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March 1, 2012
Vol. 69
No. 6

Get Organized Around Assets

The steps community organizers use to help change people's lives can help teachers improve English language learners' reading.

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Nobody thought Juan was very capable. People didn't take him seriously when he said he wanted some land to farm. Finally, he was given a small plot, but everyone laughed because they believed it was poor soil and Juan wouldn't be successful. Juan, though, was a hard worker, and he had the knowledge that his friends the Zanate birds shared with him. Following their advice, he planted what are known as the "three sisters": corn, beans, and squash. The birds—and the indigenous people of Mexico—know that these three plants complement one another during the growing season. The townspeople were shocked to see the success of Juan's harvest. From that day forward he was known as Juan Zanate.
In this Mexican folktale, as told in the picture book The Harvest Birds (Children's Book Press, 1995), people had a low opinion of Juan's ability. However, through his determination and his use of inner gifts—which most people didn't see he had—Juan succeeded beyond his neighbors' imaginations.
Educators often perceive English language learners the way that Juan's neighbors viewed him—through a lens of deficits. But what if we viewed them with a focus on assets? The word assets derives from the French word assez, meaning "very much, a great deal." Most English language learners (ELLs) bring a great deal of life experience and skills to the classroom, and teachers can help them apply those skills to reading. If we use instructional strategies to maximize these students' strengths, we can help them make tremendous strides in reading and higher-order thinking.

Assets and Community Organizing

Before I became a high school English as a second language teacher 9 years ago, I spent 19 years as a community organizer, primarily in immigrant neighborhoods and with institutions focused on immigrants. Organizing is a process of helping people—many of whom might be reluctant to change—learn new skills and engage in the world in a way that improves their situation. Organizing means helping people use their assets—their experiences, traditions, and stories—to reimagine themselves and their dreams. It's about helping them tap into their intrinsic motivation and embark on a journey of action, discovery, and learning. I call the process that successful organizers use the organizing cycle. As a teacher, I've adapted this cycle to help English language learners become accomplished readers and learners.
The organizing cycle includes five actions: Build strong relationships with students; access prior knowledge through stories; help students learn by doing; identify and mentor students' leadership potential; and promote the habit of reflection.

1. Build relationships.

When teachers develop relationships with students by learning about their lives, interests, and hopes, everyone benefits. Numerous studies have tied positive student-teacher relationships to increased student achievement (Johnson, Johnson, & Roseth, 2006). As Robert Marzano (2007) writes, "If the relationship between the teacher and the students is good, then everything else that occurs in the classroom seems to be enhanced" (p. 150). Such relationships are particularly important for helping English language learners develop a feeling of safety in the classroom and see possibilities for their own academic success (Suarez-Orozco, Pimentel, & Martin, 2009).
Teachers who actively pursue positive relationships also gain understanding of the kind of background knowledge students bring with them. We can then more effectively connect students' life experiences with classroom content, particularly in identifying texts that will engage them and strengthen their comprehension.
In helping ELLs choose what to read—or choosing for them—teachers must achieve the delicate balance of finding material that is engaging and challenging; that connects to students' background knowledge and attaches new understandings to that knowledge; and that anchors new learning to their interests, self-identity, and goals. Asking older students to read ABC-style books geared to English-speaking kindergartners might not be the most effective way to generate a love of reading. Fortunately, there are thousands of free "talking stories" available online, which offer audio support and animated illustrations to accompany texts of both fiction and nonfiction. Talking stories make high-interest and challenging texts accessible to ELLs. In addition, numerous education publishers have developed texts that meet these criteria, including graphic novels.
The way you introduce a reading may be as important as what text you choose. Before I assigned one class of predominantly Hmong immigrant students to read a text on American Indian tribes, I asked them to explain to me the structure of the 20 Hmong clans and each clan's culture, including its leadership style, loyalty expectations, and system of resolving conflicts.
Next, I asked students to look for connections between their knowledge of Hmong clans and the text on American Indians as they read. Once they began the reading, class engagement was off the charts. Students had difficulty restraining themselves from shouting out similarities they were finding.
I later asked students to reflect on whether they would have been as engaged with this text if they hadn't made connections to Hmong clans. The answer was a universal no. Students had seen vividly the difference it made to bring personal meaning to a text, and many of them applied the strategy of making connections during the rest of the year.

