My Life Untranslated

The Secret Adventures of an ESL Teacher in NYC

Archive for the tag “ESL”

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.

Really, Every Day Math?!


Dear creators of Every Day Math,

You have clearly never taught ELLs, because you give the most useless suggestions EVER. How about not creating a curriculum that assumes all child the world over learn the same math the world over at the same time?

A Teacher of actual ELLs

“No, there is something ELSE wrong with him”

November 2010–

A very veteran teacher who comes in to teach social studies to my 5th and 4th grade bridge class was noticing that one of my students, “Edwin”, couldn’t read the words “United States”.

“We wrote it on the board. We said it. We say it every day in the pledge of allegiance. Yet he mixes the letters and can’t read it,” she said.

I explained that he cannot read in English or Spanish, his first language, and last March was the first time he had started attending school. EVER. In 4th grade.

“Well, I think here has to be something ELSE wrong with him.”

And, this, ladies and gentlemen is what is wrong with our school system. No, not the teachers, even the ones who all their colleagues know shouldn’t be working anymore (young or old). The problem is the absolute ignorance and the ignorant absolutism that permeates the thinking about children.

My Edwin does not know the difference between letters like h, w, b, or t. He spells “noche” as “nolle”, showing some understanding of the sounds Spanish letters make, despite the mistake. He never went to school before last year when he immediately started to learn in a totally new language after a very traumatic border-crossing experience. The only thing “wrong” are the parameters we chose, or are expected to use to judge/evaluate him.


March 2011 —

It is now several months later, and “Edwin” is making great strides. He still reads at a first grade level, but he went from a C to an H, and more importantly, he LOVES to read, including reading out loud in class, and he can sound out a very large percentage of words in grade-level texts. He still doesn’t understand them all since he’s still acquiring English, but that’s a different hurdle.

Far, far too often, ELLs and SIFE students are misinterpreted by those who don’t take the time to know them, or who perceive certain educational milestones as gateways on an absolute timeline. As a result, far too many are defined as “special ed” or needing some intervention like speech therapy, when all they need is time and space to adapt. The same is true for those who want to use tests and other “hard data” assessments to equate all students and measure all teachers. Students are not products. They are people and school is not an assembly line.

Posted on the run with WordPress for BlackBerry.

Welcome to the 19th ESL/EFL/ELL Blog Carnival

One of the best aspects of being an edublogger and being on twitter has been all the inspiring teachers I have gotten to interact with daily. That’s why I was happy to host this Carnival, because it’s my chance to promote some really wonderful teachers and hopefully increase the communication and sharing among all of us in the ESL/EFL community. If you’d like information about contributing to the next carnival, please scroll to the bottom of this post.

Although there was no specific theme for this Carnival, several interesting themes emerged:

  • A Conversation on Language
  • Dynamic Teaching…Games, Teaching Tools and Strategies
  • Classroom 2.0
  • Learning and Teaching with Eyes Wide Open (reflective teaching)
  • On the Job Front

So, here we go:

A Conversation on Language

First in line is a post many teachers of ELLs will find compelling. Henrick Oprea, an English teacher in Brazil, has written a post on the issue of pronunciation and World Englishes.
blog: Doing Some Thinking
post: World Englishes and Standards
quote: (after describing how there are more non-native speakers of English than native and the need to understand the differences):But this has always been something that kept me wondering: if I’m learning a language in order to be able to communicate with people from other cultures, and if this is the so-called lingua franca of the world, should teachers let their students get away with something that’s really distant from native-like pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar usage?”

His post ties nicely in with this post by Ms. Mercer which covers a topic many American teachers (not just ESL teachers) ought to be very familiar with: AAVE, or African American Vernacular English. At the same time, it touches on the much broader issue of the climate in the classroom, and how teachers must and can invite students to bring their culture into the classroom in a real way. Also, helpfully, she provides links to pages, topics and trainings on the topic.
blog: Reflections on Teaching
post: English Language Development of Standard and Academic English
quote: “Imagine The Color Purple, or any of Roddy Doyle’s work in standard academic English. By removing their language, you may be killing a literary voice.”

