Tag It—"Graffiti" in the Classroom

Tag It—"Graffiti" in the Classroom

Graffiti murals promote comprehension and student voice.

Some see graffiti as vandalism; others see it as a work of art. Urban artists use graffiti to send political messages—as a form of meaning making in the larger society. Indiana University Professor David Hanauer suggests that graffiti offers marginal groups the opportunity to express themselves publicly.

In the middle level classroom, graffiti can make reading comprehension a personally contextualized, meaningful activity for all students—and especially marginalized students who are reluctant to speak up in class.

Making Meaning

AMLE talks with author Samina Hadi-Tabassum about Graffiti in the Classroom

Kathy Short's research emphasizes the use of visual literacy for meaning making—in particular the use of graffiti boards, which capture students' thoughts and feelings as they delve into a text. Students record and share in graffiti-like fashion—with quotes, sketches, or simple words—their thoughts about how they are connecting to the text. There is no particular organization to the students' images and words. They are simply written randomly on the graffiti board, which is often no more than a large piece of paper.

On the other hand, a graffiti mural is much more formal and systematic in terms of how students record their responses. On a graffiti board, students jot down ideas and sketch thoughts in small groups as they respond to a text; a graffiti mural requires the whole class to answer comprehension questions using sticky notes or tags—a slight variation of a shared writing technique. Similar to graffiti boards, graffiti murals require a great deal of interaction, deep communication and comprehension, and a reinforcement of the shared purpose in the task.

For English language learners, the graffiti mural provides comprehensible input by including new and diverse ways of looking at the text—well beyond merely circling the right answer. The graffiti mural is also an example of a tactile text that emphasizes a kinesthetic, touch-based approach to learning.

Finally, there is a sense of aesthetics involved in using graffiti murals, since the teacher must incorporate visual features and carefully examine the use of color, shape, depth, and alignment in its design. When designing the mural, the teacher keeps in mind that it is a decorative piece of art that will cover the classroom wall, a representative image of the text itself, an interpretive canvas for students' comments, an organizational tool for posing comprehension questions, and a transformative medium that invites students to construct meaning.

Using a Graffiti Mural

[ ] Post a large sheet of butcher paper onto your wall for the mural.

[ ] Decorate or have your students decorate the butcher paper with the cover of the book and other important features from the book. Draw motifs from the book.

[ ] Ensure there is an aesthetic appeal to your mural so it shows creativity and imagination.

[ ] Place just the right number of reading comprehension questions at various points on the mural.

[ ] Have every student respond to the individual questions posted on the mural using a sticky note. Students should answer one question at a time.

[ ] Make sure the students do not write their names on the sticky notes.

[ ] Encourage the students to use the entire space of the sticky note to write their response—including the back if they need to.

[ ] Read aloud a few of the responses after each question is completed.

[ ] Display the graffiti mural in the public hallway for everyone to see and read.

Designing a Graffiti Mural

When incorporating a graffiti mural into the literacy classroom, the teacher takes a large piece of butcher paper and decorates the paper with the title of the text, author's name, and aesthetically pleasing images and motifs from the text. Students can help design the graffiti mural.

Then, the teacher writes 3–5 comprehension questions on the butcher paper, spacing them out appropriately. The questions should allow for divergent responses from the students rather than "yes/no" answers. The questions should be open-ended and encourage students to argue "why or why not" using specific details, arguments, and evidence.

After reading the selected text as a class—whether that is a nonfiction article, a piece of fiction, a painting, a piece of music, a poem—the teacher passes out sticky notes to the students, then reads aloud a comprehension question from the graffiti mural. Students write their response on their sticky note. The students do not write their names on the sticky note; rather like graffiti artists, they remain anonymous. Large sticky notes are preferable, and students should be encouraged to write on the back of the notes if necessary.

Students have at least 5–10 minutes to respond to each question. When the students are finished writing their responses, they come up to the graffiti mural and "tag" it by sticking their sticky note under the correlating question. The teacher can use a different color sticky note for each question and increase the aesthetic appeal of the graffiti mural as well as develop parallel constructs.

Once all the students are finished posting their answers to the first comprehension question, the teacher randomly reads aloud a few of the responses, encouraging dialogue around the selected responses. The students do not need to identify themselves as the author of a particular response under discussion; rather, they can remain anonymous.

After each question has been answered and discussion is completed, the graffiti mural should hang in the classroom so students can read all the posted responses. Eventually, the graffiti mural should hang in the public hallway so literacy becomes meaningful and interactive.

Putting Ideas into Practice

In one predominantly African-American classroom, the graffiti mural was used as a culminating activity around the book The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. After students read the book, the teacher created the "brown bomber"—the family car that plays a major role in the book—with brown butcher paper. She included motifs that were essential to the book, along with a photograph of the author in the driver's seat. Instead of using questions, the teacher wrote three writing prompts that gave the students a springboard to dig deeper into the book:

  • The most exciting part of the book was …
  • If I could be any character in this book, I would be … because …
  • If I were the author, I would have changed the part when …

The teacher outlined each of the prompts in a different color to correspond with the colors of the three sticky notes. In turn, this created a color-coded system to track and manage active student participation.

Because the students were able to stay anonymous, they were much more comfortable and confident in their writing, especially the boys. They also were more comfortable with the teacher reading their responses aloud as opposed to sharing their thoughts with the entire class. Every student wanted to participate, even students who were usually disengaged during the literacy block. Here are some student responses for the second prompt:

  • "I want to be Byron because he did a lot of funny things in the book. He might have acted like a wimp in the beginning of the book but in the end he was tough."
  • "Byron because he is the oldest and he can tell the younger ones what to do."
  • "I would be Joey because I would want to write everything down in a notebook."
  • "I would want to be Joey because he told the truth to his mom all the time."

The teacher displayed the mural in the hallway outside of the classroom—the students' work was now public art.

In a beginning-level Spanish bilingual classroom, the teacher decided to read Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type in Spanish (Clic Clac Muu: Vacas Escritoras). Because the story is about cows that type, she drew a beautiful picture of a cow on the butcher paper. Inside the cow, she wrote three comprehension questions in Spanish:

  • ¿Que problemas tienen los animals? [What were the animals' problems?]
  • ¿Que problema tiene el granjero? [What was the farmer's problem?]
  • ¿Se resolvieron los problemas de los personajes? [Were the characters' problems resolved?]

During the read-aloud, the teacher asked students questions that would prepare them to answer the comprehension questions on the graffiti mural. For example, she asked them about each animal's problems, since this was a question they would be asked later on the mural.

When the students were finished answering each question, they placed their answer under the correct question on the mural. Then, the teacher read aloud what they had written.

The newcomer students who were reluctant to write their responses felt more comfortable drawing them. Some labeled parts of their drawings and others wrote their entire response in Spanish. Students who have been in the bilingual program since Kindergarten used specific Spanish words from the text as they wrote—especially characters' names, spelling words, high-frequency words, and vocabulary words.

Including All Voices

Throughout my 20 years in urban education, I have observed too many classrooms in which students were asked to be quiet and observant during a literacy lesson. Marginalized students benefit academically from activities in which all students have a voice. The graffiti mural allows students to connect with a text, make meaning on their own, and share in the collective experience of responding to each other's ideas and thoughts in a democratic and inclusive way.

Samina Hadi-Tabassum is assistant professor of literacy and elementary education at Northern Illinois University.

Published in AMLE Magazine, September 2016.
Author: Samina Hadi-Tabassum
Number of views (17345)/Comments (1)/
Discovering Treasure: Adapting Instructional Strategies to Meet Student Needs

Discovering Treasure: Adapting Instructional Strategies to Meet Student Needs

Understanding student needs is only part of the teaching expedition.

I started the group discussion with what I believed to be a rather easy question: "How does the article, 'Rise of the Machines,' connect with your life experiences?" After all, students interact with technology each day, smartphones are glued to their hands.

After I posed the question, I followed the good teacher protocol and waited painfully for more than 15 seconds. No response. I thought to myself: Do I need to rephrase the question? What are these students not getting? The question is all about their experiences and opinions.

I backtracked with some different questions. First, "How many of you decided to read the entire article?" Well over half the students raised their hands. Then, "How many of you understood the article?" Most students made every effort to avoid eye contact with me.

I felt like a pirate discovering hidden treasure on a deserted island. The pirate opens the treasure and sees the wealth, but soon realizes he is stuck on the island alone with no way to leave. What good was the treasure?

Searching for the Treasure

For the first few weeks of school, I was a pirate in search of my treasure: knowledge about where my students—English Language Learners—were academically, what they already knew and were able to do. Because the Common Core State Standards focus on reading informational texts and citing information to support understanding, I wanted to ensure my students developed these skills throughout the year. After reading Kelly Gallagher's persuasive and insightful book Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do about It, I decided to jump on board with the Article of the Week strategy.

Each week, I assigned an article about a current event or topic that I thought would appeal to students' interests. Each article was divided into "chunks," or digestible bites, to help their comprehension. With each chunk, the students read, then summarized the main idea and made real world connections. After reading the entire article, they used evidence from the text to support their answers to various "reading for meaning" questions.

During my attempted discussion related to "The Rise of the Machines," I realized that the students needed to develop more background knowledge, better comprehension strategies, and a clearer understanding of how to read informational texts. That knowledge was my treasure.

