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February 2016 | Volume 73 | Number 5
Helping ELLs Excel
She arrived from the Dominican Republic in the summer of 2012 and enrolled in middle school without knowing a
word of English. Life was difficult for this bright girl. She felt out of place not only because she didn't
speak English, but also because there was no one else at our school from her native country. A few months later,
I met a senior at our local high school who had arrived from the same country as a middle schooler as well. I
soon connected the two girls. The older student (no longer in our English as a second language program) became a
mentor and enriched the younger girl's school experience, boosting her confidence exponentially. Today this
sophomore ELL is a thriving honor student. Connecting her with a fellow Dominican student paved the way to
increased English proficiency and high academic achievement. After all, teaching is more about relationships
than about curriculum.
—Anabel Gonzalez, secondary ESL teacher, Mooresville Graded School District,
Mooresville, North Carolina
When David, an ELL with disabilities, started in the 8th grade inclusion classroom in our Big Picture school,
he was just transitioning out of a more restrictive 12:1 setting. He was very quiet and reserved. He barely
spoke, and when he did, he struggled with a lisp. In the past three years, David has emerged from his shell
partly due to the school's expectation that he present his learning quarterly to his peers and family. In a
recent presentation, David spoke in a deep, dramatic voice as he explained the mayhem that Jack the Ripper
caused and lessons to learn from these historic events. David was bold and confident. He had the whole audience
on the edge of their seats.
I also credit our wonderful group of Big Picture students. They exude the notion of family and acceptance
that allowed David to feel that he belonged.
—LaRissa Kuszajewski, teacher/advisor, P.S. 89X, Bronx, New
Brenda, one of my ELLs, has grown so much in the three years I have worked with her. She has gone from
reading 4 words per minute on 2nd grade stories to 109 words on 4th grade texts. Her passion and winning
attitude have made her a delight to teach.
I have found personalized learning and personal trackers to be particularly helpful. Using these strategies,
Brenda moved through standards at her own pace—with verbal and auditory resources to enhance her retention. She
has excelled in this process. Additionally, I have looped with my class from 2nd to 3rd to 4th grade. This
consistency and the culture it developed has given her greater opportunities to take risks.
—Jason Kraeger, teacher, Pinehurst Elementary School, North Charleston, South
When R. H. entered my freshman class, her English skills were low, but she was determined to succeed. I
encouraged her to watch TV news, sitcoms, and sports to improve her vocabulary, comprehension, and
pronunciation. I helped her choose appropriate reading materials. It takes an average of five years to become
fluent in English; she did it in four years.
She majored in biology at Cal Poly Pomona in California and went through their teacher credentialing program.
After college, she taught middle school science and later became a language enrichment teacher. She has come
full circle and now mentors second-language students. How did I help her succeed? By always being there for her
as her teacher, mentor, listener, advisor, counselor, surrogate mom, big sister, and friend.
—Connie Spencer, teacher, Walnut Valley Unified School District, Walnut,
Kaitlyn, one of the youngest students in my class, is a joyful Latina girl with no experience with school
before kindergarten. I became worried early in the school year when I realized she could not verbally count past
two. I observed her in the math center and found she was avoiding games that involved counting or matching
numerals to quantities. Further tests showed she struggled with one-to-one correspondence and judging more and
I immediately started to work with her on verbal counting and subitizing. I made colorful number puzzles that
Kaitlyn kept in her chair pocket. She could pull them out at any time to practice matching quantities to
numerals. I designed developmentally appropriate bingo games to help Kaitlyn identify numerals from 1 to 20. I
searched the Internet to find the best songs and books to start our math lessons every day, which I then lent to
Kaitlyn to take home to practice with her bilingual older brother. Kaitlyn can now count to 20 with one-to-one
correspondence and is confident with numbers and quantity.
—Sharon Dudley, kindergarten teacher, Rogers Heights Elementary School,
A very bright 2nd grader named Jamal, a recent immigrant from Afghanistan, struggled when he arrived at our school. While working in the computer lab on our standards-based math and English language arts curriculum supplement, he was unable to focus and understand what the program was asking of him. We pulled him aside and told him we had a special surprise, capturing his curiosity.
We directed him to the Britannica School website, which brings the entire encyclopedia to life using photos, age-appropriate text, and videos. We asked Jamal what his favorite animal was, and he did not understand the question. Then, we pulled up a photo and article about a lion and clicked "translate to Arabic." Immediately the text was rendered in his native language, creating that elusive "aha" moment for Jamal. Using songs, music, games, and self-paced differentiated learning in both Arabic and English, he connected the dots to learn new concepts, all while having fun.
—Tamara Sturak, computer teacher, Manzanita Community School, Oakland, California
Saqr arrived from Yemen and enrolled in my school, but his transportation didn't start for 10 days. His family wanted him in school, and he wanted to start as well. So on the way to and from school, I picked him up and dropped him off. On the last day, his mom—who didn't speak English—gave me a delicious loaf of homemade bread and hugged me. Saqr is very eager to learn, and his English is improving every day.
