My Life Untranslated

The Secret Adventures of an ESL Teacher in NYC

Archive for the tag “students”

Today’s Education Reform Rant Brought to You by the Letter “C”

I was once sitting among some colleagues who were discussing the difficulties our ELL students have with spelling – like kids who write “whase” for “was”. Teaching spelling is even trickier when your population’s first language has different sounds, and different sounds represented by letters that differ from English (if they have any experience with letter alphabets or writing at all).

We use Words Their Way, which is essentially a phonics program that encourages deductive reasoning, and uses pictures or word cards, all of which have proven problematic for classes such as mine. Firstly because when doing sound sorts with word cards usually kids just look and see that “mat” looks like “sat” and not “set”, and group them by letters rather than sounds, which they’re supposed to be noticing. While this might be useful for students if you’re teaching them the letters in the English language, but the usefulness even then is limited. Secondly, the picture cards, where they match pictures by the sounds in the words they represent, require vocabulary knowledge! You have to know the picture you are looking at is of a “hen” to see how it fits with “pen”.

Add to this the fact that spelling is arbitrary. There is no inherent logic that the squiggle that looks like a “c” should make the /k/ sound rather than the letter “g”. I know kids don’t need to know that, but teachers and curriculum authors ought to! Besides, spelling in English is so irregular that teaching rules has never proven too helpful (in my experience) because there is also a “however…” tacked onto the end if it.

So, it really struck me as such a surprise when I overheard a fellow teacher say, “No matter how many times I remind them, they still spell ‘excited’ as ‘exited'”. I responded by saying, (in the positive scenario, assuming the kid doesn’t have other problems or difficulties), “There’s a similar word in Spanish but spelled “exitoso”, and maybe that’s why.” And this person paused and replied emphatically, “But you can hear the c,” and then pronounced the word slowly.

What made me really stop in this comment is that despite knowing that ‘c’ can make more than 1 sound, what she didn’t know was that letters don’t actually “make” sounds. They are just representations of sound, and often they represent very different ones (between and within languages), which can reinforce confusion by ELLs and likely not just ELLs.

For example, if I’m thinking of something to say in Spanish or Italian that has the letters “ch” in it, which is pronounced differently in the two languages, I first think to myself how “Che” is said in Spanish, and then I know which sound I need to make. The Italian pronunciation for “ch”, is represented in English by the letters k, c, and also ch (think character). And both Spanish and Italian have their trilled “r” sounds that most people think English doesn’t have. We have one of them. Just say the word ladder out loud and compare what your tongue does to either the Spanish pero, if you know it, to see the similarities, or to the English “made” to see how our “d” at the end of a word differs when “d” is in the middle. Now do you want to teach kids how to pronounce words in English, or how to spell that way? A little trickier, isn’t it, when you think of all the sounds we actually make.

But I digress.

This is NOT a dig at this person, or at teachers — because many of us have not had the experience of really learning a foreign language, or of taking a linguistics class that really invite us to rethink the written language differently from its sound system, or phonetics. And perhaps the way we teach spelling would be different if teachers were encouraged to reflect on their teaching and their particular population’s needs in deeper ways, instead of just being given a book they are required to use three times a week.

I’d like you to consider: this is someone who actually has years of experience with ELLs and still doesn’t understand some key aspects of their learning. So imagine the true value of someone with no experience with ELLs — and I don’t mean the teachers now, but the politicians and others who actually write policy and determine teacher training and curricula — imagine them having the impact they do on our education system.

And we’re just talking about spelling here.

If this question of English orthography and phonetics interests you, I suggest reading this.

Obama Admin Steps in Right Direction but DREAMs Still On Hold

Undocumented students and others now can worry less about deportation. The Obama Administration has announced that they will “suspend deportations” of undocumented youths who pose no threat to national security.

This means that all the students I have taught who didn’t have papers, will be able to go to high school and college with less fear of being “outed”.

The article doesn’t state, however, how the Administration will handle the youths’ parents deportations. That would still leave the children vulnerable to having their families split up, which has happened to three of my students over. Two had fathers and one had an uncle deported. One had been picked up for a traffic violation.

