Susan Lafond is a Nationally Board Certified veteran educator of ELLs, professional development leader, and advisor and contributor to Colorín Colorado. She is also a founding member of the American Federation of Teachers' English Language Learner (ELL) Cadre. In her current role as an Assistant in Educational Services with New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), she focuses on regulations and educational issues related to ELLs and ENL/Bilingual programs, as well as creating and organizing professional development across the state needed to positively impact classroom instruction for ELLs.
In this interview, Susan shares strategies and best practices for teaching ELLs, tips for effective collaboration and professional development, ideas for parent outreach, and recommendations for supporting ELLs who are applying for college.
Strategies for Teaching ELLs
Strategy: Previewing vocabulary
Previewing is very important because first of all, there are a lot of vocabulary words students won’t know, so when you preview, teachers need to make the decision, “What words are really important? What do I need to pre-teach in this?” And as you pre-teach vocabulary words, you want to engage students in activities. They need to participate in activities, practice, practice, practice in multi-modals, using your multiple intelligences. Maybe they act them out, maybe they sing them, maybe they’re doing a kinesthetic activity with them.
So you’re getting students to do activities, engage in activities as learners, thinking about these strategies as they’re doing them. They’ll actually be able to retain the words longer, and then when they read in their textbook or whatever material they’re using, they’ll recognize the words and it won’t be a difficulty, and then they may understand the words around that understanding the vocabulary words that have been identified.
But it’s very important to choose the words that are critical. And then, of course, these words will increase as they continue to do that. So the retention is important, having students use the words in their own way as well. They need to have them become their own.
Strategy: Pre-teaching content
If a teacher wants to pre-teach a little bit on the content, there are several strategies you can use. One of them is a taxonomy and students would brainstorm associated vocabulary with whatever concept that you are teaching. You can also at that point highlight vocabulary words that are critical with that content or that concept and then students would be able to share and interact and add to that. So whether they don’t know as much or they’re more knowledgeable in that, all students would be able to add to their taxonomies and then that’s such a nice resource to use, especially at the end of a unit when students want to review those.
Another thing that may not be used as much is multimedia. I happen to be very fortunate to use a Smart-board and bringing in little video clips was very helpful, showing, there’s some free web sites out there, there’s some pay web sites that you, if you want to pre-teach a concept, do a little
showing. You may have a video clip that you want to show students.
What’s a nice cheap way is how about a children’s book, bring in a children’s book, doesn’t have to have words, it could, it doesn’t matter, but showing the pictures and letting students know what it is that you will be covering, also sharing your objectives of where they’re going to be going with that so they’ll know what they’re going to do with that information.
Strategy: How well did you understand that?
Teachers can monitor students’ comprehension whether it be reading or listening skills. You may say, “If you really understood what I said, put up a five. If you understood some of what I said, give me a three. If you maybe understood one or two things, give me a one. If you’re uh-uh, give me a zero.”
Now students, of course, they want to please the teacher because they’re afraid you’ll be upset if they told you the truth that you didn’t do a good job and they got nothing. So I like to do this where nobody can see. So everybody has to put their heads on the desk, close their eyes, and do their hands anonymously so nobody can see. It’s a private thing between them and me, and I tell them, “You’re not going to hurt my feelings. But what you’ll do is give me an idea of maybe where I need to go back and check my instruction because maybe I didn’t do something right or maybe there’s a better way to reach you, and I didn’t find that way yet.” So that’s a good way to monitor for them, but it also helps me monitor my teaching.
You can do a think-pair-share after you do a brief lecturette, have them think about something or even give that question before so they know to focus on during your lecturette, have them think about their answer as a personal answer. They can share out with a partner some ideas of what they got. So if they didn’t get an idea, they could maybe hear somebody else’s idea. Or that may, hearing someone else talk about an idea may stimulate what they did hear or may make that connection that they were missing.
And then there’s your accountability is asking the students to share out by calling on students, by not saying everybody will share, only some of you. It’s kind of like the lottery, hey, you never know. And that keeps them a little bit more focused of, “Uh-oh, I better participate in this.” So, there’s another quick way to monitor comprehension.
Strategy: Ticket in, ticket out
Another one is a ticket in, ticket out, where students are coming to the classroom and you stand at the door and, “You can’t get through the door until you give me two things that you remember from yesterday’s lesson that you feel are pretty important,” or it may be on the homework. “I want you to tell me one problem you had with the homework and something that the homework helped you to become more clear with.”
