Amber Prentice Jimenez
Amber Prentice Jimenez is an ELL and Spanish teacher and professional development leader in Washington state. In this interview, Amber offers strategies for making newcomer students and their families feel welcome, tips for working with refugees and middle school ELLs, and activities for developing ELLs' reading and academic language skills.
To see Amber in action in the classroom, take a look at our Watch & Learn series!
Amber's biography and the full transcript of her interview are also available below.
*Note: These affiliations have changed since the time of our interview.
PART I: Supporting ELL Newcomers
Creating a Welcoming Environment
One way to create a warm and welcoming environment for ELL students is to make sure that you have materials in their language, if possible. Within my classroom library, I try to have books in Spanish, in Hmong, I've got a couple in Somali, try to have as many languages that I can to represent what my students do.
Another way is to just learn a couple of phrases in their language. For example, I know how to say "I don't know" in five languages. And when the kids tell me, teacher, I don't know, I can spit back at them in their language and they love it. And it just shows that you care or even just a greeting, to be able to, when the kids come in to say good morning in their language, it just puts them immediately at ease.
And it also works really well for working with parents. At conference time when a parent walks in and you can say hello to them in their native language, it really helps build that relationship because it lets them know that you care.
Another important thing to create the welcoming environment, is to understand that your students are still smart, they just don't have the English. And so to be really respectful of the intelligence that they do have and be patient with the language acquisition process. Speak slowly and honor the knowledge that they do have even if it's not the knowledge that they necessarily need for school.
One thing that I find also is extremely important in creating that welcoming environment is to know how to pronounce and how to say all of my students' names. That first day, I ask my students to say their names and I repeat it back to them as many times as I need to ensure that I have the correct pronunciation of their names.
There are so many students that it just drives me crazy when they come in and say, "Well my name is Uhmaker but you can call me Sally." And I know that some teacher must have said to her, "Uhmaker is too hard to say," or they got sick of adults or people not able to pronounce her name, so they pick an American name.
If a child asked to be called that, you know, you want to be respectful, but you also want to be respectful of their given names and try to learn how to pronounce their names and use their names.
Throughout the year, I get new students. And it's important to make those new students feel as welcome as you can in the classroom. Usually I'm given about one or two days notice that a student will come and I will first prepare the class. We'll tell the class that a new student will be coming in and I, if we have a student who speaks the new student's language, I will tell them, for example, "Jesus, we're having a new student coming in who speaks Spanish." And I will ask the student to be his buddy for the day or for the weeks to come.
I will have Jesus first show the new student how to use his locker. The locker is a big anxiety level for middle school students. And I'll talk to the class about ways we can make new students feel welcome, showing them where the classes are, showing them the routines in the classroom, when to open their books, when to take out their notebooks. What the homework processes are and we'll also talk about things like when they're in the cafeteria, how can they make someone feel welcome by asking them to sit at their table.
Also it's important to understand that new student will probably come to you, I call it deer in the headlights. They're so nervous and they're so scared and their eyes are just looking at you like "Please don't ask me to talk, please don't ask me to do anything."
And just know that they're going to be nervous and just try to make them feel as comfortable as you can and giving them that buddy that speaks their language is so important. Know that they're not only dealing with a new school, they're probably dealing with a new country, a new climate, a new culture, being in a new house. A lot of my students, some of their families are still in their old country or a lot of my students also are refugees and have seen traumas of war.
So there could be a lot of issues going on. It's also important to try to connect with the family as soon as possible so that you can get some of that background knowledge to know if they've had school, if they haven't had school, if they were in war, if they weren't in war. It's important to know those things to help you make the student feel comfortable and welcomed in your class.
Although it's a very important to build relationships with ELL students' parents, with those parents, it's really sometimes very difficult to do. In our, in my school district we have over 100 languages represented, and unfortunately we don't have translators for all of those languages.
So although it's important to make that contact, it can be very difficult. When a student is registering for school, they usually bring with them someone who speaks English and so I try, I ask the secretaries to please have them come up to my room so that while they have an interpreter there with them, some, usually a cousin or an aunt or a friend of the family, I can ask some of those questions and introduce myself to the family and see what questions they have.
It's also important to have, to make sure that any communications that you have that are being sent out about conferences, about family nights, about parental involvement opportunities, if at all possible, to get those sent out in the native language. But at the same time, many of my students' parents don't read and write in their native language. So if you have the opportunity and you have someone who speaks that language, if you could follow-up with a phone call, that's a great way to get families to come.
Now in our case, in our schools, we have, right now three students that we have, that we don't have interpreters for. When I need to call home, I call home and try to leave a message on an answering machine. If someone calls and they say, "No English," I'll try to see if I can call back.
But if I leave a message on an answering machine, I speak very slowly and clearly because usually even if no one in their house speaks English, they know someone who speaks English, and they'll save the message and find someone who can interpret and translate the message for them.
