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).
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.
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.
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.
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. email@example.com
Kelly M. Costner is an associate professor in the Richard W. Riley College of Education at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. firstname.lastname@example.org
Previously published in AMLE Magazine, November 2013.
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
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.
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.
Jeanneine P. Jones is a professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary, and K–12 Education at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Theresa Perez is Professor Emeritus of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. E-mail: email@example.com
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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: email@example.com
Published in Middle School Journal, September 2013.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recent data indicate that many adolescent English language learners (ELLs) comprehend English texts at only a limited literal level. The purpose of this research synthesis was to systematically identify and describe the research related to the English reading comprehension of middle grades ELLs while also making practical connections to instruction. Parameters were established to determine whether the collected research studies met the purpose of the synthesis and the standards for quality research, using the guiding principles for scientific research set forth in the National Research Council's Scientific Research in Education. Three themes emerged across the 11 identified studies: (a) the essential role of vocabulary knowledge in ELLs' English reading comprehension, (b) the role of first language and transfer in ELLs' reading comprehension, and (c) the role of effective instruction in enhancing ELLs' English reading comprehension. In this paper, we discuss the findings and their implications for classroom instruction and note substantive and methodological concerns that should be addressed in future research.
Published in Research in Middle Level Education Online, 2012
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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
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:
Lems, K., Miller, L. D., & Soro, T. M. (2010). Teaching reading to
English language learners: Insights from linguistics. New York, NY:
McLaughlin, M., & Allen, M. B. (2002). Guided comprehension: A
teaching model for grades 3–8. Newark, DE: International Reading
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
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: email@example.com
Previously published in
Middle School Journal, November 2012
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:
- Read the entire problem.
- Determine what the question is.
- Find the information needed to solve the problem.
- Determine what operation is necessary to answer the question.
- Solve the problem.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.firstname.lastname@example.org
Susan Hewett, is a math teacher at J.N. Fries Middle School in Concord, North Carolina. E-mail: Susan.email@example.com
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."
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:
- Speak slowly and clearly.
- Repeat important words and information several times.
- Extend time for responding to prompts as necessary.
- Avoid using idioms and colloquialisms until students are more advanced with our culture; if we use them, we take the time to explain them.
- Gesture and point to what we are referring.
- Ask students to read text more than once.
- Label objects and concepts in the classroom frequently.
- Provide a lot of specific models, including hands-on experiences.
- Use visuals during instruction: pictures, illustrations, graphs, pictographs, as well as real objects.
- Frequently demonstrate what we mean, not just describe it.
- 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.
- Use thinking aloud or self-talk to model the sequence of doing the task.
- Use cooperative learning groups; let ELL students work with English-proficient partners.
- 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.
- Find ways to enable ELL students to demonstrate their intellectual skills and maintain dignity.
- 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."
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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