Christine Rowland is a retired high school ELL educator who spent many years teaching in the Bronx, New York. She is also a member of the American Federation of Teachers' ELL Educator Cadre. In this interview with Colorín Colorado, Christine discusses content-area instruction, project-based learning, collaboration, and college guidance counseling for ELLs.
You can learn more about Christine in her biography and the following:
- From the Heart: Getting ELLs on the College Track
- Creating a College-Going Culture for English Language Learners
- Watch & Learn: ELL Instruction for Middle and High School
- Gotham City Schools Guest Perspectives: Christine Rowland
Part I: Teaching Content
High schools tend to be a little different to middle schools and elementary schools and maybe they may not appear quite as welcoming in some instances, but it's very important to welcome the student, particularly when they're coming from another country and they may not speak any English. It's a very scary experience.
And so to introduce them to the class and to hopefully buddy them up with somebody who speaks the same language if it's possible, or to give them a little bit of extra attention to make sure they understand what's happening, where they next classroom is for the next period.
Even these very simple things can be very hard for a new student, so it's important to make sure that their first days are positive days in school.
Advice to ESL Teachers
Encourage students to, to raise their hand and to ask when they don't understand something. Make that a very positive thing and then reward students for explaining when they don't understand. I get the impression that students have the feeling that they're supposed to understand everything all the time. And they're often afraid to express their limitations, their insecurities, the things they don't know. And so I would make them feel very comfortable with that.
It's easy to misunderstand an English language learner and to think they have a lot more ability in English then they do. The reason for this is the way that they acquire English. First of all they get communicative competence, they get familiar and comfortable with communicative English.
And this happens within two years of being here, they can carry on a conversation with you, they understand what you're saying when you ask them questions and it's very easy to think, "This student knows English. What do I have to worry about?" But the language we use in textbooks, the language of school, of science, of Social Studies, and of English is much more challenging for students and it takes four to seven years is generally the thinking for students to attain the same level of competence as a native speaker.
So it takes, it's not unless you're really asking students to interact with text and you're checking their comprehension, that you're going to realize that this is a problem and so this is one of the reasons why we have to keep checking comprehension and keep teaching academic language.
Strategies to preview vocabulary
Well for an ESL student there are so many words in a text that they don't know and so it is really helpful to preview the most critical words. So if you pick out your key vocabulary, and many textbooks will do it for you, and pre-teach those words, it helps the students a lot.
There are a number of ways you can do this. One of the things that you could do is to give students a graphic organizer with your words on them and ask them to indicate, to have sort of three columns. One for, "I know this word very well, I can use it." One for, "I know this word," and one for, "I don't know this word." Or you could vary those things slightly.
And ask them to check ahead of time which one is appropriate for each word on the list that you're going to be focusing on for the unit. Then, it gives you a heads up as to where the students are at, whether some of the words are familiar to them or they've already been exposed to them and which ones are completely unfamiliar.
For words that are going to be really critical and that appear over and over again, you might want to do a special focus and to do a Freier model or some other form of focus activity, to go into a little more depth as to what that words means and doesn't mean and some examples of it so that the student has more experience.
One of the things that's important to keep in mind with ELLs is that they say it takes seven to twelve meaningful exposures to a word before a student is able to use it themselves. But in my experience, for a beginning student whom all the words in are new, it takes many, many exposures before they're able to use a word with comfort.
Well, some of the ways that you could give students meaningful exposures to vocabulary might include, firstly, consciously using the word as many times as possible as a teacher.
I remember working with a very wonderful middle school teacher in the South Bronx, Gloria Sancho, and Gloria was a master at this, she had her big apple at the front of the room, with all of her vocabulary words on it and she would use each of those words so many times in the course of a lesson, pointing it out each time to the students. And I was always so impressed with that, but to be honest, any teacher can do that and if you don't have a big apple, you can use a word wall and do it just that way.
And giving the students lots of opportunity to interact with one another and with the teacher through think pair share type activities or any other interactive group activity would give students an opportunity to use the vocabulary.
