and underline verbs and nouns seems tedious and boring.  I want my students to truly learn English grammar.  I was thinking of starting my Humanities class twice a week with a brain opener activity I would call Grammar Gurus in which I would teach the students about English grammar through fun activities.  It wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes and it would allow me be sure that my students understand the form and function of the English language.  This would also greatly benefit the ELLs in my classroom too.  Nice!
  • Acting out, visually, or through modelling, new or challenging vocabulary terms will better help the EL students in our classrooms understand what we are discussing or asking them to do.  I could use images or diagrams as instructions on worksheets or on our class website to help non-native English speakers better understand what is being asked of them.
  • Much like labelling objects in the classroom in various different languages, having a word wall in the classroom with new vocabulary terms and their definitions in simple English would also help struggling English language learners better understand the content being covered in class.  My co-teacher and I could use this strategy as an introductory lesson for each new unit.  We could introduce the new vocabulary terms that we will cover throughout the unit and help the students generate student-friendly and simplistic definitions for the new words.  Very cool idea!
  • Thematic units or PBLs help ELLs due to the longer exposure to the content and vocabulary terms covered.  If the students are learning about renewable energy in STEM class and also writing about it in Humanities class, the same ideas, concepts, and vocabulary terms will be used in both classes.  The English language learners in the classroom would then be provided with more time to practice understanding the content and processing the new words and concepts.  What a brilliant idea!  I’m going to talk to my co-teacher about crafting more thematic units throughout the year to better support and help the ESL students in our class.
  • While I’ve always known the power in partnering non-native English speakers with native English students, the book made a point to explain the power in pairing students with different languages together when working on a PBL activity that incorporates technology somehow.  The non-native English speaker can receive English support from the native speaker while they are both problem solving in English together.  Not only does this technique help to bridge cultural differences, it also helps both students grow and develop as English language learners.  I need to make sure I continue this tradition of pairing ELLs with native English speakers in the classroom as the evidence and research proves what I’ve known all along.
  • The text discusses the importance of correcting the English language learners in our class in their writing and oral speech.  This goes against my prior knowledge and what I currently do in the classroom.  Rather than correcting the oral speech of the ELLs in my classroom, I work with them one-on-one with their writing.  I provide them feedback on how to improve their written English.  I should do this more consistently and also correct their oral English as well.  The book highlights the importance of doing this so that the students will learn proper English.  If we cottle the ELLs in our classroom, they will not grow and develop as English language learners.  Although this seems like common sense, I’ve never realized the importance of doing so for the ESL students in my class.  I need to do this regularly in the classroom.
  • For ELLs to grow and develop, they need to be receiving direct instruction from an ESL instructor at least once a day along with inclusion in a mainstream class.  The combination of the two will help the students understand the rules and function of the language while also practicing the social and academic rules of English.  In the sixth grade, my ELLs only have ESL class twice a week.  They need to have it every day in order to be appropriately prepared for the rigors of seventh grade English class.  I need to talk with my school’s director of studies to see if this can be changed for next year and beyond.  While ESL class is a regular course in the seventh through ninth grades, it is done differently in the sixth grade.  This needs to be changed.  Perhaps that’s why I see very slow progress from my ESL students over the course of the year.  As I am not a qualified ESL instructor, I can’t help them in all of the ways they need to be supported as they learn the English language.
  • Because my school has almost 50% non-native English speakers, we need more professional development for supporting ELLs in our classrooms.  We need specific strategies, tips, and tricks we can use when working with English language learners.  While reading this book has helped me understand the issue at hand, it is only a tiny piece of the puzzle of working with ELLs.  I’m sure my colleagues would agree when I say that we need much more help and support from our school in working with non-native English speakers.  We need to be taught about teaching ELLs in our classrooms.  We can’t effectively help all of our students if we don’t know how to do so.

While it took me a bit longer than I had hoped to complete this text, it was totally worth the wait and perseverance.  I now know that I need to be much more deliberate and purposeful in teaching the English language to all of my students, and especially to the English language learners in my class.  I feel as though I am much more prepared now to help support the ELLs in my classroom come September.  Yes, I do still need a lot more help in what specific strategies to use when working with the English language learners in my class, but at least I feel like I have some places to start and ideas for how to improve as an English teacher moving forward.

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Author:

I teach sixth grade at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH. I'm currently ensconced in my fourteenth year at this small, independent boys' school. I love engaging students in relevant and hands-on learning. I was nominated for the NH Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 by a parent. While I love education and guiding students, my first passion is my family. I have a wonderful son, Jeffrey, and a beautiful and intelligent wife, Kim. I couldn't be happier. Every day is the best day of my life.

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