You can have a ticket out which is the same way. “You’re not walking past me through this door until you’ve shared out one main point, two things that you think you need to go home and study tonight,” whatever it may be. Having students think about what you’ve talked about, what they’ve taken in, what they haven’t, and then that would give you an opportunity to, perhaps, adapt your lesson, do a little modification based on what you heard them say.
How cognates can help ELLs
What’s really important about teaching cognates is it helps the students who are learning their second language to make connections to their first language, to see that everything’s not in a vacuum, but things are related. Also, cognates help with the study of words. If students do speak a Latin-based language, then you can show the similarities in a variety of different languages or even the Germanic based on where we get out vocabulary words from, where we get our words from. Sometimes you’ll see Arabic influences, and it’s neat to show that for students so they can make that connection. It helps to memorize it. It also helps with fix-up strategies because as students read, they need to break down the word to figure out what it means. And sometimes recognizing parts of it will help them in understanding what the vocabulary word is.
Best Practices for Teaching ELLs
Why ELLs need scaffolding
Scaffolding is even more critical for English language learners because English language learners were not here from birth or kindergarten when school started, so they may have missed a concept that was taught prior in the curriculum and they’re coming in 4th grade or they’re coming in 8th grade, they’re coming in 10th grade. And they don’t know certain concepts that teachers expect them to know. So, again, it’s important that you teach them what it is, a definition that they understand the concept, and then they can scaffold up in their understanding of that concept to fit in with experiences of their own so they can understand the concept at a higher level.
How a structure and routine can help ELLs feel comfortable
If students don’t feel comfortable, they’re not going to take the risk. If they don’t risk, they’re not going to learn. So that predictability gives a nice, stable environment where they feel comfortable, comfortable to make mistakes, comfortable to grow and to learn. So having that structure helps them to, “That’s one last thing I have to worry about, and I don’t have to focus on making a mistake anymore the way I’m speaking,” because they know how things will be, then you’re opened up to learning new ideas because you don’t have to worry about the foundation things.
Understanding the rules and expectations of the classroom
English language learners, it’s helpful for them to know the rules and have teachers go over those rules and expectations with them because as they’re coming in, whatever grade level they’re coming in, they weren’t in our American school system from kindergarten all the way up, where students know, if you want to share something, you have to raise your hand and you take turns. And there are certain rules that teachers will always bring out that may be different for students from other countries cause they’re coming from a whole different school system. So as they understand what the expectations are, they can follow them. It’ll help them fit in a little better too. It really helps them to acclimate and to acculturate into the society.
Terms to know: BICS and CALP
Two very well-known terms in pedagogy with your English language learners: BICS, CALP. BICS is your “basic interpersonal communication skills” and we call that the playground language, the social language, that’s the “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine, how are you?” And the academic language is called the CALP, cognitive academic language proficiency.
Now as students acquire a language, they first go through the BICS stage, the “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine, what’s your name?” “My name is Mary.” “Nice to meet you, Mary.” “You too.” And they pick that up within a year or two, really some students pick it up a lot faster, some kids have some prior English and go through that stage very quickly.
The CALP takes basically five to seven years and depending on the student, sometimes longer, sometimes less. And that’s the content language that helps them to be successful in their content classes. And there’s a big discrepancy where a student maybe socializing in your class and you feel, “Oh, they’re really language proficient, they understand English.”
They take their first test and they bomb it, why, the academic language proficiency is not there. So of course as a teacher, you would want to work with the student, bring into your lesson activities that would help hone that cognitive academic language proficiency.
And the SIOP method, the sheltered instruction observation protocol as a lesson plan format, is very helpful in helping a student reach that cognitive academic language proficiency, the content language. And again, keep in mind, it will take a couple of years, so you can’t expect it at the end of the one year, at the end of two years, it’s going to be longer.
What I love about teaching ELLs
What I love most about working with English language learners is really seeing, visually seeing their progress, sometimes in one day, but over a short period of time, seeing their progress, it’s just so rewarding. When you do help a student and you see the light bulb go on, their faces lit up with comprehension, their smiles and going on to be successful, coming back and sharing with us, that
means so much. What you put into any student and you get back is more than you can ask for.
Grading and Assessment
Matching expectations and grades for ELLs
It’s important not to grade your English language learners in comparison to native speakers because clearly they’re not the same proficiency level of language, nor do they have the experience, the culture, et cetera. So, teachers need to know what can I expect of this student? Knowing that you are assessing based on the student’s progress is really important.
And knowing proficiency level what you can expect. And I know on the Internet, many of the states do have posted for teachers, what you can expect in all the four skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing, for students of different proficiency levels. So it’s really critical to take a look at that to say what is reasonable to have students demonstrate their understanding without taking away points for the lack of proficiency or the lack of language?