I think visuals also help students to understand vocabulary and it's particularly critical with the very lowest level of English when they first come into the country, images help tremendously. And so the more you can use pictures, the better.
So the Freire model is one way in which you can give students more exposure to particularly important concept or word you'd like to focus on. And in the Freire model you have four boxes and each box has a heading, the first might be definition, so you'd write a definition of the word.
The second box might be for characteristics. The third one might be examples and the fourth non-examples. Now these headings are not fixed headings and you can change them, that particular set of headings might work really well for a math term, but it, another teacher might feel maybe they don't want to use non-examples and they might want a student to develop their own sentences independently or some other heading that would be appropriate to the topic.
But using this strategy repeatedly, students understand what it means and it helps them to have a deeper exposure to a word or a concept.
I think we're all familiar with the research that says that the students learn best when they are already somewhat familiar with the material, when they have some prior knowledge of a topic. And so that's why we try to activate the prior knowledge that a student has of a topic.
So there are a number of ways that we can do that. One of the most familiar is the KWL chart, where we ask the students up front what they know about the topic. It gives them a chance to help other members of the class to recall certain things and then what they would like to know about a topic.
And then later we would, at the end of the lesson, we'll come back and talk about what we actually learned. And there are variations on that, sometimes students may not know much about a topic before you tackle it and they might not be anything to put there, so one of the ideas that Janet Allen has is to build background. And she adds a column for building background and building prior knowledge.
One of the things I like to do is to get them writing on the theme that I was going to be discussing or that would come up in the reading that day.
And so if the story was really about luck, I might ask them to write about whether they thought they were a lucky person or not and to tell me why or why not. And that kind of writing activity is something that they found very engaging so they would get very involved in the topic and it would be a great segue into the story that we would read about.
The textbook challenge
If you look at academic text, you will find a lot of that it's usually written in the passive voice. And in the passive voice, the subject and object have been reversed in the sentence and this can be very confusing to an ESL student. They, generally speaking, have, it takes almost three years for them to start being able to understand passive voice.
So the textbooks that are written for native speakers are going to very, very challenging.
One way you can check the level of text is just to type a paragraph or even a few sentences of your text into a Word document. And then you can check under tools and options. You can check the Flesh Kincaid Reading Level and you'll find that virtually every textbook you use is written on eleventh- or twelfth-grade reading level. For your English language learners, they're going to need it to be written on more like a fourth- or fifth-grade reading level.
So if you can, please persuade administrators to invest in textbooks that are written for students with special needs or ELLs, but are written for high school content and this will be a tremendous investment because even if you have both native speakers and ELLs in your classroom, having a textbook that deals with the same topic but in simpler English may prove a great access point for an English language learner.
Textbooks contain, especially textbooks that are designed for English language learners, or students who might be reading on a lower level, generally contain a lot of elements that can be used to help preview material. Firstly, they contain usually the objectives of the unit. They tell you want you're going to be studying about.
They also give the core vocabulary, it really helps you, usually those vocabulary words are then highlighted throughout the text. It also contains pictures, maps, diagrams, headings, subheadings, captions. One of the things that a teacher can do is to teach these words and teach students to look for these.
One technique is called the Chapter Walk and you can preview a chapter by taking a chapter walk with your students. They can look for the headings, the subheadings. They can look at the pictures and the captions and they can predict what the chapter will be about.
And an activity like this make take some time at first the first times you use it because it's time consuming to teach. But if you use it with regularity it becomes quite simple, quite quick and effective and students are able to do this on their own.
It is so important to monitor students' comprehension. It's very easy to think that English language learners are understanding what's going on because every time you ask them if they understand, they'll say, "Yes." The trouble is that most of the time they don't, so it's really important that you do little comprehension checks.
And you can do this in a variety of ways and it's actually good to vary it. One way is just to ask them to explain the concept back to you or to explain the directions that you've given them back to you.