2. Access prior knowledge through stories.

Renate and Geoffrey Caine (1994) describe the brain's two types of memory systems: taxon and locale. Taxon learning consists of lists, basic skills, and habits. Locale memory, on the other hand, involves creating stories out of a person's life experiences—weaving taxon memories into a sophisticated sense of meaning. For example, our taxon memories enable us to know how to open the door to our home with a key. Our locale memories connect that skill with related experiences and skills so that we know how to proceed if we lose our key.
Many schools today focus on taxon learning, which responds more to extrinsic motivation and is resistant to change once a fact or habit has been learned. Locale learning is more responsive to intrinsic motivation and is always evolving. The Caines believe that teaching skills in the context of students' stories—their experiences and memories and the way they've internally organized them—taps locale memory.
I used my Hmong and Latino immigrant students' locale memories to strengthen their reading skills during a unit on feudalism. The textbook's authors listed several key facts about feudalism: People spent most of their time working in the fields, they didn't own the land they farmed, and their homes had one or two rooms. The book flatly declared that feudalism had ended with the Renaissance. Instead of having students memorize these facts (taxon memory), I asked students to think about them, write about whether they'd experienced any of these conditions in their home culture, and ask their parents and grandparents the same question (locale memory). Every student commented that they were either experiencing some of those "feudal" conditions currently or had done so very recently, either before their families emigrated or while they lived in refugee camps. The class concluded that the textbook was mistaken in saying feudalism had ended.
Examining parallels between their lives and the lives of people in the Middle Ages strongly engaged students. Many clamored to read more challenging texts about the Middle Ages. This unit provided countless opportunities for my students to learn reading strategies, academic vocabulary, and grammar. They embraced those opportunities because the lessons took place within the framework of their own stories and those of their families.

3. Help students learn by doing.

John Dewey (1916) popularized the phrase learning by doing, which means that students learn more from solving problems on their own than from just being told how to do so. Recently, this concept has been framed as creating learner-centered classrooms. Certain elements of a learner-centered classroom—such as inductive teaching methods, problem-based learning, or project-based learning—are ideal for strengthening English language learners' reading abilities.
Inductive teaching makes learners active agents in their pursuit of English language skills. Teaching inductively means providing students with several examples from which they detect a pattern and form a concept or rule. It embraces Jerome Bruner's (1996) definition of knowledge as the ability to "derive the unknown from the known" (p. 51). In deductive teaching, in contrast, a teacher provides a rule or hypothesis and students practice applying it.
One effective inductive strategy is the Picture Word Inductive Model (Calhoun, 1999). In this model, the teacher displays an enlarged photo showing various objects and people in the classroom, surrounded by white space. Students and teacher together label objects in the picture. Working in language notebooks or on a poster board, students create categories (such as furniture) and sort words from the picture (and others they find) into these categories. Eventually students use the words in fill-in-the-blank sentences, categorize and combine these sentences into paragraphs, and may ultimately work them into a longer piece of writing.
I tried this technique by taking a photo of students at work in my beginning English as a second language class, which is composed of Latino, Southeast Asian, and Arab immigrants who've been in the United States for periods ranging from one week to four months. After enlarging the photo, laminating it on a poster board, and hanging it on a wall, I asked students to join me up front. As students pointed out items in the photo for which they knew the word, we printed that word on the poster with an arrow pointing to the object. We also spelled each word aloud together and ended by pronouncing the whole word. The poster quickly filled with 25 English words.
Students individually copied these words onto a copy of the photo I had made for each learner. Each student then developed categories for the words (such as people or words with an e in them) and wrote several more words that fit those categories.
To extend this work into composition, students completed a sheet of 10 multiple-choice cloze-format sentences about the photo, such as The________________ sits at her _________________. (teacher, desk, student, dog)
They grouped those 10 sentences into such categories as sentences describing actions, and each learner composed several new sentences for each category. The following day, these beginning English speakers learned about composing paragraphs and converted their sentences into paragraphs for a simple descriptive essay.
Text data sets are another teaching tool that helps language learners develop more sophisticated reading and writing ability. A text data set also uses categorization, but instead of completing cloze sentences, students work with a series of short expository sentences or paragraphs (see fig. 1). Learners generally categorize these short sentences, giving reasons that each sentence belongs in a specific category. Students then compose new sentences in the same format, which they then convert into paragraphs and an essay.

Figure 1. Sample Text Data Set

A teacher might assign beginning ELL students to group these sentences into categories (such as numbers, colors, size, age, weather, and temperature); compose their own similar sentences for each category; and use the sentences in a short, descriptive essay.
  1. There are 22 students in class.
  2. Choua is wearing a black shirt.
  3. Mr. Ferlazzo is an old teacher.
  4. Walter is tall.
  5. Luther Burbank is a big school.
  6. Johanna has a blue pencil.
  7. There are 26 desks in the classroom.
  8. Ms. Smith has short hair.
  9. Chue has a young sister.
  10. and and writeToday is a sunny day.
  11. The boy is wearing white shoes.
  12. Tomorrow will be a rainy day.
  13. The rice is very hot.
  14. Ms. Vue has a little baby.

