E is for English Language Learners

Yare

For most of my career, I have taught in independent schools. At my previous school, being an independent school teacher meant that I didn’t have English language learners in my classroom. In the eight years I taught at my previous school, I had one student who was learning English when she entered my classroom. Unfortunately for her, we were in the midst of studying Romeo and Juliet. She spent hours and and hours every day learning English and used an electronic translator in class (I didn’t mind). By the time she graduated, she spoke and wrote well and was inducted in the National Honor Society. We are still in touch.

I know learning English was hard for her, but she was dedicated, and she had been admitted to the school with the condition that the school not be responsible for helping her learn English—she needed to gain proficiency and perform at the level of the other students. It was harsh. I didn’t agree with it, and I was inclined to help her along as much as I could as well as evaluate her writing with the thought in mind that she was still learning the language. And let’s face it—English is a tough language to learn.

My current school has many international boarding students from all over the world. We have English classes for English language learners. These classes help students learn conversational and written English and include high-interest/low-level reading that is accessible and engaging. These students typically do well and move into regular English classes within a year or two.

I have noticed several things about teaching international students: 1) they typically work very hard to achieve the same results as their native-speaking peers; 2) they are often quiet in class discussion, leading to the familiar refrain on progress reports—”Student X needs to participate more in class discussion”; 3) they have difficulty with verbs, agreement, and prepositions; 4) they sometimes struggle with directions.

I am not sure there is anything you can do about the first issue. There is no way around the fact that learning in a second (or third, and so on) language is more difficult. However, there are some things you can do that will make it easier.

One tip I learned from the ELL teachers at my school is to give an ELL student a question I want them to answer in class the next day at the end of a class period. It gives them time to process and think so that they can participate. Often, these students have much to say, but they are translating and thinking, and by the time they want to contribute, we have moved on to the next topic. Another way to give ELL students time to think is to engage the whole class in a Socratic seminar and give all students the questions in advance. The international students still have trouble jumping into these discussions at times, but they are prepared with written comments and often do better in these kinds of discussions than in typical class discussions, when they don’t know the questions in advance. Another great way to engage these students in discussion is to leverage technology. If your school has a learning management system or online course with discussion forums, you can ask them questions online, and allow them to respond online, which gives them time to process and think about a response to the question.

Language issues in writing are often best dealt with on and individual basis. You can point students in the direction of resources. If a learning management system allows you to individually assign practice assignments, you can try that as well, but one of the best tools for working on writing issues of any stripe is writing workshop. The more students are exposed to models of writing and work through drafts, they better they will write.

Struggling with directions is a problem certainly not limited to English language learners, but I have noticed they sometimes are not sure what they are being asked to do. You can help by making directions as explicit as possible (clear, no ambiguous language, direct vocabulary). It also helps to hear directions aloud and see them in print. It helps to allow students to ask questions. English language learners sometimes hesitate to ask questions either because of cultural reasons or because they don’t want to look like they don’t understand. Some cultures believe it is insulting to ask teachers questions because it insinuates the teacher didn’t explain well enough. Students from these cultures should be encouraged not to look at asking questions in this way, but it can still be difficult for them to overcome. They sometimes feel more comfortable asking questions in private, so making time to meet with students (office hours, help sessions, email) can go a long way toward helping students feel more comfortable asking questions.

I don’t have all the answers, especially given my limited experience with English language learners in my classroom. What tips would you add? What issues do you see arise?

Related posts:

Image Grammar

I have been on the lookout for books, websites, and other materials to help me teach grammar. If you have some good ideas for resources, please leave them in the comments.

A couple of things I have been trying with my students seem to be working fairly well. I used the Sentence Opening Strategy activity shared by Carol Sanders on the EC Ning to teach sentence variety. My students were fairly reflective about their writing in this activity. I also pulled out my copy of Spelling and Grammar: The Daily Spark, along with Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Devotional and have been posting grammar and writing puzzles on the SMARTBoard as a sort of journaling/opening activity while I take attendance and do other housekeeping. The students really like the grammar puzzles, and I found it sort of flexes their brains for writing.

