Category Archives: ELL

Mountains in Many Languages

How do you say that in your language?

As more of our students move away from the “Entering” level of WIDA’s English Language Development scale and move toward “Developing,” we need to up the ante.

Our class is all about oral proficiency.

IMG_0487When students can start to express themselves in English, they can start to make use of something we in the ELL world call transfer–when they are able to move knowledge gained in their first language to knowledge in the new language.

It’s not something that always happens automatically; if it did, we could all be able to quickly move from babbling on like children to having academic conversations in a second language as soon as we had the words and grammar structures to express ourselves fully. Yet we see it all the time: well-educated students who start school in the United States and find everything–EVERYTHING–so hard to do.

And many of us have experienced it ourselves: I may know all the words for buying tickets in another language, but every time I go to a country where I’m not relying on English, I get a little confused and nervous about the transactions. Even going to Great Britain or Canada can put one off a bit: The circumstance, the currency, the math, the geography, the background knowledge we have around purchasing tickets–all that cannot be trusted anymore and makes the task that much harder.

So what we can do as teachers is to show students that they do have that language base, and that by practicing, the task will get easier.

We are now in quarter 4, and it’s a bit late to try to transfer students into new classes, even if there were room in the courses where we would put them. We only have five days each left of blue and white days on the block schedule. This is a time for wrapping up the year rather than to start afresh.

But these students have grown beyond our survival English class. They are ready to take on the world NOW. So we’ve decided to launch into a geography unit to prepare them for one of their classes next year. The social studies teacher says one of the most difficult parts of the course is to get them to memorize landforms and biomes.

Two weeks ago, my partner teacher and I went to a SLIFE (Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education) conference with Helaine Marshall and Andrea DeCapua in Massachusetts. There, we learned about the Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm, or MALP.  At the link here, you can download a copy of the checklist. But basically it comes down to this:

  • Making the lesson relevant
  • Maintaining interconnectedness
  • Incorporating Shared and Individual accountability
  • Scaffolding written word through oral interaction
  • Incorporating tasks that require academic thinking
  • Making tasks accessible through familiar language

Because our class is oral, I’ve focused on that to begin with. And this has backing from the realm of brain-based learning as well. Janet Zadina cautions teachers against focusing on lecture alone:

Too often we study just by repeating the receptive pathway; firing and wiring it, by having students see or hear the material repeatedly. That is not very effective. We want students to activate their neural network and recreate, reassemble, and retrieve the information.–Dr. Janet Zadina

So here’s the plan:

We’ve been asking our class to find pictures of words on their ipads. Then we ask them to find that in their own countries and share that picture in a file. The ones below were the ones the shared with me of “mountains.”

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As soon as we got those photos together, we asked for an artist to make a picture of a IMG_0488mountain and for everybody else to write–if they knew–the word for “mountain” in their own language.

Here’s what we got.

Not bad, huh?

So the one thing that’s missing from this is the academic task. We will learn  how to define terms in English. Categorizing. Such a huge skill. Then, I think I’m going to ask them to create their own flashcards or their own display, perhaps using Animoto, Thinglink or Explain Everything.

The coolest thing about this unit, though, is that students are chatting each other up. The boat picture at the top of the post? The one in the lake? They had to ask me what that was, then they shared words for that. There are some languages in our classroom, Burmese and Karen, for example, that are very close and share words. And sometimes Arabic and Somali can have some similarities in how the words are pronounced.

It’s so wonderful to see them stretching themselves, but most of all, to see them reaching across language subgroups.

It’s a beautiful thing.


Please Mr. Postman: Christmas in April

Every year, we order Christmas cards. And every year, we order too many. And we have a good dozen or so that sit, undelivered, collecting dust.Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 10.25.15 PM

But this year, it’s Christmas in April.

We’ve been working at writing addresses, remembering phone numbers… And I really thought we should figure out WHY we needed to know our addresses. So I took all these cards to school and we’ve been practicing on a worksheet, getting us ready for the real thing.

And the day finally came.


All of the students were instructed to follow a model I drew on the whiteboard. They had to copy my address from the board onto the envelope, and in the addressee spot, they had to write their own address, including ZIP code.

If you never send a letter, why would you ever need a ZIP code???

I had intended to go to the post office after school and to buy stamps. I was going to take pictures of putting them on and sliding the envelopes into the slot. But another partner teacher who was observing just happened to have poinsettia Forever stamps.

What’s a letter without a stamp? You have to know where the stamp goes.

So amazing, the questions that came up, needing to know where the stamps go and which way, how high up to write their own addresses, whether or not they could use lines… So cute, the whole thing.

So they got them ready, slid the cards into their envelopes and sealed them. That was a whole thing. Do we really have to lick them??? One student tried to use his water bottle so he wouldn’t have to lick the glue!

And now we wait.

Did it work?

Will the post office be able to decipher their writing?  … anticipation!

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    • I can say hello and goodbye in a polite way
    • I can introduce myself and others
    • I can fill out a form with my name, address, phone number and birth date
    • I can complete a simple online form (job application info)
    • I am able to give personal identification information

Post-It Note Body Parts

Face, Girl, Smile, View


That’s all we’re looking for.

Joy in learning.

And it can happen.

So as part of our learning with body parts–mostly so students can have the vocabulary they need to be able to go to the nurse’s office and say what’s wrong and how much it hurts–we decided to spend a little more time teaching the names of body parts.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 10.05.27 PMWe did this recently, asking students to draw themselves and label the parts. This was all heavily scaffolded. Then we came back to the pictures a couple of days later and asked them to write the words (if they knew them) in another language. I did one in German. I learned German ages ago, when I was in high school and then became a foreign exchange student. But it’s been decades since I’ve really used it. Nice party trick, though.

