Teach Students How to Restate the Question

Restating the question is an important writing skill, yet many students struggle with it.  I've developed a fun and colorful strategy that has helped my students become more proficient writers.  



All you need to teach this strategy is a whiteboard and two different colored markers!  I start with very simple questions, since at this point, I want my students to focus on the language, not necessarily the content.  This restating strategy has worked wonders for my English Language Learners, since it's a visual guide to structuring a sentence.  Color and number coding are such effective strategies to teach!

First we read the question, then we brainstorm how to restate by underlining and placing numbers above each word.  Students can then follow the numbers to build their sentence.  Keeping them color coded and underlined helps to clear up confusion.  

I model the strategy out loud, then on the whiteboard, and then I have students work in partners to practice restating.  If you'd like to try it with your class, click the link to download this free restating guide!


I hope this helps your students master restating the question!




Felt Turkey Speaking and Writing Activity

Practicing authentic speaking tasks is something I prioritize with my English Language Learners.  Incorporating seasonal themes makes it engaging and fun.  With Thanksgiving around the corner, I decided to use felt to allow my students to express their creativity and practice speaking and writing skills all at once.

felt turkey speaking and writing activity

I started by cutting out felt turkey bodies, feathers, beaks, and legs.  It's a great medium to use because felt sticks to felt, there's no mess, and it's soft and easy to work with.  In October we made felt pumpkins, and in December I'm planning to make felt gingerbread.  


felt turkey speaking and writing activity

I made a sample turkey for my students to see, as well as to model my own 10 Finger Sentence.  When I model, I make sure I make mistakes (and it's very easy to make a mistake!) so my students can watch my thought process as I progress from idea to spoken word.

felt turkey speaking and writing activity

Then it was time for my students to get creative! I used this as a center, so I only had 2 or 3 students working on it at a time.  That meant there were plenty of feathers and eyes to go around.

felt turkey speaking and writing activity

Each student had time to create his or her turkey, then think about a 10 finger sentence.  My students have learned to tap their fingers against the table or against their hand to count as they go.  I LOVE using 10 finger sentences as a prompt, because it really makes the kids think about what they're saying, rather than just rattle off some words.

felt turkey speaking and writing activity

My students who are brand new to the country even get in on the action, with a modified 5 finger sentence.  The great thing about 10 Finger Sentences is the structured flexibility: kids can be creative while sticking to correct grammar and sentence structure.

felt turkey speaking and writing activity

Once they completed their 10 Finger Sentences, they have a chance to write them down and share with the class.  Want to grab these writing pages? Just enter your name and email address in the pink bar below, and you'll get an email with the link to download. 
felt turkey speaking and writing activity
How do you encourage authentic speaking in your classes?




Listening and Speaking Practice with Halloween Costumes

Here's a fun activity that gives ELL and native speaking students some much needed practice in listening comprehension.  I used this activity with my first graders, and it was a big hit! It's easy to differentiate for all levels of learners, just by adjusting the vocabulary, sentence structure, or level of inference.

First, I took an informal survey of my students and jotted down the Halloween costumes they were planning to wear.  For students who didn't know, or didn't have one yet, I let them tell me what they would want to be.  I did a quick search and found images of each costume, plus a few others I knew were popular this year.  This lesson will work for students and/or schools who don't celebrate Halloween: turn it into a career lesson and ask them what they want to be when they grow up, then find pictures of those!


Next, I wrote clues for each costume.  I wanted to challenge my students but not overwhelm them, so I was careful to use consistent sentence structure throughout the clues to help them focus on the vocabulary. Finally, I projected the images on my whiteboard.  I paired my students up and gave each team a whiteboard, marker, and eraser.  As I narrated the clue, they had to discuss their answer with their partner.  I awarded points to the team with the most correct answers.  They loved the competition! At the end of the activity, each student chose one costume to describe, using clothing and color vocabulary that we had discussed throughout the game. 