Still, teaching grammar, and what I mean by that is correctness and variety (because everyone seems to disagree about what grammar is), is just hard. I want my students to be more fluent and fluid writers, and I want them to communicate clearly. Based on this goal, it would seem Harry Noden’s Image Grammar is an excellent choice.

I’ve read one chapter, and I like the way Noden organizes different writing techniques, such as using participles, as “brush strokes.” The accompanying CD has some good material, but in my opinion, the CD should probably be updated. The material on the CD is organized into HTML files, and they look a little archaic (think Geocities or Angelfire), but the material is solid. Noden also references a website that is no longer working—ah the joys of the Internet—as a source of images for writing prompts, but the Web does not lack examples of image sites that can be used to spark writing.

What I like best about the book so far is that Noden shows how to teach grammatical structures in a way that students will see their relevance to their own writing. I have had students who knew a great deal about grammatical structures out of context but could not apply these structures to make their own writing better. I have had students tell me that I taught them how to write well, but it’s an area in which I would like to improve.

Related posts:

Unclear Pronoun Reference

I spent today at Barnes and Noble grading student essays, and by far the most common usage issue I noticed was unclear pronoun reference. I plan to do a minilesson on unclear pronoun reference when I hand back the papers. If your students have the same issue, you might find this lesson helpful.

First, students tend to have trouble with indefinite pronouns. If they use “someone” or “everybody,” they will often replace these indefinite pronouns with “their” later in the sentence. For example, “Someone forgot their pencil.” In spoken usage, it sounds OK to us because we use “their” to replace antecedents with an unknown gender. The person who left his/her pencil might be male or female, so to avoid saying the incorrect gender, we often say the incorrect number. Unfortunately, English has no gender-neutral pronoun we can use in these situations. We should say “Someone forgot his or her pencil,” even though it sounds formal, clunky, and awkward. I always suggest to students that they figure out a way to make the antecedent plural. It might not work in my previous example, but “Everyone forgot his or her lunch today” could easily become “All of them forgot their lunch today.”

Another more common issue in my set of papers was the unclear use of “this,” “that,” “these” and “those” to refer to an antecedent in a previous clause or sentence. Here’s an example: “Today girls are using abortions as a form of contraception, and this has become a lot more common.” Does the word this refer to abortions, contraception, or the use of abortions as contraception? It’s unclear. This sentence could be revised” “Today girls are more commonly using abortions as a form of contraception.” Of course, that’s provided the writer meant the third possible meaning of this. I’m sure the sentence could be tweaked even more to be even better, but at least in the correction, no unclear pronoun reference clouds the reader’s understanding. I tell students to avoid using words like “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those” alone instead of near a noun. “This problem” or “that character” are more specific that simply “this” or “that,” and I have found that students are often trying to use these words when unclear pronoun reference troubles arise. Students simply put the demonstrative pronouns too far away from the antecedents those words are replacing.

I can demonstrate correcting this usage problem using the example above in about five minutes, and it might help some of my students avoid unclear pronoun reference issues. Feel free to use and adapt this lesson as you see fit.

Related posts:

And the Winner Is…

Thank you all for your patience with my Back to School contest. I am pleased to announce that the winning entrant is…

Candace!

Candace submitted a lesson unit on Macbeth. You can read her blog Mrs. Follis’s Teacher Page for more.

Congratulations Candace, and thank you to all of you who submitted ideas. Candace has won a 1-GB flash drive with Word and PDF copies of handouts I have created and used in my own classes. If you would like to purchase one of these flash drives, they are available for $40, including shipping and the price of the flash drive itself. Note: the 1-GB flash drives are no longer available in my area, and I am now selling 2-GB drives.





Related posts:

The Deadline Approaches!

If you want to enter the lesson plan contest, you have until midnight tonight. Over the next few days, I will read the entries and notify the winner via e-mail and announce the winner here. A reminder of what you get if you win: a flash drive packed with handouts in MS Word and PDF format that I have used in my classes, including quizzes!

