For a couple of days now, I've been stewing. I'm unsettled. There are these questions just flooding my thoughts. So many programs out there that we buy into and try to implement. I'm not saying that all programs are bad. There are some that I love. My question becomes which comes first...the children or the program?
So let's say I have this awesome program. The district has researched it and put a great deal of money into training teachers to implement it. But when I look closely at the program, I notice that it comes from a place that is nothing like my state, my city, my district, my students. Should I be concerned? What should I do?
Do we take the children and make THEM fit the program?
or Do we take the program and make it fit our children?
I hope the answer is as obvious to you as it is to me. Just because the program says to do it this way doesn't mean we have to do it that way. What may work for one state with certain demographics may not work the same way for another. Our children come first. We have to meet them where they are and adjust our instruction. If we believe that kids come first, then this would be our action to match that belief. Our actions should match what we believe.
This means we can take a great program, research it, learn how to implement it. But then the most important step will be to make it work for our kids. Our kids are unique and they are different every year. They will need accommodating. Some will need modifying. They will have specific needs and it's okay and expected that we are proactive as well as responsive to their needs.
We need a MIND-SHIFT from teaching TO learning. What is more important? Is it more important that we teach it? or that THEY LEARN it? I say the latter. But if our focus is on the program then we are not putting kids and learning first.
Here's the article that I read that stirred up many thoughts in my mind and drove me to write this opinion post.
Your comments and thoughts are appreciated.
"A picture is worth a thousand words"...Yes, so how we get those words out? Picture Talks to the Rescue!
What is a picture talk and how do I use it to help my students with listening, speaking, reading, and writing?
You may be thinking that a Picture Talk is for primary students or for Beginner level ELLs. But that's not the case. Though picture talks do benefit primary students and Beginner ELLs, even intermediate and Advanced ELLs gain valuable insights from Picture Talks across all content areas.
Step 1: In a typical Picture Talk, the teacher begins by selecting a picture relevant to the unit of current study. If you teach science you might select a picture about the water cycle, life cycle of a butterfly, the Grand Canyon, etc. A social studies teacher might choose a picture from history such as The Boston Tea Party, Amelia Earhart next to her plane, the Constitution, or a map, graph, chart or timeline, etc. A language arts teacher may present a picture that exemplifies character traits or feelings, a picture that relates to a theme that is being showcased, etc. Even math teachers can use Picture Talks by selecting pictures such as pictures with shapes, graphs, clocks, money, etc.
Step 2: Share the image with students either in whole group or in a small group setting. (Day 1)
Step 3: Title the picture and label it together. (Day 1)
Step 4: Give students time to discuss the picture in cooperative groups and then orally compose sentences. Provide students with sentence stems, starters or language frames to support complete sentences. This step allows students to access their own background knowledge as well as tap into one another's knowledge. It builds on prior knowledge by supporting what they already know about a particular topic. For example, if you give students a picture of a tee-pee, and students share in their groups, some might say they see a house, while others would say it's a home or dwelling.. (Day 2)
Step 5: Next, record the oral sentences either on a chart or below the picture. This can be done whole group or in a small group setting. Students should read the sentences chorally with your after you write them. This reading practice supports language development. Not everyone will need the support of the teacher's example sentences. The students who can independently write their own sentences using the labels can work on their own while the teacher pulls a small group to model using the label to compose sentences. Consider asking the group the 5 Ws-Who, When, Where Why, What to help vary the sentences and create a strong understanding of the visual. (Day 3)
Step 6: Give students the opportunity to use the labels to write their own sentences. Provide students scaffolds as needed. Some will need sentence frames or starters. Beginner ELLs may need to copy your sentences. To push students who are at the Advanced level up a notch, give them the stem: Additionally, Furthermore, For Example. Teach them to use those stems in their writing. (Day 3)
There are many ways to vary Picture Talks to meet your own classroom and students' needs. There is no right or wrong way to do them as long as you are using pictures to develop language: listening, speaking, reading and writing. Picture Talks don't have to take long. They are not 45 minute lessons. And they are not solely for language arts classrooms. Pictures of historical events, cycles (water, life, etc.), geography, scientific experiments, math problems lend themselves beautifully to Picture Talk activities. Pictures are engaging, thought provoking, and help to make content comprehensible for students. The steps above are just suggestions. Make this model fit your students' specific needs. Try out a Picture Talk and see where it takes you. This language rich learning strategy requires students to listen, speak, read and write in the content area of instruction. That's why I love it!