Then the realization set in: I was on a deserted island. I was not an expert on the best strategies or practices to help students develop these skills—especially with the wide range of abilities within my classroom.

Action Research, Action Plan

After discussing my classroom discovery with my colleagues and mentors, we decided action research would be the best way for me to learn best practices and keep a clear track of students' progress throughout the remainder of the year.

As I began researching different strategies to help improve students' reading comprehension of informational texts, I noted that almost all the articles discussed the students' lack of background knowledge and the impact this disconnect has on students' comprehension abilities.

Although the articles provided teachers with several practical strategies to improve students' comprehension skills, I decided to stick with two while conducting my action research: cloze reading and structured small-group discussions.

I continued assigning an article on Monday with the expectation that the students would read the article and complete the annotations by Friday. At the beginning of class on Friday, the students completed a cloze reading activity, which was a summary of the article with important vocabulary words missing and placed in a word bank. The students read the passage and placed the correct word from the word bank based on the context clues and their understanding of the article.

I looked at these cloze reading passages to see what words the students were struggling with and where they might need some clarification.

After the students completed the cloze reading passage, they discussed the week's article in structured small groups. I provided clear expectations and structure to each small group discussion. For example, I expected the students to continue to practice respectful speaking and listening protocol by using "Accountable Talk" stems such as "I agree with _____ because _____" and "I'm not sure I understood you when you said _____." Also, each student was required to participate in the conversation by bringing up a new point or extending another student's comment.

Each week, I structured the discussion a little bit differently and had the students communicate their ideas and comprehension in various ways such as orally, in writing, or visually. We also used technology and tools to help build the discussion.

As the students discussed, I walked around to monitor their comprehension and mark their understanding on a rubric (Figure 1). An important part of helping students improve their speaking, writing, or reading skills is to set clear expectations through a rubric, clearly explain the expectations, and provide oral

or written feedback.

Figure 1
Self-Assessment Rubric for Article of the Week

  Comments 3 (Above Standard) 2 (Meets Standard) 1 (Below Standard)
I can understand and explain the vocabulary.   All of 2, plus I am able to listen to the definitions others suggest and expand upon them. While discussing, I use words from the text correctly in speaking.

I am able to use the word in a sentence correctly.

I can explain the definition so other members of my group understand.
I use some words from the text incorrectly.

I am unable to properly use the word in a sentence correctly.

I attempt to explain the definition to my group members, but they don’t fully understand.
I can identify the main idea and support with textual evidence.   All of #2, plus I can use the main idea to explain the author's purpose of writing the article. I can correctly pinpoint the main idea of the article.

I can explain the main idea to my group members.

I am able to support my ideas with appropriate textual evidence.
I am close to identifying the main idea, but I am missing important parts.

I am unable to explain the main ideas to my group members.

I am unable to support my ideas with appropriate textual evidence.
I can summarize the article and include specific details.   All of 2, plus I can explain connections between different chunks of the article. Using my own words, I can summarize different parts of the article.

I am able to identify specific and important details in the text.
I am unable to summarize different parts of the article.

I am unable to identify important details in the text.

For the discussions, I listened for students' understanding and ability to 1) explain the vocabulary; 2) identify the main idea and support with textual evidence; and 3) summarize the article and include specific details. If the students addressed these three checkpoints throughout the discussion, I determined they understood the material.

Digging Deeper

For the cloze reading strategy, I was not surprised that the students completed the passages more easily when the article's Lexile® level was below grade level. However, I realized that more than half of my students were reading well below grade level. I knew I needed to continue the cloze reading strategy to help build up the low-level readers' vocabulary.

In addition, using the cloze reading passages helped hold students more accountable for learning the definitions of the challenging vocabulary words. Rather than skipping over the words they did not understand, the students took the time to look up the definitions. This, of course, helped their comprehension.

Since most middle school students learn better when interacting with their peers, the small-group discussion was a great way to get them to interact with each other. Often, the students helped clarify something and explain misconceptions in a way that their peers better understood. Sometimes students' comprehension of the article improved after the small-group discussion.

An indirect benefit of this small-group discussion strategy was the students' development of speaking and listening skills. The Common Core State Standards focus on ensuring students express and share their knowledge clearly. After using the small-group discussion, I noticed a significant increase in the students' social skills—especially listening and meaningfully contributing to a discussion.

A Happy Ending

Now the tale comes to an end. Eventually, the pirate finds help, escapes from the deserted island, and shares his wealth with his rescuers. Just like the pirate, I found my help and support by collaborating with professors and colleagues and through the process of action research. Now my students are equipped to handle more challenging texts because the skills they practice with the Article of the Week assignment will transfer to texts in other classes.

Shelby Notbohm teaches middle level English Language Learners in West Fargo, North Dakota.

Published in AMLE Magazine, January 2016.
Author: Shelby Notbohm
Number of views (10393)/Comments (2)/

How can I offer language support to the English Language Learners in my classroom if I don't speak their native language?

Fortunately, there are a number of ways to support ELL students’ language acquisition by adapting strategies already in use. These small things may make a big difference to ELLs. Here are a few ideas.

1. Create a language-rich environment. English language learners will benefit from increased exposure to print and language. A print-rich environment will include access to books and reference materials, labels and posters, and student work on bulletin boards. Word walls are also a great support for ELLs, and may be organized around a number of concepts, including new vocabulary words, sight words, grammar rules, conversational phrases, and writing structures.

2. Simplify your language without "dumbing it down." It may seem difficult to balance this at first, but here are some tips for communicating effectively with your students:

  • Avoid slang and idiomatic expressions.
  • Speak clearly and naturally, without going too quickly or slowly.
  • Encourage students to raise their hand if they don't understand a word.

Remember that ELLs may not understand instructions and key vocabulary words, and that reading something aloud doesn't always help comprehension. Provide extra supports such as realia, graphic organizers, and visuals.

3. Support academic language development. Often students are available to communicate effectively with teachers or peers in social settings, but struggle when it comes to textbooks, tests, assignments, or class presentations. There are a number of ways to support academic language development, such as previewing the text, teaching grammatical structures relevant to a particular content area ("greater than" and "less than" in math class), and showing how the targeted academic language is used in reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

4. Provide students with frequent opportunities to work together. Cooperative learning activities promote peer interaction, which promotes language development and comprehension. Activities may include working on a worksheet together as problem-solver and coach (then switching roles), think-pair-share, and book groups. Assign ELLs to different groups so that they can benefit from English language role models. ELLs learn to express themselves with greater confidence when working in small teams.

There are a number of ways you can support language acquisition—and in the process get them on the road to academic success!
Kristina Robertson is an English language supervisor in Roseville, Minnesota, an educational consultant, and a former WIDA national trainer with 25 years in the field. She is a writer for Colorin Colorado (www.colorincolorado.org). This article is excerpted from her Colorin Colorado article, "Supporting ELLs in the Mainstream Classroom: Language Tips," available at www.colorincolorado.org/article/supporting-ells-mainstream-classroom-language-tips.

Published in AMLE Magazine, January 2016.
Author: Kristina Robertson
Number of views (4273)/Comments (0)/
Differentiating Instruction for ELLs

Differentiating Instruction for ELLs

The core tenets of differentiation should guide our education of ELLs.

His first name was Mauricio, and he was from Uruguay. As a class assignment, one of his teachers in his new school in the United States asked students to construct Venn diagrams about themselves, showing how the different aspects of their lives converge.

Mauricio chose to represent his life in Uruguay in one circle and his new life in the United States in the other. The teacher noted that he included playing soccer as part of his life in Uruguay but not in the convergence of his Venn diagram. Mauricio explained that in the United States, he could no longer play soccer every day.

From that day onward, Mauricio’s teachers and coaches used his interest in soccer to bridge the gap between his first language and English. They succeeded not only in connecting him to classroom tasks but also in engaging him socially, thereby demonstrating just one of the ways that differentiated instruction (DI) can support our work with English language learners (ELLs).

Honoring Strengths

This We Believe encourages us to employ “multiple learning and teaching approaches” that address the varied backgrounds, range of abilities, and multitude of skills that our young adolescents bring to the classroom. By addressing our students’ strengths, we increase the likelihood of engagement and content knowledge retention. Furthermore, we model the respect for diversity that is a hallmark of middle level education.

Many of us have understood, believed, and practiced DI for a long time, yet we still find ourselves wondering how to serve our ELLs—even fearing that we simply can’t help our ELLs if we don’t also speak their native language. However, we (the authors) have come to believe that teachers who already practice DI should not be afraid of the additional “challenge” of teaching ELLs. In fact, all the reasons for which DI is valuable for our native speakers of English also make DI a valuable approach to instruction for our ELLs. Indeed, DI is based on the idea that we should honor the natural learning strengths inherent in all students—and that’s no different for our work with ELLs.

In the following sections, we briefly discuss each of Carol Ann Tomlinson’s six major tenets of DI. In each case, we explain implications for our ELLs and discuss implications for working with ELLs.

Student Characteristics

The first three tenets deal directly with student characteristics: readiness, learning preference, and interest.

