(The Intentional Teacher)
Last week Vanessa Perez invited me to observe how she introduces new vocabulary to her French 1 students. As I watched, I identified strategies Vanessa implemented to help her students make gains in language acquisition. This had me thinking… If these strategies help her students learn and understand French, they could also be executed in any class to help our English Learners (ELs). As a result, I quickly began compiling a list of 5 things we can learn about teaching ELs from a World Language teacher.
Vanessa repeated directions, specific words, and academic vocabulary often. This is a wonderful strategy for ALL students, actually. We have all given directions only to hear students whispering, “Wait, what are we doing?” If a student who is fluent in English perhaps didn’t catch all the directions, imagine what a student who is just learning a language might be experiencing? ELs need to hear language being used. They need to hear it being used correctly. The more you can reinforce language and the important vocabulary specific to understanding your content area, the more successful your EL students will become. However, remember that they also need to hear words every day words like “staple,” “type,” “turn in,” etc. Whether you are planning lessons or speaking in front of the class, do so with intention and consider all students in the room.
To accompany specific directions and content-specific language, Vanessa used many demonstrations and visuals. From something simple—like holding up the stapler and repeating in French that they should staple their papers once they finish—to including her own photos to reinforce the new vocabulary, Vanessa made sure the students not only heard, but saw the language. The textbook included a family tree with labeled photos to introduce the new vocabulary, but Vanessa started with a slideshow of her own family photos and talked the students through the presentation in French, stopping to repeat the highlighted vocabulary often. When can you help ELs see that language, rather than just hear it?
Vanessa asked her students to repeat key words. This may feel uncomfortable for a teacher who is not used to teaching this way, but even in AP Language and Composition I have my students repeat words that are unfamiliar to them. This type of practice is also vital for our ELs. Vanessa asked her students to read a passage in French, but first she modeled the reading. She stopped to have students repeat difficult words and even stepped in to give a quick grammar lesson about pronouncing the “s” at the end of the word and how that would change meaning. Interrupting for quick grammar lessons is the perfect way for all teachers to help ELs with language acquisition. No, you don’t have to be a grammarian to try this with your subject matter. For example, a quick discussion of a root word or even synonyms of a word would help EL (and all students!) to understand the material a bit better and make connections.
Vocabulary is the key to understanding any of our content areas. Vanessa gave her students many opportunities to interact with language and new words. Finally, they created a list of the words to remember. We all ask students to learn vocabulary for our content areas, right? I am going to ask you to possibly change your thinking about what those vocabulary lists look like and how they are constructed. Overwhelming students with too many words, or only asking students to look up words and provide definitions without any authentic practice and meaningful interactions with the language, won’t help them (and by them, I mean ANY student) to retain the vocabulary. We all should move away from asking students to simply memorize and instead ask them to use the vocabulary 1) to help understand the content and 2) to express their understanding. So try this! Consider having students choose words with which they are unfamiliar. If a student already knows a word and how to use it effectively in context, why would we need to spend time assessing him on it? If he self-selects words he does not know, the learning experience will be much more authentic (and this is an easy way to allow for differentiation!). Of course, you should highlight important words (and those academic vocab words!) and tell the students why these particular words are essential to mastering the skill on which they are working. Then ask them to interact with the words in meaningful ways beyond simple memorization. Remember to allow students multiple opportunities to hear, see, and practice the language.
Engaging with Language
Vanessa timed her activities just right. She spent about 10 minutes on each of the following activities:
- Teacher talking, students repeating
- Students talking to other students
- Teacher talking again, students repeating
- Teacher calling on students to respond
- Students talking to one another
EL students will often fade into the classroom if they have a chance. Don’t let them. Give them low-stakes situations to practice language. Repeating words and phrases with the whole class is low-risk. Talking to one partner is low-risk. It wasn’t until the students had multiple opportunities to hear and practice the language did Vanessa begin calling on them to answer in front of the class. Think about this in terms of ELs. They need opportunities to hear the language spoken in your class. They need to hear the academic terms and specific vocabulary for your content area being used. They need to practice with the language. Only then will they begin to feel comfortable sharing with the whole group.
One More Thing…
I know I said there would be 5 things, but I just have to add one more. First, read this quote by Tara Holloway. Tara is an English teacher here at Hart who had Vanessa as a French teacher. As you read, imagine the classroom culture Vanessa created that resulted in such a positive experience for her former student.
“It goes without saying that learning a new language is a tough challenge. What was so great about being in Vanessa’s class is that I knew I could take on that challenge without fear. She created an environment where I could feel comfortable with exploring the unknown. She new each of us as individuals and our class took on that family feel where we could learn and grow together.”
Enthusiasm, Classroom Culture, Comfort
Vanessa exudes energy as she teaches. She is not only teaching, but selling the learning experience. Too often we simply go through the motions with our students without allowing them to see our passion for our content areas. We become so bogged down with “how much we need to get through” or “how behind we are” that we forget we teach our subject matters because we fell in love with them at one point in our lives. Vanessa smiled ear to ear the entire two days I observed. She offered interesting facts and played French music while her students worked. Even her room decor promoted her passion as you can see from the picture at the end of this post. She gave the students multiple opportunities to practice with language and created a classroom culture where they felt safe speaking up, even if they were unsure of their pronunciation or their answers. English Learners are already struggling with the language. If you are not selling the content, they most likely won’t buy in (and no one else will either!). Show them you love what you do and what you teach each and every day. Create an atmosphere where trying, and sometimes failing, is okay. Academic risk-taking should be encouraged. But first, create conditions for success. Get to know your EL students (and ALL students) as individuals. Understand their stories. Make sure that, as Tara said, you provide a space where they all feel included and can “grow together.” Students are not all going to come in with the same understanding, academic experiences, or background knowledge. That is perfectly fine. Meet students where they. Provide challenges without fear. And most of all, teach and consider each and every student in the room.
Ça vous dit?
Thank you, Madame Perez! You have a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ that makes you a ‘professeur fabuleux’!