Making Reading Fun

Sarah Harbert is a teacher of English language learners at Clinton Young Elementary School in Indianapolis, IN. She is now in her third year of teaching at the school, and in that time has developed a reading and tutoring program for her students, as well as an innovative book-lending program designed to get students to read more at home. In this interview with Colorín Colorado, Sarah describes her programs, how she motivates her students to read, and why she believes her program is working.

How did you get interested in the ELL field?

During my senior year in high school, I wanted to go on a mission trip to India, but I wasn't able to go. I then went on a trip to an orphanage in Guatemala, and even though I'd been studying Spanish in high school, I couldn't speak easily with the people I met. It was frustrating because I wanted to get to know them, so when I got to college, I kept up my Spanish studies. Soon I had taken enough classes to complete a double major in elementary education and Spanish. I also had traveled to Honduras, Costa Rica, and El Salvador; sometimes I worked with kids who spoke an indigenous language other than Spanish, but everywhere I'd gone, I had enjoyed working with the kids so much.

What I learned when I graduated from college is that there are a number of elementary education majors in my state, but not enough ESL teachers. I started as an aide at a middle school, and since I could speak Spanish, I started translating at the school. I then found a job teaching ELLs. Working with my students really reminded me of the kids I had worked with in Latin America, and I am now planning to go back to school next year and pursue a graduate degree in ELL education.

Do you do a lot of the translating at your school?

Yes. I have an aide who speaks Spanish, who helps me tremendously. Besides another 2nd-grade teacher, though, we are two of the only people in the building who speak Spanish and can help translate. We were being called out of class so frequently that I finally put a list of the ten most common questions in English and Spanish in the office so that the office staff could answer parents' questions independently. I am the unofficial interpreter at school.

We have a bilingual secretary in the main office building as well as one bilingual parent liaison, but there is too much for all of us to cover. Now I try only to translate for emergencies, sickness, conferences, and discipline issues when necessary. Next year we will be restructuring our staff; our school will have three full-time ESL teachers and we hope to have a bilingual social worker, which will make a huge difference.

What is your ELL population like at the school?

22% of our kids are ELLs — we have 150+ kids in the program. The vast majority are from Mexico, two are from Central America, one is from Liberia, and one is from Zambia.

Has the ELL population grown dramatically in recent years?

Yes! Between my first and third year at the school, it nearly doubled; we went from fewer than 90 kids my first year to more than 155 my third year. I've witnessed the transformation of the ELL program and population, and I gained seven new students last week alone.

You put a strong emphasis on reading with your students. How did that start?

I was an avid reader as a kid. I got in trouble for reading too much when I should have been doing my chores! What I started noticing when I was a first year teacher, though, was that a lot of our third-graders could speak perfectly, but they couldn't read or write. I quickly realized that they would fall farther and farther behind the older they got, and I figured out that no matter how old they were getting, they needed to be taught the basics of learning to read.

I started teaching them phonics. This was not a part of our curriculum in the upper grades where the students were expected to already know the basics — we didn't have a reading curriculum for the ELL students, so I was making it up as I went along.

I taught my students that vowels are like siblings — they are fine when they are alone, but they sometimes have problems when they are together. Since so many of my students have siblings, that got their attention!

I realized that at this young age, what works with first-graders can work with third-graders, and I also found some of the drill sheets that my mom used with me when I was starting to read. From then on, the goal was to get these kids reading.

How do you motivate your kids to read?

I really try to do what works best for each student. Some kids respond to pressure and like a little bit of competition; others don't. I do my best to figure out the hook that will get kids turned on to reading. I am trying to make reading the reward, although I must admit that it can be harder to find good material for boys than for girls.

I find that girls often will eventually read what I get for the boys, but usually the boys won't read what I get for the girls. Still, I try to encourage the boys to read everything. I had one student read about Helen Keller — he really wanted to move onto sports and fought me along the way, but he read it!

I have also created a critics' choice award area in my classroom — students read a book, rate the book, and give a grade to the writer with a star system. We then rank the titles.

I also use games that my students and my students' parents helped me make! Sometimes the kids come in from recess to help me make the games. We play matching games for vocabulary and definitions, BINGO, Go Fish, board games, etc.

Tell us more about the tutoring program you have developed.

One of our teachers, who is also the basketball coach, was looking for a way for his team to give back to the community. He offered his kids as tutors, and I was happy to take him up on the offer! My kids are so excited to work with the older students, and because their tutors are basketball players, it's a "cool" thing to do.

I've seen the older kids get into it too — they realize that they can do something that no one else can do, especially if they speak Spanish. When they see their first-grade reading buddy become a better reader, they realize they are doing something that matters, so it's a great opportunity for everyone.

How often do the students meet?

