King of the world

Anne Worrall is principal of Carson Elementary in the San Diego Unified School District. With 15 years of experience as an educator, a master's degree and a Biliterate Certificate of Competence and Cross-Cultural Certificate (among others), Worrall helps her staff focus on language development to deal with the growing needs of her school's ELL population.

Worrall was nominated for "From the Heart" by Nonie K. Lesaux, Assistant Professor, Human Development and Psychology, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Colorín Colorado recently spoke with Worrall about how her school emphasizes language development by utilizing the best available research and professional development opportunities.

Meet Anne Worrall

Describe the demographic makeup of Carson Elementary.

Carson currently has 540 kids, preschool through fifth grade with over 75 percent free and reduced lunch — probably most are free — and 80 percent English Language Learners.

But I do seriously think that it's not only ELL kids who need language development work. We have a lot of kids who only speak English at home, who are not reading at grade level, and need language development work too. So when we're looking at language development for our ELLs, we make sure to spread those services around.

Why do you think that is?

It's really expensive to live in San Diego, and a lot of our kids have parents who work two or even three jobs. Not all our families are struggling, but some are just trying to put food on the table.

Very few of our parents have time to read at home, even 15 minutes, and some of the conversations with the kids are pretty limited, too. A lot of our families have three or more kids, so it's understandable that it's difficult. People don't realize that how important it is to read at home every day and to have real conversations with their children.

As a result, a lot of these kids have the same language deficits that ELLs have.

Describe the so-called "fourth grade slump."

The fourth grade slump doesn't happen overnight, it happens gradually. I think it's about the change in reading demands. If you look at the kinds of reading the kids are doing, there's a dramatic shift from mid-second grade to fourth grade.

Second grade reading is mostly fiction, with very basic stories, with tremendous picture support. If a student has basic language skills, the stories are not hard to figure out.

Then the student moves toward chapter books, with pictures on maybe every other page and only a couple of characters, which helps the student know who's speaking. But when you get to true third and fourth grade-level stories, there are multiple characters driving the storyline, and if you don't know who's speaking, it's impossible to follow the action.

So what can a teacher do?

A lot of it is modeling. Our teachers use document cameras, which can project any page up on a screen. So instead of having to plan ahead and make an overhead transparency, the teacher can have a spur of the moment discussion of the text by putting the page on the document camera and literally show the students the dialogue and break it down.

You can also do that with shared reading. If you're reading as a group, you can stop and ask things like 'how do we know who's speaking?' and study the text together. You can do it when you're reading something with a big enough font that they can see the text.

However you are studying together, the modeling can help use the text to show them what they don't pick up right away.

What specific strategies do you recommend for fourth grade teachers?

A big piece of language development in fourth grade is working on transitional words. In simpler text, the transition words are basic words like "because," which most students know. But as the text becomes more complex, the transitional words become more varied. Words like "however" and "since" or phrases like "in addition to," need to be defined for kids who need more language development. Some of Susana Dutro's work has helped us really look at those words and what they might mean for ELLs.

We're so hung up on vocabulary and adding vocabulary words, but we also need to see how the vocabulary fits together with transitional words.

As teachers, we are so educated and so used to those words that we look right past them. We don't think about transitional words as vocabulary words and don't think about them as words that need to be taught.

We're doing professional development at Carson on this, helping teachers understand how to explain that transitional words show a relationship between what came before and after.

Why do you think reading progress slows in the upper grades?

When you move toward the upper grades, the reading is no longer fiction dominated. You're moving toward science and history texts, for example, and the words are unfamiliar, the format is different, and kids are not looking at a predictable format like they do in fiction. Now they don't have a storyline that lets them anticipate what might come next.

So we are trying to introduce our kids at Carson to a greater amount of nonfiction earlier so that kind of reading is not unfamiliar to them when they reach the upper grades. There are all kinds of nonfiction books about there. What kid in kindergarten doesn't like dinosaurs?

