How New Teachers Can Teach ESL Learners Effectively

Professor Diane M. Barone is one of my favorite researchers when it comes to understanding how to cater effectively to English language learners. (ELLs) She has so much to offer new teachers on the subject and I spend a lot of time reading her books, which has helped with some of my research questions and writing.

She has been gracious enough to provide in-depth answers to my questions on teaching ELLs. She has even been more gracious to answer any more questions, which you can either email to me or leave in the comment box. So with a round of applause, let’s welcome Diane M. Barone.

Professor Barone, thank you so much for participating in this interview. Here’s my first question:

Dorit: For those who haven’t read any of your content rich books and articles on teaching ELLs, could you please give a little overview to our readers on your teaching and research background especially with regard to your work with ELLs?

Professor Barone: So here goes. My experience with ELLs began when I taught a first, second, and third grade classroom of 30 children. Several of these children came to my classroom speaking a language other than English. At that time, my response was to group for some reading instruction, organize small activity centers in the room so that students could collaborate, and organize my instruction thematically so that the important topics recurred in instruction over time. These students were the participants in my doctoral work where I analyzed the written responses they wrote to books they read independently, although the focus was not on ELLs. One result was at the end of third grade all of these children met grade level expectations.

My first big research studies after this time were centered in classrooms where many students were ELLs. One study was in a bilingual first grade classroom. I co-taught with the teacher and we studied which language gained preference in the classroom. In that study, while English was clearly the dominant language, children whose home language was Spanish achieved at higher levels in reading and writing than did children whose home language was English. I was intrigued with this result.

At the same time as the previous study I began my study of children who were prenatally exposed to crack/cocaine. A few of these children also had a home language of Spanish.

Finally, I engaged in a seven-year study where I identified children in K and followed them until sixth grade. Many of these children had a home language of Spanish or Tagalog. I watched as they were taught in English-only classrooms.

Lately, I have worked with Reading First and other high poverty schools in Nevada that have low achievement data. The majority of these children come from homes where English is not the primary language. I work in these schools daily, sitting side-by-side with teachers as we determine how best to support students.

Dorit: Based on your own observations and research, what do you feel are some of the challenges teaching ELLs in mixed ability classes at the primary school level? Junior high and high school?

Professor Barone: I have never been in a classroom that did not have children with variety of academic levels. So rather than viewing the mixed abilities as challenges we just perceive them as an expectation. Here are some of the practices that seem to work.

· We engage children in small groups where they can chat throughout the day. There is always an academic task but we allow children to converse so they can practice English.

· We expect that teachers keep students engaged. So children are never called on one-at-a-time to respond. We may use whole class response when the answer is simple. We partner children where each child has a letter or number (1 & 2 or A & B). They we ask partner A to share with B or the reverse. With the simple letter or number we are assured that both partners participate. This partnering allows children numerous opportunities to practice.

· We have children writing and reading from the first days of school. We look at their writing to learn when they understand letters, letters and sounds, and how to represent words in English. We have simple books for children and we keep adding to these books so every table group has a variety to choose from.

· We explicitly teach phonemic awareness to our K and first graders. This is done in small groups with the teacher or aide. We use Road to the Code.

· We involve parents. In one school parents come to kindergarten and learn how to read with this child.

· We use a large number of photos or realia to support meaning.

· We group children in multiple ways throughout the day depending on need.

· We provide intervention or enrichment blocks each day depending on student need.

· We make sure that there is at least 90 minutes for reading instruction, a half hour for writing, and a half hour for intervention every day.

Dorit: What are some of the more critical areas new teachers need to know when planning differentiation lessons for their ELLs? Based on what you perceive as these critical areas, what advice can you give to new teachers?

Professor Barone: This is a very important question. We are asking teachers to extend the main objective from whole group to small, differentiated groups during reading instruction. So if the teacher is focused on author’s purpose during whole group, then we ask for this objective during small group. So whole group is for modeling and small group is for guided practice. Then we have children practice reading with a partner independently with this same objective before we ask them to perform independently. We are careful with the consistency in this sequence – same objective – model, guided practice, collaborative practice, independent practice.

Dorit: What should primary school general education teachers particularly take into account when differentiating instruction?

Professor Barone: Always the needs of children. So if there is a small group of students who struggle with an alphabet letter or sound, small group for short, focused instruction works. We also work with children reading at about the same level for part of the day so they can read similar titles for book group discussion. These groups stay together longer than the first. We also group children based on book choice that support a themes. So if the theme is survival, for instance, each group of children would read a different book that shares this theme.