What is the question asking you to do?
Sometimes schools say, “We need a workshop in how to help students take tests.” Well, not really. What you want to do is have students be able to understand what the questions are saying, and this doesn’t have to be on a formalized test, this could be just on a classroom test. So it’s understanding the question, what is the question asking? Is it a right-there question, where the answer is right there and I just have to look at it? Is it a question that’s more of a search and find? It’s gonna be around here a little bit here, a little bit there, and I need to put them together. Is it an author and me question where I need to relate to this myself and bring out my own experience? What you actually teach the students is how to understand the question. What is the question asking you to do?
It’s ok to write on tests
Many students are afraid to write on a test, but to go in there and underline and to circle. Math tests, especially word problems, going in there, marking things up, writing, translating, whatever helps the student to feel comfortable. And it maybe takes away that scariness of the test by marking all over it and making it mine and “Ha ha, I got it for you.” So it just helps a student feel a little bit more comfortable, and they tend to do better.
Doing the groundwork before recommending an ELL for special education testing
I would be cautious in encouraging teachers to recommend their ELLs for special education or testing for special education without a lot of groundwork prior. Many times teachers are comparing your English language learner to the native speakers and of course seeing them behind in their skills. If these are
students with interrupted formal education, they’re not going to be one or two grade levels below, they maybe many, many years below the ability of their peers.
I would also look at, if there is the prior education level, to see what, how do they perform in their country, in their own first language? That’s a real good indicator of do they need special services?
I also think a decision should not be made by solely one faculty member, it needs to be looked at by a committee, maybe a child study team. And you have observations, definitely go in and observe this student in several classes, in the ESL class, in some of the different content classes, in a content class
where the student does well versus where a student doesn’t do well.
Look at a variety as much as you can and really do a lot of groundwork before I go and say, “Alright, I think we need to test this student.” When you do test the student, of course you have to have a lot of communication with the parent and it needs to be done in their language. And they need to understand what will be the process and what you’re looking to do if a student is identified as having special needs and maybe a learning disability.
Matching students with the right book
To find a right level book, you have to be careful not to turn them away from something that may be more challenging, but you can also do a little book talk. And having a library in the classroom helps, or having a very good relationship with your librarian or library media specialist is equally important.
Knowing the books that are out there for students is good because then you, it’s like matchmaking. You match the student to the book because of the level, but also if you know their interests. And I always try to intersperse independent reading with guided reading or books that I wanna specifically cover, or stories, short stories that I wanted to cover in class because it allowed students to delve into some of their personal interests that I may not be able to address in the classroom.
When a book isn’t the right fit
Sometimes you want a student to get to a book and they say, “Oh, I’m on chapter three and I don’t get it.” Not a problem because a book is a book is a book. “Let’s go find a different one.” And that’s OK to do. And when they do independent reading, they’re going to get to that. And if they think they have to understand every book they read and they don’t read it, they may shut down, saying, “I’m not a reader, I’m not supposed to read, and I’ll never read again.” So, it’s good to say, “Hey, that book didn’t match for you, not a problem, let’s try another one.”
Skills ELLs gain through independent reading
English language learners will pick up culture. There is so much culture embedded in all books we read.
They may pick up, if they pick up a fictional book versus non-fictional, they may pick up skills, thinking skills such as inference. Making connections, you always want to see the text to self and self to the world, so there’s a lot of thinking skills that are picked up here. But they also gain the skills in reading comprehension. So it’s important that students find words that they don’t understand and see, hey wait a minute, how can I figure this out? So monitoring their reading, using their fix-up strategies, help them become independent readers, and hopefully proficient readers.
Parent Outreach to ELL Families
Steps for building relationships with parents
All educators, whether administrators, whether they’re content teachers, whether they’re ESL teachers, whether they’re bilingual teachers, whether they’re special ed teachers, can reach out to parents of English language learners. Most importantly is to understand what the parents don’t understand.
So meeting the needs before the parents can express that need, offering them resources, whether it be classes in English, whether it be understanding the American school system. It may be saying, “Here’s what we expect from parents of students in our district.” By verbalizing that, parents will understand and then be able to do those expected behaviors you’re looking for. Offering workshops for parents, providing translators, translators at meetings - everything that goes home should be translated anyway, student’s grades, notices from the school and that will begin that contact. The more ways that parents have to communicate with teachers, you’re going to find that those lines of communication will be used.