Literacy for parents of ELLs
There are many things that ELL teachers can do to help encourage reading even when families don't speak English at home. One thing that they can do is encourage the parents, if they have native language literacy, to read with and to the students in their native language.
Students who don't learn how to read and write in their native language are missing out on a whole lot of language development that just won't happen until they learn more English. They're learn, missing out on vocabulary, missing out on rich conversations with their families and predictable story patterns and things of this sort, cultural references.
If they don't have access, if the parents are not literate in their native language, you can still encourage reading by doing something that I do with my students. I get them a book bag and in that book bag they have books that are at their reading level and then I let them choose one book that they want, even if it's not at their reading level. And I tell them that their job is to take that book home and read it with someone in their family.
And so when parents come for conferences, I ask them, "Have you seen this book bag? Does your daughter or son read with you?" And the parents, in all cases, have been excited to see the book bag and some of them say, "Yes, we read every night." And some of them say, "Oh no, they never read with me."
And so you can encourage the kids to read with their families and just let the parents know through conferences, through open houses, through those sorts of things, that that's the expectation.
Telling stories to students, to their children, helps children learn the way that stories work, helps them create just a rich vocabulary in their own native language. If students know the word for it in their native language, it's much easier to learn the concept in English than it is if they don't have a concept for it in their native language.
So parents should always be having rich conversations with their students, with their children even if they are not literate in their native language. Even just the conversations around the dinner table about, "What did you do in school today? What did you learn? Tell me about it," just will help encourage those students and help them make their language acquisition process much quicker and their academic success much, much quicker and also will show the students that their parents really care about school and about what they're learning and will encourage them to work even harder in school.
Parents also can take a look at the books the students bring home and even if they can't read them, they can look at the pictures and talk about what's happening, make predictions, what do you think will happen next? Tell the stories just based on the pictures and have rich conversations about what happens in the book, even if the parents aren't able to read it.
My students all have a variety of educational backgrounds. On the top side I have a couple of students from Mexico who came in and they had been to school all through the years, straight-A students. Family had a love of learning and they came in, all they needed to really learn was the English in order to be successful academically.
In the exact same classroom, I had a student who came in, started school two weeks ago as a 13-year-old, this was her first experience ever with school. She didn't know how to hold her pencil. She didn't know how to write her name. She had seen books but didn't know that to read from, you know, left to right. She didn't know any of the school skills, had never been told to sit still and look at a teacher.
This makes our job as ELL teachers exceeding difficult. When you have students who have had no school or many of my students have had interrupted schooling. Maybe they went to school for kindergarten and first grade and then the war broke out and they couldn't go to school for a couple years. Then, after the war was over, the family had money for them to go school for half the year and then the money ran out and they didn't finish the year. So you have students that come in with different varieties of schooling. It's important to meet them where they are, find out how much they do know and to give them the skills they need to be successful.
In St. Paul we have a lot of refugee students and we've done a couple of things to help ensure that they can be successful and help them get used a school environment. Whenever possible we have tried to connect up with community organizations so that we can coordinate our services and ensure that we're all on the same place and giving the same messages to our families. Those services, community organizations, have also been very useful in finding interpreters.
Every winter I'm alerted to places where my students can go to get boots and winter jackets and scarves and hats and other things that families might need to get involved. You have to understand that a lot of these families come in with nothing. Some of the students don't know how to use a toilet, how to use a flush toilet. They don't know how to use the sink, they don't know how to use the stove, everything is brand new for them. And you just need to be patient and you need to not just teach the academics, you need to teach the school skills necessary for them to be successful in school and in life.
I don't know all of the answers but I do know that when my students have needs, there's a network of people in my school and in my district and in my greater community that can help these students. I had a student who was having trouble seeing, I sent her to the nurse. The nurse did an eye exam, saw that she really needed glasses, the family didn't have access to medical care and the nurse was able to, through a community organization, find a place where she could get a free eye exam and even a free pair of glasses. These networks exist and it's, as teachers we need to be advocates for our students to help ensure that they get the services that they need.
One of the things that, we don't get often as teachers but that I think is really nice to see, is to see how students have changed over time. Before working at the middle school, I worked in the elementary school, I was the third grade newcomer teacher at an elementary school here in St. Paul.
And twice now in the middle school, I've had students that were brand new to me as third graders when they came. And one of them, I'll use another name, but I'll say her name was Kerri. She came to us in third grade from the Wat camps in Thailand. Thailand closed down a refugee camps and many Hmong families had been living there for generations in the hope that someday they'd be able to go back and reclaim their lives in Laos.
And so she came having never been to school before, being malnourished, having no access to running water, they had a well. As part of her newcomer class, we taught them about how to brush their teeth, how to use a toilet, how to use shampoo, how to use soap, you know all, all of these really, really basic skills that they didn't know beyond the reading and writing things.
