Monitoring Language

Teaching in an urban educational setting has many challenges. Of course, there are challenges associated with trauma and with poverty and other social problems.

One of the greatest challenges, in my opinion, is to work with students whose primary language is not English. In my current classroom, the ratio of native English speakers to English Language Learners, or ELLs is about 1:3. Just to be clear, 17 of the 23 students are acquiring English and learning in English simultaneously.

I have a lot of admiration for my ELLs.  First of all, I attempted to learn a foreign (to me) language – and not just as a whim in high school.  After about 30 minutes of the teacher speaking to our group in the new language, in my case Italian, I thought my brain was going to burst. Hanging on to my minimal grasp of Italian and understanding about 10 percent of what was being said is exhausting! By the end of a three-hour class, I could have curled up into the fetal position and never come out.

In a classroom with such a large percentage of ELLs, we accommodate English and English acquisition all of the time. We work with realia, we check in and monitor when vocabulary is incomprehensible, we shelter our students’ learning as they acquire the language in which they are expected to work and perform.

One of the most important things I think I do for my students is insist on speaking. If that seems like a “duh” moment, realize that when managing 23 personalities in group discussion and activity how easy it is to accept a head shake or pointing or some other gesture in place of using words.

I – and we – accept gestures in communication all of the time. The importance of using verbal communication is in learning the constructs of English and in increasing the vocabulary word bank of my ELLs.

Even after so many years in this teaching environment, I catch myself accepting nonverbal communication from my students. It is an easy habit to slip back into – for both of us! But it is one habit that we constantly monitor because the success of my students who are acquiring English as they work in English depend upon it.

A (Non)-Writer Discovers Notebooks

A while ago, our Literacy Coach began talking to us about revisiting notebooks as a means to developing writers and authors.  I’m possibly the last person in education to discover Aimee Buckner and Notebook Know-How, but I am so glad I have made that connection.

Not being a writer myself or at least not a disciplined one, I found notebooks and their use just one more thing to do with kids. Our school-wide writing calendars, focused on responses and one new genre of writing every two months was quite time-consuming. I couldn’t imagine when we would fit in using notebooks.

And then I read this

— we shouldn’t write for significance, but rather that we should write as a habit. Sometimes we’ll write something significant and sometimes we won’t. It’s the act of writing — the practice of generating text and building fluency–that leads writers to significance.

Wow! Did those words speak to me! What I had been doing “wrong” all this time, both as a non-writer and a teacher of writing, was expecting each morsel to be significant. The notebook is a place to practice, to try out, to experiment. Not only in writing, but in any endeavor, a learner needs a safe place to practice without worry as to the significance of the outcome.

This is a discovery that I can relate to. As an amateur photographer, I’ve been reticent to take my camera with me because I would not have anything worthwhile to show for it.

My students are starting to use notebooks now. And while they are not yet a habit, we are learning together to find a safe place to experiment with some of the strategies that professional writers and authors use.

We are learning to be learners through our experimentation.

It’s the Vocabulary, Part 2

I marvel at the quickness with which second language learners pick up on the structure of English. Most of my kids give new constructs a try without too much fear of seeming like they don’t know what they’re doing.  As an aside — and as an Italian/French language” studier”, I wish I could be more like them. Maybe then I would actually start to learn another language.

Putting the constructs aside, however, the great big deterrent for kids is vocabulary and idiomatic expressions. Even in children’s literature. Case in point, this month’s Response to Literature was based on the story “City Green” by Dyanne DiSalvo-Ryan. One of the major characters, Old Man Hammer,  transforms throughout the course of the story and we ask the students to respond to how that character changed.

Problem number 1: the character’s name. Most of my kids were familiar with the term “Hammer” but had absolutely no idea that Hammer could be someone’s last name. And why would they? Once we finally got past the fact that a hammer could be a tool and someone’s name, we had to deal with the expression “hard as nails”. Wait a minute! Nails are things you glue on to your fingers, right? Or something you hammer to hang up a picture? What does being as hard as a nail have to do with some old guy?