Parent-teacher conferences at the mall
I have conducted several parent/teacher/student/translator conferences in malls, in restaurants and in family homes. So it’s, we need to know that parents may not feel comfortable coming to the school, may not have the time in their work schedule to come to school, may not have the transportation to come to our school. And so we need to go to parents. If we want to build a relationship, we need to have parents interacting and participating. And it may be that we have to go to them, that we need to initiate rather than wait for them to call us and say, “How’s my child doing?” or “I have a problem,” go to them.
What I love about Colorín Colorado
I especially love the website, because they give so much information to parents in English for parents who may speak English, they give a lot of information in Spanish as well. And it really helps to bridge the gap because it… it understands what information parents may not have. And it anticipates that and meets those needs.
Tips for Collaboration
Sharing information about ELLs with other teachers
The first thing I do, very beginning of the year, before school even starts, I sit down, I check out the students’ schedules, I shoot off an email to every teacher of an ELL student to say, “Guess what, you have an ESL student in your class,” and I just give the student’s name and how to pronounce the name so they can pronounce it correctly.
Then, usually after that initial information, then by the 3rd week of school, I will have been working on a very long narrative explanation, a description of each student, each of my students. Now, I was fortunate where I never went over 36 students, that may be more difficult for other teachers, or you have to adapt and you have to find what works best for you.
But I was able to write a nice narrative describing the student, their background, where they came from, when they came, why they came, how old they were, what challenges they’re facing, their level, the proficiency level, how teachers could, very quickly how they could modify instruction, and what my expectation was for the content teacher on grading.
Creating an ELL newsletter for colleagues
I also, for collaboration, would produce a newsletter, a monthly newsletter. I gave a lot of information. I would them catch up on some things they needed to know, usually timely topics such as how to create a positive environment for your student, about grading, contacting parents, spotlight on a language of a student. So if some neat phrases that a teacher could learn and use with a student.
A lot of professional development. I’d always how what’s coming up in the area for professional development whether it’s something in the schools, it’s something I’m offering, or it’s something else in the area that they may be interested in going to based on their interest.
So these newsletters were a nice link out to teachers that, for the ones I didn’t get to their classroom, I didn’t get to go see, they still felt supported because advocacy is such a huge part of working with ELs, advocacy for the student. But at the same time, it’s advocacy with the teacher. It’s supporting the teacher because if the teacher doesn’t feel comfortable, then the learning may not take place for the EL.
Establishing a collaborative relationship based on respect
I also laid out our relationship and how I would like to see the relationship and building up that mutual respect. If you don’t have mutual respect between the content teacher and the ESL teacher, then the content teachers may erroneously think that the ESL teacher is the homework buddy, is the person who’s going to teach the content when the student’s out of the class because they realize the student didn’t understand that. And they don’t know many times that ESL has its own standards.
The ESL teacher is an advocate
The role of the ESL teacher is as an advocate for the students, it’s realizing what the student needs and how to find that because of course you can’t do everything. And it’s easier saying, well, “I’ll just do that” and then something else comes along and, “I’ll do that too, I’ll do that, I’ll do that… that, that,
That.” And you end up juggling so much and you’re really doing a disservice, but it’s collaborating as well. So advocating for the student but collaborating with others, in that way it’s mutually beneficial for everybody.
Inviting teachers to the ESL classroom
Another think I liked to do was to invite teachers into my classroom. Let them see the students in a different environment. When you’re English language learners are in the regular classes they don’t talk, they don’t participate, they’re very quiet, and they may think that they can’t speak English as well as they really can. I encourage them to come to my classroom, not that it’s a zoo, but the students are participating. Students are raising their hands. Students are called on and producing answers. So it’s nice for them to see the student in that environment where it’s very comfortable for them and they’re willing to risk and answer questions, and the teacher gets a better idea of what that student can do.
High-Quality Professional Development
Teachers need to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to their professional development
Quality professional development is something that takes in the needs of the audience. Similar to our class of teaching students, if we teach students what they already know, it’s useless for them, okay, if we teach the same way, the same information. Same with quality professional development, you need to see where the teachers are and where they want to go and then help them to get there. But you can’t tell them it. A lot of times you have to uncover for them and they need to discover, just like content we teach students.
If teachers can take something and implement it the next day, it’s useful. If you tell them wonderful things and they never go anywhere with it, it’s kind of a waste. So it’s important that teachers be in the driver’s seat when it comes to their own professional development, that they go, that they look for what they’re… what they feel the needs, their own needs are. That they also work with their district, their administration, other teachers to verbalize, “This is what we feel that we need to work on professionally,” and work toward that.