And this year she came into one of my higher level classes and I saw the name and I said, "Could it be the same student?" And when she came the first day, her smile just lit up when she saw me. She was like, "Ms. Prentice, you knew me when I didn't say any words." I was like "Yeah, yeah I did."
"And my hair was short!" And she was just so excited to see a friendly face when she was coming in here in the junior high. And I was just amazed at how much her English has progressed in the four years that she's been in the United States. So it's just great to be able to see that progression and that progress that students make.
One thing that I've spent the last eight years of teaching accruing is my teacher library, my classroom library. I think it's really important for students to have access to books that are interesting to them and books that represent them and books that they can read and books that are rich and beautiful and explain about things.
I have about half of my books leveled, using Fontis and Panell leveling systems, so that they have different stickers, so the students know that the gold stickers are the easiest books and the blue stickers are the hardest books. And generally as we go through the year they figure out what books are best for them and they can go up through there.
But the rest of my books I leave unleveled because in their life, in their adult life, in their high school life and in their other class life, they're not going to have a blue star to tell them that this is a good book for them. So they need to learn other skills.
I also always like to bring in books around the content that I teach. So I have a couple of bins of books that are around history and around geography and both fiction and non-fiction. One thing I like to do when I'm teaching history is pair a fiction book with the textbook and the other resources that we're using.
If students can ground the history facts that they're using with a historical fiction text, it helps them remember it better. And it's also great to say, "Alright, we're studying South America, here's eight books about different countries in South America, both fiction and non-fiction." It gives students more access and more exposure to different concepts and different ideas.
At the same time, I also think it's very important to have books that represent the students. We're lucky to live in a world with access to lots of books. I've got a bin of books in Spanish. I've got the books that I've been able to find in Hmong, on my, in my book bins. I also am always looking for new languages. It's harder to find the Oromo books, the Karen books, the Somali books, but they are out there and it's important to get them. If you can't find books in the students' native language, finding books about their countries or about their culture or about things that are important to them is really important. And so I always try to find books that represent them.
I also try to find books that would be interesting to them, so I have books about low-rider cars. I have books about basketball and soccer. I have books about doing magic tricks. I have books about pokemon and UGO. I try to find books about a wide variety of topics that will interest my students and both fiction and non-fiction because if you force a kid to read something they're not interested in, it will be a chore and my goal in life is to make my students love learning and love reading.
Structure and expectations
One thing that all teachers can do to help ELL students is to create a structure in their classroom, to create fixed rituals and routines. When students have a predictable routine, a predictable structure, they can learn to be creative within the structure. If students know what the expectations are and what the routine is, that lowers their anxiety. That lowers their affective filter.
They know what the expectations are and they don't get as nervous. For example, in my classroom the students come in everyday, take out their notebook, write the question and answer the question. And then I go around and collect the homework while they're answering the questions.
By the third day of school, my students knew to come in, take out their homework, take out their notebook, write the question. It makes my day start smoothly, it lets my students know what they're doing while I'm going around, if they have a question about their homework, I can chat with them.
We also have routines for getting materials, routines for writing down their homework in their planner, routines for most aspects of the classroom, the things that we do over and over on a daily or every couple-of-day basis.
And it just helps students know what's going on and makes them empowered to know what the expectations are and from there, they can worry about the academic piece without worrying, "How do I turn in the homework? What are we going to do today? How's the class going to start?" They can just worry about the academics and the learning of English.
One of the rituals that I have in my classroom is that if I want to get the students' attention, I count down from five, four, three, two, one. The expectation is that at "one" their voices are stopped and their eyes are on me. And I tell my students that I do this because sometimes when a teacher wants your attention, you're in the middle of a sentence. You need to have a couple of seconds to finish what you're trying to say and I want to respect that need for all of them, but at the same time I'm going to need their attention, so they have until "one" to get their conversations done and their eyes focused on me.
I very rarely call on students without giving them a chance to talk to people in their group or to write things down or have a way for them to organize their thoughts. I want speaking in class and participating to be a positive experience where students get a chance to shine instead of feeling really nervous or scared or afraid they'll make a mistake.
We also, whenever they have a major project, they're given a rubric. If it's something that they're going to be doing over and over again, for example, in level two we work on academic writing, writing paragraphs and writing three-to-five paragraph essays. They're given a rubric that we talk about all of the time.
And in fact, I make them cut out the rubric and glue it into their notebooks so that when they're at home and they have to write a paragraph, they have a reference to go back to. The rubric is posted in the classroom and before they have to write a paragraph, we go over the rubric.
Sometimes the students say to me, "Ms. Prentice, every time, we go over the rubric," and I just tell them, "It's because it's important and if there's one thing that you learn in my classroom, it's how to write a paragraph and you're always going to remember it." But they know exactly what the expectation is.
If I, and then I can tell them, "You weren't clear in your topic sentence, you didn't have one main idea," and they know, they know that that's the expectation in their paragraph.
