How to use 1 Mentor Text for 5 Proficiency Levels

It sounds daunting, but it is possible to use one mentor text with all five proficiency levels! If you've got a blended grade level or mixed proficiency class, using one mentor text can simultaneously cut down on the prep work for you while connecting your groups to the same theme. Using a mentor text as a base for instruction gives you the ability to observe students' growth in all content areas, as well as all language domains.  


Before we start, it's helpful to know the approximate proficiency levels of your students.  I'm familiar with WIDA's Can-Do descriptors, since I work in a WIDA state.  Your state may use other descriptors, but I find that the Can-Do's are a good way to informally gauge the levels of your learners regardless of region.  The image below is a general overview of the descriptors, but I encourage you to view the charts specifically for your grade levels



For the purposes of this post, let's imagine that you have a fourth grade class of three Level 1's, four Level 2's, three Level 3's, two Level 4's and 1 Level 5. We'll explore the various ways to make a mentor text work for ALL the learners in your class, while incorporating the standards of ELA, Math, Social Studies, Science, and the Arts. We'll use the mentor text, I Lost My Tooth In Africa, written by Penda Diakite, illustrated by Baba Wague Diakite. 


After choosing the mentor text, we'll choose a mentor sentence.  This is the sentence you'll come back to for your mini lessons on grammar and mechanics.  I chose one based on the grammar skills I'd like to cover in this lesson, which are adverbs and similes, as well as a (constant!) review of nouns & verbs, and subject/predicate agreement. "The stars shine brightly, and the moon glows like a streetlamp."  


After providing background on Mali, Africa, and reading the mentor text aloud, here's how we might structure some mini-lessons:

Level 1's: 
ELA: Using images in the book, point to known vocabulary when stated. 
Math: Find, tally, graph words on a page with consonant blends "sh/wh/th/ck." 
Science: Draw and label life cycle of a chicken. 
SS: Use a t-chart to sort pictures of life in Mali vs. pictures of life in America. 
Arts: Listen to/learn Good Night song, create rhythm with classroom objects.

Level 2's: 
ELA: Using images in the book, respond to "WH" questions about known vocabulary. 
Math: Using images int the book, label, tally, graph objects of certain colors or shapes. 
Science: Draw and label life cycle of a chicken, fill in sentence frames to complete sentences. 
SS:  Identify, draw, and label clothing, food, and homes typical of Mali. 
Arts: Read, sing, or perform Good Night song to rhythm created by peers. 

Level 3's: 
ELA: Using mentor sentence, identify and list other nouns that can shine brightly. 
Math: Create a timeline of daily life in Mali, from waking up to going to sleep. 
Science: Create a t-chart or write sentences to compare life cycle of a chicken to life cycle of a butterfly. 
SS: Create a travel brochure about Mali, with pictures and short captions. 
Arts: Research Good Night songs from other cultures, share findings. 

Level 4's: 
ELA: Using mentor sentence, identify other similes in the book and/or create more similes. 
Math: Use recipe from the back of the book, double it or halve it and rewrite. 
Science: In paragraph form, use transition words to explain and compare life cycle of a chicken to life cycle of a butterfly. 
SS: Research to understand tooth-loss traditions from other cultures, create a chart or diagram to compare them. 
Arts: Write and perform (optional) a Good Night song. 

Level 5's: 
ELA: Using mentor sentence, change nouns and verbs in the sentence to create new meaning. 
Math: Using recipe from back of book, read to find total time it would take to cook the Onion Sauce. 
Science: Explain what Uncle Madou means when he says, "When you come back, your chicks will be old enough to lay eggs for you." 
SS: Based on tooth-loss traditions from other cultures, imagine, design, illustrate, and explain your own tooth-loss tradition.
Arts: Compare the Bambara language translation of the Good Night song to the English language translation.  Try to identify the meanings of the words in Bambara.  Compare Bambara language structure to English language structure. 

As you can see, many of the activities overlap, so you can work with smaller groups of students on the same general task, while differentiating for individual proficiency levels.  Assess the progress of your students in a formative manner, throughout their work on each task.  Let their final products be the summative assessment for levels 1-3. As students grow in decoding and comprehension ability, you may choose to add comprehension questions for levels 3-5 in order to prepare them for the format of standardized assessments.  

For more information on how I've used mentor texts with my ELL's, see these posts:




How to Support Students with IEPs During Distance Learning

How can we ensure a free and appropriate education for our students with IEPs while we are learning from home? It's a question that has administrators and teachers around the country scratching their heads.   Diane Myers, Ph.D, senior VP with Specialized Education Services, Inc,. answered some of my questions about best practices for supporting students with IEPs and their families as we move forward. While our interview focused on students with IEPs, I believe her advice is valuable for ALL the learners in our schools.

Read the full interview, here.

1. How can administrators support students with IEPs during distance learning and/or the summer?

"Students with IEPs and their families are facing some of the greatest disruptions from the pandemic, and administrators can help with that by listening to the needs of students and families, potentially reallocating resources (e.g., for students with severe behavioral challenges, an administrator may approve a more robust incentive system to have available reinforcers for those students via a token economy adapted to remote learning), and making sure that teachers and students have the technology and training they need to successfully teach and learn from a distance."

2. How can schools support parents of students in special education during distance learning?

"Schools can also help families find examples of how to apply academic and social behavioral skills to real-life scenarios that might occur; for example, this could look like practicing social distancing (which combines the social skill of being safe with the math skill of estimating measurement) or identifying how a conflict is resolved in a TV show or movie (which helps students apply and generalize problem-solving skills they may have learned). Schools could send model mini-lessons (written in plain language) with suggestions for how to efficiently and effectively integrate learning into daily activities to help with consistency of learning and generalization of acquired skills."

3. What are best practices for meeting students' needs when school does re-open?

"During the first few days of schools being reopened, I think school staff should focus on the expectations in the building and practice them extensively with students. All schools should teach what “Being Safe” looks like (and if they had this expectation already, they’ll need to add some new behaviors).  For example, schools will need to teach what safe distances look like (and how to use any visual prompts, like markers on the floor), any new procedures around hand washing and restroom use, how to wear masks if that’s an expectation at the school, how to cover your coughs and sneezes and what to do afterwards, and what to do if you feel sick or a family member is sick. Some of these expectations may already be part of the behaviors taught in the school, but it will be important to teach all of these skills and provide students time to practice and build fluency as the skills become part of the school culture."

Thank you, Dr. Myers, for sharing your thoughts on supporting students with IEPs.  My biggest takeaway, and something I hope administrators take to heart, is your suggestion to "be patient and have plans." 







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 Readworks.org, 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.






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!





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