My Life Untranslated

The Secret Adventures of an ESL Teacher in NYC

Archive for the category “language”

“Juicy” Language Teaching

Making Academic Language Meaningful for ELLs [tweetmeme source=”laflecha” only_single=false]

In “G is for Grammar“, at the ABC of Teaching Children blog, Carol Read offers an engaging post about teaching grammar to kids. Usually, I read how teachers explain the concepts of grammar to children by having them basically memorize what a noun, adjective, verb is, etc. But as someone who does not subscribe to traditional grammar theories, I find it unhelpful to have kids memorize rules that are too often broken in English. So, Carol’s post was really refreshing, because she places emphasis on the importance of teaching grammar in contextualized, meaningful ways. I posted a comment there about our school’s juicy sentence approach, and I thought I’d elaborate in a post since it’s a bit involved and I’ve never really explained it here before…

First, the basics: My school, like maybe a dozen others, is part of a pilot approach to teaching academic language referred to as “Juicy Sentences” – it’s developed by Dr. Lily Wong-Fillmore, and many of the teachers who incorporate it, feel it has been successful in improving how our students think about complex sentences, such as those using Tier 2 words, or that use clauses. Given that it’s a pilot program and Dr. Fillmore’s research, I’m not sure how much I can make available publicly, so I am leaving out some of the detail, but the framework here is rich enough, i think, to make it clear enough for you to get an idea.

So what makes a sentence juicy?

Historically, approaches to ESL instruction relied on watering down complext texts into shorter, simplified sentences that students could comprehend more easily. While it may have helped get the content across, it was not teaching the students the kind of sentence structure they’d see in grade-level texts and tests. So, kids would come across sentences like, “The thicker the glacier the faster it moves,” and think it was about “the thicker” (that’s an actual sentence example taken from studies done with kids), since they were so used to reading sentences that were like, “The thick glacier moves fastest.”

So, how do you teach kids sentences like that, or that start off with words like, “Although”, “However”, or have structure like, “If it were….then it would be….” and such? Well, you do it using actual text, in context, and you make it meaningful. To choose the sentence, find one that has complex structure but also that holds the essence of the text, or some really pivotal information. Now, I’m basically going to do the opposite and explain juicy with lots of examples from articles you haven’t read. Sorry :)

The approach: It relies heavily on instructional conversations and student interaction. Basically, we start by reading a short, on-grade-level non-fiction text during shared reading (Although you can also do it during a read aloud or small group work). There are 3-4 days of different activities to dig into the article (you only do this twice a week, so the article gets spread out over 2 weeks — I recommend this over trying to do more per lesson, or trying to do all 4 lessons in one week). Beforehand, you choose a juicy sentence that you won’t use as part of a think aloud or turn-and-talk; you leave it alone because you want to leave that for Day 2.

Day 1: Word Play. Here, you introduce the article and vocabulary (about 6 terms depending on the article and kids). You do some word play, such as choosing a Tier 2 word and having kids act out the differences between it and a BICS counterpart (like, “It says the frog leapt up to catch the fly — what do you think it looks like to leap instead of just jump?”). Or, you might have a sentence like, “Sometimes it hails” and ask kids how the sentence changes when you take out the word sometimes.

Day 2: Juicy Day. You write the sentence or sentences you have chosen for students on chart paper. You should have only one language goal. Then you ask kids to write, “I think this sentence means…” You read some examples, and ask kids to explain their thinking by pointing back to language in the sentence. Sometimes kids will write about other information from the article, so, you will have to model more than once how to focus in on the language in the sentence alone to make sense of it, or “unpack” its meaning, helping them to clue in on terms that change the meaning of the sentence if misunderstood or removed. As you discuss it, you can write BICS words as explanations above the academic language you have on your chart.

Then, you can use the structure of that sentence to create a sentence frame for students to use in their writing. This way they can see how it can be used in other contexts, and get practice writing more complex sentences.

Day 3: Accountable Talk. You re-read the whole text and they discuss it and jot down their now-deeper understandings.

Here’s an example of a juicy sentence. I read a text to my class about dinosaur poop. The sentence from the text was something like:

“Previously, scientists believed dinosaurs swallowed the bones whole without chewing, but after examining the coprolite, they realized they crushed mouthfuls of flesh and bones.”

As part of our discussion, after they wrote down their ideas of what it means, I focused in on the word realized, a word many of them would have known and used it to discuss how it’s different from the word “know” because it tells me there’s new information. So, we had to figure out what the new information was, and one student noticed “after examining the coprolite”, which they said that meant they were looking at it closely. So, I got them to look and see what happened “before” and what happened “after”. I wrote the word “before” above “previously”, and the kids’ language of “look closely at” above “examining”.  Once I felt they understood the sentence, I asked them to write in their books, next to where they had written, “I think this sentence means…” to write, “Now I know it means…”

Then, I had them write their own sentences using, “Previously…. but after ….. I/they/we realized…. ”  Some kids wrote things like, “Previously, I thought NYC was small, but after I came here, I realized it’s huge.” and “Previously, I thought Ms. Flecha was mean, but after coming to class the first day, I realize she’s nice.” (haha, had to share that one!)

You can use this to teach any grammar form you feel students need. All you need is a text that contains it, which makes it meaningful.

So, that’s Juicy, super-condensed :)  If any of it is unclear, please feel free to ask! I have used this with math word problems, and in every other content area text. I’m told this is also done at the high-school level.

