ESL at Home: Tech Free ESL Ideas

When students are away from school, it's essential that they keep learning.  However, limited access to technology or parental assistance can make it difficult to achieve the same goals we hold in the classroom.  So, before leaving my classroom on our last day in March 2020, I put together activities that my K-8 ELL students could work on independently, with little to no supervision, and that would cover the four domains of reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Little did I know that this document would become a resource shared tens of thousands of times and used by educators all over the US, Canada, and Australia.

All children need to complete these tasks are pencils, paper, and household items. Thanks to the kindness of educators around the country, the initial activity calendar has been translated into 25* languages.

*as of April 6, 2020.

Here are some ways educators are using this resource:

  1. Printed and sent home in multiple languages for students with internet accessibility issues
  2. Posted in a Google Classroom, Seesaw, or other education platform
  3. In-person prompts during video meetings
  4. Linked on school, library, and community websites as an optional resource for parents 
  5. Using photographs shared by families (those who can) as evidence for grading purposes

Click the either picture below to visit the website, which includes free printable activity calendars grades K-12. 

Pin it, Tweet it, Share it! The link to this resource is also listed as a freebie on TPT.

You can find even more tech free ideas on this post

What textbook? Teaching SLIFE"s, Part 2

In my last post I talked about how long it took me to figure out that I was teaching SLIFE's, and what that actually meant.  One of the things that made me into the educator that I am today has been my lack of access to a textbook or teacher's manual. 

 In my first job, teaching French, there was no textbook, so I drew from my experiences learning French to create lessons geared to my students' needs.  That experience allowed me to explore the practice of teaching language acquisition, and learn how to create materials that were engaging and effective.  Then, when I was thrown into an ESL position (again with no textbook), I drew on those experiences to create materials that were also driven by students' needs.  However, I quickly realized that teaching ESL is NOT the same as teaching FSL.  When teaching a world language, the expectation is that students will be able to use the language primarily in social situations;  rarely, if ever, will they need to conduct a conversation with academic language.  

In ESL, you are expected to teach them social language AND academic language, simultaneously and quickly.  My FSL students had no such expectations placed on them- they never needed to use French outside of our little bleu blanc rouge colored classroom. We had fun. We played games, we sang songs, we watched videos, we diverted from learning the language to learning about the culture and history (in English) without any sense of urgency.  So, when I received a group of SLIFE's and became their self-contained teacher, I was caught between teaching them ESL the way I taught FSL, and ESL that the district was expecting.  It's like being caught between a rock and a hard place.  I wanted to teach them rhymes and songs to help them remember phonics rules, but at the same time, I knew they were expected to leave my classroom being able to eloquently discuss changes in the three states of matter and describe the life cycle of oviparous creatures.  

This is when my lack of teacher's manual, scope and sequence, and pacing guide came in handy.  I drew upon my experiences teaching FSL and ESL, and created something that was unique to the needs of my learners, that year.  Looping with these students was one of the best and hardest things I've done as a teacher.  I couldn't do the same craft, read the same read-aloud, rest on my laurels, or rest, ever.  I had to take what they'd learned and expand on it, which pushed me, and them.  Teachers from other districts would come to observe us, and always asked what basal series I was using.  I'd shrug (that very Gallic shrug that expresses the untranslatable "bof" in French) and say I didn't use one, that I'd never used one.  The lack of a teacher's guide makes a lot of teachers uncomfortable. I know for a fact that I scared away a teacher who was shadowing me for a practicum.  My "alternative" instructional design methods were not equating with the strict teacher-prep program (you know, the one that makes you write 6 page lesson plans).  I didn't understand then, in fact, I sobbed, thinking I was an awful mentor.  But now, I understand it wasn't me, it was the fact that I didn't have a textbook, a pacing guide, or even a curriculum beside the one I wrote for myself. 

Although I've learned to never say never, I can pretty much guarantee that I'll never be in favor of teaching SLIFE's from a textbook or kit. This isn't to say that textbooks are wrong or bad, rather, it's the application that can be detrimental.  My experiences have shown me that manuals and books are resources, not prescriptions.  There is no manual in the world that can prepare someone to teach SLIFE students what they need to know in order to survive.  It's not a simple formula, there is no magic answer,  It's about the giving each individual student in a single class period the tools they need to succeed.

Teaching SLIFE's...a personal history

My first year working with SLIFE's was 2009.  It was my first year teaching, and I was teaching French as a long-term sub in an urban district.  I didn't know I had SLIFE's, much less what SLIFE's were.  The next year, I was assigned to teach an ESL 7th grade history, again with no knowledge about what SLIFE students were, much less how to teach them.  I was befuddled when an Arabic student continually used the letter /u/ when he meant the letter /n/.  I didn't know why he eloped from class, just that he did it and then returned when he was ready.  School admin was no help; they couldn't speak with him to discipline him, and he never showed up for any of the detentions he got for eloping.  Another student, who I will remember forever, built me an amazing longhouse (I still have it, 11 years later) out of popsicle sticks, during a unit on Native Americans.  He barely spoke a word in English or Spanish, but he had enough receptive language to absorb content and understand when I asked them to create something.  After stumbling through that first year teaching ESL, I realized I wasn't terrible at it, and it was something I wanted to get better at. (Did I mention I failed the French oral proficiency exam? 6 times? I did. ESL was pretty much my only option to continue teaching.)  So, I went for my M.Ed in teaching ESL.  