Readiness. The first major principle of DI is readiness, which is assessment in three areas: 1) readiness of the student to begin learning; 2) readiness of the student to speed up or slow down learning; and 3) readiness of the student to move on to the next topic or skill.

DI requires that sound teaching decisions be based on solid assessment data, but those data don’t have to come from standardized test scores. In fact, readiness in a differentiated classroom is often best determined by quick assessments like hand signals to confirm agreement/disagreement or levels of understanding, or tickets-out-the-door to gauge the impact of the day’s classroom experience.

In terms of ELLs, it is important to have knowledge and realization of the linguistic capabilities of the student, but it is just as important to gauge levels of understanding of the content. Both hand signals and tickets-out-the-door can provide content assessment data while respecting the fact that a student’s productive language skills (speaking or writing) may be behind his receptive language skills (reading or listening). A hand signal or a ticket-out-the-door may require little or no linguistic production but can reveal much about content comprehension.

Learning Preference. The second major aspect of DI is learning preference. DI theory maintains that students learn in a combination of several different ways—not through just one approach. Some students prefer to learn visually; other students retain information better through auditory input. Still others are kinesthetic learners and prefer to learn through physical movement. It’s important to realize that learning preference is just that: it’s the way that a student finds learning to be easier, but it doesn’t mean that there is no function in the other modalities.

In differentiated classrooms, teachers use all three modalities (visual, auditory, and kinesthetic), but when re-teaching or working one-on-one, it is best to try to match a student’s strongest modality. When working with an ELL, visual support for language is always important. Kinesthetic work helps develop stronger connections among items stored in the brain for increased likelihood of recall (for both content and language). An ELL’s native language or culture (which may be more oriented to either visual or auditory structures) may also influence the preferred learning approach.

Multiple intelligences also are a factor in learning preference. The link between multiple intelligence theory and English language instruction is that students learn better if the content is made relevant to them and to their lives. Howard Gardner identified nine naturally occurring intelligences that teachers can use to help every student learn. For example, a musically gifted student might be able to learn some material faster/better if the material is presented in a melody or song.

A teacher who differentiates varies instruction with student preferences in mind and then makes every effort to provide further instruction and feedback that is more individually tailored to students. For the ELL who uses primarily musical intelligence, melodies or songs from the native culture could be used to further enhance motivation and learning.

Interest. The third major tenet of DI is interest. Motivation theory suggests that expectancy (expected level of success) multiplied by value (the value that the student places on the task) is the best determination of a student’s motivation for an individual task (see Middle and Secondary Classroom Management: Lessons from Research and Practice, by Weinstein and Novodvorsky).

If a student places high value on the task and has a high expectation of success, then motivation will be at its maximum. For many students, value is closely tied to interest in the topic. A teacher can add value by discussing the importance of the lesson and providing examples relevant to the student’s life. If the teacher knows the interests of the students and uses those interests in designing lessons, value for the task is enhanced even further.

The expectancy times value equation is even more important with the ELL student. Students might be interested in the content and context, but their language difficulties may cause them to have such low expectations of success that motivation and interest are actually at their lowest.

In Mauricio’s case, his teachers used his interest in soccer to increase his interest in classroom tasks. Interest in the subject matter also may be increased for an ELL by linking content to the student’s interests, native culture, or homeland.

Curriculum Decisions

The first three tenets deal directly with student characteristics; the next three involve curriculum decisions made by the teacher. The curriculum tenets are process, content, and product.

Process. The area of differentiation that teachers have the most control over is process—the instructional strategies they use to teach the lesson.

The simplest way to differentiate by process is to vary instructional strategies over time. No single method works for all the students all the time and ELLs need the same variation that other students need. Further, varying the instructional strategies can provide opportunities for the ELL to practice each of the four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing).

Content. Content differentiation refers to the level of material to which students have access. There often is a wide range of reading skills and levels in any heterogeneous classroom, especially when ELLs are present. Differentiation theory states that providing different levels of scaffolding and allowing for different reading speeds by controlling the amount of reading is best for students reading in their native language. If this is true for native speakers of English, it surely would also apply to the ELL.

Product. The sixth component of differentiation is product. There are many different ways students can demonstrate their knowledge and skills. Differentiation theory states that students should have choices in terms of the way they demonstrate what they’ve learned.

Some students might be most comfortable sharing their knowledge through a written document; others might be most comfortable with a presentation. Still others might prefer to create a product that integrates their learning.

For the ELL, it is important to consider that a written product might be outside the linguistic capabilities of the student. Therefore, offering choice in product can actually accommodate language proficiency levels.

Best Practices

In many ways, the combination of DI and its implications for work with ELLs is, quite simply, best practice. What happened to Mauricio the soccer player? Through solid instruction with appropriate ELL accommodations including DI approaches, he was successful not only in achieving academic success, but also in helping his high school win numerous soccer championships.

David H. Vawter is an assistant professor in the Richard W. Riley College of Education at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina.  vawterd@winthrop.edu

Kelly M. Costner is an associate professor in the Richard W. Riley College of Education at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina.  costnerk@winthrop.edu

Previously published in AMLE Magazine, November 2013.

Author: David H. Vawter & Kelly M. Costner
Number of views (41036)/Comments (2)/

Habla con ellos—Talk to them: Latinas/os, achievement, and the middle grades

Moving bilingual children beyond subordinated categories toward full engagement in relevant and authentic learning that embraces their communities.

Our faculty in the Education Department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte often spends time discussing issues we see within our middle grades program, including with our undergraduate teacher candidates in clinical and student teaching settings, with practicing teachers in initial licensure programs, and those learning their way into an M.Ed. in Middle Grades Education. It was at one such meeting that we found ourselves returning to the concern of our content area teachers not feeling knowledgeable about working with Latino newcomers. We were talking our way around the edges of the topic, hoping for solid language that would give clear voice to this issue, when Jeanneine shared
this story:

I’d never encountered a child who truly couldn’t speak a single word of my own language. Yet there they were, two gorgeous Latina girls sitting quietly in the very back of the room, hands folded, staring at the tree outside the window, surely bored half to death, understanding absolutely nothing. The teacher wasn’t helping much either because, just like me, she didn’t know what to do or even where to begin. She didn’t speak their language, and they didn’t speak hers. Much to my dismay she made a beeline straight for me after class, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t to discuss the student teacher I’d come to observe next block. Instead, just as I feared, it was to eagerly ask for my advice on how to work with those two girls. My conversation on the topic was short, with that five minutes pretty much covering everything I knew. That day left a real mark on me. That image, though 20 years old, is still so vivid in my head that I can recall the yellow shirt one of the girls was wearing. Like I said, it left a mark on me because it forced me to confront something that was a dangerous void in my teacher life, and I realized I’d better figure it out fast. I’m worried that our program still isn’t where it should be in this area, and especially given our growing Charlotte Latina population.

Jeanneine later shared that things got better for the two Latina girls with the arrival that semester of an English as a second language educator. This teacher helped them on their way to learning a new culture, navigating a new school, and, even more important, becoming a part of the school community through both curricular and extracurricular activities. In time, the language became easier for them, too, opening not only academic doors but social windows, which are critically important to young adolescents (Strahan, L’Esperance, & Van Hoose, 2009; Stevenson, 1998).

Twenty years later, thousands of young adolescents now come into our middle grades classrooms from a rich array of countries, some with a strong working knowledge of English, some with emerging proficiency in their new language, and some with nothing at all in terms of mainstream communication skills—many, like those two young girls, are of Latino heritage.

Culture plays a critical role in the most effective middle schools (NMSA, 2010), and we consider transnational children of immigration to be a great wealth, a rich blessing. We work tirelessly to equip today’s middle grades teachers to serve this group of children better than we did 20 years ago. As teacher educators within The University of North Carolina Charlotte’s large, urban college of education, we now regularly receive requests for assistance from middle and high school teachers and administrators who are interested in establishing a better school environment for their increasingly diverse adolescent populations. In central Piedmont, a large and growing number of Latino families accounts for much of that diversity.

As of 2007, Latinos comprised 15% of the total U.S. population, with approximately one-third self-identifying as Mexican in origin. In North Carolina, the percentage of Latinos has increased by approximately 69% from the years 2000 to 2007 (National Council of La Raza, 2010), and they continue to transform communities across the state in wonderful and dynamic ways. Unfortunately, though Latino schoolchildren are the fastest growing K–12 population in the U.S., their educational achievement in the middle grades remains significantly lower than their non-Latino counterparts across disciplines.

While recognizing that measures of school achievement are generally social constructs that can marginalize non-dominant communities, these measures must be considered, nonetheless, as they have become a critical part of conventional school conversation. As with all groups of children, Latino achievement matters for the futures of these very same families and for our nation’s place in the global workforce. Addressing the educational needs of immigrant and U.S.-born Latinos in the middle grades can help curtail a cycle of underperformance indicative of past generations.

Although professionals across many fields need to consider the multiple and overlapping domains at play in the educational development of children of immigration (see Figure 1), our focus is specific to the sociocultural processes at work in classrooms and schools. These processes include "the social and psychological distance between first and second language speakers, perceptions of each group in interethnic relations, cultural stereotyping, intergroup hostility, subordinate status of a minority group in a given region, and patterns of assimilation" (Collier, 1998, p. 21).