We also always have our standards posted. Students always, even though they're ELL, they should be working towards the content standards and the grade-level standards that you have in your state. So my students know that every seventh and eighth grader in the state of Minnesota needs to learn whatever it is and we have that standard posted and I refer to it on an almost daily basis so that the student never can ask why are we learning this? They have that question, "We're learning this because that's what the law tells me all seventh and eighth graders in the State of Minnesota need to know. It's what's important."
And they have that clear expectation, they know that they're responsible for that knowledge and that also makes them take away some of the stigma of being an ELL student. They're doing the same standards that the seventh and eighth graders in the mainstream are doing. We're all working toward the same thing.
It's important for ELL students to have these expectations and to have standards and to have rubrics in place. But I think it's important for all students. What's good for ELL students is good for all students, especially, I teach in an urban setting and I've taught in mainstream classes being a collaborative ELL teacher that has taught both ELL and mainstream students in one class.
And a lot of our urban students come in with low vocabulary, without the background knowledge, without the skills, without the experiences of going to museums and things like that. And what's good for ELL students is good for all students, building that background, setting the clear expectations, using rubrics to evaluate student work and having students be very clear about what is needed.
And even the rituals and routines I think can be very important for all students, not just English language learners, but it is essential for English language learners. And they will thrive when they have it and they will flounder when they don't.
ELLs in middle school
There are some big differences between teaching ELLs in elementary school and teaching ELLs in middle school. In elementary school the gap is much smaller when the English language learners come in. They come in as a first grader, second grader, third grader, there are still first graders who don't know how to read.
So having a new student who comes in who doesn't know how to read, isn't as shocking or isn't as tough for the other students to realize. They're able to be mainstreamed much of the day. When I taught newcomers in the elementary level, I had a half-hour pull- out with them at the end of the day.
But for the rest of the time, they were in the classroom the entire time with scaffolded instruction, but they were in the classroom and learning from their peers, their native speaking peers, native English-speaking peers.
When you get to middle school, the gap is huge. If you come in at 12 years old and you've never been to school before, the difference between you and a normal seventh grader, is very big and it's hard for our newcomer English language learners to be mainstreamed. When our newcomers come in, they're with us for five out of six periods of the day.
Another thing once you get with adolescents is you just need to know that they're hormone-raging kids and there's going to be the drama and there's going to be the boy/girl things and the girl/girl fights and those things. But you need to just know that that's the way middle schoolers are and love them a little bit more because of it and try to look to that what you're doing doesn't set them apart too much from their peers because you know, adolescents really want to just fit in with their peers.
And so it's really important that you tell the students, you're working on the same standards as the other seventh and eighth graders in the school, all the seventh and eighth graders in the State of Minnesota are working on this, we're just doing it in a little bit of a different way. So it's important to help work with some of that socialization more in middle school than you need to do in elementary.
It is really important for all students, but especially for English language learners, to have fun while they're learning. When students laugh, when they're happy, when they smile, dopamine is released in the brain and dopamine is a pleasure chemical in the brain.
And when you're happy, the dopamine helps you remember it better. So things that you learn when you're happy are things that you'll remember much longer, well also things that when you're very anxious, when you have anxiety, when you're nervous or scared about something, that's what you remember. You don't remember what you learned.
All of us have had experiences where we've been nervous or scared or maybe really sad or in junior high, you have a fight with your best friend and you feel like your world's going to end. If something like that happens, that what you remember. You don't remember the things you learned, so it's really important to make learning fun, to make it enjoyable and it also lowers that affective filter, it helps reduce the anxiety. If students are having fun, they learn without even knowing that they're learning. And it makes students much more apt to take risks and to use their English in more contexts.
One of my favorite things as a newcomer teacher is wait until, from my window, I can see the first hints of snow starting to fall. I immediately have to stop class and all the students rush to the window to see snow falling, most of them for the first time in their life.
And I know that right then and there, whatever lesson I had planned, it's done. And we just need to get, put all our stuff away and go outside, get our jackets and go run around outside in the field to look at the snow. Being the nerdy teacher I am, we use it as a chance to build some vocabulary, "snowflake," "snowfall," you know, "snowball" if there's enough for, to make snowballs, although we don't throw them in the school.
But it's one of the funnest experience, the way the students eyes get all wide and their excited and they stick their tongues out to get the snowflakes and you know just touch it. And they can't believe how cold it is and it's just a great, it's a great time to be a newcomer teacher.
PART II: Reading Content Instruction for ELLs
Reading in the Classroom
A print-rich environment is making sure that students see words everywhere, so I have posters up in my room of vocabulary words, and even after they've mastered the vocabulary words, I keep those posters up because they're good references for them. I had a student today that asked me "How do you spell 'buffalo'?" and another student said, "Look at the poster, it's on the poster."
And that just makes me excited to know that they're using those things. Another easy way to have a print-rich environment is to have a word wall, either by content words or the way I use it, is for sight words, for common sight words that my students use.
