Sunday, January 31, 2010

English Language Learners and the Silent Period

           According to research, most new learners of English will go through a "silent period" which is an interval of time during which they are unable or unwilling to communicate orally in the new language. The silent period may last for a few days or a year, depending on a variety of factors, and it occurs before ELLs are ready to produce oral language. New learners of English should not be forced to speak before they are ready and we don't want to embarrass them by putting them on the spot.

ELLs need time to listen to others talk, to digest what they hear, to develop receptive vocabulary, and to observe their classmates' interactions. When they do speak, we want the speech to be real and purposeful instead of contrived. This does not mean your students are not learning. They may understand what is being said, but they are not yet ready to talk about it.

What determines the length of the" silent period?" There are several factors involved. First, personality plays a key role. A normally shy and quiet youngster in native language is usually going to take longer before they feel comfortable speaking. Native culture will also play a role. In many cultures, for example, girls are not expected to speak out. They play a more passive role in family and classroom dynamics.

Teacher instruction is also an important factor in the length of the silent period. If the teacher provides "hands-on" activities and has students interact in small groups, ELLs will be able to participate in the life of the classroom a lot sooner. They will feel more confident in risking oral language. It should not be assumed that young learners of English do not feel embarrassment or shyness when attempting to speak in a second language. Classroom and subject-area teachers can alleviate many of the newcomers' fears by creating a language-nurturing environment in their classes. The first weeks are crucial. A good relationship with classroom teacher and classmates will provide a great deal of the help and support newcomers need to cope with the challenges they face. This can't be emphasized enough. The more comfortable newcomers feel in your classroom, the quicker they will be able to learn. The more anxiety students experience, the less language they will comprehend.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How do English language learners acquire English?

How do newcomers learn English? Can they soak up language by sitting in the mainstream classroom? Learn how Comprehensible Input and Output are important to the acquisition of a second language.

Comprehensible Input

Language is not "soaked up."The learner must understand the message that is conveyed. Comprehensible input is a hypothesis first proposed by Stephen Krashen . (Krashen, 1981) He purports that ELLs acquire language by hearing and understanding messages that are slightly above their current English language level. Although there is controversary among researchers about this theory, practioners in the field will find that ELLs learn when they understand the message.
An English language learner may understand the message "Put the paper in your desk." By slightly changing the message to 'Put the paper in the garbage." the speaker scaffolds new information that increases the learner's language comprehension. In order to do this, the teacher must provide new material that builds off the learner's prior knowledge.
When newcomers are assigned to a mainstream classroom and spend most of their day in this environment it is especially critical for them to receive comprehensible input from their teachers and classmates. If that teacher lectures in the front of a classroom, the English language learner will not be receiving this input. Imagine that you and your family were sent to Japan for a year. Would you be able to learn Japanese by simply sitting in a Japanese classroom? You wouldn't unless the teacher made an effort to make the Japanese you were hearing comprehensible. The teacher would need to support learning with lots and visuals and opportunities to practice.

Comprehensible Output

According to Merrill Swain(1995), learners need opportunities to practice language at their level of English language competency. This practice with English-speaking peers is called Comprehensible Output. Many researchers feel that comprehensible output is nearly as important as input. Cooperative learning groups are one way for new learners of English to receive plenty of understandable input and output. Here are some reasons why.
  • A small group setting allows for more comprehensible input because the teacher or classmates modify or adapt the message to the listener's needs.
  • Speakers can more easily check on the understanding of the listener.
  • There is more opportunity for oral practice and for repetition of content information as peers help new learners of English negotiate meaning.
  • Student talk in this small group is centered on what is actually happening at the moment as the task is completed.
  • Feedback and correction are non-judgmental and immediate.
What does this mean for teachers in general education classrooms?  Lecture style teaching cuts English language learners out of the lesson unless the talk is supported by comprehensible input.  This includes visual support such as photographs, maps, graphic organizers, charts, and pictures.

    Friday, January 22, 2010

    What's in a gesture?

                 Very few gestures are universally understood and interpreted. What is perfectly acceptable in the United States may be rude, or even obscene, in other cultures. It is important for teachers to understand how the gestures they use unconsciously may be misunderstood.
                 Each of the following gestures can have a very different meaning in other cultures:

    Beckon with index finger. This means "Come here" in the U.S. To motion with to someone to come with your index finger can be insulting in many cultures. Expect a reaction when you beckon to a student from the Middle or Far East; Portugal, Spain, Latin America, Japan, Indonesia and Hong Kong. It is more acceptable to beckon with the palm down, with fingers or whole hand waving.

    Point at something in the room using index finger. It is impolite to point with the index finger in the Middle and Far East. Using an open hand or your thumb is more acceptable.