Teacher education for the middle grades must embrace the culturally and linguistically complex spaces that our classrooms and institutions have become. In particular, we need to better develop our individual and collective dispositions—attitudes about difference that can play an enormous role in the achievement of youth from non-dominant communities.

Latinos in the middle grades are particularly vulnerable to potentially harmful sociocultural processes at work in classrooms, curricula, and institutions. In their large-scale longitudinal study of immigrant children’s adaptation processes, Suárez-Orozco and Suárez-Orozco (2001) documented the extent to which immigrant adolescents are susceptible to toxic social mirroring about their potential and self-worth (see also Portes & Salas, 2010). Because middle grades teachers are educated specifically to work with early adolescents, and because they hold the collective wisdom that comes from teaming (NMSA, 2010; Powell, 2011; Strahan, L’Esperance, & Van Hoose, 2009), those who educate this age group are uniquely positioned to counteract institutional and community messages that may stereotype Latino adolescents in negative ways. Even more important, middle grades teachers who form positive relationships with Latino youth can make a difference in their educational trajectories, or as the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE, formerly NMSA) (NMSA, 2010) has articulated, "Academic success and personal growth increase markedly when young adolescents’ affective needs are met. Each student must have one adult to support that student’s academic and personal development." With Curtin (2006), we find that the positive effects of such advocacy are especially apparent for young Latinos who work better for teachers whom they feel care deeply about them and about their futures (see also, Valenzuela, 1999). Caring, we argue, begins with talking.

Let’s talk

Middle grades teams often pose very appropriate questions that range from "What motivates Latino students?" to "How can I better engage immigrant parents?" However, they generally ask these questions of each other, the school’s ESL teacher, their university professors, or search the literature that they study about immigrant children. Although these are very useful approaches, the most powerful tool middle grades educators can employ is direct conversation with their students; for example: "Who are you as a Latino?" "What does that mean to you?" "How is your culture different from the cultures of other adolescents in our class?" "In what ways is it the same?" In other words, rather than talking generally about Latinos, who they are, and what distinguishes them from other adolescents, we should ask our students directly how schools might work better for them and their families, in particular. Begin that association in an authentic and meaningful way through simple conversation:

Habla con ellos. It is through talking to our students that we help them form healthy personal identities and positive relationships with peers and adults (Strahan, et al., 2009). Three initial questions work well to open the conversation: "Tell me about your family," "I love that we are different, but how are we the same?" and "What do you do best, and what brings out the best in you?"

"Tell me about your family"
Though we talk to our students about who they are, we rarely take time to ask about their families; this, in turn, can quickly lead to assumptions and stereotypes regarding an immigrant students’ familial and cultural history. For example, many educators we work with are surprised to learn that the majority of Latino English language learners (ELL) in K–12 schools were actually born in the United States and have attended U.S. schools all of their lives (Passel, 2009). A teacher’s inadvertent framing of a U.S.-born Latino as "not American" might perpetuate a sense of foreignness. Acknowledging and engaging the complex ethnic identities of students is essential to affirming the cultural mosaic of our middle school classrooms, our local communities, and our nation (NMSA, 2010). It all begins with simply saying to your students, "Tell me about your family."

Let’s take a look at how that plays out in a classroom: Janet is an eighth grade social studies teacher in a rural North Carolina middle school. Many of her students are from Puebla, Mexico. On any given day, you can walk into her class and hear adolescents conversing in both English and Spanish. She encourages her students of both Mexican and United States heritage to collaborate. Code-switching—effortlessly shifting between Spanish and English in a single communicative event—is just one way the students leverage their linguistic dexterity to collaboratively navigate the social studies curriculum.

As part of this state-mandated curriculum, Janet is responsible for teaching her students about the various industries that have called their state home. As she got to know her students, she came to realize that many of their parents worked in the local chicken processing plant. Since food processing stands as an important state industry, she decided to assign her class the task of interviewing their parents, other plant employees, and community members to determine how the plant has interacted with their lives, the surrounding community, and North Carolina in general.

At the assignment’s end, the students were excited to share their findings, and a rich conversation permeated the room for days through both academic dialogue and social conversation. Mexican students discussed the layers of their transnational identity and how moving from a large city like Puebla to a small rural community was a cultural shock. Others explained how their parents came to the United States years before they were even born and that their cultural experiences have been primarily through the eyes of their parents and older family members. European American and African American students realized that their previously held misconceptions of life in Mexico (i.e., sleepy villages, cacti, and undocumented immigrants who sneak across the border in the dead of night) were incongruous to the rich, multifaceted, charismatic life experiences of their classmates. In addition, the class enjoyed a detailed discussion that focused on the chicken processing plant, the labor conditions that their family members experienced there, and the role of this large industry in shaping the community’s culture. As the students’ final discussions and project presentations came to a close, Janet again emphasized their experiences as members of the community, of the school, and of their families; the role of globalization in industry; and how various cultural values shape contemporary North Carolina life.

Honoring the cultural histories of immigrant adolescents means taking an engaging approach to curriculum by developing instruction that reaffirms Latino students’ "funds of knowledge" or their ways of knowing that students learn at home and in their communities and bring with them to school (Moll et al., 1992). This volitional change in mindset shifts teachers from deficit thinking (i.e., what my students don’t bring to school) to a culturally responsive disposition (i.e., what my students contribute to the learning) that, instead, centers on a concept of "gifts" students offer. Geneva Gay (2000) refers to culturally-responsive teaching as "using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of references, and performance styles of students from diverse backgrounds to make learning environments more relevant to and effective for them … (which is) culturally validating and affirming" (p. 2). Middle grades teachers who leverage Latino students’ unique familial and cultural histories into their instructional design will not only motivate learners within their classrooms but will also foster a sense of engagement that can translate into higher achievement.

"I love that we are different, but how are we the same?"
We acknowledge and celebrate diversity in our classrooms. However, talk of diversity often focuses on the differences between us. Though we want to avoid downplaying adolescents’ distinct cultural histories and individual uniqueness, we can also address the many commonalities we share. According to Schumann’s Acculturation Theory (1998), second language acquisition parallels second culture acquisition. An important component of this theory is the notion of social distance or the degree of difference between cultures. Learners who feel that the culture of the second language community is very different from their home culture may struggle to adjust to and become comfortable in environments in which they are framed as outsiders. So, if we strictly emphasize how Latino and non-Latino cultures are different, we may inadvertently exaggerate social distance and impede our Latino students’ academic progress.

Social isolation is sometimes apparent in middle grades classrooms in which teachers might observe Latino students hanging out exclusively with fellow Latinos. To facilitate interaction between Latino and non-Latino students, teachers will likely need to engage them in dialogue about what they have in common, regardless of ethnicity or national origin. That dialogue can quickly begin by asking our Latino and non-Latino students how we are unique and how we are similar.

For example, in Rowan County, North Carolina, Luis leveraged his role as the school’s soccer coach to create a mentoring program in which seventh and eighth grade Latino and non-Latino athletes began each practice with a focused conversation about things going on at school and in their lives. At the start of the season, they generated a list of issues they wanted to address in their discussions. Luis then began each practice by facilitating a short, open-ended conversation based on these topics; topics included his players’ relationships within the school, bullying, dating, and a variety of social situations that seemed common across the group. The season later concluded with a shared reading of A Home on the Field (Cuadros, 2006)—the story of how a soccer team’s rise to the state championship recast a small North Carolina town’s secondary school’s relationship with its Latino community. In the case of Luis and his student athletes, conversations brought them closer together by creating a space where they could talk about the things that mattered to them at that moment. More often than not, the boys found that they did have much in common with their teammates. Soccer practice became a focused time for honing individual and team skills to succeed on and off the field, with the strong message that we can do more if we understand and support each other.

"What do you do best, and what brings out the best in you?"
Working better for and with Latinos and other students might begin by teachers asking, "What do you like to do?" or perhaps "What are you good at doing?" Institutional understandings of Latino adolescents’ potential and achievement are often framed in the idea that decisions governing retention, promotion, and graduation should be based on a single, high-stakes, standardized test score—what Valenzuela (2004) calls "Texas style accountability." Unfortunately, too many of our Latino students may not see a relationship between what they do best and what we ask of them in our assessments. In addition, they may have heard about what they’re not good at doing for so long that they have actually internalized the idea that they aren’t particularly good at doing anything at all—or at least not anything that schools value. The category of English learner is one such example; the thing that many Latino children are good at doing, being bilingual, is often undervalued and ignored rather than called on and celebrated. Though we may be weary of stereotypes that unintentionally limit educators’ expectations, we can generalize that Latino children of immigrant families have indeed developed strategies for adapting to new communities and circumstances. For example, when facing crises Latino families can mobilize their communities quickly through reciprocal networks (Suárez-Orozco & Páez, 2002). What’s more, in terms of their expectations for teachers, Latino parents generally focus on the "educación" of their children, or the manner in which they are expected, from a Latino perspective, to interact with others (Rodríguez-Brown, 2010; Valdés, 1996).

Cultivating the kind of classroom environment in which teachers and students talk to each other about what they do best and what brings out the best in them takes time. Many students have likely never been asked such a question by a teacher, or at least not with frequency. Should middle school teachers find that engaging students in that sort of dialogue is too difficult, they can turn to the families of their students by including them in a discussion about experiences the family has had with schools, administrators, and teachers. Should those conversations include negative situations, teachers can also ask how those experiences could become more positive for the family. In this way, we all learn from each other.