Below are examples of a primary Picture Talk. The unit was on predators and prey. The teacher used the owl picture first to discuss one type of predator. After the Picture Talk cycle, the teacher modeled how to use the picture to support writing. Some students were able to write about a different predator or prey while Beginners and struggling learners wrote about the owl.
Ferlazzo, L., & Sypnieski, K. H. (2012). The ESL/ELL teacher's survival guide. ready-to-use strategies, tools, and activities for teaching English language learners of all levels. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
I'm just going to be honest here because it's what's best for students. This may hurt some feelings or sting a little for some who read this, but it comes from personal experience and I feel like if we don't confront problems, we can't solve them.
I have co-taught in classrooms where the general education teacher has had little experience with ELLs. They have had little training in how to serve ELLs. Teachers with little experience or knowledge about how to serve ELLs tend to be intimidated by students who are newcomers or beginners at the entering phase of proficiency. Often teachers steer away from the student because of their own insufficiency. Inadvertently, the student feels that the teacher doesn't like them or doesn't care for them. Then the class notices as well. Suddenly, there is an underlying culture in the classroom that the ELL is not celebrated, rather they are cast away.
As teachers, we took this job because we love children and want to help them learn. ALL children. Never would we intentionally want a child to feel that we don't care for them. But this is how some ELLs feel when teachers avoid ELLs, give them coloring sheets (while the rest of the class does meaningful work), or put them on a computer to practice easy English skills.
I know you don't want any of your students to feel unwanted. You want them to THRIVE and LOVE learning. Here's how to ensure that your ELLs are getting what they need:
1. WELCOME Them
As soon as you know you are receiving an ELL, learn as much as you can about their background and get your class involved. Build their excitement for the student! Learn a few words in the child's native language. Teach the class some simple words such as "hello" and "my name is.". Learn how the child would like to be called and pronounce their name correctly. Names are important and carry more than the identity of a child. They can carry culture and traditions, history and a family story. Value a child's name by learning to pronounce it even if it means trying over and over again. Get a desk ready for the new student and designate a buddy to help the new student get acclimated to the new school. If you have a student in your class who speaks the same native language, that would be a great buddy. Once your new ELL arrives, be sensitive to their needs. Some ELLs are shy while others are outgoing (just like all students). Either way, introduce them to the class and their buddy. I have had many an ELL walk through my doors and each was unique. Some were eager and happy to be here, while others were sad and visibly shaken. I have even had a few that were overtly angry. Being empathetic and trying to understand their situation is important to their success. Overall, when students feel welcome, their affective filter is lowered and the ability to learn is greater.
2. Build Relationships
Getting to know your ELL is key to their success. This step will unlock the door to their growth as learners of English. So many times, we think that looking in the permanent record folder will tell us what we need to know abut our students. Yes, this gives us information, but it doesn't build a relationship. A student could be a new immigrant ELL who has never spoken English before arriving on your campus. On the other hand, a student could be born in the US and only attended American schools. ELLs come with their own extremely varied backgrounds and without knowing them, we cannot serve them well. Asking the student or the parents questions, being sincere about wanting to know, and using the information to make connections and build language is the goal. For example, I had a student once whose family came to America to seek refuge from war. This student had not attended school regularly in her home country before coming to America. The gaps were evident in her native language. Working with her parents and building on her strengths is what helped to assure progress and success for this student. When kids know that we care and love them, they want to do well for us. It's important for ELLs especially to feel valued as unique individuals, loved, and part of the class community.
3. Keep a Pulse on Language Proficiency
As your ELL begins to listen, speak, read and write in English, you have to continue to raise the bar. If we keep givng our students the same type of instructional strategies and accommodations, then they don't have the chance to grow. That's why it's important to use language proficiency descriptors to help keep you data informed and drive your instructional steps that will lead to progress and growth. In the beginning, for example, I may expect my newcocmer student to listen and repeat what I say. I may expect the student to label and copy simple words and short sentences. Once they have mastered that, I will want the student to stretch further and talk using short phrases, write short sentences on their own with sentence starters.. Each state uses some type of rubric to address language proficiency. It's important to know it and use it as a way to formatively assess students throughout the year.