There’s nothing published on this yet, but you can read more by Dr. Fillmore in this pdf file of her paper, What Teachers Need to Know About Language. A more nicely-formatted version can be downloaded here.

Elvis Presley & “I think, therefore I am” is not.

Author and Journalist James Geary says metaphor can subtly influence the decisions we make. (Recorded at TEDGlobal 2009, July 2009, Oxford, UK. Duration: 9:30) (description from

I am sharing this here because, as most teachers know, students learn best through metaphor, and Geary gives some insight into why that is true for us as well.

Building ownership as learners & making words meaningful, useful and playful

[tweetmeme source=”laflecha” only_single=false]

While Not Draining Me Or Driving Myself Crazy At the Same Time

A lot of times teachers, especially teachers of ELLs, worry that their students don’t know enough vocabulary; enough BICS or CALP words; enough academic language, etc. Whatever word you choose to refer to it, the concern is the same, and it’s very real. I have struggled this year with creating a culture of language appreciation in my room. Last year, it was much easier. In part, I credit the fact that I had far less students and my class size only grew toward the end of the year by 2 students. This year, my class size grew by 7 students within the first few weeks and kept growing. I feel I took it all in stride, but it wasn’t enough. I’m sure once I’m a seasoned veteran, I will have had enough of these sudden fluctuations to have developed a more systematic approach to them. Nevertheless, I now feel like i’m hitting a new stride that is re-grounding myself in what I did last year that was very successful. Not that things can simply be reproduced class to class, but I feel my students (and their teacher as well!) are now at a point where I can implement some of these things. Could I have done this sooner? Yes. But did I have a clear enough plan for it? No. Ok. Enough self-indulgent theorizing, let’s get to what the hell I’m talking about.

A word conscious classroom. Yes, there are books with the same or similar title, but I’m not so much referring to any specific book as I am talking about creating a culture of words. For example, last year I had my word wall right next to my meeting area, so it became a constant point of reference for the students and me. They were very conscious of their word choices and when doing things like turning and talking to a partner or jotting on a post-it, they would choose “cross” or “infuriated” over mad because it was a less common word and because we had acted out the difference. So, if their character was more than mad, they knew how to express it.

Ok, so acting out emotion ranges and using the word wall. A colleague helped me envision a better place for my word wall (finally! it’s now the third time I’ll have moved it!), so that it will be much easier to reference from the meeting area and their desks.

More synonyms. This was a hit last year with the emotions as I said above, as well as words we can use to describe characters (they were a separate color and had a sticker on them at the word wall). I also would have them act out the difference between different ways of walking: wander/meander, stomp, slouch, march, tiptoe, etc. Which I am going to do again starting now in a new way. When I call them to the meeting area, I will specify how I want them to walk. That’s a quick and easy way to make new words meaningful and memorable. You can do this with adverbs and idioms, as well (walk as if you were as tall as a tree, as shy as a mouse, etc… walk grumpily, respectfully… —after you have modeled, of course, or had someone model). It helps if the words can be raised in context. I remember last year I read the Ramona series to them, and Ramona is such a lively character that she allows for a lot of word work like this. (— Side note: They loved this series. It’s a Level O and, at the time, most of my students were level L and below, but oral comprehension is always higher. No one had wanted me to read such a “high” book with them, but I did it anyway).

I randomly use word webs, but I will start hanging them as charts around the room for things like this. Like, “Ways We Walk” and “Ways We  Talk”… etc.

Also, as I told the kids today, as they collect new words through their reading — words they find difficult or interesting — and write them in their word collector box (you’ve probably seen it — it’s a sheet of paper with a box for every letter in the alphabet — X and Y share a box), if I find some that are particularly good, I will add them to our word wall and write their name on the word’s card so they are responsible for explaining what the word means if other students want to know.

I’m also going to have just a “you asked me how to spell….” area where kids can write down words other kids ask them to spell. This happens all the time, as you know, and I think it’s a good way for kids to share both their word skills and word questions. Again, they sign their name to it. I feel, this way, it becomes like a real accomplishment board (unlike the lame accomplishment board we’re required to have).

I’ll let you know how it goes! And, please, if you’ve had similar experiences or difficulty making ideas like this work in practice, share them below! This is important because we can’t simply create a carbon copy of each teacher’s approach or method and hope it works in our classroom. Each student is different and each class is therefore different (this is what many administrators seriously miss or forget). And I know I have read ideas like the ones above on other ESL sites or in books like the ones I list below, but until you do it or envision it with your own students, it simply will never come to life. Our experiences as teachers are different as a result of all that, so it’s crucial we share them. And I think the more we share our unique approaches, struggles and successes, the more we popularize the idea that teachers are not automatons and we aren’t simply nightly-news anchors who just need to read the best prepared text and all will be dandy (i.e., remove the human to get results). Our successes are often because of what makes us *unique*. </soapbox>

While I said I wasn’t referring to any specific book, I have in fact been inspired by these (there are many-a journal articles on this topic, too, and these books lack in the ELL area, but helpful and enlightening still):

The Word-Conscious Classroom: Building the Vocabulary Readers and Writers Need

Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (my favorite).

And it’s follow-up text, Creating Robust Vocabulary: Frequently Asked Questions and Extended Examples (Solving Problems in the Teaching of Literacy).

Post Navigation


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 60 other followers