The longer I have been in education, the stronger I believe in small group instruction. It truly is the heart of instruction. In a small group, the ratio between student and teacher is drastically reduced allowing the teacher to identify individual student needs and easily differentiate instruction.
No matter the content area in elementary school, small group instruction has a greater effect on student learning than whole group.
Some may say that it's too difficult to pull small groups so they continue to instruct in a whole class setting. I agree that in the beginning it may be difficult to get the structure and routine down for both the teacher and the students; however, once good classroom management is put into place and the routines are set, the ball will get rolling and small group becomes the best way to teach.
After all, as educators I think there aren't many who don't agree that we want to do what is best for students. While whole group instruction may be easiest for teachers to plan and implement, it can't be best for students who are diverse and unique--all at various levels with different background knowledge.
Overall, most teachers are pretty good at pulling small groups for reading instruction in the primary grades. But even that seems to taper off around third grade. What we know is that when we gather a small group of roughly 4-6 students and give them what they specifically need at the moment greater progress occurs in language and in content knowledge. So why don't we continue to pull small groups as kids get older? And how about pulling them in other content areas such as math, science, and social studies?
Some may wonder...What are the other kids doing while I pull a group? Won't they get off task? Well, that's up to you as the teacher.
The Benefits of Small Groups:
For ELLs one of the other benefits of small group instruction is that it lowers the affective filter. You know that feeling of fear or anxiety when you are in a situation that is high stress? Well, English Language Learners can feel that anxiety in a whole group setting more than in a smaller setting. When everyone is waiting and all eyes are on you anticipating your response it can be intimidating. This feeling is amplified when you are new to the country, have an accent or need a great deal of support.
When teachers meet with students in small groups, they are more apt to individualizing instruction and truly meeting students where they are. In a smaller setting, teachers are able to ask more questions to individual students which allows the students to interact more with the teacher. This also has an added benefit which is building the student teacher relationship.
Another benefit of small groups is that students are given more opportunities to talk. When students are in a smaller setting, they feel freer to talk, ask questions and grapple with ideas. This allows them to think critically and negotiate for meaning while having academic discussions more openly. On the other hand, in a whole group setting, the teacher asks a question and one student responds while everyone else zones out.
CREATE A WELCOMING ENVIRONMENT FOR ALL CULTURES
Creating a welcoming environment for families is step one. When parents feel welcome to come to school, they can then support their child’s education at home too. The bridge between school and home is stronger. Research behind parental involvement in education shows that when parents volunteer and are part of the school community, their children have a higher success rate, make better grades, have a higher attendance rate and are happier in school overall. But in order for parents to be involved, it’s our job as leaders to WELCOME them. This means we have to form connections and invite them in to our campuses. Our doors need to be open. When we walk into a school, we are usually greeted first by the office staff. These critical members of the campus need to know that their presence, their body language, and their customer service is key to how parents perceive the school. They either say, “Come on in. You are welcome here.” Or they say, “Uh, excuse me. What do you think you are doing here?” For our ELL families and immigrant families, we have to keep in mind that they may be coming from a county that has different customs and traditions where school is concerned. In their home country, school may not be a place where parents are welcomed and wanted. So they may not know that we want them to come and be a part of their child’s education. It’s our job to show them that they are wanted and welcome in our building.
HOLD PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT FOR ALL STAFF
Most teachers enter the classroom doors with little or NO professional development in the area of Second Language Acquisition. They are thrown into the experience of teaching ELLs and expected to know how to effectively teach English learners just like that. Many teachers become frustrated simply because they are ill-equipped and feel helpless. It then becomes the school district’s responsibility to provide teachers and all staff members with training so they can support their diverse students. Serving students who are learning both content AND language, acclimating to a new culture and come with various degrees of literacy in their native language is a massive challenge…one that should never be expected to be done without high quality, ongoing training.
When implementing professional development plans on your campus, be sure to include all staff members. Keep in mind that all teachers serve ELLs. Music, art and physical education teachers also work with ELLs and will benefit from understanding how to accommodate instruction for their students. Recently I worked with an awesome principal who reached out to me and asked me to come train her front office staff regarding cultural awareness. I thought this was great since all staff works with ELLs and their families.