—Amber Kilcoyne, principal, Baltimore City Public Schools, Baltimore, Maryland
In fall 2014, I met a kindergarten ELL who was struggling with academics and independent work. I began by meeting with him daily in a small language arts group, where he was able to hear whole-group stories twice each week—once with me and once with his classroom teacher. As a result, he was doubly exposed to vocabulary, comprehension strategies, and fluent reading. Soon his speaking and listening vocabularies started improving.
Now in 1st grade, we've worked together daily in a small writing group of ELLs. We have developed ideas for writing through the use of a graphic organizer. After some guided practice, he has learned to complete an organizer independently.
When my student began school this year, he was unable to sound out words on his own. By November, he sounded out four words and wrote them beautifully. The grin on his face was ear-to-ear! I had to hold back my tears.
—Rachael Sloan, ESL teacher, Harrisonburg City Schools, Harrisonburg, Virginia
When Bryan stepped into my classroom during my first year of teaching, I knew I was in for a challenge. He was 16 years old and placed in 8th grade because he had never set foot inside a school in Guatemala or the United States. Thankfully, we were able to communicate in Spanish. I helped him through the cafeteria line and taught him how to ask basic questions in English—all while he was learning an 8th grade science curriculum. I learned to use pictures and body language to convey meaning. I grew tremendously as a teacher because Bryan taught me to be humble and patient and to relate to students on their level.
—Erika Long, 8th grade science teacher, Clover Middle School, Clover, South Carolina
Her name is America. She went from a Beginning (L1) to Advanced (L5) ELL in one year. Within that same year, she also scored proficient in English language arts on the Smarter Balanced assessment. Simply put, I taught her as the linguistically talented child she is, built necessary background for complex academic concept development, and supported her in L1 at an advanced level while she gained L2 proficiency. More important, I focused on teaching her academic routines using digital tools that would allow her to self-scaffold tasks in all subject areas.
—Sherri Kelly, English language development teacher/technology integration specialist, St. Helena Unified School District, St. Helena, California
I taught a 1st grade student who spoke only Arabic. I used a lot of gestures and also printed frequently used action words accompanied by pictures to paste on her desk. (When I told the class to cut paper, I pointed to the picture of scissors and paper.) I used Google Translate to generate a list of vocabulary words that her parents could practice with her at home. I also recommended the website www.learningchocolate.com to help her learn new vocabulary. For my part, I memorized some basic words in Arabic to help communicate with her.
—Fatima Sheriff, former 1st grade teacher, Al-Hadi School, Houston, Texas
I have taught for more than 20 years as a classroom teacher and an English as a new language (ENL) teacher. This has made me extremely sensitive to the needs of the ENL population, in particular, students with interrupted formal education (SIFEs). My most recent SIFEs, Crhissalba and Marielis, have taught me to continuously reflect and develop systems that work for the advancement of ENL students. Crhissalba, currently in 7th grade, and Marielis, now in 4th grade, came to our school at the beginning of 3rd grade. Both girls could not read or write. After informal assessments, I met with their parents and mainstream teachers to discuss the challenges for both students and the small steps we needed to take for them to progress.
My main concern was to get both students to read and speak English well enough to communicate with their mainstream teacher. We used the ENL curriculum (along with the mainstream class vocabulary) and focused on certain reading skills each week. We followed up with a mini-lesson on writing skills.
The work was challenging for them, but I never let them reflect on what they couldn't do. Instead, I accentuated the positives and always told them to persevere. We celebrated small achievements, which gave the girls motivation to achieve higher goals. Today both Crhissalba and Marielis have made remarkable strides and are able to read independently. They can write stories and essays to express their ideas with confidence.
—Damaris, ENL teacher, Roosevelt Union Free School District, Roosevelt, New York
Anibal is an ELL prodigy. He started as a non-English speaker in our school in 6th grade. He breezed through the silent period. We advanced him right into 8th grade. By the end of his second year at the school, he exited our English language development program. He has never looked back. Now as a senior, he is a student leader and the chief bookkeeper for our student-run manufacturing plant. Our role—as his instructors—was to advocate for him and provide a solid culture of understanding and empathy.
—Janice Luevano, ESL instructional coach, Rock Valley Community School District, Rock Valley, Iowa
Looking back at my students' successes, Maria, a 15-year-old Mexican American student, comes to mind for the struggle and progress she made in her efforts to become bilingual.
Maria's shyness limited her oral participation. I gave her additional lessons because her silent period surpassed that of her peers. In our sessions together, I followed a four-fold literacy model. We read together in unison. Afterward, we had in-depth discussions, orchestrated rebuttals, and unison writings. I also followed up with the following three-step methodology (Welch, 2013):
—Myrtle Welch-Streeter, reading specialist, Mib Institute, Buffalo, New York
I had a student who moved to the United States from Mexico when she was in 7th grade. She worked very hard to learn English and to understand and complete her classwork. I worked with her every day during her core class time, scaffolding the content. I also met with her in a small newcomer group to help her learn basic English. She never gave up. In two years, she went from being a Beginner to a Level 4 Expanding English learner.
—Kimberly Shelton, ELL teacher, Minneapolis Public Schools, Minneapolis, Minnesota
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