Again, let’s turn to the classroom for a tangible example: In his culturally and linguistically complex eighth grade social studies classroom in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, Jeff was so inspired by his students’ freehand cartooning and doodling that he introduced cartooning software into his curriculum. Students who had readily described history as boring and who perceived themselves as disinterested and even struggling students were immediately absorbed in story boarding historical events, such as the French Revolution, and historical concepts, such as citizenship and freedom. Because story boarding requires the framing of text with images across cartoon-like cells, Jeff quickly recognized its connection to more sophisticated graphic novels, and he decided to use these novels as alternatives to his history textbook (Christensen, 2006). Allowing for additional layers of critical analysis, and after providing language scaffolding for the English language learners (Frey & Fisher, 2004), Jeff passed out copies of A People’s History of American Empire (Zinn, Buhle, & Konopacki, 2008). Embedded with pictures, the graphic text offered students visual renderings of complex social studies concepts and served as an engaging ancillary to his daily instruction. As a culminating project, the students developed their own graphic short stories on the history of democracy. Through cartoons and graphic novels, Jeff found a way of simultaneously building his students’ competencies in technology, content understanding, collaborative learning, and innovative thinking about social studies. Moreover, he deeply interested them in the content of the class, and, as a result, the majority of his students began thriving.

Habla con ellos

Contemporary teacher education and professional development for the middle grades and elsewhere continues to fall short for many transnational children of immigration. Instead of shying away from our individual and collective shortcomings, we can embrace what we don’t know as a starting point for professional renewal—just as our colleague, Jeanneine, shared in the vignette that opened this discussion. Professional renewal can begin with a conversation. Talk to them. Who students are, where they come from, what they already know and know how to do, and who they are in the process of becoming are all engaging relationship builders. These topics can and should serve as starting points for dialogue and community growth in each middle grades classroom. This is doubly important for our Latino newcomers, who have so much to offer beyond the stereotypes with which they are often labeled.

We have discussed three initial questions that are guaranteed to grow meaningful and strategic discussion in middle grades classrooms: "Tell me about your family," " I love that we are different, but how are we the same?" and "What do you do best and what brings out the best in you?" There are, of course, endless others. More dialogue is necessary across K–12 institutions, but such dialogue is especially urgent for developing young adolescents across the middle grades. As Wang and Holcombe (2010) have argued, adolescents’ perceptions of their middle grades environment directly and indirectly influence their academic achievement. We must, therefore, work with Latinos to make schools and schooling more welcoming for them. We need to consider not only the risks and challenges of these critical years but also what makes middle grades students succeed. This process can begin by "identifying and nurturing young people’s ‘sparks,’ giving them ‘voice,’ and providing the relationships and opportunities that reinforce and nourish thriving" (Scales, Benson, & Roehlkepartain, 2011, p. 263).

The questions we have composed here could very well engage all students across the middle grades, and we hope educators will continue to work to create spaces for dialogue with as many students as possible. Latino adolescents especially need strong advocates during these middle grades years, a critical juncture in their personal and educational trajectories. We know that nationally Latino adolescents are not thriving in the middle grades, but many educators want to make a difference, a big difference. They want to know the answers to "What motivates Latino students?" and "How can I better engage immigrant parents?" These questions require a commitment to knowing our students better and to communicating that middle grades education is a participatory, additive, and nourishing process grounded in solid relationships and ongoing dialogue. Habla con ellos—Talk to them.


Christensen, L. L. (2006). Graphic global conflict: Graphic novels in the social studies classroom. The Social Studies, 97, 227–230. Collier, V. P. (1998).

Promoting academic success for ESL students: Understanding second language acquisition for school. Woodside, NY: New Jersey Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages - Bilingual Educators/Bastos Books

Cuadros P. A. (2006). Home on the field: How one championship team inspires hope for the revival of small town America. New York, NY: Rayo.

Curtin, E. (2006). Lessons on effective teaching from middle school ESL students. Middle School Journal, 37(3) 38–45.

Frey, N., & Fisher, D. (2004). Using graphic novels, anime, and the internet in an urban high school. The English Journal, 93(3), 19–25.

Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & González, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and communities. Theory into Practice, 31, 132–140.

National Council of La Raza. (2010). North Carolina state fact sheet. Washington, DC: Author.

National Middle School Association. (2010). This we believe: Keys to educating young adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.

Passel, J. (2009). A portrait of unauthorized immigrants in the United States. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center.

Portes, P. R., & Salas, S. (2010). In the shadow of Stone Mountain: Identity development, structured inequality, and the education of Spanish-speaking children. Bilingual Research Journal, 33(2), 241-248.

Powell, S. D. (2011). Teachers' Days, Delights, and Dilemmas: Wayside Teaching. Middle School Journal, 42(3), 55-56.

Rodríguez-Brown, F. V. (2010). Latino families. In E. G. Murillo Jr.,S. Villenas, R. Trinidad Galván, J. Sánchez Muñoz, C. Martinez, & M. Machado-Casas (Eds.), Handbook of Latinos and education: Theory, research, and practice (pp. 350–360). New York, NY: Routledge.

Scales, P., Benson, P., & Roehlkepartain, E. (2011). Adolescent thriving: The role of sparks, relationships, and empowerment. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 40, 263–277.

Schumann, J. (1998). The neurobiology of affect in language. Oxford, England: Blackwell.

Strahan, D., L’Esperance, M., & Van Hoose, J. (2009). Promoting harmony: Young adolescent development and classroom practices, 3rd ed. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.

Stevenson, C. (1998). Teaching ten to fourteen year olds, 2nd ed. New York, NY: Addison Wesley Longman.

Suárez-Orozco, C., & Suárez-Orozco, M. (2001). Children of immigration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Suárez-Orozco, M. M., & Páez, M. (2002). Latinos: Remaking America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Valdes, G. (1996). Con respecto: Bridging the distances between culturally diverse families and school: An ethnographic portrait. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive schooling: U.S.-Mexican youth and the politics of caring. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Valenzuela, A. (2004). Leaving children behind: Why Texas-style accountability fails Latino youth. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Wang, M. T., & Holcombe, R. (2010). Adolescents’ perceptions of school environment, engagement, and academic achievement in middle school. American Educational Research Journal, 47, 633–662.

Zine, H., Buhle, P., & Konopacki, M. (2008). A people’s history of American empire. New York, NY: Metropolitan Books.

Spencer Salas is an associate professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary, and K–12 Education at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. E-mail: ssalas@uncc.edu


Jeanneine P. Jones is a professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary, and K–12 Education at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. E-mail: jpjones@uncc.edu

Theresa Perez is Professor Emeritus of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. E-mail: tperez@uncc.edu

Paul G. Fitchett is an assistant professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary, and K–12 Education at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. E-mail: pfitchet@uncc.edu

Scott Kissau is an associate professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary, and K–12 Education at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. E-mail: spkissau@uncc.edu

Published in Middle School Journal, September 2013.


Author: Spencer Salas, Jeanneine P. Jones, Theresa Perez, Paul G. Fitchett, & Scott Kissau
Number of views (46970)/Comments (0)/
Bending Over Backward

Bending Over Backward

Teaching about Idioms

Have you ever told a student she "dropped the ball" on an assignment? Do you encourage your students by telling them to "reach for the stars" or "go for the gold"? Your native English-speaking students likely understand what you mean when you use such figurative language, but the English Language Learners (ELLs) in your classrooms may be confused.

Figurative language is an element of the Common Core State Standards and many middle grades teachers will incorporate figures of speech and idioms into the curriculum. If you have ELL students in your classroom, it's important to go that extra mile to ensure they understand language elements such as idioms and how to use them appropriately.

The following suggestions may help teach about idioms—phrases that have a different meaning from the dictionary definition of the individual words.

  • Introduce idioms in context. Don’t provide the idiom and the “definition.” Use idioms in sentences and help students determine the meaning based on the context.
  • Have students demonstrate correct use of idioms. Pair students and ask them to have a conversation that incorporates idioms. Ask them to “present” their conversation to the class so everyone can learn from each other.
  • Practice with games and activities. Worksheets and games can reinforce student comprehension of figurative language (see websites below).

Use real-life, authentic material students can relate to. Share examples of how idioms are used in movies, magazine articles, songs, and advertisements.

These websites can extend classroom lessons on idioms.

  • Using English: www.usingenglish.com/reference/idioms. This database is rich with examples of idioms commonly used in English. The idioms are organized categorically so students and teachers can easily find idioms in areas such as animals, crime, food, politics, time, and character.
  • ESL Mania: www.eslmania.com. This website provides opportunities for students to learn new idioms and to practice grammar skills. Students can even see how idioms are used in the news and in the business world. Download an iPhone app there.

When students understand and can use figurative speech such as idioms correctly, they are better able to enhance their oral and written language skills.

Melanie W. Greene is a professor in the middle grades program at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.  greenemw@appstate.edu.

Author: Melanie W. Greene
Number of views (48628)/Comments (1)/

Successful Strategies for Teaching Reading to Middle Grades English Language Learners

Teachers can employ a variety of classroom-tested strategies to teach reading to English language learners.