Here’s just one place where students with another language background struggle. Now layer on a high-stakes reading test which uses grade level texts similar to “City Green”. And take away the vocabulary and language support provided by the teacher. Seems to me that the playing field is already seriously unlevelled. My students will have to jump over the hurdle of vocabulary before they can even show that they can respond to a text with the same level of finesse that their native English-speaking counterparts do.

I’m thinking of this as I prepared another grade level mentor text that I want to use to revisit inferencing this coming week.  The book’s title alone, “Tight Times” will probably cause some confusion. The vocabulary support, the explanations of idiomatics will be there so that we can focus on inferencing a plot with which most of these students will have copious familiarity: losing jobs and living frugally.

The students will be able to access the comprehension skill, they will be able to apply it to another similar text (“Gettin’ Through Thursday”). And we will troubleshoot the vocabulary and idiomatic expressions to assist them. Test scores don’t tell the whole story, particularly when so much vocabulary presents such a significant impediment.

It’s the vocabulary, stupid

Well, not just the vocabulary, but for my urban kids, that surely is a major factor.  This week, our writing focus – visualizing a text – was driven by a poem written by Carmen Lagos Signes:

Pumpkins in the cornfields,

Gold among the brown,

Leaves of rust and scarlet,

Trembling slowly down;

Birds that travel southward,

Lovely time to play;

Nothing is as pleasant

As an Autumn Day!

Such a seemingly bucolic text loaded with typical fall scenery. So what vocabulary did my third graders find to be a challenge? Scarlet, rust (multiple meanings get them every single time!), pleasant, Autumn and…. cornfield.  Without explicit instruction – defining, finding synonyms, antonyms, using the words in sentences – visualizing this text would have turned into a meaningless regurgitation of the author’s words.

A simple text, one with which my students would have some familiarity and experience, and the task of writing what the mind saw during the reading, so impacted by challenging vocabulary, challenging especially for second language learners. I am humbled.

What would be fair?

This week I was asked at a Team Meeting what I thought about particular student’s participation in MCAS (this student has serious health issues which limit school participation). Was there an alternate way to assess this student that would enable us to know what had been achieved?

And that got me thinking about what I really feel about MCAS, this 4-day brain drain.

I get that standardized testing and MCAS is a part of teaching now. I get that teachers need to be help accountable for teaching the state (and now federal) standards. Honestly, watching my student navigate the Mathematics tests this past week made me realize that there are some weaknesses in the curriculum that was delivered. My teaching will be informed by my students’ performance on the test — a test which, by the way, I thought was reasonable.

What I don’t understand is how one high-stakes test can serve as the ultimate measure of my students’ achievement, particularly when more than half of my students are English Language Learners. Six and a quarter hours of correctly spoken and written English each day can only go so far – the vocabulary that English speakers take for granted is daunting for many of my students.

And before anyone’s shorts are tied in a knot about second languages, let me say that I wish those who disparage people whose first language is not English tried to take that test in another language that they were in the process of learning. My experience in learning a second language, a Romance and therefore related language, was and is one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever encountered. I think if you attempted an important reading/writing task in a second language, you too might be hanging onto new vocabulary by the tips of your fingernails. I’m not advocating for abandoning the goal of performing in English — that is the language of business in this country and therefore, the way to economic success — I’m just saying cut these English speaking/writing “toddlers” a little slack on the high stakes tests.

What would be fair? Well for one thing, look at my students’ growth over the year. We have data for that – Fountas Pinnell Benchmarks, SRI Reading tests, Writing Portfolios, and district-wide Math assessments. Consider these as well as the MCAS when commenting on my students’ achievement. Look at the Massachusetts Growth data — are we making progress? Is it just at a slower rate than the students in more affluent, parent-involved suburbs?

We need to look at a more complete picture of our students before pointing fingers of blame at educators. Nothing in education is black and white – we aren’t producing widgets on an assembly line. To know what students know and don’t know, we need to dig deeply. Standardized state testing should be just one item to consider.