So having books and just having labels of things, in an ELL classroom if you can label "light switch" and "bookshelf" and "TV" and all of those things, it's just, students should be seeing words everywhere to help them learn how to read, help reinforce the skills they learn, and as much as I try to make my classes as interesting as I can, students eyes wander. Let them be wandering over words in English instead of wandering over walls, bare wall space.
So it's important to teach newcomer students phonics explicitly. Some of the students have literacy in their native language, the majority of my students don't. So for them even the concept that a letter represents a sound is something that's new.
And so one thing that I do with my students is we look at the sounds that a letter makes. And we once a week we just chant the alphabet, we say the letters, but then we go saying the sounds through the alphabet (phonetic "a"-"b"-"c"-"d"). It's also important to teach chunking skills, looking at words with their word parts, breaking it down into syllables and using word families as a form of chunking. It's also it's also important to teach them some of those phonics rules like word families but also the short vowel sounds, the long vowel sounds, the fact that "e" at the end of a word like the vowel consonant vowel that the other vowel says its name.
It's important to teach kids those rules because if you don't teach them, they're never going to learn them and you can pick up some of those rules just from reading a text and reading along while a teacher reads. But you need that explicit instruction just to help break those steps.
And I think that's something that a lot of adolescent teachers, we just don't have the training in doing, but it's important for us to go back and try to remember some of those elementary skills because we are teaching students how to read.
Independent reading is extremely important in schools. But independent reading with a few caveats, you can't just have students flipping through a book that's way too hard for them. I had one of our brand new students wanted to check out Jurassic Park from the library this last week.
And I had to tell him, "You know what? Not a book that's going to help you be successful." At the same time we don't want students reading the "I see a bird, I see a dog, I see a cat," forever. There's a time and place for those books, it's important for students to be reading books that are at their level which means they're a little bit hard for them, but not much.
They should be able to read them at a 95-96% accuracy so that they're learning new words and learning skills for fluency and learning how to be interested in books. If you read something that's too hard, that's no fun. If you read something that's too easy, that's no fun. We want to hook students into a love of learning and reading books that they choose, that they're interested in, that are at an appropriate level for them.
One thing that I do is teach my students the five finger rule. They needed to pick a page in the book. If it's a very short page, then I'll tell them to pick one that has more words and they need to read that page out loud. If they came to a word that either they don't know how to say or they don't know what it means, then they need to put up a finger.
If they have zero or one finger up, the book is too easy for them. If they have, two or three fingers up the book is probably just right for them, but if they get to five or four fingers, the book is probably too hard for them. And so they need to find a book that's better for them. It's a quick and easy way to teach students how to find a book that's at a right level for them.
As ELL teachers, our big job is to teach students vocabulary and there are various strategies that I use to teach students new vocabulary. The most important thing that I would say is, in teaching vocabulary, is to give students lots of exposure to vocabulary words and in different modalities.
So students need to write the words, student need to write what the words mean. Students need to use the words in sentences, students need to read the words. Students need to manipulate them somehow physically with their hands or use TPR (total physical response) to act them out and you play somehow with the words. The more ways a student sees it, writes it, plays with it, hears it, has fun with it, the more ways that they will use the word, remember the word, and have that word in their long term memory.
Another thing that I think is a great way to check students' understanding and also show that you value their knowledge, is to ask students how to say vocabulary words in their language. Sometimes in my class, for example, I'll have a word like "needle" and I'll explain it, it's something that you use for sewing. "It's sharp," I'll try to draw a picture, but to make sure that they really do understand it, I'll ask them, "So how do say this in Hmong, how do you say this in Oromo, how do you say this in Karen, how do you say this in Spanish, how do you say this in Cambodian?" and all the other languages that we have.
And if they can tell me, I know that they understand the word. If they don't know, then I know I need to do some re-teaching to make sure that they do understand the word.
Cognates can be an effective tool for English language learners, especially you have a lot of students who speak just one language. As someone who knows Spanish, it can be really nice to be able to just tell students, "What do you think this word could be?" For example, when we're talking about outer space and I can say, "There are many different constellations in the night sky. Do you have anyone have any idea what a constellation could be?" And I can look at my Spanish speakers and say, "It's sounds really close to a word in Spanish and then they're like, 'Oh'!" And their eyes light up and they can figure it out.
A concept sort is just one of many vocabulary strategies or vocabulary activities you can do with students. It's where a teacher picks out vocabulary from a text and either vocabulary that has a natural sorting pattern or grouping, or vocabulary that you can let the students decide what to make for groups. So you can either give the students the concept that you want them to group into or you can have the students look at the words and put them into their own grouping.
I worked on the "The Great Kapok Tree" and in that book there are great descriptions of the ways animals talk and great descriptions of the way animals move. And so I had the students look at the words and try to decide if it was the way an animal moved or if it was the way an animal spoke or an animal sound. And the students, some of them you know, had never seen these words before, so they needed to use their own judgment, their own ideas.