4. Adjust Delivery
The delivery of your instruction is super important. There are many things you can do to make your language comprehensible to someone who is learning it. For example, speaking slowly. Think about a language that you may know a little...for me it's Spanish. I can understand Spanish a little. But if my husbands family speaks at their normal rate, I lose all understanding. A friend of mine tells me that when she was a young ELL, a teacher once spoke loudly to her...that didn't work and embarrassed her greatly. Speaking clearly also helps. When students can hear each word individually, they are more likely to comprehend what is being said. Repeating and rephrasing when students look confused. Gauge the class by looking around. You can usually tell if students are not getting it. Try saying it a different way. Using gestures or pointing and talking works wonders! I have actually demonstrated the use of gestures and point and talk with adult audiences using my native language (which is Serbian). When I speak without them, the audience has no idea what I'm talking about. But when I use gestures and point and talk, they get most of the main points. For instance, if you are asking students to open your writing journals to page 7, grab the journal and demonstrate what you are asking them to do. So simple, yet so effective! Providing students with ample wait time is another way to support ELLs as they acquire English. When we ask questions,
ELLs need an abundant amount of time to practice the new language. Output is important but can take on various forms. Output, also called expression, can be in writing or speaking. Either way it must be scaffolded to meet the needs of the student's language level. Beginners will need more support than students who are more advanced. ELLs should practice writing and speaking in all content areas each day. Speaking socially is not enough to help an ELL advance in become successful in school or post secondary. The best way to assure that ELLs get the practice they need in a low stress environment, is to plan structured speaking and writing activities such at Q Triple S A, Talking Heads, Think-Pair-Defend, etc. The opportunity to work in cooperative groups and partners is best for ELLs. Learning from classmates and discussing in a small setting allows ELLs and all students to negotiate for meaning and process information.
Keeping a routine in the classroom helps ELLs to focus on learning content and language. When students know the structure of their day and the lesson, they can focus their energy on learning content and language rather than wondering and/or worrying about what will happen next. Routines provide a structure and support for students such as ELLs who have a lot on their daily learning plates. The more we can be explicit and structured, the better.
These tips are GREAT for English Language Learners, but really ANY child would benefit from feeling welcome, having a relationship with their teacher, and having a teacher who knows their language level and uses that to adjust instruction. Any child would thrive if their teacher adjusted the delivery of lessons to meet their needs and gave them ample opportunities to express themselves through talk and writing. These are practices that are good for all students. The difference is that ELLs NEED them.
This is just the beginning. To learn more about serving ELLs, seek professional development opportunities through your district office, or regional service center. Join organizations such as TESOL and participate in ELL or ESL Twitter Chats. Read books about ESL/ELL (see my suggestions here).
Ferlazzo, L., & Sypnieski, K. H. (2012). The ESL/ELL teacher's survival guide. ready-to-use strategies, tools, and activities for teaching English language learners of all levels. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Seidlitz, J., Base, M., & Lara, M. (2015). ELLs in Texas: what teachers need to know. San Clemente, CA: Canter Press.
English Language Learners benefit greatly from the structure of Writing Workshop. However, there are a some small tweaks we can make as teachers to scaffold instruction for ELLs and truly make the experience advance both literacy and language.
ELLs vary vastly. Some are born in the United States and experience similar American cultures and traditions. Others have little formal education or come to America with drastically different cultures and traditions. Factors such as age, intrinsic motivation, proficiency in native language, and educational background also affect the student's development of English. For these reasons and more, we have to take a good look at each child individually and know how to adjust the Writing Workshop so that the child will grow as a writer because of the workshop structure.
What I noticed in classrooms is that teachers are embracing the Writing Workshop. But some feel they can't vary from the pages of Units of Study or other programs they use. This isn't true. We have to remember, we are teaching students first. If we keep students at the forefront we can't go wrong.
With sequenced, targeted, and focused support in writing, ELLs can make leaps and bounds! Here is how I support English Language Learners in Writing Workshop. Download is available below the picture.