Carlos (a pseudonym) moved from Guatemala to the United States when he was in sixth grade. When Carlos started school, his teachers expected him to speak only in English and practice English in his Spanish-speaking household. Carlos’s state test scores showed that, at the end of sixth grade, he was significantly below his grade level peers in reading. Sadly, Carlos began to state that he hated school and wanted to move back to Guatemala. That summer, Carlos moved again. At his new middle school in Illinois, Carlos’s teacher allowed him to write in Spanish while learning English content at grade level and to read bilingual books (English and Spanish). He also received daily small-group reading instruction that focused on vocabulary in context and comprehension. That year on his reading tests, Carlos’s scores grew significantly from the year before, and his motivation to learn became evident by the smile on his face and his desire to excel at each task his teacher assigned.

Carlos’s story is not unique; similar educational experiences happen to English language learners, or ELLs, every year in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (2010), in 2008 there were approximately 10.9 million children in the United States who did not speak English in their homes. Unfortunately, today too many of the 10.9 million ELLs still receive instruction similar to Carlos’s sixth grade instruction. ELLs face many challenges as they attempt to learn English and form their linguistic identities; the more languages students know, the more complex their linguistic identities are. Simply treating ELLs just like everyone else will not close the achievement gap between these students and their grade level peers. In an age of differentiated instruction, middle level educators need to be cognizant of specific reading strategies that will allow their ELLs to achieve their true potential.

The benefits and challenges of biliteracy

ELLs have a variety of unique characteristics that teachers should consider when determining appropriate instruction. Because students come to schools with varying levels of first language proficiencies, the amount of language instruction required varies from one student to the next. Before instruction begins, it is essential for teachers to gauge each student’s language proficiency level to guide future instruction. However, when teachers assess a student's language proficiency, it is important for them to keep in mind that a student may sound fluent in English when, in fact, he or she is not. According to Cummins (1981), students have two levels of language proficiency: “basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS)” and “cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP)” (p. 16). Generally, students who sound fluent have strong social language skills (BICS) because these skills typically develop in the first three years of learning a new language (Watkins & Lindahl, 2010). In social situations, such as lunch time in the cafeteria, ELLs might have lengthy conversations in English about the past weekend. It is important that listeners do not equate these conversational skills in English as a gauge of students’ academic proficiency level in English. ELLs often struggle with academic vocabulary (CALP) because it is a skill that takes a minimum of five to ten years to develop in a new language (Collier & Thomas, 1989). Content-specific vocabulary and specialized vocabulary for discourse have a greater linguistic complexity and require more complicated language structures. Thus, it takes students significantly more time to learn the new vocabulary, to talk about the vocabulary, to practice it, and to make it part of their knowledge base.

However, middle grades educators should not distress. When students have knowledge of reading in their native languages, that knowledge can facilitate the acquisition of English by giving students a knowledge and skill base from which they can build new English skills. According to Cummins (1979), a common underlying proficiency (CUP) exists between two languages; concepts, skills, and ideas learned in a student’s first language will transfer to a student’s second language. The more similarities that exist between the home language and English, the greater the transfer (Lems, Miller, & Soro, 2010). Language development is interconnected by a positive correlation; if teachers can increase a student’s home language reading proficiency, the student’s English language reading proficiency will increase as a result (Cloud, Genesee, & Hamayan, 2009). Cloud and associates (2009) further explained that “linking literature instruction in English with the home language engages ELLs in the learning process because they can demonstrate what they know long before their competence in English is fully developed” (p. 86). In addition, students who know how to read in their first language have numerous advantages when learning to read in English. According to Freeman and Freeman (2009), “Students who read in their primary language … understand reading is a process, … subconsciously use cues from the linguistic cueing systems,” and have a clear understanding of both the text’s organization and text features (p. 104). Therefore, it is beneficial to encourage ELLs to use their home language to assist with English language acquisition. When teachers value the home languages of their students, it strengthens the linguistic identities of their learners. While there are certainly students who come to school with little or no literacy knowledge in their first language, teachers can still make connections between instruction and the students’ life experiences (August & Shanahan, 2006). Although it is beneficial to link a student’s first language with English literacy instruction, the challenge for middle grades educators remains to implement this instructional task in their classrooms.

Strategies for teaching reading to middle grades ELLs

In recent years, an emphasis on higher test scores has pushed teachers to focus on best practice reading strategies. Over the last few decades, a great deal of research has been done on the effectiveness of the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) model and the Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach (CALLA) (Herrera & Murry, 2005). Indeed, both methods have proven to be valid and reliable and should be considered when planning effective ELL instruction. However, three additional methods stand out among the research as effective instructional strategies for language learners. According to the research, interactive read-alouds, comprehension strategies, and vocabulary enrichment are three categories of reading instruction techniques to consider when planning lessons for middle grades ELLs.

Strategy 1: The interactive read-aloud
According to Freeman and Freeman (2006), “effective teachers … read aloud to their students every day … whether they are kindergarten teachers or high school teachers” (p. 132). Reading out loud to middle level students might seem like an elementary level idea; however, when they read aloud to older students, teachers model the process of reading for ELLs. Calderón (2007) stated, “In secondary schools, teachers read aloud to model reading fluency and comprehension skills—not to read for the students” (p. 52). With careful planning, teachers can model the use of reading strategies, fluent reading, and careful comprehension. It is important for teachers to plan an instructional focus for their read-aloud rather than simply to read the text to the students because they are learning to read. During an interactive read-aloud, teachers make predetermined stops throughout the reading. These frequent pauses support struggling ELLs by chunking the text into manageable parts and allowing for checks in student understanding throughout the reading (Chen & Mora- Flores, 2006; Freeman & Freeman, 2006). Teachers can also build students’ background knowledge for a unit of study by carefully choosing texts for a read-aloud. With difficult text, a “read-aloud plus strategy” is often helpful. Herrell and Jordan (2008) explained that the read-aloud plus “involves the teacher reading text aloud to students while adding visual support, periodic paraphrasing, and … [an] extension” (p. 209). This can be an especially effective strategy for ELLs because it makes the text comprehensible to readers. According to Herrell and Jordan (2008), the following components are important to the effective implementation of a read-aloud plus:

  • The teacher first prereads and chooses a text, considering the vocabulary and concepts that may be foreign to students.
  • The teacher then gathers appropriate support materials (such as visuals, realia [photos or objects], or paraphrasing in simple language).
  • Next, the teacher sets the purpose for the lesson, explaining the directions to all students in a clear and concise manner, followed by the teacher reading the text aloud to model fluency.
  • During reading, the teacher needs to engage the students with the text to help students make connections between what is being read and the new vocabulary.
  • As the lesson continues, the teacher checks students’ understanding of the key vocabulary and concepts.
  • Finally, the teacher assesses student learning in a manner that is appropriate for the lesson, such as creating a visual or paraphrasing what was read.

Although the read-aloud plus strategy requires significantly more planning than just opening up a book and reading out loud, incorporating this strategy into reading instruction will greatly assist ELLs in making reading comprehensible and vocabulary understandable (Herrell & Jordan, 2008).

When choosing a text to read aloud, teachers should first consider their learners. While most middle grades students are capable of handling larger portions of text, many ELLs will need the text chunked into smaller, more manageable pieces (Calderón, 2007). In addition, successful read-alouds require practice and careful planning before instruction (Freeman & Freeman, 2006). While the read-aloud is a useful strategy for instructing ELLs, it is also a wonderful opportunity to incorporate comprehension strategies.

Strategy 2: Comprehension strategies
A great deal of attention has been given to reading instruction in recent years, and one conclusion experts have drawn is that successful readers employ the use of comprehension strategies. But what are comprehension strategies? According to Kendall and Khuon (2005), comprehension strategies include “making connections, asking questions, visualizing, inferring, determining importance, and synthesizing” (p. 5). Successful readers use comprehension strategies to make sense of the texts they read. Many teachers are highly effective at teaching mini-lessons on comprehension strategies. Yet many ELLs may not learn the strategy through mini-lessons taught to the whole class (Freeman & Freeman, 2006). According to Calderón (2007), “explicitly teaching reading … skills is just as important in secondary as it is in elementary schools, notwithstanding adaptations in delivery” (p. ix). When instruction occurs in a smallgroup setting, ELLs have more opportunities to interact with both their teacher and other students in the group in a low-anxiety environment; it is also much easier for the teacher to check for understanding and personalize instruction to meet the needs of his or her individual students (Kendall & Khuon, 2005).

One way teachers can teach comprehension strategies is through shared reading. Shared reading has traditionally been used with elementary students. However, according to Freeman and Freeman (2006), shared reading is crucial for middle grades students who find it challenging to read grade level texts. In shared reading, the teacher demonstrates fluency by reading a text aloud. The students then read the text aloud with the teacher while practicing fluency together. Teachers can also incorporate think-alouds to demonstrate the use of comprehension strategies during reading (Freeman & Freeman, 2006). As students gain proficiency with the strategies, teachers can gradually transition to a guided reading lesson with a shared reading component within the guided reading lesson. Guided reading is a beneficial teaching practice for ELLs because it focuses on vocabulary development, allows for individual instruction, and provides verbal interaction between the students and the teacher (Herrell & Jordan, 2008). Because grouping for this strategy is flexible, guided reading allows teachers to easily differentiate instruction based on their students’ needs, interests, and abilities. To implement this method, teachers select a small group of students at the same stage of development, choose a culturally relevant text to read, model fluent reading, and provide detailed vocabulary instruction (Cloud et al., 2009). While all of these methods for teaching comprehension strategies are beneficial to ELLs, it is important to choose the method that best fits the linguistic needs of the specific students being taught.