We'd been talking about onomatopoeia so try to see if they could figure out which words went in there. And it's great for English language learners because it makes them look at the word, say the word, think about the word, think about what the word might mean and then and you're giving them a parameter for it either means this or this. And afterwards they need, they can go back and they already have some familiarity with the word and you're helping them refine their ideas that they know more about the word.
Possible sentences is another strategy that I use sometimes to preview vocabulary that students will learn. I give them a list of vocabulary words that we will be reading about in their textbook. And we briefly go over what the words mean. Then I tell them that they get to be the writers of the textbook, they get to put themselves in those shoes and think about the topic at hand and create a sentence that could possibly be in their textbook, that's why it's a possible sentence. Then the students, after they write the word or the sentence that they think could possibly be in the textbook, they need to go look in the textbook to find that word in a sentence and compare how close were their sentences.
Another really effective way to help teach vocabulary in a way that students just find inherently fun is to give students cameras. I wrote a grant a couple of years ago and was able to get seven digital cameras for my classroom. And that's enough so that when with my students I can have three or four to a camera. Or if I have a very small class, each student can have their own camera.
And you can use that to create a shared experience or to build vocabulary. In my classes with my brand newcomers, the first couple months are all about school words and school places. So the second day of school, we went outside of the school building and I had the students take pictures of everything that they saw.
Then when we bring those out, we can look at those pictures and the students first of all love taking pictures with the camera and it gives them those technology skills of using a digital camera and how to delete pictures and how to zoom and those things. But then they also love coming in and saying, "Oh, that's my picture!" And then they can also just see the words and have a visual representation and creating those shared experiences helps build community as well.
It's really important to do all that you can to access students' prior knowledge before you teach a lesson. Our students need to have some of the shared vocabulary, they need to know, to remember some of the concepts that they have learned in their native language, but may not have the vocabulary for.
And so some of these strategies like doing picture walks, like giving them vocabulary words beforehand, letting them have the cameras to go around and take pictures, helps them get their brains ready for learning and helps them remember the concept knowledge that maybe they have in their native language.
There are many different ways that ELL teachers can use to find out how much students know about a topic that you're about to study. When, a lot of times when I'm introducing a new topic, I will either have a student draw a picture or write what they know about the topic.
If they have native language literacy, at that time I will let them write in their native language because I, the words in English are not as important as knowing the concepts. It's also a time where I'll say, "Turn and talk to someone who speaks your own language," and let them have a chance to explore the topic in their own language.
After that, after they've had a chance to think about it, get their ideas in order, then I'll bring it back to the larger class. "Tell me about, for example, weddings. How do weddings happen in your culture? Who prepares the wedding? What do the people wear? What do, what foods do you serve? What kind of party do you have?"
And from there, the students, because they've had a chance to talk about it, write or draw about it, think about it in different ways, then they're sharing with the class and I can really gauge, "Oh, this person has had a lot of experience with this. They know a lot. Ah, this person's never been to a wedding before, maybe I need to go and give them some more information." And it also is a great way to bring in the cultural piece because things are different in different cultures and it's fascinating to me. And if I'm fascinated, the kids get fascinated.
Sometimes I'm just shocked by the holes in background knowledge that my students have. As part of my reading curriculum with my newcomers, we talk about the different places in school and I try to augment that with a little bit more vocabulary building.
And so at times we've studied the cafeteria and I've looked at, "Ah, great way to throw in some vocabulary about food." And one way of course to categorize food is to use the food groups. Well, I thought that my students would know about different kinds of food and I would just be teaching them how to say the words in English.
And so I asked my students, we talked about grains and asked them, so what things are grains? They had no idea that bread was made out of flour that was made out of wheat. They didn't know that pasta was made out of flour, they didn't know what kinds of things were grains.
So then we went to dairy and the only dairy thing, the only thing that they knew came from a cow was milk. And I said, "Well about cheese?" And they said, "What about cheese?"
"Well that comes from a cow too, that's made out of milk." And so for me, I had to stop, I had to go back, that lesson that day kind of flopped because I spent more time explaining what all the things are that are made our of milk. Or what are all the things that are made out of grains that I just knew I needed to go way back and build that background knowledge that, in my mind, I assumed they had.
And as an ELL teacher you need to be flexible to recognize that when students don't have that basic knowledge that you thought they had, it's your job to go back and give it to them, they won't get it any other place. Your students will surprise you with what they know and with what they don't know. You need to be able to adjust your lessons and roll with the punches.
One problem that ELL students have is that there is so much information and they don't know which information is the most important and they don't know how to sift through the information to know what it is that they actually need to learn. So give them a help with that. Give them some sort of organizer that helps them know this the key information.
And in that same vein, don't expect your English language learners to know all the little details. Pick out your power standards, pick out your most important information and make sure that that's what your English language learners come away with.
