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. All they needed was some paper and a writing utensil. 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. Thanks to the kindness of educators around the country, the initial activity calendar has been translated into 26* languages.

*as of April 9, 2020.  Click the pictures below to visit the website, which includes free printable activity calendars grades K-12.

Here are just a few ways educators are using this resource: 

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

Please feel free to use and share these tech free ideas! 
However, as an ELL teacher, I know that the text complexity may not match your learners' proficiency levels. Consider your own students' language needs and abilities before you send this out.  If it's not the right fit, I've got some tips to help you write your own!

Nurture Independence
I knew I needed something that my students could do on their own, possibly with minimal adult supervision.  Many of the parents of my students work in sectors that are still considered essential, such as health care, shipping and receiving, and food services. I also knew the kids would most likely be reading these independently, as most of their parents do not speak or read English. I wrote each activity carefully, selecting vocabulary I was confident my students could comprehend.  I added examples where I thought they might be needed, but not for each task; it's important to not overwhelm them at first glance. 

Include Family: 
Many of my ELL's are siblings or cousins who live in close proximity.  Some of my older kids are required to watch over the little ones.  Therefore, I designed the calendar so that on occasion, the tasks would overlap.  For example, if the task for the day asks kids to take a walk outside, it is often the same for each grade band.  

Provide practice in all four language domains: 
Designing tasks for all four domains that are tech free is not easy! This is where using their interests comes into play.  For example, my younger kids are very interested in superheroes and princesses, so some of their tasks ask them to write or speak about those interests.  My students also love food, so there are plenty of opportunities for them to read, write, and speak about food.  The hardest domain for me to include was listening; I couldn't figure out how to keep it independent and tech free. If you've got an idea for me, I'm open to suggestions! 

Integrate cross-curricular activities: 
My ESL curriculum is primarily content-based.  We read non-fiction and fiction mentor texts on various social studies and science topics, and use those as the basis for our academic language development.  To ensure students would use all that vocabulary they worked so hard to achieve, I made sure to include tasks that would touch on all the content areas.  Each week, there is at least one social studies, science, or math-based task.  Offering STEM type activities is an easy way to hit all the content areas in one fell swoop! My favorite task asks kids to build a tower with boxes and cans, then knock it down.  It doesn't ask them to read or write, but I know they'll be thinking in academic language and speaking it when they talk about the task with their families. 

Consider background knowledge: 
Here's an example of a personal teacher-fail that will explain my point: One of my students was finished with an assignment early, and asked if she could do reading comprehension practice. I gleefully pulled up, and asked her what topic she was interested in.  She replied, "Birthdays." So, I searched birthdays, and up popped a whole slew of articles.  I narrowed it by lexile and grade level, settled on two or three that looked appropriate, then let her choose.  She chose, and began working.  When she completed the assignment, I checked it over.  It was all wrong. Every single answer.  So, I sat with her to see what the trouble was.  Ready? Although the passage was at her reading level, and the comprehension questions were appropriate in text complexity, the topic was a Leap Year Birthday.  She had never heard of Leap Year before. Moral of the story: kids may be able to decode the task, they may be able to comprehend the task.  But if they are missing background knowledge of the content embedded in the task, the task was futile. I'll let you consider the implications, therefore, of assigning tasks your learners may not have background knowledge in. Thank you for coming to my Ted talk.

Put yourself in their shoes: 
This is where the relationships you've made and your own background knowledge of your students really comes into play.  It's important to be realistic with the things you're asking students to find or use around their homes. What is a reasonable expectation that you can make about their home situations, based on the information you already know? For example, I KNOW that one of my families does not have crayons, glue, or markers.  I can hypothesize that at least one child in the family has a pencil in his backpack, and probably notebook paper as well.  Therefore, the tasks only require paper and pencil.  Some tasks ask students to use crackers or candy as manipulatives.  If students don't have crackers, perhaps they could use dried beans.  Keep your students' home lives at the forefront of your planning.

In this strange time of distance learning, remote learning, crisis learning, whatever you call it, it's easy to choose an activity that looks great on the outside.  It's the inside that matters.  My best advice is to keep your students' needs and abilities at the forefront of your planning as we navigate these uncharted waters. Kids deserve it.  

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.

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