Teachers can use inductive strategies like these to help students learn about phonics concepts, common grammatical errors, and other key content.

4. Foster leadership potential.

A good community organizer looks for signs that the leadership skills of people she or he is working with are emerging. A sense of self-efficacy and a willingness to take risks and learn from mistakes are indicators that individuals are ready to lead. Self-confidence and risk taking are also qualities that help second language learners become successful readers. Language acquisition scholar Stephen Krashen (2002) cites H. D. Brown's conclusion that "the person with high self-esteem is able to reach out beyond himself more freely, to be less inhibited, and because of his ego strength, to make the necessary mistakes involved in language learning."
Teachers can help ELLs develop self-confidence and willingness to take risks by cultivating a supportive classroom community. Besides fostering good student-teacher relationships, another way to support students' leadership qualities is to strengthen their belief in their own competence by teaching them strategies they can use to attack any learning challenge. For example, the teacher might
  • Coach students in self-reflective activities and encourage students to use these activities to monitor whether they have been successful or unsuccessful at a learning task—and why.
  • Teach and reinforce reading-comprehension strategies, such as monitor and repair. Using this strategy, students first determine whether they believe an unknown word or phrase is important to understanding the passage in which they've encountered that word. If it is, the student tries various methods—using a dictionary, seeking context clues, rereading the passage, and so on—to comprehend the word and check their understanding of the surrounding passage. Of course, choosing engaging readings and lessons is important here; students need to care about understanding a text before they seek to comprehend it.
  • Help students refine their skill at detecting patterns. Pattern identification—from seeing that sentences contain nouns and verbs, to detecting patterns like the consistent presence of a protagonist and a climax in fiction—can have a major impact on enhancing understanding.
Teachers can help ELLs develop a sense of self-efficacy as readers by knowing each student's personal interests and offering students the opportunity to read challenging books connected to these motivating interests. The often damaging system of book "leveling" can leave students feeling restricted. If a book addresses a topic of interest to the student, we might be surprised at the effort he or she will exert to comprehend the content.

5. Promote reflection.

The word reflection comes from the Latin reflexionem, meaning "a bending back." In reflection, people bend back to think about what they are doing and what they have done. We evaluate our thoughts and actions and come to conclusions about our strengths, weaknesses, and what we might do differently. For learners, the most important step is to take such conclusions and apply them to future thinking and action. Reflection can thus function as a means of formative assessment.
To help students reflect on their progress, teachers might involve them in activities like summarizing daily learning, self-assessing, and goal setting. We might help learners explore whether what they learned today was relevant to their lives outside the classroom—and how—or even evaluate the instructional strategies we or other teachers use.
Many teachers at my school have students, including ELLs, complete cloze assessments throughout the year to evaluate their reading comprehension and vocabulary development. We have students read out loud to us to evaluate fluency. Teachers share these assessment results with students, who reflect on them and use the results to identify their own reading goals and the strategies they'll use to accomplish them. The reflection component makes the process highly motivating. As one student told me, "There's something about my making a goal that pushes me harder to get to it."

The Balancing Act

A member of a community group once described to me the contrast between two organizers she'd worked with. She had learned a lot of information from one, she said, but she'd learned how to think from the other. As we work with language learners or other struggling readers, teachers must ask ourselves, When we teach, is our goal to impart information or to help students develop reading and thinking skills for a lifetime? It's not an either/or choice; an effective teacher keeps the two in balance. Holding the five steps of the organizing cycle in mind can help.

Bruner, J. (1996). The culture of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Caine, R. N., & Caine, G. (1994). Making connections: Teaching and the human brain. Menlo Park, CA: Addison Wesley.

Calhoun, E. F. (1999). Teaching beginning reading and writing with the Picture Word Inductive Model. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: Macmillan.

Johnson, D., Johnson, R., & Roseth, C. (2006). Do peer relationships affect achievement? The Cooperative Link, 21(1). Retrieved from www.co-operation.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Volume-211.pdf

Krashen, S. (2002). Second language acquisition and second language learning. Retrieved from author at www.sdkrashen.com/SL_Acquisition_and_Learning

Marzano, R. J. (2007). The art and science of teaching. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Suarez-Orozco, C., Pimental, A., & Martin, M. (2009). The significance of relationships: Academic engagement and achievement among newcomer immigrant youth. Teachers College Record, 111(3), 712–749.

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