ENSURE THAT ESL SPECIALISTS AND CONTENT TEACHERS HAVE TIME TO PLAN TOGETHER
I can tell you first hand (because I’ve been on both sides of this coin) that planning is essential to the success of the students. Content teachers need the specialized expertise of the ESL Specialist. And the ESL Specialists have much to share with the Content teachers. The ESL Specialists often push in to classes as co-teachers. But here’s the thing…most campus have just a few ESL Specialist so they are spread pretty thin. Their schedules tend to change as new students enroll and as current students advance in language proficiency. Designating set times for ESL Specialists to plan with Content Teachers may seem impossible, however it is truly necessary and in the long run will benefit more students and staff members. When the ESL Specialist plans with Content Teachers he/she is aware in advance of what the students are learning. This allows for the ESL Specialist to pull accommodated materials and plan for appropriate scaffolds. In addition, planning together allows the Content Teacher to gleam language development advice from the ESL Specialist. The specialist is able to support the language development portion of lesson planning while the Content Teacher supports the academic portion of planning. Together they create lessons that both rich in language and content.
The key is carving out and protecting planning time for these two teachers to meet regularly. It can happen. I have done this before and it has been successful.
MONITOR THE PROGRESS OF ELLS ON YOUR CAMPUS
If we expect teachers to monitor progress of their students, we must model that as well. Now your campus and where the students are. Do you have a lot of immigrants? Are most of your ELLs newcomers? Or is your ELL population more on the long term side? How far have they come this year as a whole? Where do you expect them to be? Set the expectation and let the staff know the goal.
In my state, we use Proficiency Level Descriptors to formatively assess students in listening, speaking, reading and writing. We also use these rubrics to summatively assess students in the four domains each year. Knowing where students are and where we want to take them is essential to their success in language development and academic success.
What do you do on your campus to make kids feel successful and teachers feel prepared? If you have an awesome idea, please share in the comments below.
I must confess. I'm not a math specialist. In fact, as a classroom teacher, I've never taught math myself. I have supported math as an ESL Specialist in a co-teach position but never taught my own math class. However, what I can offer are linguistic supports for teaching in a math setting.
The misconception out there is that math is a universal language. This is far from true. Math is supported by language and if students are learning English, then learning math in their target language can be a struggle.
If you take anything away from this document, I hope it's that your ELLs NEED to talk about math using key vocabulary and may need sentence stems as scaffolds for conversation. Talk, or academic conversation, helps students develop language while internalizing learning, negotiating for meaning and cementing learning.
Please feel free to share this document with others as I hope it benefits language learners. If you have other suggestions or comments regarding math and ELLs, they are welcome here.
Resources I leaned upon:
Bresser, R., Melanese, K., & Sphar, C. (2009). Supporting English language learners in math class: grades 3-5. Sausalito, CA: Math Solutions Publications.
Bresser, R., Sphar, C., & Melanese, K. (n.d.). Supporting English Language Learners in Math Class, Grades K-2.
Driscoll, M., Nikula, J., & DePiper, J. N. (2016). Mathematical thinking and communication: access for English learners. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
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.
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
As a leader in your building, it's important to keep current with all the best practices in education. Knowing what is new and cutting-edge in each content area is difficult yet crucial. As you walk into classrooms and observe teachers, students and the environment, how do you know that all students' needs are being met. ELLs are the fastest growing population in the United States. Are classrooms meeting the needs of their diverse students?
Here's what to look for:
Cooperative Learning: Cooperative learning is defined as students working together, discussing, and learning from one another. These groups should be heterogeneous in an effort to support the needs of all the students in the group. Cooperative learning benefits all students but ELLs need it to become fluent in academic English. English Learners need to hear native speakers and practice English in an academic setting. Cooperative learning allows students to negotiate for meaning, process their thoughts, and build on background knowledge from other students. You will know if students are practicing cooperative learning when you walk into a classroom. If desks are in groups, it's probable (but not certain) that cooperative learning is taking place. Desks in isolation or rows are not conducive to cooperative learning. When cooperative learning is integrated into classroom culture, students feel free to take risks and the affective filter is lowered. The more opportunities for students to share their thoughts and ideas with one another the more comfortable they become discussing academic topics using the English language. Another great benefit of cooperative learning is that the students are doing most of the talking rather than a teacher doing a great deal of lecturing. We know that the one doing the work and the talking is the one doing the learning.