All of us in this era of big testing are responsible for our state standards and for our national standards in whatever content area we teach. It's important to look at those standards and look at the grade-level expectations and know that although our students might not have the language to meet those standards, that doesn't mean that they can't learn the content-area knowledge.
When we scaffold, we take those expectations and we break it down into manageable chunks so that the students can learn or work towards those content standards but have the language load lessened or burden made easier for them, so that they work more on content while they're learning the language that they will need in order to be successful.
One of the standards for seventh and eighth graders in geography in Minnesota is that students will name and identify on a map, all 50 states and territories in the United States. In the mainstream, they whip through that in about a week and they look at landmarks because they know that most of the students who've been, who were born in this country know the 50 states, at least know how to say them and are familiar generally with where they are.
Yet my, for my students, the names of all of those states are new, brand new content knowledge for them and so just learning the names of the states and where they are on the map, will take a couple weeks for my students. And I need to find ways to help them be able to work toward that content standard, while making and building the language that they need in geography.
So for example with my United States unit, the first thing my students do is learn how to pronounce the names of the states. We do various games to repeat them, students spell them, they say them for each other, they have flash cards, they learn the abbreviations, they learn to match states with the capitals, they draw them on the map, they draw in the map in regions, they draw it on the map blank, they use the abbreviations.
My students do much more playing with the language around the 50 states that would be ridiculous to do in the mainstream and superfluous, the students don't need that much work. But my students because they're coming from a position of no background knowledge, they just need a little bit more work to get to the academic standards of the mainstream students.
It's important to teach students skills for them to be able to check that they're understanding what they're learning. When we have textbooks, it's really easy to fall back on the "answer the questions at the end of the chapter". But our ELL students need much more than that.
I generally, with my students, have them work with a text two or three times before we get to those questions at the end of the book. Those questions are important because they teach kids test-taking skills and general academic skills that they'll need when they're in mainstream content classes.
But I do a lot of other work beforehand. Students use organizers to look at text. Students fill in maps based on information that they find in the text. Students look for specific vocabulary words to try and find context for the words in text. And only after they've done two or three activities with a text, do I expect them to have totally mastered it, to be able to answer those questions at the back of the book. In spot-checking these students, every time they work with the text to make sure that they're understanding.
When students are reading a story, or a fiction book, there are various strategies that you need to teach students for them personally to check if they understand. Some of them are common ones I use is when you get to the end of the page ask yourself, what just happened? If you don't know, you need to go back and re-read or various other means, maybe at the end of a chapter or at the end of a section.
A picture walk is one strategy that I use to teach students how to use a textbook effectively. All textbooks these days have lots of great pictures, graphs, diagrams, tools to help students really understand and to gain more information from the text and it's one of the strategies that I use with my students that hopefully they will use once they leave my classes.
So when we get to a new chapter in the text, the first thing I will do, we'll open to that page in the text and I'll ask the students, "What do you see in this picture?" Students raise their hand, they explain it to me and then sometimes I'll throw the question, "So what does that teach you about whatever topic it is that we're studying?"
For example, we're studying Native Americans in America. And my students looked at a picture in the textbook about Native Americans and it showed a couple Native American men in canoes, one with a net and fish at the bottom of the canoe. So the students say, "I see a boat, I see a man, I see a net, I see water, I see…"
And I said, "Well what does that teach you about Native Americans?" And they thought and I was like, "Well kind of food do they eat?" Right away there they knew that one of the foods that Native Americans got were the fish. It also taught them, someone said, "Well, they use long boats, they use those canoes."
So it helps explain the vocabulary words and it helps activate students' prior knowledge and get them thinking about the topic. And so picture walks can be a very effective tool and something that I always tell my students that they should do before they're reading an academic text.
You can also use picture walks when you're looking at fiction text. A lot of our picture books that we have in this country are beautifully illustrated and tell the stories in and of themselves. So you can open up the book and have students just tell you the picture or tell you the story from looking at the picture.
It's a great way to build background knowledge, have the students name the things they see in the picture, and even if they're not correct with what they come up with for the story, it's got them thinking about the story and when they read it, they'll be able to see what was different from their prediction and it's another tool to teach students that predictions aren't always correct. But it's a great way to give students that background knowledge and get them thinking about what could happen in the story.
One of the things that makes the job of an ELL teacher difficult is that in one classroom you will have students with varied level of educational experience, background and skills. One thing that I try to do is group do different groupings for different tasks.
Sometimes I like to have heterogeneous groupings so that the students who have more skills can nurture and support the students who have fewer skills. But sometimes it's important to have homogenous groups, so that I can get all the students started on a project and the students who have the academic skills and the educational background will get right away into the project. They know how to start whatever task it is and then I can right away to go to my students who have had fewer experiences with school and I can work in a smaller group with them.