If you're asking them to do a writing assignment for a few minutes at the beginning of the class, which allows you to take care of your housekeeping, you can ask them something that will reveal what they understood of the previous day's lesson, what they understood about a concept you were teaching. You then have a chance to go around, just to take a quick look or to ask them to share around and you immediately understand how fully they grasped or failed to grasp. These are informal ways that you can check the comprehension.
More formally it's very important to assess what they are learning in a class and to set up constant, fairly frequent ways to assess their level of comprehension and the way that you do this, very similar according to the level of their English.
And it's quite challenging initially with low-level ESL students who may not have been here for very long. And you have to find ways for them to show what they know, to show what they have learned. I've been using graphic organizers that allow them to show the cause and effect of a certain event in history that might only require them to write a few words and give very clear prompts.
Anytime you're asking more detailed questions that are using a lot of vocabulary or more difficult syntax or grammatical structure, it's going to interfere with your discovering what they actually learned. So the whole point is to keep it simple, find out if they learned what you were targeting them for them to learn.
Invade vs. invite
I remember a student who confused the word "invade" with "invite" because they looked similar.
And she thought that France invited Hitler into the country in World War II rather then Hitler invading France. So even though invade was not one of the vocabulary words for that unit, it ended up having a really big impact on what the students understood. And sometimes you find even shockingly simple words, are words that students are not familiar with.
I found, once a couple of years ago, that students didn't understand what an event was and we'd been using that word repeatedly but they hadn't actually understood the word event. And so, I would, you almost can't check comprehension too frequently. Reduce the amount that you're trying to teach in a class.
Part II: Project-Based Learning
In my experience, English language learners generally enjoy working together. The difficulty is getting them all to work very effectively together on a task and for encouraging those students to be participants in the activity.
This, a teacher may have to use differentiation to make this happen. You may have to create a task that speaks to students' different language abilities, different content background and different learning styles and interests in order to get all students to participate.
Cooperative learning strategies are also very helpful in that if every student has a distinct role in the activity, they feel a sense of value and responsibility to the group. It can be a good idea to give a product. In other words, if a group is working on a specific product, they've been asked to create a poster and present the poster to the class.
Half of the grade is a group grade and so with the poster and the presentation of it, 50 percent of that grade is given to each student in the group, the other 50 percent is given individually based on a student's contribution to the whole and that way you keep each individual accountable, but at the same time, the degree to which they successfully worked together is also rewarded.
We were looking at climate change as a topic. I looked at the students in the room and I created an activity where we had, I had them take on a different role.
I had politicians, I had business leaders, social activists and responsible citizens. And each group had a little activity guide that they were to use as we learned about climate change. And for the students who had more English and more background in social studies, I gave them the more challenging roles which were the politician, the businessmen which proved to be the most challenging of all.
And for the students who were still struggling with language, they would find the responsible citizen, the simplest role to take on. But later I put each group together by having them take on a role in the Kyoto Accord and so I had my, my delegation from the United States, my delegation from China, a delegation from India and each delegation had a politician, a businessman, a responsible citizen and an activist. And together they formed a team who were the delegation who had to present their views and take questions.
Writing response journals
I tried to pick highly interesting material for them to read. I think this is, this is critical because if they're engaged in the material, they'll be far more likely to read.
Another thing that I did was to give them plenty of time to read independently. I like them to have the chance to read on their own, but I also wanted to make sure that they were actually reading, so usually what I would do is to give them a certain number of double-entry journal entries I wanted them to do for each chapter.
And a double-entry journal, generally I have them just copy a phrase or a sentence from the text and then, then the other half of the page to write their personal response to that: What did they think of when they read that? What personal connections did they make, or text-to-text connections? What were they thinking of?
It took a little time for me to get them not to tell me what it meant, they wanted to give me the interpretation, or paraphrase and I really wanted them instead to interact and respond to text. And so when we had something they enjoyed reading, they would typically enjoy doing their response journals.
Typically it would take about a month to have the whole class able to do response journals effectively and I would just have to take it the first few days, take the students who had completely understood the concept and having them put some responses on the board and also some non-responses so that we could look together at the responses and decide whether it was a response or a non-response.