Every morning they eat breakfast together; my students get daily reinforcement and practice that way. Sometimes they read together, and sometimes they practice alphabet sheets to help them with letters and sounds. We check in on them, but they work well together, and the older kids really do a great job with their buddies.

What's also neat to see is that as my kids become older (fourth- or fifth-grade), they start tutoring too — who better to tutor than the ones who have already gone through my program?

I also have high school Spanish students who come in for half an hour each Friday to play phonics games with my kids. Our students are desperate to get to Friday throughout the week because they have such a good time with the older students! I've also had local college students volunteer to come read with the kids, or listen to them while they practice reading.

I use my college volunteers, my Spanish High School tutors, and peer tutors to read books to the kids. Once a group has read a book, they discuss it. Books and reading become the central focus, and my students' reading begins to improve. They can compete academically with their peers if they're just given the tools to do so. Since access to books and reading material can make a huge difference for these kids' reading skills, I try to even the playing field, and give them the opportunity to read more.

How do you set reading targets and goals for your students?

I begin by targeting my lowest readers, and I assess what reading level they are at. Our school has leveled readers, such as Reading Recovery/DRA assessments, which give numbered levels, and Fountas and Pinnell, which give a letter level. Those two different levels correspond if your school has both.

I assess where my students are at, and I keep track of the goal we are trying to reach by the end of the year. I make the grade level's goal my goal for them. I have bar graphs that we color, and I color in the top where the goal is — they color in the graph as their reading level increases. I date the new levels on the graph so we can see the jumps made in progress.

It's so important to make kids feel successful, and our chart system does that — sometimes it's the first time these kids have felt successful. It's a big deal in our classroom when someone starts reading on grade level.

How have you encouraged your students to read more at home?

I've developed a book program for my students. First, I give them a cloth bag that I bought in bulk from reallygoodstuff.com with their name on it. They know that bag is for all of their ELL materials — this way they won't lose anything. I also have multiple bags of books from our reading room at all different levels.

For example, if I have a fifth-grader reading at a level 26, but I know the goal for the end of the year is a 50, I will still send home the level 26 books. I will ask him comprehension questions about the books. The students have a writing journal in their bag as well, and sometimes I have them write summaries of the books, or write about their favorite characters or parts of the book. This way I can make sure that they are reading, and I can keep track of their comprehension. I will check them throughout the year to see if they need harder books, and I'll keep moving the books to a harder level as their reading gets better.

I also have buckets of books in my room that my students know they can choose from. I have buckets of books from readinga-z.com; the students know which bucket is their level, and they choose five books from that bucket. That way they have even more access to books, but they share the responsibility of choosing the books. I also have buckets of "cool" books that I use as rewards. Some are comics I bought in packs at Half-Priced Book Store, some are books about sports, and some are books about Spiderman. I try to make these buckets of "cool" books things that I know they have an interest in. They know they may borrow one, and when they return it they may borrow another one. I keep track of the books they borrow in a folder for each child.

How do you keep track of your students' reading level progress?

I check the books off when the students bring them back, and this gives me a way to keep data to show how many books I've given them and their progress through the year. I had a student in third grade who was reading at the beginning of a first-grade level jump two full grade levels in one year in reading, and I didn't start this program with him until the middle of November. It seems to be working well.

How do you maintain student interest in reading?

I want my students to like the books, so I vary the topics. Some are historical books, and others are more for entertainment. I've changed the argument: we don't fight about having to read now — they fight with me to read more. They want more books, harder books, longer books, etc. I've created reading monsters that I can barely keep up with. It is a lot of work to build up a library, and it's a lot of work to keep picking out the books. If you start with your lowest readers and see how it works, you can then expand from there.

I've applied for grants to fund these book programs as well. I've been able to purchase sets of six books with the same title. That way kids that are reading at the same level can have more of a literature circle/book club with me. I use that technique with my older kids, and it works well. We vote on a book from a group of books I've picked. We read it together, talk about it, and talk about how to think while you're reading it. We learn vocabulary as we read, as well as history. I also make up comprehension questions to go with the books we've chosen to read as a group in order to work on more higher-level thinking skills and writing.

Now the students fight over the books! We've been reading about mummies these last few weeks, and today two of my fourth-grade boys were debating about who would be able to borrow my "Tut, Tut" book from the Time Warp Trio series first. This was my two-dollar book from the half-priced book store! Kids who weren't readers are readers now. They actually enjoy reading. Isn't that the whole point? Make a child love to read, and the test scores, the English, and the vocabulary will all follow.

What is your interaction like with your students' parents?

