I am an ELL teacher. My students qualify for language services by having a language other than English identified on their Home Language Survey, stated by Washington State law. Some of the students I work with show little to no understanding or production of the English language. That number is small. Very small.
Most students I work with speak English well, often without any noticeable difference from their English-speaking peers. That is, at a glance.
You see, many of my students have conversational English figured out. When it comes to language acquisition, conversational English is acquired first. But it can take years, I mean 7 to 10 years, to have complete fluency. In the world of language acquisition we differentiate between this conversational English (using the acronym BICS) and academic English (using the acronym CALP).
There’s a problem I see sometimes when it comes to teaching ELL students. I’m included in this problem. That is, when a student’s conversational English seems completely fluent, we may forget that they still need significant academic language support to be successful in school. It’s easy to do. Even for students who have exited ELL programs due to their annual language proficiency scores, lack of academic language can still be a problem.
Last week I was teaching a small group of six 5th grade boys. Each of them qualified for ELL in their earlier years at our school. Each of them have exited the ELL program. On this day we were working on quoting textual evidence when inferencing (CCSS RL.5.1). We were reading a text about service dogs. As we began to form inferences and write them out, I noticed my students, both in conversation and writing, were referring to the “death people”. I asked them if they knew the difference between death and deaf. With very confused eyes, one boy finally said, “Mrs. Louie, I don’t get how the death people can come alive with a dog’s help.”
Academic language. In this case for these students, very simple academic language was completely holding these students back from comprehending the text appropriately. Yet as their teacher, I hadn’t thought they were missing this academic language piece of our work. The reality is I work with a lot of kids who are English speakers (monolingual) that show these kinds of errors in their communication too. Because the reality is, academic language is it’s own language that most, if not all, students need support in becoming fluent in. I still, as an adult, grow my own academic and situational vocabulary very regularly.
To help these boys learn their misconception, I drew a simple picture on the board. I’m not an artist. The kids know this and expect it. The art wasn’t beautiful, but it taught the difference between “death” and “deaf” in about 15 seconds and then we were off. Often times teaching language takes more time than this. And I don’t want to at all imply that language acquisition and vocabulary instruction should be simple. However, there are very simple strategies we can use and SHOULD embed in our instruction all of the time – for our bilingual AND monolingual students.
Remember, most of my students speak English well. Very well. They should not be overlooked when it comes to vocabulary instruction. Kristen Labrie gives some great tips about vocabulary instruction here. I address some simple vocabulary ideas here.
How are you engaging your students in vocabulary and language acquisition?
I grew up here in Western Washington, wanting to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. As the oldest child in my family, I had plenty of opportunities to "practice" teaching my younger siblings. I enjoyed this. They may not have. :) When I'm not working, I enjoy outdoor activities with my husband and our two Australian Shepherds (whom are far too spoiled for their own good!). I also love spending time with my family, being an auntie (to the cutest kids ever to grace this planet!), hosting dinner parties for friends, crafting, taking photographs and shopping.