And we do this almost day after day until they completely grasped it and this is like any strategy, but once we were doing that, I found the response journals extremely valuable at encouraging students to interact with their text. And as long as the text was interesting to them, that was a good thing.
Well, one of the things that I started from the very beginning as an ESL teacher was what I call the autobiography project. And here I should give full credit to my student teaching experience at the International High School at LaGuardia Community College in Queens where this was what we called their Beginnings Program.
And students had to make a book of their lives and when I went to teach in a large Bronx high school, I thought how wonderful it would be if my students had the experience to do this project also.
Basically there were about 16 different elements to this project and creating the cover and the table of contents, the timeline of their lives, their goals, their dreams, their most important people. Eventually what happened was that each assignment grew in complexity.
So at the beginning they might only have to write simple phrases, then they were writing sentences, then they were writing paragraphs. And before they knew it, they were writing an essay. And finally it would be essays, the story of their life, being the culminating piece. The students ended up with a book and we were, we actually had an industrial arts department in the school and we bound the books so that they each carried away the book of their lives. And it was a very powerful project in a number of ways, they loved it.
They competed for who, we'd share each week their pieces and they loved to share their work. But I think it made them think about what they wanted and how they were going to where they wanted to go. So if their goal was to become a doctor, we made them one of the parts of the project was to think about "Now, think back what do you have to do to become a doctor? What does that mean for you in high school, what does that mean for you this semester? What does that mean for you today?"
So we broke it down for them so they could see what it would take to go where they wanted to go. Now sometimes students would say, 12 more years of education, no, I'm picking something different. But that was a good thing whereas others embraced it and they really worked extremely hard to meet difficult targets. So I felt like the project was very helpful in getting students to feel a sense of purpose and to connect with why they were in school and what this meant for them.
Part III. Collaboration
Advice to content teachers
It's often really difficult for my colleagues who are content specialists to change the way that they teach and this is because they have so much that they feel they must teach in a certain course in order for students to pass what we in New York called the Regents exams which are what students need in order to graduate.
So teachers feel pushed by the curriculum, that they must teach a certain calendar of lessons and that they must reach certain objectives in order for students to succeed in high school. And they have this very deeply engrained and any suggestion that they may have to emphasize language and language skills, reading skills and writing skills, into their lessons is met with anxiety and resistance sometimes.
And so we really have to explain the process first and we try to teach language and content together so that students can be learning English language, they're learning content, but they may not be able to pass that critical test for quite awhile because they may not be able to read the level of text that they would have to read to pass that exam.
Or write the sophistication the sophistication level that the essays require. So it takes a lot more patience. ESL students may have to take those tests several time before they actually pass them. But we know that they can reach that goal ultimately and we want to help them to succeed, to have more opportunities in the future.
They may not be able to graduate in four years, it may take them five, it may even take them longer especially if they come to us as sophomores or juniors or even seniors. So we just have to help our colleagues understand the challenges our students face.
Teacher collaboration is really valuable and can help students to, to learn in many ways. It's wonderful when you're, the ESL teacher can meet with content teachers because you can explain things in a way that it is very hard for them to discover sometimes on their own.
If the ESL teacher is able to share the books that he or she is using with students, with content teachers and they can look at the difference between a level of English in those books, it's quite revealing. They might find that the English in their ESL class books is much, much simpler than what they are being asked to tackle in a content class.
And that might give a big heads up to the content teacher, they're going to have to simplify either the text or the language that they're using with students if they're really going to be successful in that class.
Planning for collaboration
Well, the best way for collaborations to happen is if an administration plans for them to happen because having common planning time or common time to discuss student progress is really important and if it's a priority to us, we should plan for it. So ideally, there is common time to discuss student progress and to discuss their academic needs. And this is the ideal situation.
When this doesn't occur, I think, where there's a will there's a way and if you really want it to happen, then you'll find a way — the teacher work room, whether it's over lunch or whatever, to setup informal conversations. Another possibility is if the ESL program can use grant funding to fund teachers outside of the regular school day, talking about their English language learners.
