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Literacy in Every Classroom
February 23, 2017 | Volume 12 | Issue 12
Table of Contents
ELLs, Visual Arts, and the High-Stakes Writing Monster
When Juan lost his mother, he also lost his only household link to the English language. Like many other children, Juan struggled to learn a new language without reinforcement from home.
According to 2013–14 school year data from the U.S. Department of Education, approximately 4.5 million U.S. students (a little more than nine percent) were English language learners (ELLs). Most classroom teachers have faced challenges helping English language learners succeed academically. Furthermore, frustration over the unfair treatment of ELL students in the context of standardized testing is a key reason why nearly half of all teachers are considering leaving the profession (NEA Today, 2014).
Juan is a good student, but his progress toward English language proficiency is too slow. Classroom assignments often highlight the different learning abilities of ELLs. To spur this week's writing (and to mimic the upcoming state writing assessments), for example, I give everyone an article to read. This week, it's on how the shrinking Arctic ice sheet is affecting the polar bears. Students read and respond to the writing prompt in the same way they would during testing, just as they do nearly every week.
But from Juan and all the other ELLs in my class, this formula yields hesitant writing based on fractured reading comprehension. Everyone gets "hit" with the writing prompt, but all of the ELLs in our classrooms get hit twice. I can't fully understand what Juan can accomplish during these writing assignments because everything is filtered through his limited reading. These struggles are currently some of the most frustrating aspects of teaching.
Readings on Canvas
Visual arts are powerful learning tools for most students, but they offer even greater benefits for diverse learners. In fact, I was surprised by how instantly the benefits revealed themselves. Here's how I changed up my traditional approach to writing prompts and asked students to read a classic image.
A Clearer Picture
Eventually, it is important to return to the printed word. Reading is essential, and my purpose with this lesson is not to replace traditional text-based learning, but rather to enhance it and make it more approachable. Along the way, I have also gathered a wealth of complex and useful information about students like Juan.
Juan and the Shark
Any work which begs a story or reveals event details will offer engaging writing prompts that mimic the format and style of state writing assessments. Here are a few alternate choices:
Engaging ELLs (while differentiating instruction for all students) doesn't have to be daunting—nor do you need a background in art history to incorporate visual images into classroom curriculum. Every so often, let all of your students engage with equal competence, both for their own enjoyment and so you can better assess their writing strengths and challenges.
Steven Wills is a retired high school English teacher and a former coordinator of the Wachovia Education Resource Center at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
ASCD Express, Vol. 12, No. 12. Copyright 2017 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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