Next in this set is from Eric Roth who discusses ways to support ELLs in developing their critical thinking skills and ask –you guessed it — clarifying questions.
blog: Compelling Conversations
post: Conversation Tip #9: Ask Clarifying Questions!
quote: “One crucial skill that needs to be explicitly taught – after being informally modeled in class discussions – is asking for clarification. In fact, I consider the ability to ask appropriate follow-up questions a vital life skill.”

Dynamic Teaching…Games, Teaching Tools and Strategies

In this post, Jennifer provides some interesting ideas for teaching English through poetry, such as using it to teach culture, grammar, and vocabulary She also includes links to videos and sites you could incorporate into or use as inspiration for lessons.
blog: English with Jennifer
post: The Potential of Poetry
quote: Useful information can be retrieved in the target language with the help of a rhyme. Do your students know Thirty Days Has September?

If you’re not familiar with Larry, this is a great post to show you how his site is a teacher’s best friend. This post, with its useful links and resources, shows how teachers can incorporate music videos as a language-learning tool.
blog: Larry Ferlazzo’s Website of the Day
post: How Subtitles In Music Videos Teach Literacy

This post provides handy websites that your students can use themselves to improve their English, especially written English, although there are also links to podcasts for those working on listening skills.
blog: Online Education Database
post: 50 Essential Resources for ESL Students

In the same vein, this post by Jennifer Verschoor, uses advice from her own students for deciding on ten sites where students can learn English, and her #1 criteria was making sure students would have fun while doing it!
blog: My Integrating Technology Journey
post: Top 10 Websites to Learn English

Here, Maria Markaki shows us how to use flashcards in a fun memory game with young language learners to practice and revise their pronunciation of words.
blog: Maria Markaki Language School Students’ Page
post: Pre-Junior Flash Card Activities

Many teachers use movies as a tech-friendly way to bring a multimedia spin to their lessons. But did you know there might be a better way to show them? Check out these ideas from Mathew Needleman.
blog: Creating Lifelong Learners
post: The Right Way to Show Movies in Class
quote: “[S]tudents should not view watching a film in class as any less rigorous than reading a book.”

Classroom 2.0 — using different forms of interactive/collaborative technology with students

In this post, we see Henrick Oprea and Maria Markaki’s shared experience leading their students in Greece and Brazil to interact! There are examples on topics like books, music, and tourism. What a great way to see the effect of bringing together classrooms from two totally different places in the world.
blog: Maria Markaki Language School Students’ Page
post: The Blogging Challenge Continues
quote: “[This experience] has enabled the students involved to get a true sense of what a global audience is and the important role it plays in students’ developing their language as well as communication skills”.

Here is an enthusiastic, detailed post from Mike Harrison on how to use the photo-sharing site Flickr with language learners and students of all kinds.
blog: Mike Harrison’s Blog
post: In the Flickr of an eye

I hear about Glogster a lot on twitter, but have yet to try it. In this post, a teacher shares one she did with her class.
blog: Trying Out Web 2.0
post: Going Digital with Young Learners with a link to the project here, which has the details for the actual lesson.

Next up is a post by Vicky Saumell that introduces some of her favorite voice recording tools and includes some links to other teachers who share their experiences and ideas on how to use them with students.
blog: Educational Technology in ELT
post: 8 voice recording tools for language learning
quote: “These tools lend themselves for a myriad of tasks you can set up for different levels and purposes.”

In this post, edu-blogger Karenne shares with us how she has used PowerPoint to engage learners to create visual aids for practicing English for such functions as giving directions, or creating a visual of sequencing words or prepositions.
blog: Kalinago English
post: “This we share with all the peoples”
quote: “The height of teaching in a blended learning environment is when your students recognize the value of sharing their work with the rest of their community”

This teacher shows how she turned a writing assignment on animals in her 5th grade class into a fun project using online tools that let your photos do the talking. She includes a sample video, a link to her class blog, and a tutorial you can use with your students.
blog: Sabrina’s Weblog
post: Easy Ways to Make Your Photos Talk

Learning and Teaching with Eyes Wide Open (reflective teaching)

In the first post featured in this theme, Shelly Terrell writes an informed and moving guest post on her own experiences as a Mexican immigrant in the US. She invites readers to comment on the experiences of immigrants in their country.
blog:Ken Wilson’s blog
post: Children of Immigrants
quote: “My parents told me they wanted to make sure I had a chance and for that reason I was given an American name like Shelly and not allowed to speak Spanish. Somehow, my parents seemed to do the impossible, they managed to raise all 5 of their children to graduate from college and break the poverty cycle.