This also does not yet grant the undocumented youths any means to obtain a green card or citizenship. So the many who want to be legal still have no real recourse to adjust their status, effectively placing them in limbo. The DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act) is still unfulfilled.

Halfway there…

So, 56% of my students are “approaching grade level” in reading (according to the Teachers College Readers Assessment Project), 5 are at grade level, and 5 are considered “in need of support”.  As most readers know, I teach a self-contained ESL classroom, so while there are grade-level benchmarks, my students also have personalized goals called AYPs (A Year’s Progress). For ELLs, the goals is for them to make a year and a half’s worth of progress because, typically, they are that far behind and then some. So, while we can say that 61% are still “below grade level”, the majority have made and even surpassed their AYP.

The first column is their reading levels when they entered third grade. For those who don’t know, A-I is generally first grade. I-L is second grade. M-Q is third grade.  The ones who met or exceeded their AYP are in green (as I recall anyway – I don’t have the sheet in front of me to reference). As you can see, many of my students moved from first grade level to third grade in half a year.

I hate to say it, but I have no idea if these kinds of leaps are normal (anyone know?), but I’m told that the percentages in my class are “practically that of the general ed” classes at my school. I put that in quotes since basically all our classes are majority ELLs, just that the general ed ones tend to have more advanced ELLs. The majority of my students are Intermediate and Beginner. I’m very proud of their progress and excited to see how much further they go. ELLs tend to “stall” at level M at our school, and more broadly at level N because the language tends to get more idiomatic and difficult for them — they get the gist, but not the deeper meaning. So, we’ll see where they end up in June. Of course, thanks to the way Teachers College assesses students, the major leaps they made don’t matter when it comes to their report card. Only the benchmarks used to assess native speakers matter.

F
I
F
L
I
L
K
M
H
M
F
L
H
M
I
N
I
L
C
E
L
N
F
H
H
J
I
M
K
M
F
L
F
L
E
J
K
N
E
N
I
M
F
N
G
L

questions and color

Today my class had a great moment talking about the elections. Developing specific time for learning and experimenting with oral language is so key for ELLs and today I wanted them to discuss and develop questions for the presidential candidates. We have been talking about the elections and, as a project, they are polling other classes during lunch with a few questions we will later put in tables and bar graphs, etc.

Anyway, I gave them some sentence starters such as “do you think…” and “what will you do about…” and “why…” we came up with a few together, and it gave me a sense that there has been some real conversations during their polling. For example, here are some of their questions (the way they worded them):

Senator McCain, why don’t you like Obama?
… what will you do about the environment?
… will people from other countries have to leave if you are president?
… why do you want to be President?

Why do some people not like Obama because he is brown?
Why do some people care about the color (of Obama’s skin)?
Why do people have to vote for President?

Senator Obama, what will you do if the people vote for a tie?
… what will you do about the environment?
… do you like to ride bicycles?
… who will you vote for?
… why do you want more war?
… where are you from?

And then, as they were finishing writing down their own questions that we will later post on a “town hall wall”, some kids started raising their hands and asking each other questions saying, “I would like to ask Jennifer, who do you want to vote for AND WHY?” I put the last but in caps because I was really impressed that 1. They thought to ask a two-part question and 2. They seemed genuinely interested in the answer.

Remember, some of these students have a lot of difficulty getting their thoughts formed in English and using auxiliary verbs like “do” can be tricky. Only one student said she liked McCain and at first it was because she felt Obama was too “brown and gross”. The kids quickly started saying “the color shouldn’t care” and asking each other if they “care about the color”. This allowed me to teach them the phrase “shouldn’t matter” and “skin color”.

I was really pleased how they got into it.

Finally, one student started to ask kids who they would vote for and if it mattered who wins. Most kids were really adamant that they wanted Obama to win but one girl said it didn’t matter because nothing would really change from how they have been. Pretty heavy cynicism from an 8-year-old!

Post Navigation

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 56 other followers