As with many things in life, small changes in how we operate can make enormous impacts on the outcomes we seek. This truth extends itself to our effectiveness as bilingual and ESL educators, especially when it comes to reading and writing. The strategies I am proposing do not require any seismic shift in our school curriculum or standards, although foundational changes are surely warranted. These approaches can be embedded within whichever instructional strategies you feel most comfortable and confident using. As you experiment with these approaches, you will learn how to best tweak them to meet the needs of your students; remember that you are the instructional leader and decision-maker in your classroom.
The first approach I highly recommend for all grade levels is interactive choral reading. This approach emphasizes the power of group reading, rhythmic repetition, and fluency. Our English Learners, as well as many non-EL students, suffer from reading anxiety just at the sight of lines of sentences and paragraphs. This is how we find our students who do not make it past the directions and completely disengage from our lessons. This approach does not mean students quietly listen to the teacher read a text then repeat, as simply mimicking a teacher’s sounds does not engage students in critical thinking or activate their reading skills. This approach requires simultaneous group reading, with the teacher’s voice guiding and supporting as needed. With lower level readers and with more challenging texts, I usually take the leading role. I amplify my voice, slow the pace, and emphasize clear pronunciation down to the syllable. I also constantly cross-check with my students asking them to point to, pronounce and repeat words as needed.
The structure of your shared interactive read should be planned according to your students’ reading and language levels. With students who are beginning readers and have yet to develop one-to-one correspondence, you should provide them with a large visual projection of the text that they can easily see and interact with. I seat my youngest students on the carpet and project a book around their instructional level from Reading A to Z, an online resource I highly recommend. Be sure to point to each word as students read with you. You can underline and annotate to support students with comprehension skills. With time and practice, students will begin to rely less on the teacher voice and more on their own reading skills.
Be sure to engage your students by finding books that include familiar words as well more challenging new words. Students respond well to some healthy competition, such as group points for the most enthusiastic readers. I like to ask my students to read according to preferences, for example, I may ask all my students who like cats better than dogs to read aloud with me, then switch. This allows them to see and hear other students working the challenges and successes of reading. With older or more advanced students, I usually give each student a copy of the text while projecting it. As with the younger students, scaffold your reading support as needed.
If you’re looking to engage your students in word-solving with academic vocabulary or reviewed sight words, omit those words from your reading and allow them to yell out the word. For example, “our five ______ help us perceive the world.” Students would read the word “senses” independently when the teacher mutes themselves. If you notice that your EL students struggle with meaning, simply ask them to box challenging words you’ve pre-identified. Prompt them to make small drawings on the margins of the page to represent each challenge word with arrows connecting the word to its pictorial representation. You can also ask students to write their own definition of the word in the margins. Be sure to model your own annotations and drawings, and insist that students do not just copy your ideas. Have them share their annotations and drawings with each other. Lastly regarding this approach, keep in mind that it should be all encompassing; when reading directions for math or science activities, in social studies lessons, during art projects, all students should be reading together as much as possible. The power of your students’ voices together can be transformative for your classroom.
The next strategy I want to share is interactive writing. I learned this strategy from one of my Master’s courses at Dominican University. The gist of this strategy is that the teacher gradually writes out a sentence or series of sentences while students interact with what the teacher is writing in real time. For the most part, students should be able to call out and respond to the teacher’s questions about the sentence being written out. This strategy also calls for repeated shared readings of words, phrases, and sentences.