Easy to prep, fun to do, and appropriately challenging: sounds like a recipe for a great lesson! This lesson focused solely on listening and speaking, since my students need a lot of practice with those skills.  If you're looking for Halloween reading lessons, click here to find some of my favorites!




Fix Letter Reversals with Mr. db!

Many of my young students struggle with letter reversals.  B and d reversals are the two I see the most, but p and q reversals show up often as well.  Discriminating between b and d can be a really hard skill for beginning writers to grasp. So, if your students' sentences look like this: "I have a dig dlack bog," or "The doy plays daseball," I might be able to help.  Introducing, Mr. db!


 I learned this strategy way way back when I was substitute teaching during my college vacations, so I can't take any credit for the idea.  A kindergarten teacher had a hand-drawn poster of Mr. db up in her classroom.  I was fascinated by the way the students looked up at the poster for help during their writing centers.  That trick stuck with me, and I've used it whenever I have students struggling with letter reversals. Since that time way back in Mrs. Hart's kindergarten, I've given Mr. db a friend named Miss qp.

Once I see a chronic letter reversal problem, I introduce Mr. db and/or Miss qp, and I post them in plain sight for my students to see.  They become classroom mascots, and the students enjoy making up stories about their adventures.  

My little old hand-drawn classroom poster finally faded away over the summer, so I made myself an updated version.  I want you to have it, too!  I created a blank list for students to keep on their desks or in their writing folders, too.  You can grab the posters and worksheet here, for free! 


If your students are struggling with letter reversals, I hope this trick can help them!




Small Group Classroom Management Ideas

Whether you're deep into the school year or just starting, classroom management is an integral part of ensuring student success.  A professor I had once said that teaching is "70% classroom management and 30% instruction." That sounds like a lot, but I believe it! I'm the kind of teacher who thrives on routine, structure, and practiced procedures with my small groups.  In my small group pull-out classes, maintaining consistency means everyone knows what to expect at all times, allowing our short instructional time to run smoothly.

It's easy to decide on a group strategy at the beginning of the year, but once you meet your students you may find your needs have changed. That's happened to me so many times! There are also years where I introduce a new strategy halfway through the year.  Most years I use two or three of these strategies in conjunction with each other. Flexibility and responsiveness to the unique needs of your class will help you find and maintain the best strategy.  Below, I'm sharing some of the strategies that have worked best with my small group pull-out classes.

1. Fabulous Cone

Simple, fast, and only cost me a dollar! I picked up a Fabulous Cone at a dollar store and implemented it from the very first day of school.  I pass it around to students who are on task, helpful, and trying their best.  Kids LOVE to get the fabulous cone! One of my classes needed a bit more motivation than just the cone, so I paired it with my clip chart- whoever had the cone at the end of the day got to "clip up." That was a game-changer!


2. Clip Chart

I've gone through a few different versions of clip charts over the years (scroll down for my first one!) but I do find that students LOVE the opportunity to clip up, and I try to give them that opportunity.  There were years when the clip chart wasn't right for my class, so I didn't use it.  In the 16-17 school year I had a rowdy first grade group, so this came out mid-year.  When kids clipped up to "Wag your tail," they actually got to wag their tails! It was a great motivator for my bouncy kids who really needed to get the wiggles out. 



My very first clip chart! 

3. Money System

This is a strategy I used mostly with my upper elementary and middle school students.  I would pass out MC money the same way I would the Fabulous Cone (see above).  In middle school, students would have to turn in MC money in order to exit the room for a drink or bathroom (except in an extreme emergency).  This worked well with older kids who were more responsible and had a better grasp of the concept of money.  I would pair this strategy with a treasure chest or book raffle at the end of a marking period, which was another great motivator.