I moved to a new district, a TINY district, where I still am in 2020.  I still don't know why they hired me...I had no experience working with the population they had just received.  Sometimes I think it was a happy accident. The population I was hired to teach consisted of refugees from Burma and Thailand.  So here I was, 24 years old, armed with Kevin Henkes and Don Freeman read-alouds, theories of multiple intelligence, and classroom management tricks that worked in an urban setting with more traditional English Language Learners (the kind those "newcomer kits" are written for).  And then I met my students.  My sweet, trusting, bewildered, scared, confused, and frustrated students.   Again, with no training on SLIFE's, I stumbled through my first two years.  By the end of the second year I had luckily figured out what SLIFE's were, due to my own research skills.  I would send desperate emails to colleagues in my former district, pleading for resources and ideas.  I cried in my grad school classes, because what they were teaching me wasn't what was going to help my students learn to write their names.  During one lesson we were talking about the multiple meaning word "waves" and I pulled a picture of the ocean up on my screen.  The picture triggered PTSD in one of my students whose family had lived through the 2005 tsunami in Thailand.  She fell to the floor, wracked with sobs.  All I could do was hold her and rock her.  When it came time for lockdown drills, it took me the entire day to calm them, assuring them that no militia was going to storm the room with AK-47's.  Also, I was supposed to be bringing these students up to grade level reading and writing standards.  

Enter year 3, 2013.  I was just beginning my adminstration licensure program, had just bought my first house with my husband, and in dropped 4 new refugee students.  They ranged in age from 8-13, and none had been to school before.  I don't remember much about that September, only flashes of images and the panic attacks I had in the shower, when the reality of teaching refugees who had escaped with nothing but their lives set in.  I held it together when one of my students calmly explained how he watched someone's leg get blown off from a land mine, and that's why he preferred to stay on the blacktop at recess, rather than the grass. September became October, and with the help of kindergarten teaching blogs, I taught them how to write their names.  Then we counted the letters in their names.  Then we graphed who had more or fewer letters in their names.  By Halloween, they were reading emergent readers with sight words.  By December, we were playing first grade math center games together.  In March, we did our first word search and crossword puzzle.  They were fascinated by the idea of a leprechaun.  We began reading level A readers, then level B.  One of my students joined his grade-level math class, and was able to follow along with the computation skills.  I kept the other three with me, and we progressed steadily through second grade math standards, working our way up to third grade math.  That was the year I realized that teaching SLIFE's was not something you could learn in a textbook.  It was not something a professional development conference could help you with.  

Teaching SLIFE's is an experience that must be had to be understood.  Each and every SLIFE student I've taught has required a different strategy and teaching style from me.  And I see it as my duty and challenge to meet them where they are, learn what works, and give them what they need to succeed.

Teaching Subject and Predicate Agreement in Context

Teaching subject and predicate agreement has majorly transformed my language learners' writing abilities. After attending a training on the Framing Your Thoughts (FYT) writing program, I felt like I had finally found something that would work for my students this year!  I strongly believe in teaching grammar and vocabulary in the context of reading and writing, and these strategies fit right into my curriculum.  Read along to see if these strategies might help your scholars as well!

Our unit on biographies lent itself perfectly to working on learning subject and predicate agreement.  Our first read-aloud for the unit was The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. As a pre-assessment, I displayed the following image to determine whether or not students understood the difference between nouns and verbs. 

Most students knew about nouns and verbs, but could not make the connection that nouns were subjects and verbs were predicates.  Framing Your Thoughts uses the words subjects and predicates almost exclusively, so I have begun to use that vocabulary as well.  Using these simple charts, as well as TPR I learned in the training, I taught students the difference between subjects and predicates, as well as how to find them. 

We practiced subjects and predicates using a picture prompt of a landscape in Malawi, which was the setting of the book. This allowed me to see who needed practice with predicate agreement, and served to build vocabulary about a country that was unfamiliar to most of my students. 

Following this lesson, we moved on to our next read-aloud, Apples to Oregon.  These charts are displayed in my room, and are constantly referenced.  I taught my students some hand motions and a chant that helped them remember the rules.  From that point on, my students were expected to underline all subjects and put "mountains" under all predicates.  

As we read the story, we learned lots of additional background knowledge and vocabulary about the time of the pioneers in America.  We began sorting that vocabulary into subjects and predicates, which we later compiled into a huge classroom list.   

By two weeks into our study of subject and predicate agreement, my students understood how to write barebone sentences (vocabulary used in FYT), and were able to write a summary of both our read-alouds using that strategy.  We kept practicing, and I challenged them to summarize their weekends using only barebone sentences.  They were able to add a picture detail at the end to show where they were or with whom. 

You may have noticed that none of these predicates are past-tense, and there is a reason for that.  Since students need to learn the agreement rules between subjects and predicates, FYT suggests using the active present tense.  When we began our study of Sacajawea, my students were comfortable with subject and predicates, and therefore able to identify more content-specific vocabulary. 

As a formative assessment, I gave each student a copy of the book and had them write barebone sentences of their own.  They shared with a partner, whose job it was to try to find the illustration in the book that matched the sentence. 

After only three weeks of studying subjects and predicate agreement, my students' writing is clearer and much more proficient, especially since they are expected to underline each subject and "mountain" each predicate.  My students have done so well with creating barebone sentences that I've challenged them to use strong predicates from the list we've compiled.  

  By scaling back our sentences to the very basic parts, my students have been able to understand HOW to put a sentence together. The next step in FYT is adding predicate expanders (adverbs) like where, when, how, and why, and I'm excited to see how they progress! I've become a huge fan of this strategy, and hope it might work for your students as well.

STEM Marble Maze

STEM challenges are always a good idea, especially for language learners. If you're looking for the perfect low-prep STEM activity, try a play dough marble maze!

For a marble maze, all you need are whiteboards or plates, play dough, and a marble.  Students have a set amount of time to design and create their maze.  They can work individually or in partners.  The objective is to move the marble through the maze without it falling off the board. 

You can choose to blow the marble through the maze, or tilt it through. 

Working together allowed students to practice social and academic language skills, as well as have fun!

The teamwork, creativity, and problem-solving skills needed to complete a challenge lend themselves so well to authentic use of language.  When STEM challenges are applied to a unit of study, students have double the chances to use academic vocabulary!

Looking for more STEM challenges to use with language learners? Try these!

Back Pocket Teaching Strategy: The Story Circle

A "back pocket" strategy is a tool a teacher can use in any classroom, with any group of students, with very minimal prep.  Whether a lesson went south, you had a pop-in observation, or you have 6 minutes left in the period, having back pocket strategies means you'll never be without a quick teaching solution.  Add these back pocket strategies to your teaching bag of tricks for this school year!

Besides the 10 Finger Sentence, my next favorite strategy is the story circle.  It's a great way to practice content area vocabulary, use collaborative skills, and can work for speaking or writing. 

Model a story circle by choosing a topic.  You can use content area vocabulary that you're working on, or have students suggest topics of interest.  Seasonal vocabulary is always a fun idea, too, and you can have a student choose a card to start the game.  Next, start the story with a one-sentence opener.  You can choose to do the story orally (good for a large group!), or write it on an easel (easier with a smaller group).  The next person in the circle must say the next line in the story, keeping with the theme or topic.  The story continues until the last person, who must end the story with some sort of conclusion.  It's really a lot of fun!

I've used the story circle with everyone from kinders to adult learners, and as long as you use appropriate scaffolds, anyone can do it.  For example, in the picture below, my ELL students brainstormed words they knew about hot air balloons, and had to choose at least one word from the chart to include in their story sentence.  

If you use story cubes, like the ones below, you can have each member of the group add to the story using their own picture prompt.  Be prepared for wild and wacky turns! 

Image result for story cubes

A story circle offers learners a fun and engaging opportunity to use vocabulary and grammar structures, as well as build community by collaborating with their peers. A story circle can be used in any content area, and takes little to no preparation at all.  If you use the story circle as a segue into the Language Experience Approach, as I did with this pumpkin activity, then you've created an entirely student-centered activity tailored to each student's proficiency level. 

Check back soon for more back pocket teaching ideas! 

Back Pocket Teaching Strategy: The 10 Finger Sentence

A "back pocket" strategy is a tool a teacher can use in any classroom, with any group of students, with very minimal prep.  Whether a lesson went south, you had a pop-in observation, or you have 6 minutes left in the period, having back pocket strategies means you'll never be without a quick teaching solution.  Add these back pocket strategies to your teaching bag of tricks for this school year!

My number one strategy is the 10 Finger Sentence.  It's a great tool for practicing speaking and writing skills, and I've used it with everyone from kinders to adult learners.

Model a 10 finger sentence for your students by first choosing a topic.  Then, hold up your hands, and put down a finger for each word in your sentence.  You'll notice that you automatically have to make revisions and edits to your sentence to get your message across.  Your students will enjoy watching your brain work as you attempt the strategy.  Then, encourage sub-vocalization and finger tapping as they work to create their own 10 Finger Sentence. What a great way to demonstrate the power of word choice! 

A 10 finger sentence helps reluctant speakers use the vocabulary they know, gives kids practice using grammar accurately, and offers a fun, stress-free way to demonstrate fluent speaking.  It's an excellent choice for emerging readers and writers as well! Use the 10 Finger Sentences as a segue into the Language Experience Approach, and you've created an entirely student-centered activity tailored to the student's proficiency level. 

Get ready for more Back Pocket Teaching Strategies coming soon! 

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