I think there are a number of things that teachers that are of English language learners can do to help their students through the rest of our school life and obviously the ideal scenario is that the school has planned for this and is providing real opportunities for teachers to meet together and discuss the needs of the students.
And then I would say it would be great if the teachers would share the types of materials they use, some of the specific challenges that students face, the types of assignments that they receive that they can do successfully and some of their specific challenges. They can also talk about strategies that they use to help students show what they know.
Now where this doesn't happen, we're teachers, we talk and we just hear our colleagues talking about students and so when you hear your colleague talking about those students, you can pipe up, be an advocate, speak up for your students, share a little bit about what they're experiencing and some of their strengths and what you know about them.
Maybe you know that you saw their report card from or a transcript from their previous country and you know that they're very strong students and it's just going to be a matter of time before they're superstars in the school. But whatever you can do there, our students need our advocacy. So please speak up for them.
Part IV: College
I think what every ESL teacher needs to do is to help students understand how they can succeed in an American high school. Teach them about their report card, teach them how to read it and what it means. Teach them about their transcript. Also teach them to understand the difference between a stronger and a weaker transcript.
So that they understand if they want to go to a four-year college, what it needs to look like. If they want to go to a competitive college, what it needs to look like. And it doesn't mean that that's every student's destiny, but it's a setting, a setting for them what they need to do if this is what they want.
And I think that's very important because often they don't understand anything about a transcript. So that's basic, transcript education.
I'd say another thing that's really critical is sharing successes. So if you have a graduating class, take pictures of the students, put them up on the wall, put the college they're going to or the program they're going into, and what they're going to study.
And I found that every year when I put that bulletin board up, the students would flood to the board to see everyone's picture and where they were going and what they were studying. And it was incredibly encouraging because it said to students, "If he can do it, I can do it."
Because they knew as ESL students, their ESL classes were not grade-based, so they would often be in the same classes as a senior student, so they knew some of these students and it was very encouraging.
Often a college advisor doesn't have the time to spend with an individual student to give them the guidance they need and so one thing I have done is to have after-school hours with senior students so that they can come in, we can go through the application process with them.
Typically we talk through which colleges they should be applying to and we have a range of colleges from their dream school to their safe schools. And they have to fill out their forms and show me before they type them in online and hit the send button. So I'd like to check everything they do make sure they have understood the questions fully and they've answered all of the questions. And then I like to work with them on their essays and their scholarship projects. It really does help.
Now one thing my first assistant principal did for me was to tell I should not do that without being paid and so she made me write grants and every year we wrote a grant that covered a lot of that work after school.
And so there is a lot of funding out there for helping ELLs and it's always a thought that if you got together with some of your colleagues, maybe one person could do the college advising, somebody could teach them SAT prep and help students to be familiar with what they have to do and follow through.
And before I forget, they need help with the FAFSA form too.
I'm an immigrant myself and I found it so hard coming here and finishing my degree in this country, just trying to negotiate what you have to do to get into college and then I didn't even realize the first year I qualified for financial aid, so my own experience led me to want to help others.
Teaching English language learners is fun. It's really enjoyable cause most of the time they really want to learn, they want to communicate, they want to succeed and it's a pleasure to teach them. But it is much, much harder for them to learn in that the language is a barrier.
They often extremely intelligent and they're very frustrated by their lack of English and there are certain skills that a teacher can use to help students to learn and those are really important and so if we can do anything to help our colleagues who are content area specialists to learn some of these techniques, it's a wonderful thing.
Christine Rowland is a retired teacher and professional developer who spent many years at the UFT Teacher Center at Christopher Columbus High School in Bronx, NY. A native of England, Rowland spent her teaching career in high schools in New York City, where many of her incoming high school students are recent newcomers to the United States. She also worked in the former BOE Office of Bilingual Education as a citywide professional developer focusing on Bronx high schools. She began teaching English as a Second Language at John F. Kennedy High School in 1992.