Building Bridges to the Future

Xiao-lin Yin-CroftXiao-lin Yin-Croft is a third-grade ELL teacher of Chinese bilingual students at Ulloa Elementary School in San Francisco. Originally from China, Xiao-lin learned English as an adult and now helps young Chinese students in the U.S. bridge the cultural and language gap that they face from an early age. In this interview with Colorín Colorado, Xiao-lin shares her experiences coming of age as a student in China's Cultural Revolution, describes the strategies she uses to help her students develop the language and reading skills they need, and discusses the factors she believes are contributing to her students' success.

To learn more about Xiao-lin's suggestions for other educators who are teaching Chinese ELLs, read From the Classroom: Working with Chinese ELLs.

Tell us about your background.

I was born in Shanghai, China. As a young girl, I loved to read and to learn, partly because my father is very well-educated and he encouraged me to read a lot. At that period in China, however, books were not very easy to get. But we had more books than other Chinese families, and we really treasured them.

What did you most enjoy reading?

As a child, besides reading Chinese stories, I read Chinese translations of foreign children's literature such as The Brothers Grimm, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, and Aesop's Fables. There was also a publication that I enjoyed reading entitled "Little Friends," like our magazine Ladybug. My mom would save the issues, and I would read them again and again.

When I was older, I started to read Chinese translations of classics such as Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and simplified stories based on Shakespeare's plays. I loved them all.

How did China's Cultural Revolution impact your education?

It wasn't like the U.S. where you can go to a public library and get as many books as you want. I could only read the books that we had at home. When the Cultural Revolution started, we had to bring our books out of the home, and they were burned. It was terrible. We did keep some secretly, though.

It was also a period in which the leaders were anti-western culture; learning foreign languages was forbidden. As a result of the Cultural Revolution, my middle school education was interrupted, which was very painful for me.

How did you develop an interest in English?

I knew that English was such a widely-used language, and I was very interested in Western culture and history, particularly British history, from which American history develops.

I did not really learn English until I was adult. I had learned the alphabet and a few simple words but didn't know anymore than that. I jumped at the first chance of an education when the opportunity became available. China suddenly needed people who knew foreign languages as it started to open its doors to the outside world. I studied English in an intensive training center with a large group of young adults who were as enthusiastic and eager as I was. Within a year, we had learned to read and speak English. Later, I was able to get my bachelor's degree in English in China.

I was then sent to Australia through a government exchange program for 6 months, after which I got my TEFL certificate. I became an English teacher in a community college in Shanghai, and in 1993 I came to U.S. to get a master's degree in TESL. Initially, I worked for language schools in San Francisco on the business side — recruiting and placing foreign students, looking for qualified teachers, and managing financial and business aspects of the schools.

After a few years, I decided to expand my experience in education. I had been working with adults, and I decided that I wanted to work with younger students in schools, so I earned my teaching credential through a state university. In 2002 I began teaching a third-grade Chinese bilingual class, and I have been teaching third-grade Chinese bilingual students ever since.

Had you ever imagined that you would be a teacher?

During my youth in China, jobs were assigned, so I didn't think about it as much, but as a child I pretended to be a teacher. I also wanted to be a scientist. There wasn't the opportunity to pursue your interests, though, so I didn't think about it seriously until much later.

What was it that made you want to work with children?

I thought that my experience and efforts would be most useful to young Chinese students here. Because of the years of education I lost during the Cultural Revolution, I know how frustrating it is to have one's education interrupted, so I felt that this would be an important connection.

I also felt that I could be an effective liaison between Chinese children and their parents. When I was getting to know San Francisco's Chinatown, I would see adults speaking Chinese, not English, and I wondered how their children were doing. I thought I would be able to help those children so that they won't miss any education like I did. A family's communication suffers when children and parents don't speak the same language. For example, I know a family where the parents speak Cantonese, but the children now speak English, and are unwilling to speak Cantonese. Parents and children are becoming disconnected because they can't communicate.

I also think it's very important for my students at a young age to be proud of their own cultural and heritage, and I know that I can help them develop that pride. I have some Chinese friends who all speak English — but even for them, their children start to dislike being Chinese as they get older. They ask, "Why do I look different? I am different and I don't like it." So I try to make sure that students are proud of their language and culture, and don't feel inferior because of it.

Tell us about your school.

I teach at a public elementary school which serves a largely Asian community. Our entire curriculum is the same as the district standard curriculum, and our district mandates that all English Language Development (ELD) teachers devote half an hour daily to ELD curriculum. Our Chinese bilingual program is a K-3 early-exit transitional model, which has been very successful, both in terms of our students' achievements once they arrive in fourth-grade mainstream classes, and in terms of statewide test results. This year, we are the only elementary school in San Francisco that received the California Distinguished School title.