Well, once in awhile we have parents who aren't involved, but for the most part my parents are very involved. At the beginning of the school year, I sent a magnet home to all parents informing them of a designated 2-hour block of my free time (such as my prep, lunch, or before/after-school time) when they can come to speak with me. My parents come to the school all the time, and I know that most of them would come right in if I needed them to.

One great event we held for the parents was a literacy night. The parents came to school, and we talked about activities they could do with their children. We talked about test scores and reading expectations. I showed them charts of where their students were and where they needed to be, to show them the kind of progress we hoped to make — and that I knew their children could make. I encouraged them to read the books I send home with their kids together, and I told them to have their kids explain what happens in the books to them in Spanish.

I also taught them some games that they could play with their students, such as BINGO, Go Fish, and Memory, and gave them printed word lists. I showed the parents how to play games with the words and the vocabulary. It's so enjoyable for them, and the family can play together.

My students' parents give far more to me than I am able to give to them; they are really involved, and the better my Spanish gets, the more I can communicate with them. I like it when I teach siblings too, because that way I can keep track of the older kids, and make sure they don't fall through the cracks.

How do you encourage your students to look to the future?

I talk a lot about college so that my kids get used to hearing about it and thinking about it. I also talk about jobs they can do when they grow up. I tell them again and again that they are smart and that they can do anything, especially as they learn to read and write. Next year I hope to do a job program, where professionals come in and talk with the kids about different careers. The kids will also research a job that they are interested in learning about, and will research what they need to do to get there, what they need to be successful at that job, etc.

I am also designing a game to go along with it to teach them life skills. The game is going to have a wheel of life, based on the game Life, but it will have things like balancing a check book, realizing advantages of a college diploma, paying monthly bills, making decisions, and realizing the consequences of them. I am really excited to see them get into this.

I also think it is particularly important to get women into the classroom to talk to the girls about what they can do with their education.

What is your working relationship like with other teachers in your building?

The teachers in my school are so supportive of our program, and because we all worked together we made AYP this year and last year on the ESL break-out groups for the state mandated tests. Many of our teachers have book clubs for struggling readers, and they include my students in those clubs whenever I ask them to. They also let me borrow their students for tutoring. We are really working as a team.

I have also been asked to hold different events in school in Spanish for our Spanish-speaking parents, so other teachers want to reach out to our students' families as well.

What kind of cultural activities do you do with your students?

Well, I do try to have a broader focus than just reading when it comes to my students' backgrounds. We talk a lot about their culture and the history of their countries, as well as American history and culture. We talk about the early explorers and the reasons my students still speak Spanish today. I really try to instill a sense of pride in them about their identity and the fact that they are becoming bilingual — something very special.

Each May, we turn Cinco de Mayo into a Hispanic culture appreciation day for the whole school, since there aren't many other opportunities to do so during the school year. It's great! The Hispanic students run the festival and set up booths in the gym with music, food, soccer information — whatever they can think of. They even set up their own little store — la tienda — and the rest of the kids love it. When students first get to the festival, they have to exchange their dollars for pesos, and everyone gets a passport. It's a wonderful way for kids to feel proud of where they come from.

And once in awhile, I go to mainstream classes to read to the kids in Spanish. Then their teacher reads to them in English. We ask them how it felt to be read to in a language they didn't understand, and we encourage them to think about how our ELL students must feel trying to do all of their schoolwork in English while they are still learning the language.

Tell us about some of your students.

One of my students is the oldest of four children — when he started with me a year and a half ago, he didn't speak any English. Now he's gone through all my books, and I had to get some novels from my parents' garage because he's going through everything so quickly! I think about what his success could mean to his siblings, and his parents, and I know we are making difference not just for him, but for his entire family. He is now teaching his mom to read with the same program he learned with, and he helps his little brother every night with his homework as well as doing his own. I'm so proud of him!

I also have fourth-grade twins who couldn't add, subtract, or write their names when they started a year and a half ago; they are now reading at a mid-first-grade reading level, and are catching up as quickly as theycan.

And finally, one student who was so frustrated — he wanted to catch up last year when he was in third grade. He was determined to read, but he really struggled. Once we started his systematic reading instruction and he learned his vowels, though, he moved from the beginning of a first-grade level to a third-grade level in one year — moving up two years in just one! Once he started picking out books, he flew through them, and on Thursday he would be back with the books he had taken home on Monday. He moved away this year to another school nearby, but he still keeps in touch to let me know how he's doing and what he's working on.

It must take a lot of energy to run these programs by yourself — what keeps you going?

My students. And believe it or not, those kids in the orphanage are still with me. I couldn't fix things there, but I can work on things here. Once my students are here, I know I can't change their past, but I know I can do something in my little corner of the world to help them have a brighter future. I tell them that they really have a chance to succeed, and that they could change their whole family's future. I feel at peace with what I do, and that's what keeps me going.

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