All Academic Conversations Academic Vocabulary Academy Accommodating Accommodations Administrator Anchor Chart Assumptions Automaticity Bloom's Taxonomy Building Relationships Content Objectives Cooperative Learning Coteach CoTeacher Courses Differentiate Differentiation Discourse Ear To Ear Reading ELLs ELPS Empathy English Learners Expression Fluency Foundations Getting To Know Your ELLs GLAD Gradual Release Instructional Language Development Language Level Language Objectives Language Rich Levels Linguistic Maslow Maslow's Hierarchy Model Modeling Nonfiction Observation Online PD Oral Language Partners Procedural Professional Development Q Triple S A Readers' Workshop Reading Scaffolding Sentence Starters Sentence Stems Small Group Somebody Wanted But So Structured Conversations Summarization Supporting ELLs SWBS Talk Talking Heads Teacher The Power Of Talk Toolkit Verbal Vocabulary Workshop Writers' Workshop Writing
Each kid benefits from seeing how to write before they DO the writing. BUT for English Learners this is even more important because language structures may vary from their native language. For example, if I want my students to write about themselves describing their age, I might show them that in English we write: " I am nine years old." This is different from other languages like my native language where a person might say, "I have nine years." Modeling what we expect from students gives them a clear goal for their writing.
2. Be Explicit
Don't beat around the bush and hope that kids discover what you want them to learn. Literally tell me what the goal is and what the expectations are. Leave nothing up for guessing. Content and language objectives are a great way to start when being explicit. For instance, "Today we are going to revise our writing for word choice. We will do this by reading our draft to a partner and discussing sound words." Then use an anchor chart that supports these objectives. Show students how you to do it using simple steps and let them try.
3. Anchor Charts
Anchor charts that are made with students, clear, and interactive are best for all students. If kids can go back to the anchor chart while you are working with a small group and they use the anchor to support their independent learning, then you know it's a good one. The best anchor charts have minimal text and are supported with sketches, pictures or graphics. An anchor chart is like a finger print of the teaching that took place. In some cases, students need their own mini-anchor chart to keep in their writing journal for easy reference. Taking a picture of the chart and printing it small or making a copy of the chart on a sticky note is a way to give the student an artifact from the lesson.
4. Language Level
Keeping each students' English language level in mind while they learn to write in English is critical. Second language learners may not be on grade level YET. But they will if we support them using language scaffolds in writing. As beginners in language, they may first need to use pictures in their writing. Labeling, copying, and talking about the pictures will support their language and writing growth. The use of leveled sentence and paragraph frames will also benefit students as they continue to learn English. Remembering that even students who are near grade level in English will still benefit from support in writing. Academic writing and grammatical structures can pose a struggle for students who are learning content and language simultaneously.
5. Sentence Stems
The use of sentence stems has become more common. And that's a great thing. However, we can do better if we tailor the use of sentence stems to meet the specific needs of ELs. Beginner ELs have extremely different writing needs than Advanced ELs. Both have needs and we want both of them to grow in proficiency, but if we prescribe the same sentence stem to them, we are doing a disservice to them. It would be like if a doctor prescribed the same treatment to each patient that walked into his door. Instead, we need to assess each student and prescribe what they need at the time (not all year because if we do a great job, they won't need the same supports all year).
This seems pretty obvious but it's often forgotten. We all need targets. When I decided to go back to college to get my Master's Degree, I had to complete an Action Research Project. I had never heard of one before, so in my mind it was a vague project. It was totally new to me. I couldn't imagine how long it needed to be, what sections it had to include, what it looked like in general, etc. I needed examples of Action Research Projects in order to be able to hit the mark. Our kids need the same and these examples need to be attainable for them. They should be peer examples and not adult authors. Yes, mentor texts are great and I love reading them to my students, too. But I can't possibly expect my ELs to write like Kate DiCamillo right now. I need them each to feel successful and them I continue to lift the bar. Success and lift the bar and repeat.
Enough cannot be said about the value of student discourse in the classroom. Talk is vital for ELs. In the early stages of language development, they may be reluctant and that's okay. However, the opportunities for talk should always be present. Structured conversations don't have to take long (35 seconds to 2 minutes) but their value is tremendous! My favorites are using talking heads or Q Triple S A. We know that the person who does the talking is the one who is doing the learning. Unfortunately if the talk is mostly coming from the teacher, then the teacher is probably learning more about the subject than the students are. I have to be honest here and tell you that in my early years of teaching I was very guilty of being center-stage in my classroom and talking more than my students. I thought it was my job to deliver the content TO them. It was only after I realized that my talking was preventing them from uncovering the content that I had a mind-shift. I had to let them do the talking. I had to restructure the classroom environment and provide the students a way to discuss, negotiate for meaning, evaluate their thinking, and clarify by holding structured conversations. When students talk before they write, their writing becomes more solid and definitely greater than without talk.