I also vary the expectations. For example, every year I have my students do a podcast about a different state, it's kind of a report. And my, I have, my students who have more school experiences each choose their own state to research and create their podcast. But I take my students with fewer experiences and we all do our state, Minnesota, together. And we do the research together, we all look at the same book. We look together to find out the research information that they need. And we all write the same podcast.
They, we write it together, we do shared writing, but then each one of them is actually reading the same podcast into the tape to be put on the website. So in that way I'm able to differentiate what I'm doing. They all have the same task, but I'm scaffolding it for the students who have less experience so that they can be successful, just with different expectations.
It's important when you're teaching anyone, but especially when you're teaching English language learners, to think really strategically about the way that you group students. When I want students to do something that builds their background knowledge or to do something where they need to come up with a concept or they need to do something that requires them to do some thinking about previous experiences or things that they maybe learned in another area, I group them by language. When they have a chance to talk about it in their native language first, it activates their schema, it gets it right at the top of their brain so that they're ready to then discuss it English.
But at the same time, there are times when I don't want them to be speaking any language other then English. And then I do the best that I can to ensure that I have students who don't speak the same language sitting next to each other so that the common language that they have is English. And I use that for more language-oriented tasks.
Social vs. academic
As an ELL teacher, I've noticed that for most of my students, they learn the social language much before they learn the academic language. I'll have teachers that even will say to me in the hall, "Why is she in ELL? I hear her talking in the hallway and her language is so fluid."
But then when you start to get towards the academic tasks, speaking in a discussion, listening and understanding to what's going on, taking notes, reading, writing, the students flounder. That's very common with English language learners. And I feel that it's my job to help my students have the strategies and skills that they're going to need to be able to build on what they know and to be able to work towards understanding things.
Social language is really important though, the majority of their life is not going to be spent in a school. They need to have the social skills, the social language and we need to build that in teach our students how to create good relationships and use proper words that way. But in my classes, the focus is usually more on the academic language because we have such a short time with them before they are mainstreamed and they need all the skills and all the language and vocabulary support that they can get.
Collaboration is essential when you're working with English language learners and there are varying degrees of collaboration. At times in this building and in other buildings I've worked in, I have been working every day with a mainstream classroom teacher in a science room or in a history room and we have a common planning time and we plan our lessons together.
There's a mixture of mainstream students and English language learners in the classroom and we are working every day to ensure that the ELL students get the content knowledge and the language knowledge and helping ensure that all students are successful. That's kind of heavy-duty collaboration.
But collaboration can work on various levels. It's important as a teacher of newcomer English language learners for me to know what the grade level standards and the grade level resources are for students in my history class and in my geography class. I try to touch base with the mainstream history teachers and with the geography teachers once a unit, I'd say.
So right now I'm studying Native Americans in history or my students are studying Native Americans in history and so I had a quick chat with one of the history teachers just to see, "What resources do you have? What do you use?" I know what the standards are but in their history meetings, they choose the power standards, the most essential standards to teach.
And so it's important for me to know what's happening in the mainstream because in the end, that's what my students are going to be responsible for and that's what I'm responsible for teaching.
It's also important within your ELL team, to work together. I see my students for history, but they see another ELL teacher for reading and another ELL teacher for science. If we can coordinate our efforts to maybe have common assessments or common routines or rituals or homework policies, that helps make it smoother for students all across the board.
For example, in our ELL team, we have the same rubric for paragraphs and for essays. And so students know that when they write a paragraph in my class, they're going to be graded the same way as they write a paragraph in reading and the same way as they write a paragraph in science. They have common, those common assessments help students really clearly know their expectations and then they also make it easier for us as a team to look at student work and to see what students are struggling, how can we help them and it helps us as teachers be more successful with our students.
We can chat about, as ELL teachers we meet once a week at lunch and it's a quick meeting, it's only 20 minutes, but we're able to talk about what kids are doing fabulously, what kids are really struggling, maybe I find out that a student is struggling in my class but is getting A's in all the others. I need to find out why she's struggling specifically in my class.
Or it could be the opposite, we have a student who's struggling in all of the classes and maybe she's misplaced and we need to move her lower, down a level or up a level, get her some extra help. And so it's really important for us to help individualize our instruction through collaboration with our ELL teachers. But also to make sure that we're getting the grade-level content standards by talking with the content teachers in the mainstream.
Collaboration is another way to give an ELL teacher access to content and materials and resources that are already created. Our grade, our content specialists get together every couple of months to create curriculum and to create materials. And I've been able to get a lot from meeting with them after they've had those materials.
Amber Prentice is an ELL and Spanish teacher with experience teaching students of all ages and backgrounds. While teaching in St. Paul, MN, Amber taught middle school ELL newcomers and refugees and led a number of initiatives to integrate ELL families into the school community. Amber has also taken an active role in leading teacher training programs, and was selected by the AFT to train female teacher trainers in Yemen and high school teachers in Afghanistan in a special professional development program. Amber also served on the American Federation of Teacher ELL Cadre for three years and currently teaches in California.