By second and third grade, our bilingual Chinese students typically out-perform our district and state students' average by a wide margin in Language Arts as well as in Math.

What do you think has led to these results?

I credit the success of our bilingual program to the trust and flexibility our principal has given our team of bilingual teachers, her encouragement for grade-level and inter-grade-level collaboration, and the efficient communication system she has established that helps teachers monitor students' progress. I have been able to collaborate with my colleagues to expand my students' learning experience, design appropriate leaning sequences, and organize instruction around cognitively demanding subjects such as social studies and science according to my students' interests, their prior knowledge, and special needs.

How much do you use Chinese in your instruction?

I almost use no Chinese for instruction in class at all, because we are trying to help our students move through the early-exit program. Chinese is used only to help them access core curriculum. However, every year I have newcomers and I use Chinese with them at the beginning but try to get them working independently in English as soon as they are ready.

How proficient are your students in English when they arrive in your class?

Although most of my students have achieved proficiency in English in the statewide tests for second grade, and many are fairly proficient in English during basic social interactions and in performing basic tasks, most of them do not have sufficient academic English to immediately participate in learning third-grade social studies, nor can they display their learning through oral and written production immediately upon arrival to my third-grade class.

To overcome this challenge, I realize that they need extra support in building vocabulary and background knowledge; they need extra help in understanding longer and more complex texts and sentences (like this one); and they need to learn to speak English in complete sentences and to build confidence in using oral academic English to ask questions, express their ideas, and to demonstrate their learning.

I have found it most effective to delay fully launching the Social Studies curriculum until I can provide them with sufficient extra language support to gradually ease them into the full curriculum.

How do you differentiate instruction to help them develop grade-level language skills?

I use data-driven strategies to determine how to help my students move forward. I start the school year by collecting students' performance data from multiple sources. These sources not only include the statewide and district mandated test scores and third-grade entrance test scores, but also information gathered from school-wide "Pass-It-On" portfolios which include end of the year math and reading assessments, writing samples, copies of the LALAR, and copies of the previous years' report cards. I summarize and collate the data into one simple data base, and highlight each student's academic needs.

In this way I know each student's strengths and weaknesses at a glance. My initial instructional decisions are thus made - where to start, how to group my students, who needs extra help and in what area, which intervention I should provide, etc. Data analysis continues throughout the school year to monitor the students' progress and address students' needs as they arise.

When you receive new students, how do you help them to catch up?

I use the usual ELL teaching strategies with my new students, such as TPR, visual cues, repetition, body language, and providing students with opportunities to practice "think, pair, and share" through inside/outside circle, etc.

I also find it very useful to promote oral fluency and build confidence through daily routine. Every morning my students start their class by playing the "teacher game." One student goes to the front of the classroom to lead the class through their daily language spiral review. Together, the class corrects mistakes, identifies parts of speech from sample sentences, and answer questions from the student leader. The leaders' questions become more sophisticated as they learn more from their Language Arts lessons.

While they view this activity as a game, it enables me to help my students overcome native language influences and master the mechanics of English, to make my students speak in sentences and ask questions in conventional English, and to build their oral English fluency and confidence. The question practice is particularly important because it is such a necessary skill when students reach fourth-grade mainstream classrooms. This is also an activity new students can join in after a few repeated exposures to it.

I find this activity can also help them build study skills. Being able to identify parts of speeches helps them in learning to use the dictionary to learn the definitions of words with multiple meanings according to context. The ability to identify subject and main verb helps them build the foundation of understanding longer and more complex sentences.

How do you help students build their vocabulary?

Lack of vocabulary is not only my bilingual students' weakness but is also identified as a problem throughout our entire grade level. When we looked at our test data, we realized that vocabulary and writing strategies were areas that needed improvement. Working with my colleagues, we went through the whole Language Arts Anthology to identify tier-two words — words that are not listed as targeted vocabulary, but that we think are important.

We make sure that our students know the definition of the words in context by using a "stoplight vocabulary" strategy. Students use red, yellow, and green light signs to let us know which words they definitely know, which words they think they know, and which words they don't know. During lessons, students let us know which words they need to review with the following system: Green means, "I know this word, don't stop." Yellow means, "I think I know but I'm not sure." Red means, "Stop, I don't know what this word means."

As a result, we see scores moving up in the vocabulary and reading comprehension strands of the Language Arts tests. It's wonderful to have such positive teacher collaboration, and it's really helping students strengthen their vocabulary.

What are some strategies you use to improve reading comprehension?

For new students, it is very hard to teach them the whole story at once. Our stories come with summaries, so first I preview the summary with the students, and make sure they practice reading and understanding the summary. Then we move onto the full story.