With this strategy, the teacher is to present the class with sight words, or with vocabulary words connected to a text or theme. I either write the words along the top of my whiteboard or onto post-it notes. As a whole group, the class practices reading theses words repeatedly. You can drill the words until individual students can read them aloud; you can also ask students to touch words as the class reads them. Now the teacher continues the activity by simply writing a single letter on the board. The teacher asks students to say the letter sound and name, and asks students if the letter is capitalized or lowercase. You can engage individual students by asking if the letter can the the start to different words. For example, if the letter is “M”, the teacher can ask “Can this word be ‘my’?” or “can this word be ‘should’?” Ask the students to justify their responses; by doing this you are engaging their phonemic awareness skills, as well as reinforcing foundational skills in reading and writing. Continue writing the sentence letter by letter, asking students for their guesses based on what is already written. This activity becomes more engaging as students make funny or creative suggestions for words the teacher is writing. Always be sure to encourage guessing, recognize when a student makes a valid suggestion, and correct when a student makes a suggestion that doesn’t match what is already written. When the sentence is complete, read it several times with your kids. You can also ask for volunteers to read it aloud. The key to this strategy is planning meaningful and engaging sentences that your kids will want to work through. This means connecting sentences to familiar texts or themes, using your students’ names, and using humor. Be creative, and your kids will respond with creativity of their own.
Lastly, I suggest a very simple approach to supporting writing with your EL students. I have found that EL students respond best to visual representations of concepts and ideas tiered with scaffolded language supports that aid them in expressing their own ideas. Many of the standardized exams, even for younger students, present kids with large paragraphs and little to no visual supports. It then asks kids to respond to questions with no pictures, reference the text, and respond only in written format. For a student still learning the language, the task is daunting, unengaging and anxiety inducing. Instead, we can support writing by first encouraging drawing. We need to rely less on abstract representations of ideas, and instead make them concrete. Students need to be able to see and interact with concepts in real time as they respond to them.
A good way to practice this is by using picture prompt journaling. I usually present my class with an interesting, funny, or unusual image I’ve found. The image you choose can be connected to concepts your kids are learning about. Do not give any background about the picture, allow them to process it on their own. Ask students to silently examine the image by themselves, then ask them to share with peers. Prompt them by repeating “tell your buddy what you see, what you don’t see, how many, what colors, where, when, why, how this is happening.” Then prompt your students to share a number of questions they have about the image. You can create an anchor chart to model how to ask the kinds of questions you know they will be seeing in their assessments. Once they are done sharing, ask the class for what they came up with. You can write their ideas on the board, correcting for grammar or syntax errors. Once you have a good collection of your students’ ideas on the board, ask them to respond to the image in their journals. Allow them a minute to sketch, then more time to write. To give them more direction, ask them to respond to a specific question about the journal, for example, “Why do you think the…” or “What would you do if…”
Now comes the issue of spelling. Above and beyond other barriers, our EL students often get stuck when they worry too much about spelling. With this activity, perfect spelling is not the objective. The objective is writing responses to images. Make sure your students understand that their pencils should be moving the whole time, that that stopping because of spelling is not a solution. They should be able to use your word wall, as well as modeled student responses you’ve written on the board to problem solve. Before and during writing, I sometimes ask students for common words they’re likely to use in their responses. I will then write the words into a spelling box on the board or using my projector. This way, we can anticipate and proactively solve spelling challenges before they begin. Having a spelling box for these activities also gives students more fuel to write on. If a student is stalling in their writing, they can use the words you’ve written out together to get new ideas, and continue. Ask your struggling students, “Which one of the words on the board are most interesting to you? What can we write using that word? Say the full thought out loud before you write it.” For our younger students, or those with lower language levels, aid them by using sentence frames. These sentence frames should be broad enough to be used in a variety of circumstances, and can be posted on your walls. Or, you can write sentence frames specific to the writing task you expect of them. Be sure to read and model sentence frames with your kids repeatedly so that they can use them independently when needed. As a wrap up to your picture response and journaling, give your students ample opportunities to share their work. This encourages self-confidence and allows them to hear responses similar and different to their own. The power of language through the lens of another child is self-affirming and welcoming.
The strategies I’ve shared are not the playbook of bilingual or ESL education. They are pointers and starting points. Try them in whatever capacity you can, tweak them, or even completely change them. The end goal is leveraging our students’ strengths and creating a language additive approach to education. Do not teach them despite their language levels, teach them through their language levels.