Word walls with visuals: Word walls are all the rage! Lots of classrooms have them now a days. But that doesn't mean the word wall is actually being used by students or that it is effective. Classrooms that truly supports ELLs will have word walls that are content specific AND include visuals. For example there may be a separate word wall for science and math words. In addition each word will have a picture, graphic or realia (real object) by the word. Word walls may look messy because when they are authentic they are often added to and used spur of the moment when the need arises.
Language rich classroom: This is a loaded one! Language rich can mean so much. For example, a classroom that is language-rich will have shelves bustling with books. Books of all sorts, levels and genres. Books that highlight and showcase cultures from around the world. So that any student can find them self in a book they pick up. A language-rich classroom will have anchor charts that are clear and concise. These anchor charts will not merely be wall paper. They will be functional for student use. Students will refer to them and when asked, students will know what the charts are used for and how to use them. The anchor charts will be supported with graphics and visuals. When the classroom has newcomer students, the classroom might even be labeled. All objects in the room will have a label: door, chair, computer, desk, wall, Smartboard, etc.
Sentence stems/frames: In a classroom that clearly supports English learners, it will be easy to see if students are supported orally. There may be sentence stems or sentence frames posted on charts in the room. Or there may be stems posted on the board by the content or language objectives for the day. Some stems remain the same and are there for long periods of time while others change with the daily objectives. For example, generic stems such as "I agree because..." or "I think...because..." might stay up for a long time. Frames like, "One way the founding fathers were alike is...for example..." will only stay up during a short period of time. One way to see if students know how to use the stems and if explicit instruction has been given for the stems is to ask a couple students. Simply ask, "How do you use that chart?" or "How does that sentence stem help you?" If students have no idea then perhaps the chart or stems are wallpaper rather than a learning tool.
Whether you are an instructional coach, an ESL coach, an assistant principal, or a principal, it's important to know what to look for as you visit classrooms. English Language Learners are diverse and have unique needs. If you aren't observing the things listed above in a classroom on your campus, it may raise a red flag. Talk to the teacher. See if your ESL department or ESL specialist can help. Perhaps professional development training or a book study will benefit the teacher. Unfortunately preservice teachers have very little ESL professional development or training. And a lot of the training current teachers have is on the job training. Be prepared to support teachers as they grow as learners themselves.
Echevarría, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2008). Making content comprehensible for English learners: the SIOP® model. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.
Brechtel, M. (2001). Bringing it all together: Language and Literacy in the multilingual classroom. San Diega, CA: Dominie Press.
A workshop setting is very conducive to differentiation. But how are we ensuring that our ELLs are not being forgotten? How are we making sure that the workshop setting is meeting the needs of our ELLs and pushing them forward in language AND literacy?
First and foremost, as teachers we have to remember that when we work with students who are learning English as a second language, we are not only teaching them to read and write, we are simultaneously teaching them the English language, language proficiency. It is important to keep a pulse of the students' levels in listening, speaking, reading and writing in English.
Being aware that some students come from countries where letters and symbols are different from ours is important too. Teaching ELLs how to decode letters will help empower them to read. Being explicit about letter sounds, capitals and lower case letter, and punctuation can be taught in small groups or during individual reading conferences with ELLs. Nevertheless, these are important lessons that our ELLs might have misssed depending on when they came to the US.
Often we ask our students to "sound it out...does it sound like it makes sense or sound correct?" Well, for an English language learner that type of question is difficult to answer. Some haven't heard enough examples of the English language to know if it sounds correct. For many, the classroom is the only place where they experience the English language. With ELLs, explicit instruction and modeling goes a long way.
If we want our students be excel in academics, we have to help them excel in language at the same time. Our ELLs need multiple opportunities to listen, speak, read and write during the day and this includes the workshop time. Recently while at an assessment training, the presenter discussed accommodations. I loved how she phrased it. She said that accommodations do not give ELLs an advantage. Accommodations level the playing field. I look at it this way...if a little girl can't reach the water fountain, what would we do? Would we let the child go without water until she grows tall enough to reach it herself even though she needs the water? Would we go get the maintaince crew to LOWER the fountain? NO! Of course not! The child deserves and needs the water and we will not lower the standards for her to reach it. We will give her a scaffold and little by little pull it back. The scaffold might be a stepping stool or some other type of device to allow her equal access to the water. She will get the same water that everyone else gets. Level the playing field.
See the document below for ideas on how to level the playing field for ELLs during workshop. Feel free to email me or reach out to me on Twitter and I will send you more information on this document.