A plethora of resources is available to educators for teaching comprehension strategies (see Appendix A). It should be clarified that these strategies are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to comprehension. Many lessons that teachers already use in their classrooms can be easily adapted for ELLs, if vocabulary, reading ability, and interest are taken into consideration. Further, teachers can provide ELLs with authentic opportunities to practice English and communicate with their peers about literacy by incorporating technology into the reading classroom, such as online discussions, recording oral reading, and blogging (Aguilar, Fu, & Jago, 2007).

At the end of any reading lesson, it is critical for teachers to debrief (Calderón, 2007). Debriefing allows teachers to reinforce the key components of the strategies that were taught during the whole-class minilesson and small-group instruction. Although students can employ many comprehension strategies, if they do not, for example, understand the vocabulary words they are reading, they will not achieve comprehension.

Strategy 3: Vocabulary enrichment
Teaching vocabulary and fluency are both important parts of reading instruction for ELLs (Jiménez, García, & Pearson, 1996; Watkins & Lindahl, 2010). The type and depth of vocabulary instruction will vary from lesson to lesson based on the specific language needs of the students. At the middle level, teachers can: (a) rephrase dense text into simpler language, (b) allow students to draw pictures, (c) allow ample time for discussion about the words, and (d) provide questions or sentence stems. These are all strategies that allow ELLs to comprehend and demonstrate understanding of vocabulary (Watkins & Lindahl, 2010). It is important to note that vocabulary instruction should be infused within reading instruction and words should not be taught in isolation. Without context, students are less likely to learn and retain new vocabulary words.

Frontloading is one method for teaching vocabulary prior to the start of a lesson. Using cognates, word walls, or student-developed definitions with pictures are a few popular ways to preview vocabulary with students before they encounter the words within a reading (Cloud et al., 2009). Teachers who incorporate “realia” in their reading instruction (e.g., photos, illustrations, objects) can teach vocabulary in a kinesthetic and visual manner (Vogt & Echevarría, 2008). For example, when teaching vocabulary, educators can present a photo or model of the item being defined along with its definition. This will allow students to pair something visual and concrete with the definition to make it more meaningful. Another powerful vocabulary strategy for ELLs is identifying cognates, or words that come from the same base language and have a similar form. According to Jiménez and associates (1996), the most successful language learners read using “a variety of techniques to construct working definitions of unknown vocabulary such as using context, invoking relevant prior knowledge, questioning, making inferences, searching for cognates, and translating” (p. 100). Teachers can employ a multitude of vocabulary strategies during their reading instruction, some of which are highlighted in Appendix B.

Another vocabulary strategy teachers can employ is the use of graphic organizers to organize thinking. Using graphic organizers can be very beneficial to vocabulary instruction within the reading classroom because these tools “integrate language and thinking to highlight key vocabulary in a visual display of knowledge” (Calderón, 2007, p. 60). When teachers use graphic organizers for vocabulary instruction, ELLs benefit from the clear breakdown of the vocabulary words and their meanings. Semantic word webs, such as attribute charts, are “helpful to ELLs because they reduce the language demands while presenting information in a highly conceptual way” (Cloud et al., 2009, p. 138). Graphic organizers are beneficial for teaching difficult or abstract vocabulary concepts such as prefixes, root words, and suffixes. When using graphic organizers, such as the Frayer Model, students (a) write the vocabulary word, (b) write the definition of the word, (c) use the word correctly in a sentence, and (d) draw an illustration (Cloud et al., 2009; Vogt & Echevarría, 2008). The more tools teachers have for teaching vocabulary—whether cognates, realia, games, or graphic organizers—the more likely ELLs will successfully learn new words.

Implications and conclusion

In looking at the best methods for teaching reading to middle level ELLs, it is important to understand that a variety of program options may be available. Depending on the school district the students attend, they may have the option for English as a second language classes (ESL), bilingual classes, dual language classes, or mainstream classes (Herrera & Murry, 2005). When choosing instruction for ELLs, it is important to consider not only the students’ linguistic needs but also the students’ personal learning styles. By building on what students already know, teachers can avoid oversimplifying the curriculum for their ELLs. According to Freeman and Freeman (2006), “a skill is a strategy that has become automatic” (pp. 133–134). Ultimately, teachers can facilitate the transition between short-term comprehension strategies and lifelong comprehension skills. Another important consideration for reading instruction is that all the strategies discussed are strategies that will benefit all learners, regardless of their language needs or the programs in which they are placed. Whether reading instruction occurs in the mainstream, special education, ESL, bilingual, or dual language classroom, all students can benefit from reading strategy instruction. No matter the program, teachers should work hard to ensure that students do not ever encounter the negative school experiences that Carlos felt when he first moved to the United States. The ultimate goal is for ELLs to experience success in reading and achieve their full potential.

Appendix A: Comprehension Strategy

Appendix B: Vocabulary Strategy


Allen, J. (2004). Tools for teaching content literacy. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Aguilar, C. M., Fu, D., & Jago, C. (2007). English language learners in the classroom. In Beers, G. K., Probst, R. E., & Rief, L. (Eds.), Adolescent literacy: Turning promise into practice (pp. 105–126). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

August, D., & Shanahan, T. (Eds.). (2006). Developing literacy in second-language learners: report of the National Literacy Panel on Language Minority Children and Youth. Mahwah, NJ: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Calderón, M. (2007). Teaching reading to English language learners, grades 6–12. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Chen, L., & Mora-Flores, E. (2006). Balanced literacy for English language learners, K–2. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Cloud, N., Genesee, F., & Hamayan, E. (2009). Literacy instruction: English language learners. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Collier, V. P., & Thomas, W. P. (1989). How quickly can immigrants become proficient in school English? The Journal of Educational Issues of Language Minority Students, 5, 26–38.

Cummins, J. (1979). Linguistic interdependence and the educational development of Bilingual Children. Bilingual Education Paper Series, 3(2), 27–34.

Cummins, J. (1981). Empirical and theoretical underpinnings of bilingual education. Journal of Education, 163(1), 16–29.

Freeman, Y. S., & Freeman, D. E. (2006). Teaching reading and writing in Spanish and English in bilingual and dual language classrooms. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Freeman, Y. S., & Freeman, D. E. (2009). Effective reading instruction for English language learners. In Z. H. Han & N. J. Anderson (Eds.), Second language reading research and instruction: Crossing the boundaries (pp. 102–116). Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

Herrell, A. L., & Jordan, M. (2008). Fifty strategies for teaching English language learners. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Herrera, S. G., & Murry, K. G. (2005). Mastering ESL and bilingual methods: Differentiated instruction for culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Jiménez, R. T., García, G. E., & Pearson, P. D. (1996). The reading strategies of bilingual Latina/o students who are successful English readers: Opportunities and obstacles. Reading Research Quarterly, 31(1), 90–109.

Kendall, J., & Khuon, O. (2005). Making sense: Small-group comprehension lessons for English language learners. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Lems, K., Miller, L. D., & Soro, T. M. (2010). Teaching reading to English language learners: Insights from linguistics. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

McLaughlin, M., & Allen, M. B. (2002). Guided comprehension: A teaching model for grades 3–8. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Robb, L. (2000). Teaching reading in middle school: A strategic approach to teaching reading that improves comprehension and thinking. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Samway, K. D., & Taylor, D. (2008). Teaching English language learners: Strategies that work. New York, NY: Scholastic. United States Department of Education. (2010, May). The condition of education 2010. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2010/2010028.pdf

Vogt, M. E., & Echevarría, J. (2008). Ninety-nine ideas and activities for teaching English learners with the SIOP model. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Watkins, N. M., & Lindahl, K. M. (2010). Targeting content area literacy instruction to meet the needs of adolescent English language learners. Middle School Journal, 4(3), 23–33.

Nicole Bolos is a dual language teacher in Crystal Lake, IL and is a recent graduate of the Master of Education in Literacy program at Judson University. E-mail: nbolos@d47.org
Previously published in Middle School Journal, November 2012
Helping ELLs Master the Dreaded Word Problem

Helping ELLs Master the Dreaded Word Problem

Dean has a recipe for lemonade. To make 14 servings, Dean will need 4 cups of lemon juice. How many ounces of lemon juice will Dean need if he wants to make 35 servings?

Students in the United States are taught to complete the following steps when solving a word problem like this:


  1. Read the entire problem.
  2. Determine what the question is.
  3. Find the information needed to solve the problem.
  4. Determine what operation is necessary to answer the question.
  5. Solve the problem.
  6. Check to make sure the answer is reasonable.

The steps seem clear, but English language learners often struggle with steps one and two. This is particularly true when the problem revolves around non-metric measurements such as cups, quarts, or inches. Consequently, the remaining steps are lost in translation.