Writing is not just a way to checking for understanding. Writing can help students to build on their existing knowledge. It can help them dig deeper into their thoughts and understandings.
Writing is a powerful way to support learning.
If you are not using a structured conversation or talk technique regularly in your classroom yet, this is THE one to implement NOW. It's not only easy to implement right away, but it can also be used in every grade level and content area. There is practically no prep work need yet the benefits for students rock!
The benefits of academic talk are too great to avoid. If, as teachers, we do all the talking, then WE do all the learning. Talk makes learning stick. Students must verbalize to internalize.
When I was an ESL specialty teacher, I would spend the day co-teaching in various classrooms on my campus. One thing I noticed about classrooms, is that some were like rainforests. Picture this: plants of all types, flowers blooming, creatures crawling around, brightly colored birds and butterflies flying through, monkeys swinging through branches, frogs hopping about, etc. The rainforest was vibrant and alive and all types of life thrives in the ecosystem. While other rooms were like desolate, deserted islands...no life, no sound, no energy.
What made the classrooms vibrant rainforests where children thrived while others were desolate, deserted islands? The answer was ample opportunities for structured academic TALK.
Classrooms where talk was scaffolded, taught and fostered with fidelity bred a natural sense of community. In these classrooms students felt safe to take risks and speak about the thoughts going on in their mind. They felt safe to change their mind when new information was learned. Students and the teacher recognized that it was more important to process thinking than to get the answer right.
Q Triple S A is probably the best structured conversation technique that I have used. I first learned about it from the book 7 Steps to a Language-Rich Interactive Classroom written by John Seidlitz.
Begin by posing an open ended, essential question. Thought provoking questions are the best for structured conversations. Crafting great questions takes practice and collaboration with other teachers can help. Post the question so students can see if and easily refer back to it during their conversation.
Next, provide students with a sentence stem for the answer to the question. As a class rehearse how to say the sentence stem. This rehearsal not only helps students understand that they will need to use the stem but also helps if students aren't quite sure of how to say some of the words.
Third, tell students to stand or give a thumbs up when they can complete the sentence. It can be any signal that you think of really. I like to use hands on hips and thinkers chin. This step is critical for 100% participation. When you begin to implement this step, it may take longer than you would like. BUT don't skip it. Kids will test you. If you stand your ground they will learn that you EXPECT EVERYONE to participate. Remember: It's not about getting the right answer. It's about thinking and learning. Gone are the days that we ask a question and call on one kid to answer it while everyone else zones out!
Now that all kids are ready, we partner them up and let them share their answers. Partnering can take the form that you see fit. It may be a group share or it could be A/B partners. The important part here is that students know how they will share with their peers. Explicit instructions on sharing need to be delivered so that students who are reluctant speaks will understand the expectations while those that dominate talk will also understand where to draw the line. This share time gives the teacher an opportunity to listen in on conversations. The teacher can wonder the crowd and take notes that will guide the next steps in instruction. Note of caution: As you listen to conversations, be careful of your feedback. Often saying "Good job" can halt a discussion by making students feel they have completed the task. Perhaps feedback like, "You're on the right track. Can you say more?" or "What else can you tell us about that?"
The final step in Q Triple S A, is to assess. This simple means that the teacher will RANDOMLY call on a few students to share their answer with the whole group. Now remember, they've all been given the opportunity to share in small group (which helped to lower their affective filter). That opportunity also provided a listening experience for them, so they may build on their initial answer. The reason for randomly calling on students is that it helps us to avoid always calling on the same kids. It also keeps everyone on their toes. We hold our kids accountable to the learning.
Whether you are a kinder teacher or a high school algebra teacher, I challenge YOU to try this amazing technique with your kids! And let us know how it goes.
Seidlitz, J. & Perryman, B. (2011). 7 Steps to a language-rich interactive classroom: Research based strategies for engaging all learners. San Clemente: Canter Press.