    Make a "V" sign. T his means "Victory" in most of Europe when you make this sign with your palm facing away from you. If you face your palm in, the same gesture means "Shove it." Very few gestures are universally understood and interpreted. What is perfectly acceptable in the United States may be rude, or even obscene, in other cultures.

    Smile. This gesture is universally understood. However, it various cultures there are different reasons for smiling. The Japanese may smile when they are confused or angry. In other parts of Asia, people may smile when they are embarrassed. People in other cultures may not smile at everyone to indicate a friendly greeting as we do in the United States. A smile may be reserved for friends. It is important not to judge students or their parents because they do not smile, or smile at what we would consider "inappropriate" times.

    Sit with soles shoes showing. In many cultures this sends a rude message. In Thailand, Japan and France as well as countries of the Middle and Near East showing the soles of the feet demonstrates disrespect. You are exposing the lowest and dirtiest part of your body so this is insulting.

    Form a circle with fingers to indicate "O.K." Although this gestures means "O.K." in the U.S. and in many countries around the world, there are some notable exceptions:
    • In Brazil and Germany, this gesture is obscene.
    • In Japan, this means money.
    • In France, it has the additional meaning of "zero" or "worthless."
    Pat a student on the head. This is very upsetting to students from Asia. The head is the repository of the soul in the Buddhist religion. Children from cultures which are influenced by Buddhism will feel uncomfortable if their head is touched.

    Pass an item to someone with one hand. - In Japan this is very rude. Even a very small item such as a pencil must be passed with two hands. In many Middle and Far Eastern countries it is rude to pass something with your left hand which is considered "unclean."

    Wave hand with the palm facing outward to greet someone. In Europe, waving the hand back and forth can mean "No." To wave "good-bye," raise the palm outward and wag the fingers in unison.

    Nod head up and down to say Yes.  In Bulgaria and Greece, nodding your head up and down means "No."

    Wednesday, January 20, 2010

    Understanding the development of academic langauge for ELLs

    I don't know how many times I hear teachers say, "That child is very lazy.  He knows more than we think he does. He pretends he can't do the work in my class but I hear him speaking English on the playground." Classroom and subject area teachers need to understand the difference between social language and academic language acquisition. Here is a simple description of BICS and CALP as theorized by Jim Cummins.

    Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills

    Experts such as a Jim Cummins differentiate between social and academic language acquisition. Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) are language skills needed in social situations. It is the day-to-day language needed to interact socially with other people. English language learners (ELLs) employ BIC skills when they are on the playground, in the lunch room,on the school bus, at parties, playing sports and talking on the telephone. Social interactions are usually context embedded. They occur in a meaningful social context. They are not very demanding cognitively. The language required is not specialized. These language skills usually develop within six months to two years after arrival in the U.S.  Problems arise when teachers and administrators think that a child is proficient in a language when they demonstrate good social English.

    Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency

    CALP refers to formal academic learning. This includes listening, speaking, reading, and writing about subject area content material. This level of language learning is essential for students to succeed in school. Students need time and support to become proficient in academic areas. This usually takes from five to seven years. Recent research Thomas & Collier, 1997 has shown that if a child has no prior schooling or has no support in native language development, it may take seven to ten years for ELLs to catch up to their peers.

    Academic language acquisition isn't just the understanding of content area vocabulary. It includes skills such as comparing, classifying, synthesizing, evaluating, and inferring. Academic language tasks are context reduced. Information is read from a textbook or presented by the teacher. As a student gets older the context of academic tasks becomes more and more reduced. The language also becomes more cognitively demanding. New ideas, concepts and language are presented to the students at the same time.  Jim Cummins also advances the theory that there is a common underlying proficiency (CUP) between two languages. Skills, ideas and concepts students learn in their first language will be transferred to the second language.

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010

    How long does it take to learn English?

    How long does it take to learn English? This is the most frequently asked questions by administrators, school board members and classroom teachers.

    The Research

    The most comprehensive work done in this field is the research conducted byWayne Thomas & Virginia Collier . Thomas & Collier studied the language acquisition of English language learners in a longitudinal study from 1982 to 1996. They wanted to find out how long it took students with no background in English to reach native-speaker performance (50th percentile) on norm-referenced tests. In addition, they looked at variables such as socioeconomic status, first language, programs used to learn English, and number of years of primary language schooling. In their study, Thomas & Collier found that the most significant variable in how long it takes to learn English is the amount of formal schooling students have received in their first language. 

     Here are some other conclusions from their study:
    • Those students who were between 8-11 years old and had 2-3 years of native language education took 5-7 years to test at grade level in English.
    • Students with little or no formal schooling who arrived before the age of eight, took 7-10 years to reach grade level norms in English language literacy.
    • Students who were below grade level in native language literacy also took 7-10 years to reach the 50th percentile. Many of these students never reached grade level norms.
    This data holds true regardless of the home language, country of origin, and socioeconomic status.