4. Reward Coupons

Some students really need tangible items to motivate them, and keeping a treasure chest or prize box gets expensive very quickly! I implemented reward coupons in a three-step system conjunction with the fabulous cone and the clip chart.  Once students got the Fabulous Cone, they had the chance to clip up.  If they clipped up to a certain color by the end of the week, they could then choose a reward coupon.  This took a little more recording, but worked for the group I used it with! 


5. Mystery Student

This one is really low-maintenance.  I start by picking a mystery student, usually one who I noticed doing a great job the day before.  Throughout class I mention how well the mystery student is behaving, walking in the hall, or being a great friend.  When it comes time for independent work, I reveal the mystery student, and that child can then sit in a comfy VIP beanbag chair, use special VIP materials, and read VIP books that I set aside.



There's no one-size-fits-all classroom management strategy.  In some cases, classroom management may need to be as differentiated as your lesson plan! My best advice is to go in with Plan A, but have plans B through D as a backup.  

What are your favorite classroom management strategies?





Morning Meetings for English Language Learners

One of my favorite parts of my daily schedule is morning meeting time.  By the time I see my fourth class of the day, it's "afternoon" meeting time, but it serves the same purpose.  Morning meeting is a routine activity in my classroom, one that my classes come to look forward to and cherish.  Setting aside these 5-10 (sometimes even 15) minutes of community time allows me to create relationships, introduce and review skills, and foster a strong sense of classroom community.

One of my morning meeting set-ups.

Setting it up:
I choose a spot in my room with a rocking chair, an easel, and plenty of leg space for kiddos, as we'll be there for a while. I set up whiteboards, markers, and erasers in a basket for easy access. Then, on the very first day of class, I model for my students how to walk into the room, sit on the carpet, and wait for instructions. I use the first day's meeting to introduce myself and have students introduce themselves.  We learn and practice the rules for the class, then we play an ice-breaker or get-to-know you game.  For the next 3, 5, 7, or 10 days (depending on the group), we practice the same procedure so that all the kids are familiar and comfortable with the protocol.  While I may not be teaching to the standards for these first few days (although I may reference them during a read-aloud or activity), I am setting the stage for a smooth transition.  Think of it like sanding, taping, and putting primer on a wall before you paint- the better prepared your surface is, the smoother the work will go.

This was way back in 2012, with a group of 3rd grade ELL's.

Routine and Structure:
Maintaining a routine for your morning meeting is essential to keeping a calm and orderly environment.  I try my hardest to say the exact same things the exact same way every single day. This is an integral part of keeping the kids focused and on task, especially for my pull-out classes.


Here's how our greeting sounds:
Me: Good morning, everybody!
Kids: Good morning, Mrs. M-C!
Me: I'm so glad to see you. How are you today?
Kids: (thumbs up/thumbs down/Good/Bad)
Me: You're good? Awesome. Kate, tell me one fun thing you did yesterday.

Every child gets to a turn to tell about their day or weekend.  The question may change to reflect holidays or special events, but every child gets a chance to answer a question every day.  Later in the year I open it up so that the kids can ask ME any question they want.  The asking/answering questions part can sometimes take a long time, especially with newcomers or kids in the silent period. I try to build extra time in to the morning meeting to allow for that.  My current greeting is very teacher-centered, but I've read and heard about a much more student-centered approach.  One of my goals for this school year is to work on making our greeting more interpersonal for the students.

Once we greet each other, we move into our daily activity.  This is where, depending on grade or subject, I keep the routine and structure, but change up the activities.  For example, my first graders needed a lot of work on fluency.  We would greet and then move right into our weekly poem routine, then end with a vocabulary game.  My second grade class needed some fluency help, but more work on sentence structure and syntax.  So that group would greet, do a quick fluency practice, and then work on a daily edit. My third graders, who were the most proficient group of all, would greet, work on a speaking/listening task, then work in partners to complete their morning work. In the afternoon, I saw my kindergarten group for math intervention. We still did morning meeting, just with a math twist.  We would greet each other, then do calendar math and counting exercises, and then move into our lesson.

My students worked on a team-building activity
 during the first week of school.