We also group in writing. Some children might work together for revising and others for editing.

Dorit: At the beginning stages of teaching reading, what areas of instruction/differentiation are becoming increasingly challenging for new teachers to implement? Why is this? What are some of the ways that teachers can overcome this?

Professor Barone: When children are just beginning, they need to know the words and concepts first. So we work with ELLs and preteach this content. That way when the teacher shares a story or informational piece, ELLs have the background and vocabulary. We use photos, videos, realia, and whatever we can to make sure they understand. Often an aide or ESL expert is in charge of this instruction.

Then it depends, if children are in small group and are expected to read a text, we work on understanding, and then decoding. We will have children read this book, multiple times, for different purposes so they become automatic with reading it. Then it is added to books they read during independent time for practice.

So for beginners there are dual purposes – decoding and comprehending. Later when students are automatic with decoding most words, emphasis shifts to comprehension only.

We also focus constantly on vocabulary. We ask teachers to use fancy words all day so children become aware of them (wilted for dried out). We build charts with words daily. We have children sort words by pattern and meaning. We have word walls and other word support in rooms so children can refer to it as necessary.

Dorit: How would you define a struggling ELL in mixed ability classes?

Professor Barone: For me, it is a student who reads but does not comprehend. This child has learned to decode but there hasn’t been much emphasis on comprehension. We find this child to be difficult to work with and support because he or she sees reading as just getting the words right. We put the child into simpler text to support comprehension.

Dorit: How can teachers cater to struggling learners in mixed ability classes?

Professor Barone: Well I believe all children need instruction to support their growth, so in the schools where I collaborate we work on providing the best instruction for each student. So during the reading block, all students participate in small, guided reading groups. We have preteaching groups so that students who are new to English understand the content and vocabulary. We have intervention and enrichment groups each day. Children who are struggling get targeted instruction during this time and other students who are performing at grade level or above get enrichment. We are able to do this by using all grade level and special teachers for blocks throughout the day. For instance, all first graders in a school would have intervention time at 10 to 10:30. Some teachers work with the most struggling students while others work in enrichment activities.

We also have time before school and after for support or homework help provided by teachers, with extra pay, or others.

Dorit: Please explain the difference between pull-in and push out learning environments in terms of what teachers need to do to cater to both ESL and ELL effectively. Any advice would also be appreciated.

Professor Barone: We are really moving away from pull-out. We found that it was difficult for teachers to collaborate and the instruction did not necessarily cohesively support students.

So we are working on push in where other teachers or aides work directly with teachers. Each week we build in time for all of the teachers and aides to plan together. (This takes very creative scheduling.) At this time teachers plan instruction for all students in a single grade level. The following week, learning is explored, and new plans are created. With this planning, interventions and preteaching are coordinated so children do not experience random instructional events.

Dorit: What teaching techniques do you recommend for effectively bridging the gaps between word and text-based levels especially at the junior high school level and beyond?

Professor Barone: Junior high and high school are much more difficult especially when students are new to English and the content is so much more abstract. In the schools where I am seeing success, teachers are organizing their language arts block around a theme. Within the theme students read books at their instructional level. Teachers can work with students on common vocabulary. They can also pull small groups for word level instruction as other students read their books silently.

In other classes, we are working with teachers to support students in the discipline specific vocabulary. They create charts or notebooks with these words. They utilize photos as well. We also have taught them to engage students in constructed response where students are expected to write answers or solve problems and explain. We have also worked with them to use graphic organizers that are completed collaboratively with students as new content is shared.

Dorit: Do you have any recommendations for using oral instruction effectively in both primary/junior high school settings?

Professor Barone: The big question. We ask teachers to monitor their talking. We have asked some to tape record instruction as we find that teachers are talking way too much and students are no getting the practice they need. We really work on student engagement so that students are expected to participate throughout all instruction. We work with teachers to use:

· Think, pair, share

· Numbered heads where every student in group has a number. After discussion, the teacher calls a number and those students share out.

· Partners with numbers or letters so each partner shares.

· Whole group response – thumbs up or down

· Quick written responses on sticky notes before any response

We are really working with teachers not to call on individual students as all other students lose focus.

We also read aloud to students where we repeat the reading of the book for several days. On the first day, students talk about plot. On the second day they might discuss characters. On the third day maybe setting. By the end of the week they are comfortable talking about all aspects of the book.