What do you have to do? Submit a lesson plan for grades 9-12 English/language arts in comments of the original post.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me today. Quick! You’re running out of time!

Related posts:

Back to School Contest

For the first time ever, I am having a contest. It is my hope to help one of the English teachers who reads this blog get a bit of a jump start on the school year.

What do you have to do? Share a lesson plan in the comments.

Rules:

  • Your lesson must be appropriate for grades 9-12 English or easily adaptable for that level.
  • Lesson ideas must be your own original ideas rather than ideas published elsewhere on the Web or in print UNLESS you have sufficiently remixed the idea so that is substantially different from the source material.
  • If you have a handout that’s important, you should upload it to an online filesharing host such as Slideshare, Drop.io, or Scribd, or you can upload it to your own website if you have one. You must share the link to the handout in your comment.
  • You can enter only once.
  • You must be willing to share your lesson with all my readers; therefore, access to any additional resources should not be password-protected and must be accessible at the time of judging.
  • The contest will run until August 10 midnight Eastern Daylight Time.
  • Lessons can be grammar, writing, or literature or combine all three. Lessons can incorporate technology. If Web 2.0 tools are needed, please link to them.
  • You must use a valid e-mail address when you post. It will not appear on this site.

Award:

I will select one winner from the entrants who will receive a flash drive with a ton of my personal handouts for the various English courses I teach including quizzes, assignment instructions, writing assignments, questions, and more. I will notify the winner via e-mail and update this post after the winner has been notified.

Your comment may go into moderation if it has several links or if you’ve not commented here before. Please be patient as I post it. Feel free to contact me with questions.

Good luck everyone!

“It’s a Major Award!” image credit: Cyndie@smilebig!

Related posts:

Editing Checklist

Let’s create an editing checklist. I think it’s helpful for students to have a guide for editing or peer editing. Suggest your idea for something that students should check for in the comments, and I will create the document and make it available here for free.

Here’s my contribution:

Mark every instance of the words “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those.” Make sure these words are being used as adjectives rather than pronouns. If they’re being used as pronouns, consider adding a noun, revising the sentence, or combining sentences to avoid vague pronouns.

I ran into that particular issue quite a few times while reading essays today.

I will be cross-posting this request at the EC Ning.

Related posts:

Grammar Girl

Grammar GirlLast night I met up with Megan to see Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, at the Decatur Library in an event sponsored by the Georgia Center for the Book.  Unfortunately, by the time I arrived, there were no more books left, so I was unable to get a signed copy of her new book, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.  The auditorium was packed, which prompted the question (several times) “Who knew grammar was so popular?”

If you are an English teacher and haven’t discovered Grammar Girl, you need to go check out her site and listen to some of her podcasts.  She responds to questions submitted by her listeners, and she discusses one grammatical issue per episode.  You can easily incorporate the podcast into your class — it’s usually only about five minutes long.  Fogarty announced that she will now be doing the podcast twice a week rather than once, so you can even make it a part of your class as an opening activity for two days a week.

One thing I thought was interesting was that during the Q&A, a language arts teacher started to ask a question, but someone behind her in the audience exclaimed when she made a grammatical error in her speech — using a reflexive pronoun in the subjective case.  She didn’t realize her error at first, and when she did, she was noticeably embarrassed and, I think, justifiably angry.  We all make grammatical errors when we speak.  If we had to stop and think as hard about correctness when we speak as much as we do when we write, we would never talk.  I think pointing out people’s grammar errors when they speak is just plain rude.  The woman didn’t ask her question, and there was this wave of discomfort that passed through the room.  That kind of thing is why people don’t like English teachers, for I can almost guarantee it was an English teacher who did it.  I am not saying we shouldn’t teach students to write using correct grammar, but if we make them feel scared to even open their mouths in our classrooms, how much are they going to learn from us?