Benefits of Morning Meeting for ELL's
Morning meeting gives students a chance to speak and be heard in a comfortable and welcoming environment.  I've used morning meeting to work on everything from fluency to team-building to mental math! I've even brought in guidance counselors and administrators to participate in our morning meetings. When students feel safe, they're more likely to begin taking greater risks in speaking and writing, and they'll demonstrate greater fluency in reading and listening.  Morning meeting is different from direct instruction in that you're not lecturing on a topic, but introducing and spiraling skills in a collaborative method. If you're interested in reading more about the benefits and practice of Morning Meeting, check out the book by Dr. Felicia Durden- it has really helped me start to work towards a more student-centered meeting.

Do you do a morning meeting in your class? How do you set it up?


Types of English Language Learners

If you're a teacher or administrator, you're bound to encounter an English Language Learner at some point in your career. In New Jersey alone, 5 out of 6 districts have ELL's in their schools, and 1 out of every 20 public school students is an ELL. However, the title "English Language Learner" can mean many different things, and it's beneficial to understand the differences so you can best meet the needs of your learners. According to researchers and experts in language acquisition, there are three types of English Language Learners.  I'd like to break them down for you in teacher-friendly terms.


1. Long-term English Language Learners

These are the students who were born in the US (or emigrated at a very young age) to parents who speak languages other than English. They may have started kindergarten in an English-speaking school, and/or have English-speaking family members. These kids can fool you with their social fluency, but might struggle for many years to become fluent in academic vocabulary, often performing below grade level on standardized tests.  These students may also have a greater understanding of American culture and customs due to exposure and environment.

How to help: 

Teach these students strategies to overcome gaps in proficiency, such as cognates, colloquialisms, and understanding vocabulary in context. These students will be ready for more intense grammar work; and subject-verb agreement is something many of my long-term ELL's struggle with daily.  Engage with parents from an early age to promote home-based literacy, such as sharing bilingual books and reciting cultural fables and folk tales in their native language.





2.  Newcomers with a strong literacy background in their first language.

These students may have recently arrived to the United States, but they most likely will have attended some sort of formal schooling.  Students like these often have educated parents, as well.  These children will struggle at first with language and concepts, but may surprise you with how quickly they make strides. These students often learn social language first, but pick up academic language skills quickly, especially if you can relate it to their home languages.

How to help: 

Take advantage of the literacy background these students have, and use their cultures to help them develop confidence and fluency in speaking.  Some students may remain in the silent period for a time, but continue to engage them in level-appropriate activities across all content areas, with a focus on vocabulary acquisition. Reader's Theater is a great way to build fluency, prosody, and confidence in speaking and working with native English speaking peers.


3. Newcomers with a low literacy background in their first language.

These children, who have arrived recently, may have never attended any sort of school, or have experienced an interruption in schooling.  They most likely have a low first language proficiency level. Their parents may or may not be educated in their first language as well.  These students often experience a greater sense of culture shock than the ELL's described above, as they are entering the formal education system, which may be a stark contrast to their previous life. They may remain in the silent period anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 months, depending on the student.The achievement gap will seem extraordinarily wide, but with patience and persistence, these students will acquire enough language to converse with their peers.

How to help: 

It might be hard to figure out what these students know and don't know, in terms of both concepts and language.  My best advice is to start at the very beginning, with basic survival English. Strategies such as Language Experience Activities, targeted speaking activities, fluency practice and visual writing prompts will help them gain proficiency in all language domains. I've written a Newcomer Curriculum guide that may help you as well!



In conclusion:

My school had a really large number of low-L1 literate newcomers for several years, but our population seems to be shifting, We're receiving more long-term ELL's (the brothers and sisters of our earlier immigrants).  This has caused us to re-evaluate our program methods and practices.  It's helpful for us to understand the differences in backgrounds of our students so that we can plan accordingly. I hope this is helpful for you, too!





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