    How do ELLs in ESL Programs Compare?

    English language learners receiving ESL services do not make more rapid progress in English than students in other types of programs.
    It is a common belief that students in ESL programs outperform second language learners in any other type of progam. Research does not support this belief. Across different types of bilingual and ESL programs, Thomas & Collier found that:
    • English language learners who received all of their schooling in English did extremely well in kindergarten through third grade. The gains these students made in English were dramatic.
    • From fourth grade on through middle and high school, when the academic demands of the curriculum become more rigorous, the performance of these students fell substantially below the 50th percentile.Why did this happen? Native English speakers make an average gain of ten months each school year. However, English language learners only made a 6-8 month gain per school year. The gap between native-English and second language speakers widened from the 4th grade through high school.
    • Students in Two-Way Bilingual Immersion and Developmental Bilingual programs reach the 50th percentile in both their native language and English by 4th or 5th grade in all subject areas. These students were able to sustain the gains made in English, and in some cases, to achieve even higher than typical Native-English-speaker performance as they move through the secondary years of school.
    This does not mean that all bilingual programs are more effective than all ESL or sheltered content programs. It is important to look beyond the program label. Are teachers qualified to teach English language learners? Are there sufficient materials.? What instructional methods are used? Are students exited into all English programs too quickly?

    What Does this Research Mean for Schools?

    Bilingual programs are not always feasible, especially in school districts where students come from multiple language backgrounds. Here are the key considerations for school districts:
    • Give students more time to develop English language academic skills. Don't rush K-3 students through your language support programs.
    • Provide more support services to under-schooled upper elementary and middle school students. Remember that it will take them 7-10 years to reach grade level norms.
    • Maintenance of native language in the home should be encouraged. Development of native language literacy should be fostered. Persuade parents to send their children to after-school and Saturday instruction in first language. If your school district has the requisite number of students, push for a developmental bilingual or two-way immersion program.

    Monday, January 11, 2010

    How Culture Shock Affects ELLs

    Don't underestimate the results of culture shock. The emotional upheaval of moving can be devastating to any child. These symptoms are compounded when the child comes from a different culture and does not speak English.

    What is Culture Shock?

    Newly arrived ELLS who act out in the classroom are probably suffering from culture shock. This is a term used to describe the feelings people have when they move to an unfamiliar culture. Immigrant children may become withdrawn and passive or they may be aggressive. The more different the new culture is from their own, the greater the shock. Newcomers have left behind family members, friends, teachers, and pets. They have lost their language and culture. Often they do not have the support of their parents who are in shock too.

    Four Stages of Culture Shock

    It must be emphasized that every child reacts differently to moving to a new place. New arrivals usually go through four stages of culture shock.

    1.Euphoric or Honeymoon Stage
    During this stage newcomers are excited about their new lives. Everything is wonderful and they are having a great time learning about their environment.
    2. Culture Shock Stage.
    The differences between the new and the native cultures becomes more apparent. Students feel overwhelmed at this stage. There is so much they do not understand about their new surroundings. They are frustrated because they can not communicate and are bombarded with unfamiliar surroundings, unreadable social signals and an unrelenting barrage of new sounds. Students suffering from culture shock may seem sleepy, irritable, disinterested or depressed. Some students may become aggressive and act out their frustrations.
    Newcomers in this stage of culture shock need time and patience from their teachers.
    3. Integration Stage.
    Newcomers start to deal with the differences between the old culture and new. They learn to integrate their own beliefs with those of the new culture. Some newcomers will start to replace the old values with new ones. Others will begin to find ways to exist with both cultures. Many immigrant parents start to become alarmed at this stage. They do not want their children to lose their language and culture.
    4. Acceptance Stage.
    Newcomers are now able to enter and prosper in the mainstream culture. They accept both cultures and combine them into their lives. Some students will adopt the mainstream culture at school and follow the values of the home culture outside of school. During this stage many immigrant parents make it clear to their children that they do not want them to adopt the mainstream culture. This is because many immigrant students forget their native language and reject their culture.

    Remember that students suffering from culture shock need time to adjust.

    Wednesday, January 6, 2010

    The importance of teaching social skills to ELLs

    In my experience, we should not assume that English language learners will acquire socially appropriate language simply by being with English-speaking natives. ELLs need to be specifically taught social skills such as how to greet people, to give and receive compliments, to apologize, and to make polite requests. Students need to understand nonverbal language and proxemics. They need to be able to discover the appropriate voice tones, volumes, and language for different school settings.