Working Together

English language learners are hard workers and strive to be successful, yet the language of mathematics often frustrates them. In the word problem above, an English language learner may understand that a cup is used to drink from, but may not understand a cup as a means of measurement.

Mathematics books in the students' native language are helpful, but the help is enhanced when English language learners are paired with more fluent English speakers who can translate and explain in the native language. With the help of a partner, the limited English speaker can discuss and understand the rationale behind the words and their meanings. They can solve problems together.

Recognizing Vocabulary

Neither ELL nor English-proficient students like word problems because they find them to be long and confusing with vocabulary that doesn't make sense. It is easy enough for ELL students to distinguish between add, plus, and minus, but when confronted with words like quotient and product, they are likely to have trouble.

A foldable is an interactive graphic organizer students can use to become more familiar with difficult math terms. Students fold a piece of paper such that the vocabulary word is written on the “tab” and is visible. The definition of the word is hidden beneath the tab. (See http://newsouthvoices.uncc.edu/files/nsv/institute/Foldables.pdf for sample foldables.)

By creating their own foldables, students can reinforce key topics in the math curriculum. Not only are students seeing a math word in context, they are also writing the words (which reinforces learning) and referring to them as a study aid.

Group Effort

Today's math class is not about simply solving a two-step equation; it's about reading for meaning, identifying a situation, finding the information for the problem, setting up the equation, and then solving the equation.

How many middle grades teachers does it take to help all our students learn and understand math? All of us!

Previously published in Middle Ground Magazine, October 2010

Diana Picchi Cwynar is a math teacher at Harris Road Middle School in Concord, North Carolina. E-mail: Diana.picchi@cabarrus.k12.nc.us

Susan Hewett, is a math teacher at J.N. Fries Middle School in Concord, North Carolina. E-mail: Susan.hewitt@cabarrus.k12.nc.us
Author: Diana Picchi Cwynar & Susan Hewett
Number of views (51975)/Comments (1)/

Emancipating the English Language Learner

As you cooraptoriliate these words, make sure you flimp the scoglottora in proper schimliturn. You will only understand this column if hickitow glisps in baggaduanation. Use your joomering and begin.


Look, everyone else reading this column has begun his or her work, why haven't you? Seriously, use your joomering and get started.

What exactly do you want me to do?

Hmm. Maybe you're not ready for the level of comprehension this magazine requires of its readers. We might have a remedial magazine for you, perhaps something from Highlights for Children?

No, I really want to know. I can do whatever you ask, but I don't know what it is. I'm actually a good reader and thinker, but I don't use your words or have experience with your culture. Do not think of me as unintelligent!

Maybe I could find something from the basic teacher texts for you if I only had the time. Just sit here a moment while I explain this information to the other readers and let them move ahead. I know this means you'll be further behind than you already are, but it's all I can offer right now.

Wow. Just a couple of moments of walking in an English language learner's shoes and a few things are abundantly clear:

  • Well-intentioned yet uninformed teachers can offend English language learners (ELLs) if they are not careful.
  • Some ELL students don't receive appropriate instruction for their intellectual level.
  • We feel a lot of anxiety when we don't know the language or culture of the country in which we are living—so much so that some of us stop trying. It takes a tremendous amount of energy and patience every day to remain attentive and engaged when you're learning a language, and some days ELL students are so emotionally drained they can't muster either one.

We need to be mindful of the emotions at play when asking students to do all this thinking aloud in a language and culture foreign to their own. Students are stressed not only about learning a new academic concept, but also about having to adjust to different cultural expectations in which they may not succeed.

Debra Coggins and her coauthors explain in English Language Learners in the Mathematics Classroom: "For students from cultures in which students are expected to wait to be asked before speaking, and where students are not expected to ask questions of elders, it is very important for the teacher to explicitly set the expectation for students to ask questions and express their opinions in the…classroom. Otherwise, classroom discourse becomes an exercise in trying to participate in a game where only others know the unwritten rules."

Simple Strategies

If we embrace the promise of America from its earliest roots, we realize that with the noted exception of native peoples, we are a nation of immigrants. What can those of us not trained in working with English language learners do in our regular classrooms to help them succeed?

Twenty minutes of empathetic reflection on the needs of ELL students yields some common sense responses that truly help them learn:

  1. Speak slowly and clearly.
  2. Repeat important words and information several times.
  3. Extend time for responding to prompts as necessary.
  4. Avoid using idioms and colloquialisms until students are more advanced with our culture; if we use them, we take the time to explain them.
  5. Gesture and point to what we are referring.
  6. Ask students to read text more than once.
  7. Label objects and concepts in the classroom frequently.
  8. Provide a lot of specific models, including hands-on experiences.
  9. Use visuals during instruction: pictures, illustrations, graphs, pictographs, as well as real objects.
  10. Frequently demonstrate what we mean, not just describe it.
  11. Make ELL students feel as though they belong and have a role to play in classroom learning. One way to do this is to find something in the student's background that connects to the topic we're studying.
  12. Use thinking aloud or self-talk to model the sequence of doing the task.
  13. Use cooperative learning groups; let ELL students work with English-proficient partners.
  14. Let students draw responses occasionally instead of writing them; use more than one format for assessing students if the general approach won't allow ELL students to accurately portray what they know.
  15. Find ways to enable ELL students to demonstrate their intellectual skills and maintain dignity.
  16. Give students quick feedback on their word use: An ELL says in halting English, "This correct paper?" and we say in affirmation, "Yes, that is the correct paper. Thank you."
  17. Spend time before lessons on important topics to build a personal background in English language learners so they have an equal chance to attach new learning to what's already in their minds. This is good for all students, not just ELLs, of course. If we're about to teach students about magnetic fields, for example, we can let them play with magnets, lightly pouring iron shavings near their poles to watch their pattern of dispersal or gathering.
  18. Stay focused on how ELL students are doing toward reaching their learning goals, not how they're doing in relation to other students. This is huge. We remove all hope when we ceaselessly cajole ELL students into proficiency by comparing them to language-proficient students.
  19. Recognize the difference between conversational language and academic language and that students need help with both; learning one does not mean you've learned the other.
  20. Take the time to learn about English language learners' home countries. This engenders good will and allows you to make connections in the curriculum.

In addition, in English Language Learners in the Mathematics Classroom, the authors remind us to

  • Invite ELL students to learn and explore ideas in their own languages first, then translate them to English
  • Provide ELL students with response stems, such as, "One thing that I learned was … ."
  • Ask students to restate classmates' comments as they begin their own comments
  • Relate concepts in story format before specific instruction.

Stephen Cary, author of Working with English Language Learners: Answers to Teachers' Top Ten Questions favors authentic talk over compliance talk. "Authentic talk" refers to real conversations about real topics to satisfy real needs, even when this includes the incorporation of local colloquialisms, phrasings, and terms. Consider the value of this dialogue:

  • Where can I buy soccer cleats? Mine are too old. I can't turn fast in them. I'm the sweep this weekend.
  • Wow, I hate playing sweep. I'm a mid-fielder.
  • I can't play mid-field very well. It's too tiring. You have to be everywhere.
  • Yeah, but you can get the other team off sides.
  • Sometimes, but I don't think about that a lot. So, the cleats?
  • Oh yeah. Over at Fair Oaks Mall, there's a sports store near the soft pretzel shop.

Students need plenty of experiences with real conversations.

Something Else to Consider

Some people—educators included—equate low language proficiency with diminished mental function. Because teachers are so accustomed to using verbal and written responses as students' manifestation of internal thought, they think ELL students are not capable of abstract or sophisticated thinking because their words are not abstract or sophisticated. As a result, they don't ask ELL students to make comparisons, analyze data, connect ideas, synthesize concepts, or evaluate performances. By not pushing their ELL students this way, teachers allow these students to fall further behind.

Add to this the reality that our society tends to be insensitive to those who do not speak our language well or who do not have our same cultural references.

Many English language learners who are employed in service positions such as custodian, stock clerk, construction worker, and housekeeper have extraordinary depth, complexity, and rich educational backgrounds but are doing these jobs because their lack of language skills prevents them from working in other positions.

One year, I taught a student whose family escaped from brutality in former Romania. The student's parents had been math professors at prestigious universities in Romania. Here in the United States, however, the student's father was cleaning offices in the building next to my school and the mother was teaching English at the local library.

Even ELL students who are not from such academically advanced families think in wonderfully imaginative ways, often beyond what can be expressed in English.

To not include metaphors and analogies in ELL students' learning experiences due to language struggles is like assuming they don't know how to feed themselves because they don't eat the same food we do. It's pompous, and it denies ELL students their basic instruction. We can't save advanced thinking only for advanced language proficiency students.

Freeing Learners to Learn

Nearing the end of our first full decade in the 21st century, it is no longer acceptable to consider ELL students as someone else's problem or beyond our instruction. They are just as much a part of the modern teacher's daily commitment as taking attendance and making sure students have their supplies.

We have effective tools for the regular education teacher to help ELL students find every success in our schools. It's time to free them from what lack of language proficiency would impose.

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, April 2009

Author: Rick Wormeli
Number of views (43501)/Comments (0)/

Topic Matter Experts

Bring professional learning to your school. More info...