Teaching math and science to ELLs in high school

Ginny Thomas is an ESL teacher at North Dallas High School in Dallas, Texas. She has been a teacher for 23 years and an ESL teacher for 16. When she began teaching ESL, many of the non-English-speaking students in her school district were from Southeast Asia, Africa and some from Bosnia. Today, most of her students are Spanish-speaking.

Thomas recently spoke with Colorín Colorado about the challenges of teaching content to English Language Learners and how to get the school year off to a good start.

Do you speak Spanish?

No, I don't. I was trained to teach in English, and I didn't speak Spanish at all in the beginning. It didn't matter then because most of my students were a real mix, but now I have mostly Spanish speakers. I speak a basic level of Spanish. Most of what I speak is what I've learned from the kids.

What's the demographic makeup of your school?

I'd say it's probably 75% Hispanic, 20% Black and 5% "Other," which means mostly white and Asian kids.

There's a big split in the Hispanic student population, though, between those who were born here and those who are immigrants. I'd say about 25% of our Hispanic population are immigrants. My kids call the ones who were born here "Chicanos," and the ones who are immigrants they call "Mojos."

The immigrants get picked on by those who were born here, so I try to pay attention to those kinds of things when I'm grouping kids together.

Is grouping one of your standard teaching strategies?

Yes, peer interactions are good, and most of the students in the school speak Spanish, so if I can find a student who is sympathetic to the immigrant students, I can partner them and it's helpful for the immigrant to have that student partner.

Besides partnering, what strategies do you use to teach content to ELL students?

The challenge is to make something abstract concrete. I've taught both science and math for ESL, and the science included general science, biology, physical science and chemistry.

I would try to make things as visual as possible because they don't have the vocabulary to understand what you're trying to teach. I would spend time teaching the words they needed to know in English, but would also show them with hands-on activities.

For instance, we made molecule models with colored marshmallows and toothpicks. Different elements were different colors, so they could see what a molecule would look like.

We made atoms with paper plates and used different color plates to show electrons and neutrons, which led us to talking about the periodic table.

In math we did the same thing. Many of the students had very little mathematical knowledge, and they've all learned the metric system, so we had to learn about measurement in the American system. I got out rulers and yardsticks, and we measured the fence outside, measured the building, things like that.

To get the idea of cups and tablespoons, we made play-doh and silly putty and slime. All the recipes required us to use cup measurements, which actually was a new concept for many of them. When they cook at home, they don't really measure -so this was a different way of thinking.

We also did a lot of graphing, which was something they were not familiar with. Graphing is really important to other subject areas, so we spent a lot of time learning about line, bar and circle graphs.

How is it that high school students haven't been exposed to graphing?

In our particular population, these are students straight out of other countries. Here, children may learn graphing in elementary school, but many of these students have had a very little formal education before coming here.

Most of our students are from rural areas where there isn't much focus on education. The school teacher may or may not have an education and may or may not be there every day. Attendance was not emphasized in their school, so we really have to pound into their heads that we want them here every day.

So it's likely that the parents haven't had a strong education either?

Most of the parents, too, have a very poor formal education. A lot of field trip forms get signed with an "X," so you have to keep that in mind when you're trying to communicate with parents.

How does that affect your interactions with students' families?

Most of their parents clean office buildings or work in restaurants and a lot of the kids - mostly boys - work with their families. Many of the families are really protective of the girls, but most of the boys work.

While some of them will do anything to keep their kids in school, for many, I don't think the expectations are the same as ours. A lot of them get here and they're making more money than they've ever seen in their lives, and we're having a real problem getting them to see past that and understand what staying in school will do for them.

Sometimes I have to call the parents and tell them that their kid is too tired in school and see if they can cut back on the work schedule. Sometimes I can suggest places for them to work where the management is more supportive of the school day.

What about those who do have high expectations?

I do have some who go on to college and are very successful, but the majority struggle and many can't pass the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills), and so they drop out.

Tell me something that has surprised you about working with your students.

One of the things I've learned is that we can't predict who's going to succeed in their first year. One boy who came up from El Salvador really struggled. He came in barely literate, and he always had the wrong answers. The other kids made fun of him because he never seemed to get it right, and I thought he might go a year, and that would be it.

But he was so tenacious, he just kept coming, and I think he was here for four years. I would see him riding his bicycle in the rain to school. It really taught me the power of persistence and how that's such a factor in student success.

Unfortunately, he couldn't pass the state assessment, so he didn't graduate, but he did come out a literate person with much more education than he would have had otherwise. He was one of my lessons in not labeling who would be a success.

How do you help classroom teachers teach your students effectively?

I tell them to use graphic organizers and give students a lot of individual attention. This helps to be sure they are comprehending what they are reading.

A lot of the value of graphic organizers is that they are visual; they give students a visual idea of the story and helps them organize it. One skill my students are lacking, because of their lack of previous formal education, is the ability to categorize. Putting things in categories is just not anything they've ever thought about before.

So if they're writing a summary of the story, they have to think about plot and character, and maybe categorize the vocabulary. Is it an adjective, is it a noun, is it a verb? This helps them understand how the words work.

Tell me something you can do to get your students off to a good start in a new school year.

One of the things we've started doing is giving them binders and helping them learn how to keep organized. This is new for many of them. They don't know how to keep track of materials and handouts that they get in other classes, so we try to help them with that.

Some of their notebooks look like a tornado hit them, so for some, it takes a lot of work to get that going.

What would you advise a new teacher - or a teacher who hadn't taught many ELLs before - to do to get started in a new school year?

I would tell her to prepare herself for things she's never thought of before. The illiteracy issue is big and causes challenges that a lot of teachers haven't thought about before.

You also have to be prepared to teach on a wider range of levels of learning than they have had to do before.

Helping the parents get involved is different. Some parents won't call the school or ask for anything because they're afraid. To get them in the door, I offer kids extra credit if their parent comes to a school event.

How do you help create a welcoming environment for both new and returning students?

Our school is like a piece of Mexico, right in the middle of Dallas. They see people they grew up with from back home, Spanish is spoken everywhere, and it's a transitional place for them.

A lot of the kids are very social, festive and talkative. If you can exploit that social aspect of their character in the classroom, it will help a lot to make school a really great place for them.

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