Using what you have learned in professional development
For teachers, once they hear information from a workshop, from a course, then what they need to do is have the opportunity to practice it in their classroom and then maybe get back with the group of people who are also doing the same, share out what worked, what didn’t work.
Get ideas from each other, get re-energized. Sometimes you try a couple things and you don’t have success and you give up, but that’s not what you want to do. Instead what you want to do is persevere, try, go through, you know there’s going to be challenges because if it was easy you would have adopted
whatever it was long ago.
But work together, work as a team, collaborate, help one another and to grow professionally. Professional learning communities has become quite popular as teachers are becoming involved in their professional development, you may find a really good professional development is a book group or a study group on particular topic of interest. Then again you are in the driver’s seat, you know what you want, you know where you want to go or maybe you don’t know where you want to go, but you’re willing to take a couple of different paths and find out what’s going to be best for you.
Finding and creating opportunities for professional development
It’s interesting the challenges teachers face in obtaining professional development and I think that you’ll find some teachers have a lot of quality professional development there at their fingertips but may not take advantage of it. And you may find other teachers who may be in areas where there’s nothing available and that’s really sad because they have the desire but not the opportunity.
So I think again to create a professional development committee, saying, “This is what we’re looking for,” working with administration, having all the stakeholder groups represented on that committee so everybody has a voice in what professional development they’d like to see, how they’d like to see that
play out in their school, in their building, in their district, and then they can bring in perhaps professional development, quality speakers, quality deliverers of the professional development. Some areas have teacher centers where a lot of professional development is available for them in the form of workshops,
online classes, courses, graduate courses, in-service. So it’s important to find out what’s out there and if you’re interested, take advantage of it.
Preparing ELLs to Apply for College
Helping students to prepare for college
Teachers can do many things to help students prepare for college. The first thing they need to do is to express the expectation or the possibility at as a young of a level as you have those students. If you have middle school students, start them in seventh grade.
If you have elementary, bring it out in kindergarten. If you have them in high school, you don’t start in 12th grade when they should be preparing to go to college, you start them in ninth grade, what they can be doing in 9th grade, what they can be doing in 10th grade, 11th grade and 12th grade when it comes to taking standardized tests, when they can start looking into financial aid options, going to visit colleges, filling out applications, getting recommendations. It really is a how-to and “what to do when” with a great check off so students can see where they are in that process.
Strategies for helping ELLs apply to college
Students that come to our country are very unfamiliar with the way our application processes for college, let alone paying for it, the price is a real wake-up call for them. And some students may be afraid, “Oh my goodness, I’d never be able to afford tuition for a four-year private college.” However, there are a lot scholarships, endowments, grants, there’s many ways to make funding available. But students aren’t aware of this and their parents are even less so. So having workshops for parents, translated into their language where you bring them in, you make everybody aware of the process, working with the students one-on-one, working with them in groups, working with your counseling center, collaborating, get everybody in this together to help out because it is a big activity to undertake alone.
And already their native English speakers are doing this, they are doing this and their parents are working with them. So what you need to do is get the students in the track, with everybody else in helping them out. Of course they’re going to have more specific questions than other students may have. But some of the general ones of what’s the difference between early action and early decision? Or how do I apply for financial aid? Should I go into a two-year college or a four-year college? Should I stay local or should I go away? So some of these questions all students have and everybody is going to hear the same answer and that’s fine for them.
Susan Lafond, a Nationally Board Certified Teacher in English as a New Language (EAYA ENL), has 20 years of combined experience teaching ESL and foreign language. As an Assistant in Educational Services with New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), she focuses on regulations and educational issues related to English learners (ELs) and ENL/Bilingual programs, as well as creating and organizing professional development across the state needed to positively impact classroom instruction for ELs in districts.
Susan was appointed to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) English as a New Language Standards Committee in February 2009 to review and revise the existing English as a New Language Standards. She was a teacher representative of the Common Core State Standards Initiative ELA Work Group for the NGA and CCSSO in 2009-2010. She has been serving on the AFT National English Language Learner Educator Cadre since 2004 and currently serves on AFT's Professional Learning Advisory Group.
Susan is an expert practitioner and advisor to Colorín Colorado, for which she develops and edits materials for the web site. Her most recent article for Colorín Colorado is on culturally responsive teaching. She was featured in their Watch and Learn in the ELL Classroom, an online professional development series, and participated as an expert panelist for the four-part webcast, English Language Learners on Adlit.org. She was lead course designer and developer for the ELL Module, Instructional Supports for the Common Core and Beyond: English Language Learners, for the AFT Common Core Resources Kit.