I also do a lot of frontloading whenever we start a new story. First, my students do a picture walk and predict what the story is about, and I try to activate my students' prior knowledge by connecting what they are going to read to something they are familiar with. We always come up with questions that we want answers from a story before we read it in order to establish the purpose for reading. Then we study key vocabulary before we start to read. As we read together, I have my students ask each other questions, divide the text into meaningful sections, and try to summarize each section orally. This kind of oral exchange helps me check my students' understanding and makes their misunderstandings more apparent.

Are there any tools that you used when learning English that you use with your students now?

I use dictation to help my students practice pronunciation, spelling, grammar, and sentence structure. As a second-language learner, I found dictation very useful — you listen to what is said, you process it, you reproduce it, and throughout this exercise you are internalizing models of correct English. Since the process also involves the use of different senses, learning is enhanced.

When I give my students a dictation exercise, we practice until they get 100%. If they make mistakes, I will underline the mistake and they will redo it until they get everything right. This also gives us a chance to practice intonation and vocabulary pronunciation, which is so important.

For new students, I preview the sentences with them, make sure they understand each sentence and are able to read them out aloud. I would write down the Chinese translation if necessary and allow them to study at home, but I don't give my other students a preview. The idea is that every student should be able to complete the dictation without any kind of preview as soon as possible. I use this strategy to reinforce the mechanics of English and help them develop a language feeling toward English so that the use of conventional English becomes automatic.

Do you discuss current events in terms of China and the U.S. with your students?

My students are too young to discuss major stories in the news, so I look for events or topics that will be easy for them to understand. We do talk a lot about how advanced China is, and the ways that China is growing.

Are your students interested in learning about China?

Most of my students were born here in the U.S. or came here at a very young age, so many of them do not have any memories of China. If my students came here after the age of five, they express strong interest and excitement about China. But really, my students are excited to learn anything, and so learning about China is like learning about any other country for them - new and thrilling!

When new arrivals come, I talk with them about China after class. They are very proud of their heritage, and I often encourage my students to take part in annual Chinese art and language contests we have here in San Francisco. Several of them actually have won awards for their Chinese-language essays, Chinese classical poetry recitation, Chinese calligraphy or Chinese brush painting at local contests.

Do your students have a favorite classroom activity?

At first, their favorite activity is our daily language review because it is student-led, and they get to be the teacher. They also love to solve challenging math word problems, and write their own word problems to test each other.

Now, however, they are really enjoying the chance to read to learn as their reading comprehension improves — reading gives them more opportunities to learn about why things are the way they are.

My students are so curious, especially in areas like science and history. In the beginning of the school year, they were not able to follow third-grade Social Studies curriculum for lack of vocabulary and background knowledge, but now when we talk about the history of California and the United States, their eyes open wide and they take in every word. They like to borrow books on topics we have just read about or discussed in Social Studies.

What are some of the toughest challenges you face in your work?

My students have very limited background knowledge and vocabulary, and so teaching content is difficult — one sentence has too many new words for them.

I've developed a strategy in which I accelerate math instruction because they have a good mathematical foundation, and it's something that their parents can help them with without knowing too much English. We use word problems as a way of learning high frequency words, operations, sentence structure, etc. This has proved to be a very effective bridge for them.

I also give my students lots of non-fiction supplementary materials. I would start with something they are familiar with. For example, they would read passages about the origins of hot dogs, chewing gum, hamburgers etc. As we continue our conversation about the passages, I ask my students to identify main ideas of each paragraph, and tell me as many supporting details as they remember. In this way as they are building vocabulary and background knowledge about American history and culture, they practice academic oral English. After half a year, the foundation is built. I start to gradually introduce full social studies texts. Now they are able to understand and read the text as homework.

Is there a student whose experience you would like to highlight?

I have a student who is Vietnamese. When he came to my class he had only learned half of the English alphabet. He and I did not speak the same language, but he was placed in my bilingual class. Once he was in my class, I investigated his background by finding someone who spoke Vietnamese. I asked him to write whatever he could, and it turned out that he wasn't literate in Vietnamese either. He had very few literacy skills in his home language.

While he wasn't a strong math student, he was stronger in math than he was in his other subjects. So I used it as a stepping stone to teach him English, as I do with all of my newcomers. He learned to speak English and learned K-3 frequency words from studying math and solving math word problems. I also used a lot of spelling and dictation exercises with him. Now his math is at grade level, he is able to follow the third-grade spelling curriculum, and for the first time last week, he achieved 100% in our weekly spelling and dictation test. When asked how he was able to write all the 15 sentences with no mistakes, he replied using one of the sentences in the dictation, "I think with my brain."

Even though it took a long time for him to learn English pronunciation because of his strong Vietnamese accent, on his most recent oral reading fluency test, he achieved 123 words/minute out of the 143 words/minute third-grade benchmark. He has come so far!

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