Anyway, I really enjoyed Grammar Girl’s talk, but I really wish the Georgia Center for the Book had anticipated the crowd.  It really stank that they ran out of books.  For the curious — Megan let me thumb through her book, and it is basically transcripts of her podcasts.  By the way, I disagree with Grammar Girl regarding the possessive of a singular noun ending in s.  Grammar Girl likes the AP Style Guide’s recommendation that singular nouns ending s simply have an apostrophe: Kansas’ statute.  I don’t understand why the s changes the rule, and I agree with Strunk and White that it should be Kansas’s statute.  A fun activity for your students to explore regarding this issue can be found among my unit plans at the UbD Educators wiki: write a letter to Rep. Harrelson of Arkansas, who lobbied to have the official possessive of the state of Arkansas rendered Arkansas’s and tell him whether or not you think he was correct (giving him evidence based on consulting several grammar texts).

Related posts:

New Handouts

I began the process of adding more handouts and other content to this site. I removed some handouts I didn’t really think would be useful.

It made me wonder about content in general. What would be helpful? If I have it, I can put it up. I have some great research paper stuff that I need to scan, but I could put it up, too. Also, I have other handouts at school. Right now, most of my handouts are either writing or American literature, but I did add one handout for British literature. More should come as I gain more experience with the subject. I taught one section of it last year for a semester, but will teach two sections all year this coming year.

I’m not taking requests, mind. If I don’t already have it or don’t have a use for it myself, I don’t see the point in creating it, especially not for free. However, if I have it made up, and it’s just a matter of uploading it or even if I don’t have it but think I can use it myself, I can upload it.

Here’s a Power Point on the twenty most common writing errors:

Update: I know that the 20th slide isn’t rendering properly, but I can’t fix it because it’s SlideShare’s problem. If you download the file, it should be correct because the transcript is correct; however, if it’s not, you can easily change it.

Related posts:

Week in Reflection, April 28-May 2

Our Spring Break was last week, so I didn’t post a reflection.  As this was the week of our return to school, and we have also entered that final stretch of the year, I’m not sure either I or the students were as plugged in as usual.

My seniors basically have two weeks left because our school allows them to finish early.  Next week and the week after, they will be working on a final paper for me.  This week, we finished watching A Streetcar Named Desire, and I was struck again by Brando’s performance.  You probably know this bit of trivia, but Brando was the sole member of the core cast not to receive an Academy Award, though he was nominated.  Vivian Leigh won Best Actress for her portrayal of Blanche; Kim Hunter won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Stella; and Karl Malden won Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Mitch.  The Best Actor award that year, however, went to Humphrey Bogart for his performance in The African Queen.

My ninth grade students are working through grammar.  One class finished up phrases and started on clauses.  The other class learned about active and passive voice and began discussion of Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye.

The tenth grade writing class I teach presented Power Point presentations.  So often our kids add animations, busy backgrounds, and too much text, then read the text rather than use it as a guide for the audience.  Despite my instructing students on the perils of Death by Power Point, a few of their presentations included some of the problems I’ve mentioned, and I am frustrated that I somehow was not able to communicate how to avoid these issues to my students.  Also, I am frustrated by the fact that in order to be successful, they had to unlearn bad Power Point habits, which may explain why all of them weren’t successful.  We need to teach kids how to use Power Point correctly from the start.  I think too many teachers are a little too impressed by all the bells and whistles and actually reward students for making cluttered, busy, and ultimately unreadable presentations because they themselves don’t know how to do some of the things the students do, thus the teachers assume it’s hard and took a lot of time and effort.  Let’s face it, our students have become accustomed to being rewarded for style over substance.

The last two days of the week, my writing class began a unit on SAT preparation and practice.  I have evaluated SAT essays in the past, and as I haven’t done so for quite some time, I suppose it’s safe to disclose this fact.  Students generally find this unit to be very helpful.  I have been using Sadlier-Oxford’s helpful Grammar and Writing for Standardized Tests as a guide; I highly recommend this book, as it focuses on the SAT’s writing section (error correction, sentence and paragraph correction, and essay).

Related posts: