Jigsaw Strategy for English Language Learners

English Language Learners need lots of authentic opportunities to practice and improve their academic language, and the jigsaw method is a fun and collaborative way to do that.  

jigsaw cover image

I use the 5W's and How to teach social studies and science units.  In the pictures below, students are learning about Paleolithic, Neolothic, and Ancient Sumerians.   I start each jigsaw activity in a whole group manner, front-loading the content area vocabulary that students will be expected to know.  Each vocabulary word is assigned a color, which is continued throughout the reading.  Front-loading the vocabulary gives me a chance to review any language objectives we'll be practicing, such as past-tense verbs or common and proper nouns.

jigsaw activities for english language learners

 After pre-teaching the vocabulary, I assign students reading based on proficiency levels.  Higher proficient students may get the What or How pages, and lower proficient students may get the When and Where pages for even more visual support. 

jigsaw: assign notes

Students use a graphic organizer to summarize two or three main points from the reading. 

jigsaw: take notes

Some students write in complete sentences, others write in fragments.  Here, using perfect grammar isn't as important as comprehending the content.  I conference with each student while they are reading to make sure they're understanding the content at their proficiency level.

jigsaw: review and edit notes

The following day, students work on editing the notes they took, editing for grammar or content, depending on the need of the student. 

jigsaw: everyone shares their notes

Finally, we rejoin as a whole group and share the information we learned.  Students dictate their notes aloud one by one.  This often takes more than one class period, and is difficult at first, but with more practice it gets faster and easier! The struggle is worth it: dictating the notes they've taken gives them practice in speaking, listening, reading, and writing in the content area.  

After completing the jigsaw, my ELL students have notes about the 5W's and How written in language they can read and understand, and have had authentic experience speaking about the topic.  It's a true academic language trifecta!  

Student Centered Learning Tasks for English Language Learners

One of our district goals is to create more Student Centered Learning opportunities for all students. Truthfully, I struggled with the concept for most of our first semester. My concern was that my low and mid proficient ELL's would not know the necessary academic vocabulary needed in order to research, learn, and present on a topic.  To try it, I gave my middle school ELL’s an independent student centered learning task loosely based around our area of study, and they blew me away! If you're interested in incorporating student centered learning tasks for your English Language students, definitely give it a try!

student centered learning tasks main image

After researching various strategies such as Reggio, Montessori and Project Based Learning, I decided to create a project that would allow my students to produce content at their individual proficiency levels.  I chose two provocations that complemented our a unit of study on Early Humans, and chose them based on memorable inquiries students had made during various class discussions.  You can see the parameters for the project in the image below.

project based learning task instructions

I shared a sample project with my students to model the desired outcome.  This allowed my ELL's to see the general shape and scope, without giving away any of the content.  Creating this sample was a necessary step for my students to visually process my expectations, which were also shared via rubric.
student centered learning project sample

Although students worked mostly independently, I made sure to schedule one-on-one time during class for "status" meetings.  These quick discussions allowed me to check in on each student's progress without influencing their work.  Some of our discussions included brainstorming a list of potential research key words, certifying the validity of some images and websites, reviewing the concept of BC/AD, and helping choose a medium for delivery.

Below are three projects from my class.  The first is from a newcomer who has been in the US less than two years, the second a long-term mid-proficiency ELL, and the third a long-term high-proficient ELL.  (I should note that these three students chose to use Microsoft OneNote, while others chose to make posters.) While each project is unique and reflects the style and proficiency level of its owner, all the students achieved the desired outcome, and were able to present their learning.

visual of student work
student work 2

student work 3

All of this work was done independently, and truly reflects each student's proficiency level.  A task like this allowed my students to practice their research skills, graphic design skills, and public speaking skills.  My original concerns about scaffolding their vocabulary were addressed during our one-on-one conferences, and since they had a choice of topics and mediums, students were 100% invested and engaged in the project.  They took ownership and were proud of themselves, and immediately asked me what the next project would be.  Have you tried student centered learning with your ELL's? Leave a comment or send me an email- I'd love to hear about it!

Physical and Chemical Changes in Matter STEM Challenge

One of my teacher heroes is Miss Frizzle, whose catchphrase is "Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!" My students did just that during this changes in matter STEM challenge! Read on to see how making mistakes and getting messy created a deep understanding of physical and chemical changes in matter. (Also, find out what Miss Frizzle and Bill Nye have to do with STEM!)

physical and chemical changes STEM challenge

As the culmination of our physical and chemical change unit, my students had the chance to solve a problem.  Their task? Create their own wrapping paper for a gift, using only objects found around the house.  Their wrapping paper had to include both a physical and a chemical change. 

physical and chemical changes STEM challenge

I displayed my finished product (above) and then gave teams time to plan.  One of the perks of STEM for English Language Learners is that it allows students to use academic language in a non-threatening, student-centered environment. Giving students the finished product without the steps to accomplish it is another part of the beauty of STEM.  It's where the "taking chances and making mistakes" comes in, too!  (And believe me, we made lots of happy mistakes!)

physical and chemical changes STEM challenge

physical and chemical changes STEM challenge

This group had an interesting design; they wanted to create rainbow paper.  It was an excellent theory, and they worked hard to plan it out. Unfortunately, the product didn't turn out the way they expected.  I was so proud of them for taking chances and making mistakes! Even though they took a chance that didn't work, they weren't discouraged, because both students re-did their challenge that night at home! 

physical and chemical changes STEM challenge

physical and chemical changes STEM challenge

This group contained two of my lower-proficient English learners.  They had a trouble communicating their initial plan, partly due to a large language barrier.  This group definitely "got messy!" Even though they struggled with the language, they were working together to create and solve a problem, which is what STEM is all about.  

physical and chemical changes STEM challenge
Check out our wrapping paper! My kids were SO proud of what they created with food coloring and shaving cream. 

An administrator who walked by my room asked why the kids' projects didn't look like mine.  This is probably a common question among people who aren't familiar with STEM, so here's what I said, and what you can say too.  Simply put, A STEM challenge is not the same as a science experiment.  An experiment has a desired and predictable outcome, based on a question or hypothesis, and follows a series of exact steps.  A STEM challenge has a desired outcome, but it is often not predictable, is based on solving a problem, and the steps are initiated by the students. Another analogy? STEM is to Miss Frizzle as experiments are to Bill Nye! Both are excellent and engaging in their own ways.

physical and chemical changes STEM challenge

This Miss Frizzle style STEM challenge was lots of fun! In addition, it was as an assessment of my students' knowledge of physical and chemical changes in matter.  The hands-on experience and usage of academic vocabulary in context created deep and enduring understanding of the content.  Answering the questions on the "evaluate" part of their challenge sheet gave them the chance to practice writing in science, which is another difficult skill.  STEM challenge for the win!

Do you do STEM challenges with your ELL's? My students are hooked and can't wait for the next one!


December Carolers Bulletin Board

I love holiday bulletin boards! There is just something extra special about them, especially when they share a warm message.  I'm not sure how I'm going to top last year's caroler bulletin board, which is definitely one of my favorites.

We started by making our carolers.  My original template came from Elementary AMC, but I modified it to suit our bulletin board. If you'd like the tracers I used, click here! 

Students chose their face tone, hair color, scarf and sweater colors, and used a template to trace and cut. Click here for the templates!

Meanwhile, I printed out the letters and glued them to cardstock.  I chose to use "The best way to spread JOY and CHEER is singing loud for all to hear," instead of the traditional saying from the movie Elf, since we have many students who don't celebrate Christmas.  This saying was more inclusive to all of our learners.

I spaced out the letters and carolers in the hallway, and stapled them up.

Extras that didn't fit were displayed on my door. 

The students and staff at my school LOVED this bulletin board, and I hope yours do too!

4 Ways to Make Spelling Meaningful

Hooray! Your students can spell their words after studying them all week and testing on Friday.

But can they use them? Students who are struggling readers may do well memorizing a list of words, especially if they are related in a word family.  But if they can't read them in context, tell me what they mean, or use them in different forms, what have they actually learned?  How are you making spelling meaningful? Below are four strategies I use to make spelling words meaningful and enduring for all the learners in my class.

1. Give students the choice

The average spelling list for students in grades 2-5 is 20 related words per week.  Some programs add challenge words, too.   Instead of having them learn all 20 words, my students choose 7 of the words THEY want to learn. In addition, they choose the homework THEY want to do.  Those two simple changes have made my students look forward to spelling, rather than dreading it. The logistics of giving students choice for their spelling words can be overwhelming, so clear expectations are key.  My students know they have the freedom to choose their words and their homework, and in doing so, they've gradually begun to take more risks in choosing more difficult or unknown words.

student choice for spelling lists

2. Create student centered learning

Since my students choose their own words, and homework assignments, they are choosing their own path to learning.  During our spelling introduction on Mondays, I conference with each learner to quickly discuss the words and their meanings.  During our test on Fridays, I conference with them again to assess their learning.  In addition to creating enduring understanding, I'm also creating strong relationships with  my students.

3. Connect to classroom skills

Throughout the week, while we are practicing our focus grammar skill, I'll ask a student to use their spelling word in an example.  My students are experts on 10 Finger Sentences, and I challenge them to create one using two or more spelling words.  Their weekly test connects our grammar skills and spelling skills together, and is an excellent formative assessment.

individualized spelling test
During this test, they had to circle the subject and underline the predicate.

4. Let them take ownership

 When it's test time, each student meets with me to write their words in traditional dictation format.  Once finished, they must write a sentence for each word, as well as identify the week's grammar skill in each sentence.  Meeting with me as individuals makes the spelling test feel a little more special.  I'm able to check in with each student on a personal level for a minute or two, and for some, that makes all the difference.

individual spelling conferences

I'd love to hear how you make spelling meaningful in your own classrooms!

5 Tips for Teaching ESL Newcomers

Teaching Newcomer English Language Learners is unlike teaching any other grade or subject.  You may have students who are 13 and have never before set foot in a school, 6 year olds who are just developing their literacy skills, or 17 year olds who were near graduating in their home country.  It doesn't matter the age, grade, or linguistic proficiency, the fact that you're welcoming a newcomer to your school brings its own set of challenges and potential.  Below are some of my best tips for getting started with a Newcomer English Language Learner.

A seventh grader who has never been to school needs a completely different road map to success than a sophomore who is studying abroad for a year.  Curriculum, assessments, and courses need to be designed with CURRENT students in mind, not students from 3 years ago. 

Whether through an intake interview, a take-home questionnaire or any other measure, knowledge is key.  Understanding and responding to a student's past and current circumstances will help you develop a positive working relationship with the child and the family.

Navigating the jungle of school regulations and policies is a daunting task, even for native speakers!  Students and families need explicit information about where to be, when to be there, and how to present themselves in various situations.  Provide expectations using a three-pronged approach: 90:10 ratio of visuals to words, in the native language (if possible), and in English. 

I tell this story to new teachers all the time, and I hope it serves you as well.  I had a 5th grade refugee student who was coming in exhausted every day.  We talked and read about getting a good night's sleep as well as strategies for falling and staying asleep, but he kept coming in and promptly needing a nap.  I had the parents come in for a conference with a translator.  After much back and forth, the problem was revealed: the student was tasked with waking the father at 2 am for his work shift.  We provided the family with an alarm clock (and training on how to use it), and the situation was solved. 

  I'll never forget the time a lockdown was called between periods.  My 5th grade refugee student (the same from the alarm clock story) was caught off guard and panicked, and hid behind a water fountain instead of following protocol with his peers. When admin found him while conducting their safety check, they began to yell at him, which only increased his panic.  He spent the rest of the day glued to my side, alternately crying and shaking. Beginning the next day, and for all newcomer students since then, a short fact sheet was delivered to all staff to make them aware of the student, the language, helpful phrases in the native language, and any essential information such as allergies, siblings in the building, etc.  

From procedures to phrases to proper social skills, teaching Newcomer English Language Learners is a journey unlike teaching any other grade or subject.  Good luck and remember, we all smile in the same language!

Teaching Vocabulary in Context

One of my tried-and-true vocabulary strategies for science and social studies units is to teach vocabulary in context.  Learning vocabulary is way more than just associating a word to a definition, which is why students need to exposure and practice using the word multiple times before they are able to remember it and produce language with it.  Simply put, they need to know what it means AND they need to be able to use it. I often pull my English Language Learners out of their Social Studies or Science classes, so I infuse English language acquisition strategies throughout the same themes and topics as their peers.  Read on to find out how I prepare my units to teach vocabulary in context.  

teach vocabulary in context

First, I look at the textbook or scope and sequence to determine the essential questions or understandings, then I find the vocabulary that supports those understandings.  For my Guided Social Studies Unit on Early Humans, seen below, I would find about 6 of the most important words, forgoing the other 15 or so that are suggested by the textbook.  Depending on a student's proficiency level, I may add more or take more away to further modify.  I know you're thinking, but what about the other 15 words? They may be important words for native speakers to know, but are they the MOST important words my limited English proficient students need to know in order to speak, read, and write about this topic? Probably not.  By carefully and methodically taking the "fluff" words out of vocabulary instruction, I'm able to pinpoint instruction and really drive home the meanings and usage of those 6 most important words.

teaching vocabulary to ELL's

Once I've selected the 5 or 6 most important words, I use text enhancements to provide ongoing visual clues.  Color coding words throughout a unit has been a HUGE help to my students! If you're using a textbook, try different colored highlighters, washi tape, or post-it flags to help students seek and find their words easily.  It's best for my students to receive vocabulary and content instruction in manageable chunks.  Unlike a page from the textbook, my unit would contain about a single paragraph's worth of reading, about which we discuss and take notes before continuing.  The oral and visual repetition throughout the unit creates the enduring understanding, not a single word and definition on the sidebar of a page.

Vocabulary strategies for ELL's

To start the unit, I preview the vocabulary using lots of images and videos to provide background knowledge.  Throughout the unit, we refer back to those images and color coded words to help us remember pronunciation and correct usage.  I break down the information into manageable chunks, often relying on charts and diagrams to help my students create a deeper understanding without the "noise" of too many words.  As you can see below, color coding runs throughout each unit, which is great for visual learners.  For listening, musical and tactile learners, I create rhythms in the words and meanings which we can clap, snap, chant or stomp together.  A fun vocabulary activity is to have students create their own rhythmic chant about a word.  Click here to read more vocabulary practice strategies I use with my English Language Learners.

Vocabulary instruction for ELL's

When it comes time to assess, I make sure that the assessment the students take is in line with the practice they have worked on throughout the unit.  While I am looking for understanding of the word's meaning, I also need to see that students can dig deeper to use the word correctly and fluently.  

Below are some of the Guided Social Studies and Guided Science units available in my store.  I've used them in grades 3-8 to teach vocabulary in context and reading comprehension across the content areas.  Written at lower reading levels, they offer grade and age appropriate context written at lower reading levels.  They are perfect for my English Language Learners!  Click here to access the Guided Science units, covering many of the 3rd Grade NGSS standardsClick here to access the Guided Social Studies units, covering World and US History.

Guided Social Studies and Science Units

Teaching vocabulary in context is a strategy that will help all learners create enduring understandings across all content areas.  Good luck!

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