There is a darling girl in my class. She has curious eyes and a huge smile, when she lets you see it. She’s reserved. I mean quiet to the point of a specialist teacher asking me, “Do you have to squeeze her to get a sound out of her?” Of course we all know the answer is “No. She’s perfectly capable.” You see, Maria, as I’ll call her, is one of the most dedicated students in the class. She is driven to succeed, no matter what it takes. She talks, plays with the other kids and participates in class, but anyone watching her can see she’s not comfortable doing so. Maria is an English Language Learner (ELL) and frankly, most of the day in my 4th grade classroom is difficult for her. Maria has an average IQ. Maria has a greater than average work ethic. Maria has a strong family support system. The problem lies in Maria’s lack of academic language. Maria is not alone. In fact, Maria is part of a large population of students in my classroom, and I’m sure yours too!
I would be completely naïve to believe 100% of Maria’s reserved manner can be attributed to her ELL status. She certainly could be characterized as a shy person within her home language, too, but perhaps that makes her academic participation all the more difficult. Maria, like most ELLs, speaks English socially fairly fluently. Yet she’s performing nowhere near the benchmarks set in state standards or CCSS. Like I said, she is perfectly capable. Sometimes it is thought that she “knows English,” when in fact she is only fluent in the language of the playground. She is a Level 3, according to the WELPA (language proficiency exam), meaning the content of the classroom isn’t easily accessible to her. According to the State Transitional Bilingual Instruction Program’s 2013 Annual Report to the Legislature, progress in English proficiency occurs most quickly early in the learning process. This is because the focus is on listening and speaking. As reading and writing become the measure of success, the rate of growth decreases. In 4th grade, Maria is expected to read and write to learn. This is happening at the same time her growth curve is becoming more gradual.
Instruction of ELLs is two-fold. When you are learning language and content, you need to be given objectives for both. When I plan my lessons for Maria and my other ELLs, I think about:
- Content objectives – What skills do my ELLs need in order to be successful with the material? This might be mastery of the division algorithm, correct answers to questions regarding gravity’s impact on Earth, or the ability to provide examples of figures of speech.
- Language objectives – What language is needed to demonstrate mastery of the content? This may be academic vocabulary, presentation skills or grammatical growth.
Thinking about all of the skills any child needs to master at once, let alone a child working to learn language and content at the same time has been known to overwhelm me in the past. However, with the implementation of CCSS, I’ve found it so much easier. Maybe I’m becoming more comfortable in determining what specific language skills my students need, but I really don’t think that’s the entire case. CCSS has a huge shift towards integrating language and content. There is an increase of non-fiction text and text dependent questioning. Therefore, literacy skills are not taught in isolation. I have found, for my ELLs, it is effective to teach content at grade level. In order to find my language objectives, I often have to look at the standards of prior grades. And, of course, I’m not Superwoman so I can’t teach ALL of the language objectives at the same time. I can, however, think about one or two language skills that go hand-in-hand with my content and focus on this for my language learners.
If you are a teacher that writes a formal lesson plan for every lesson you teach, I give you a standing ovation! I don’t. I can’t. It doesn’t work for me. But, I plan my heart out with calendars, pacing guides, and notes. And everything I teach is intentional and has objectives. To keep myself in check, I often refer to ColorinColorado’s Rubric for Meeting the Needs of ELLs. This is a great resource for making sure you really do have your ELLs in mind when lesson planning.
Most schools I am aware of are moving away from the pull-out model of ELL instruction. This makes sense, right? If we can integrate content and language the material becomes much more authentic for our ELLs. This is a movement I can get on board with because I’m seeing it work. Teaching English as one subject and content as another doesn’t work. I mean, do YOU only listen, speak, read and write English from 11:30 to 12:15 each day? When I’m able to instruct my ELLs, like Maria, with the rest of the class, they become more confident in using academic language. With confidence comes more willingness to verbalize your thoughts. This is happening for Maria! So CCSS, Maria and I thank you for giving us the integration we need to help her succeed.
Does Maria sound familiar to you? What tips do you have for instructing ELLs?
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.