Mr. Foteah, a general ed (and now special ed) teacher, writes a poetic account of teaching next to a class of ESL students at his school.
blog: From the Desk of Mr. Foteah
post: On Neighbors
quote: “Our neighbors, though, have done their own sensational things, and being next to them has provided me unexpected, vicarious treats and thrills.”

In this reflective post on listening in the classroom, Eva shares with us a really fun activity to teach why we should listen to each other (it’s like an activity on being a good friend, which adults and children alike could benefit from!)
blog: A Journey in TEFL by Eva Buyuksimkesyan
post: Dynamics of a New Classroom
quote: “When the classroom is a place where all the students trust and respect each other and when they don’t bully the weaker ones, it will be easier for the teacher to help the students to move one step further.”

In this post submitted by Shelly Terrell, we find her reflecting on her new August teaching post in Athens, Greece. Here, she gives us a picture of the students she’s teaching and how that is affecting her as their teacher. She includes a video that gives you a peak into the center where she’s teaching.
: Teacher Reboot Camp
post: Learning to be a Better Educator
quote: “Teaching them is a gift! Everyday I get to teach them I feel I am the fortunate one. I have never worked with refugees before and they have taken my teaching to a new level.”

On the Job Front
Now that you’re inspired, how will you find that ELT job?
blog: TEFList
post: Staying Competitive, Job Search Tips” in the ELT job market


Next ESL/EFL/ELL Carnival: Anne Hodgson is organizing a special Blog Carnival on November 1st specifically dedicated to teaching Business English (BE) and English for Specific Purposes (ESP). You can submit your post here or here. It’s also a good idea to inform Larry Ferlazzo of your submission via his site contact form. Deadline is October 21st,

Lastly, Sabrina will be hosting the next one on Dec. 1st.

Contribute to the next ESL/EFL/ELL Blog Carnival (#19!)

Update 9/11/10: I am back from vacation and back into the swing of school, as many of you are. So, if you’ve sent a submission — not to worry — I received it, but if you’ve been waiting to send, please hesitate no more! :)

The 19th edition of the ESL/EFL/ELL Blog Carnival is looking for your contributions! Deadline is Sept. 27th. For many of us who teach in schools, the carnival will be coming out at the start of a new school year, so many of you may have that on your mind. What’s great about the Carnival, though, is that it brings together teachers from many different contexts, student age levels, countries, years of experience, and perspectives.

Like many of the previous carnivals, there is no overarching topic for the 19th either, but I have come up with a few ideas for mini-topics to hopefully get your fingers typing. Your posts can be to share great experiences and ideas, resource recommendations, your personal reflections, as well as the knotty questions that still plague you.

  • The issues/experiences surrounding standards & teaching ESL/EFL in a world of “Englishes”.
  • Teaching beginners of English
  • Posts written with the needs of new teachers in mind
  • The particular social emotional learning needs of newcomer/immigrant ELLs
  • Use of web 2.0 technology with ELLs
  • Experiences of/perspectives on non-native English-speaking teachers of English
  • Cross-cultural exchanges in the multilingual/multicultural classroom
  • Experiences with ELL students or teachable moments that changed you as a teacher/person

Consider these as springboards for writing. It’s an eclectic list intended to bring forward different kinds of teachers, not as a way to limit anyone.

Note to general education classroom teachers:

If you have ELLs in your classroom, you teach ELLs, even if you aren’t a trained ESL teacher. So, I hope you consider posting for this carnival as well. Sharing your experiences/frustrations can be helpful for you, but also for ESL teachers who support teachers like you. If you’ve never written about the ELLs you’ve taught, consider yourself invited to do so!

You can submit directly to me here, via my contact form or you can submit via the Blog Carinval form here.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Blog Carnival, check out the most recent one, #18, on David Deubelbeiss’s blog (he even has a random blog generator!), and visit all previous carnivals on Larry Ferlazzo’s site.

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