But we needed something to reinforce those words. And we fell upon sticky notes. What can bring more joy, more smiles, than seeing your teacher covered in sticky notes?

Repetition = retention.

And joy.

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Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 10.05.27 PM

My Body, My Health 

    • Able to express a minimum of 8 feelings (happy, sad, angry, cold, hot, hungry, thirsty, sick…)
    • Able to express some medical situations (headache, stomachache, period, sore throat)
    • Identify major body parts

Connecting over distances


While we were at a conference to learn about Students with Limited or Interrupted Schooling (SLIFE), our students were working on opposites, connecting with us via email and messaging, and describing selves and family members.

They didn’t quite get to families, but we are well on our way. And the fact that we got anything while a sub was there–our first real sub of the year, where neither of us was in the room–is quite impressive.

Kudos to Carolyn for pulling it off, honestly.

Opposites are so important when learning how to describe. We so often describe ourselves by not only physical features but how we separate ourselves from others. We did this using a framing app. Not the best I’ve ever used. So I’ll keep looking for one that is easy to navigate.

He is tall; I am short. I am big; she is little…

We’re so good at categorizing in English, putting things into boxes…

We’re going to start using Animoto as we move forward. It’s a fun website and app, and it’s easy to use. With students just beginning to learn English, it’s well-suited for using sentence frames and gives enough choice that students can create slideshows that look vastly different, even if they are all using the same sentences. It helps us meet that graduate expectation of creativity, which is so hard at this level. Since they are limited by the words they know, they have to be given other avenues for choice and voice.

The one here is an example of an Animoto video.

And now… VACATION!

We LOVE Multilingualism!

IMG_1933We’ve been learning the names for body parts in our class. We drew silly pictures of ourselves (I drew Ms. King… Can you see the IMG_2923resemblance???) And we labeled all the major body parts in English.

School board member Brian Cina came to visit that day. His picture was really life-like!

To reinforce, we used sticky notes and labeled each other. I don’t have those pictures yet, but if I get them, you can bet I’ll post.

And then, a few days later, we took those same posters and connected them back to native languages.

For English Language Learners, it’s imperative that we help to make those connections from what they know to what they need to know. That’s called scaffolding. I’ve been reading an amazing book–Multiple Pathways to the Student Brain by Janet Nay Zadina–and she says that one way to learn new material is recognizing patterns, repeating until it’s just known. And recognizing patterns releases dopamine (!), the feel-good chemical.

So we asked our students to repeat the names again and again, label the pictures, label each other, and then, just to bring it home, asked them to bring it back to the familiar.

And we made a DISPLAY!!! (Cue trumpets!) And the students really took pride in their work (something else that Zadina says brings the learning home).

So take a look! (We were also still playing with the new math manipulatives that we got recently… Fun in and out of the classroom!)

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We get by with a little help…

I’m going to start by saying thank you. Thank you to my sister and to my two sweet friends without whom I would not have the tools I desire to teach.

DonorsChoose is an AMAZING tool for teachers that allows us to ask for what we want and for people who love us to help us get it.

And we just got toys.

Yep. Toys.

Money, paper and plastic coins.


Fraction circles.



TONS of math manipulatives. And we let our students play.

What must it be like to grow up where school is memorization? Where 60 students in a room is not unusual?

And we get to change it.

In the words of my mother, also in her time a glorious supporter of my hairbrained projects, “Isn’t it just grand?”

Yeah, Mama. It is!

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Solution to testing woes? Party planning!

We are in the middle of the WIDA ACCESS testing window.

And this test is a bear!

boardEvery student on our caseload must be tested individually in speaking, then there are group tests for reading, writing and listening. The writing test alone is supposed to take an hour.

It’s killer.

So what’s the antidote? Especially after such a long, harsh winter?


We just finished a unit not long ago on money, learning the names of coins and their denominations. We added, determined coin values, compared values… It was great.

Then we started testing. It was sad. Students who know they know stuff in their first language were discouraged. We got through it, but not without hard feelings. And that’s not the community we have been working so hard to build this year in this classroom.

Last week, Suzy had them write invitations to teachers they wanted to invite to the party. And all the students who graduated out of our class would be coming as well. They were asked to send an email to me (I was in Toronto at the TESOL conference… more on that later) to ask me if I would be there and to ask what I would bring.

It’s so important teaching them how to write emails and how to respond. It’s no longer expected that this is a new skill… It’s just expected.

So Monday, we sent emails answering the question, “What will you bring to the party?” They had to search for and send a picture of what they would bring so we could show the class. We made a list of things we should buy for the party. We teachers each pitched in, and we instructed students that whatever we bought had to inthestorecome in at less than $60. We had to think about all the things we needed, then find the prices. We went to the local supermarket’s webpage and searched for the items, then we reported out costs.

So on Tuesday, we went shopping. It had to be a quick trip, because Lindsay from Center for Mindful Learning was coming. We sent students off to look at the signs in the aisles and locate the items on our list, keeping in mind our budget and our guest list. When one student came back with 25 plates, we had to remind them that maybe we would have more than 25 people, and we might have to use some plates for serving. So they went back to find a bigger package. The same thing happened with plasticware.

So much fun!

I’m gathering pictures to talk about the party…