Is Letter Writing A Lost Art?

Yesterday’s poll on Reading Rockets asks the question “Is letter writing (formal and informal) included in your writing curriculum?” While most respondents said yes, 20% said no. Some comments went on to say that letter writing is important, but in our society today, very few people actually write letters any longer.

Our Third Grade Writing Calendar focus in December is letter writing. In my classroom, we refocus and clarify some misunderstandings the students have developed as we write letters all the time.  The students are required to write a Reading Response Letter to me at least once a week, we have penpals in another state, and we write thank you notes as needed.  My own thinking is that functional writing such as Letter Writing is and needs to be…. well, functional. We learn as we use. Yesterday, I demonstrated a few tricks for lining up heading, closing and signature (a partial “pinch” in the half rolled page) and used the vocabulary of letter writing more purposefully, but really, we’ve been learning by doing since September. Don’t take my word for it though, here’s more from Reading Rockets Blog.

Granted, my most common form of personal communication today is either email or IM/Texting. So why teach letter writing? Well, I for one enjoy the feel of a letter in my hand — one that comes in the mail with a postmark from some known or unknown locale. I enjoy reading and rereading letters when I receive them; it makes me want to respond and keep the conversations going. I’ve noticed this same reaction from my students when we correspond to one another through Reading Response letters. Children always flip through their Reading Notebooks to find what I wrote back — and inevitably, I’ll get that child’s new response back in my In Box before the end of the day. None of us wants to break the chain.

So for me, letter writing is not lost, just somewhat unappreciated in our lightening speed world. There’s a place for electronic communications and even if I had the choice, I wouldn’t be able to live without it. But there is also a place for a thoughtful, well-written letter. I don’t plan to join that 20% not teaching letter writing any time soon.

It’s the vocabulary, stupid!

It never ceases to amaze me.

I’ll be reading a story and out of the blue will come a question that knocks me back a step or two. “Why did the Pilgrims come from Hollywood, Mrs. Bisson?”  Now you and I know the Pilgrims never set foot in Hollywood — that word that was lost in translation was Holland.

The importance of common academic vocabulary, and sometimes just basic social vocabulary, is a challenge for urban education.  It is easy to slip into complacency once English Language Learning students are able to verbalize responses on the most basic of levels. They are nodding their heads — wouldn’t you if you didn’t want to be called on — and, with one or two word responses able to keep up the appearance of knowing more language than they actually do.

However, insisting on the use of nouns in place of demonstrative pronouns and the shortfalls in vocabulary become glaringly apparent.  “This hurts”, “What hurts?”, “This…” “What is that?” “This” (more insistently).

Our Coordinator of Reading, Dr. Phyllis Schlicter, recently shared some statistics with us in a vocabulary and semantics workshop.  Students from different linguistic backgrounds, present challenges but so do Native-speaking children from  backgrounds of little exposure to vocabulary. At the Kindergarten level, a vocabulary gap can easily be in the thousands of words.

This citation from , by Scott K. Baker, Deborah C. Simmons, and Edward J. Kameenui of the University of Oregon, points to the urgency of teaching vocabulary to our students:

The enduring effects of the vocabulary limitations of students with diverse learning needs is becoming increasingly apparent. Nothing less that learning itself depends on language. Certainly, as Adams (1990) suggests, most of our formal education is acquired through language. Learning something new does not occur in a vacuum. Rather, new learning always builds on what the learner already knows. Adams suggests that new learning is the process of forming novel combinations of familiar concepts. Learning, as a language-based activity, is fundamentally and profoundly dependent on vocabulary knowledge. Learners must have access to the meaning of words teachers, or their surrogates (e.g., other adults, books, films, etc.), use to guide them into contemplating known concepts in novel ways (i.e., to learn something new). With inadequate vocabulary knowledge, learners are being asked to develop novel combinations of known concepts with insufficient tools.

The implications to my students is profound.