Are there other factors that slow reading development?

We don't read out loud with 4th graders anymore. We used to do choral reading and round robin reading with small groups of kids where they had the opportunity to be heard and to hear others, which affects the cadence, rhythm and pronunciation. But we were told not to do that. Maybe it might make them feel bad. I'm not sure how that really came about. But now, there is mostly independent reading in fourth grade classrooms, but the teacher will have no idea what the students are actually reading.

How did you start focusing on overall language development as an instructional strategy?

When we were first beginning to be aware of the ELL language issues, we asked our teachers to start listening more carefully to what their students were actually saying. One fifth grade teacher described a ten-part exchange, which was mostly filled with nods and shrugs by the child.

The teacher later realized that the child had only spoken two words in the entire exchange. Teachers are super pressed for time and there's so much to fit into their day, that workload creates these habits where a teacher fills in the blanks for a child who is searching for a word or doesn't have time to get the words out.

We all do it, not just teachers. I think it comes out of not wanting to make the child anxious, but in the long run it's not a good idea. The opportunity for the child to use the language is lost.

How do you incorporate the need for language development into your school instruction strategy?

We're trying to look at ways to really listen to our students. Is the teacher doing 90 percent of the talking? If so, we need to fix that. You don't know what your kids need unless you sincerely listen or look at their work. Writing can give a lot of good visual clues about language development.

How do you sincerely look at a child's work?

One thing we did was to script what our ELLs were actually saying. We videotaped conferences with a case study student in each grade and then transcribed what they actually said. We initially chose students who tested in intermediate zone of the CELDT assessment (California English Language Development Test), which is given at the beginning of the year to show how well they speak English. We know that kids get stuck at intermediate level and don't advance to academic English, so we wanted to see if we could figure out why. I videotaped the conferences, and we analyzed the language as a staff.

What did you find?

The student I chose is a good example. He is one of my favorite students. Super talkative, very bright, very friendly. I thought he'd do pretty well if we had a conversation about something he had read, but when you see the script, it's staggering to see how low his language skills really are.

I just asked him to tell him about a book he'd read, and he started telling me about Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Here's a piece of the transcript:

I um, I like chapter 2 because, I like chapter 2 because, since Pete, Pete's real name is Peter? and Fudge called him, called Peter, called him um Pete. and then Peter asked him, since when I… since when I turn Pete? and then Fudge was like since today.

What's really enlightening is that, at the moment, it seemed to make sense to me because you fill in the blanks for him. But I realized that I was making assumptions based on the other things he brings to the table, because when you look at the written script of the actual words he spoke, you can immediately see that he's a long way from fluent. He hardly spoke even one complete sentence in the entire conversation.

So what did you do with the analyses?

We looked at all the scripts and put those in the language continuum of WestEd and then looked at our state language standards to see if we could figure out where that child fit.

We also looked at the information vertically. We have all kids write a friendly letter and then sit in teams with one teacher for kindergarten through fifth grade, instead of by grade level. Then we think about our expectations. If we want them to be here at fifth grade, let's backward plan and decide what we should be asking for in each grade. Maybe we should be asking for more complex language. Maybe we should have a more varied sentence structure. We think about the elements that we should have from each grade to get to where the sixth grade teachers want our students to be when they leave here.

How do you view your role as an administrator through this process?

I need to find time to get out there and find the updated research. I need to sift through it with other administrators and pick out what we think would be helpful for teachers in our particular school situation and then figure out the structural work that we need to do to make that research work for us. Figure out how we're going to measure its success and then sit down with the staff and talk about it.

I'm lucky in that my staff is amazing and willing to try new things.

Want to know more about the "4th grade slump"?

Watch our related webcast to learn how to make the transition from "learning to read" to "reading to learn" easier for ELL students. Also check out the Bright ideas that work for even more great ideas on how to overcome the "fourth grade slump."

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