    The need for teaching socially and culturally appropriate language in social situations is evident every day in our classes. We have all had students who use the same language when speaking to a teacher that they would use when talking to a peer. I once had a beginning English language learners who had learned how to say "yeah, yeah, yeah" to friends during recess. He couldn't say or understand much else in English. Whenever I gave him directions, he would reply, "Yeah, yeah, yeah." I had a difficult time making him comprehend that this was inappropriate language for a child to use to an adult. I finally taught him to say, "Yes, Mrs. Haynes" but I needed to have a translator explain why "yeah, yeah, yeah" was unsuitable for the classroom.

    The same thing occurs when a second language speaker swears in class. An English language learners in my school used an "x-rated" expression in his third grade classroom. The teacher was understandably distressed and required that the student write an apology for homework. Even more upsetting to the teacher was that the student's parents did not take the infraction of school rules seriously. I explained to her that swearing does not have the same "shock" value in a person's second language as it does in their first. So the parents were not "shocked" by their child's use of this language. What is considered "shocking" or inappropriate language for the classroom must sometimes be directly taught.

    Use role playing to demonstrate social English

    I spend a lot of time teaching students how to give and receive compliments, to thank someone for something, to answer the telephone, to ask directions, and to make small talk. Role playing, teacher modeling, peer modeling, and video are all good tools for teaching these social skills. Have students learn how to observe their peers for models of correct behavior. Use real incidents that come up in your class. Have students practice saying "good morning" and "good-by" to their teachers and classmates right from the beginning. Encourage classroom teachers to set expectations for these behaviors. Classroom and subject area teachers need to learn about some of the cultural differences in manners and behavior. You don't want teachers to over-react when a student won't make eye contact or relates to other children by touching them all the time, or smiles at inappropriate times.

    Giant Steps for ELLs with Nonfiction Writing

    The biggest challenge when teaching writing to Gr. 4-12 new learners of English is that many of them develop their text in their native language and then try to translate into English. This translated writing is full of inaccurate verb tenses and unintelligible sentences. There are so many errors that editing becomes problematic for teachers. I feel strongly that it is better to help students avoid writing in English through the filter of their native language.

    What problems do our students face when learning to write in English? First, their vocabulary is restricted and they limit themselves to words they know how to spell. Let’s examine the work of a 5th grade newcomer, Yimin, who wrote the following text in her mainstream classroom in response to the prompt: “If you were an animal, what animal would you like to be and why?”

    “I like be eagle becas eagle birds king and he fly very up. They scard. When they baby, they take off they feather and they squek they claw.

    How do we avoid the garbled writing that Yimin produced? I am convinced that English language learners write better if they begin with non-fiction reading and writing. Graphic organizers such as story maps, T-charts, and Venn diagrams help scaffold writing and provide students with language chunks that can be used in their text. If topics are developed orally, non-fiction vocabulary expanded and charted, and correct sentence structure modeled, student writing will improve dramatically. One way to achieve this is to teach non-fiction writing during writing workshop and to modify writing process steps for beginning English language learners. The topics used during this lesson should be taken from the students’ subject area content. I recommend the following steps :

    Prewriting: You will need to spend a lot of time in this stage with new learners of English.

    • As a follow-up to non-fiction reading, brainstorm and chart facts about the topic in sentence form. Have them read the facts from your chart orally. Strengthen the link between oral and written language.
    • Keep a running list of content vocabulary. Review and practice the vocabulary every day. Speak and write facts in full sentences.
    • Use graphic organizers to help students arrange ideas. ELLs will usually find it difficult to go from phrases to comprehensible sentences so complete the organizer with sentences, not phrases. Your students may not value this strategy if they have not used organizers to write in their native language so you will need to insist on it.

    Writing: Have students practice writing from a story map, Venn diagram or other type of graphic organizer. Provide them with an organizer that you have written together on the non-fiction topic. This gives a beginning writer the language and structure that they need. Show clearly what should be covered in the writing and how it should be organized.

    Editing: Don’t expect students who are not fluent in English to self-edit. They will not usually find their own mistakes. You will have to be more hands-on with the editing of non-native speakers and conference with them on a regular basis to discuss their works–in- progress. If you have your students peer-edit, they may be reluctant to share their work with native speakers. You may want to group beginners with more fluent native speakers. Give pairs a specific item to check. For example “Check the ‘s’ at the end of a verb if you are talking about one other person.” You may need to teach a mini-lesson about the item you want edited.

    Revising: English language learners will not remember what to revise unless changes are clearly marked on their papers. Instead of writing “Add more information here,” write more specifically “Tell what eagles eat here.” If students are a part of the editing process, the revisions will be more meaningful to them.

    Publishing: This is an important step. Help students develop a sense of audience by encouraging students to share their writing with classmates and family. Display work in the classroom and hallway or make classroom books.

    I see my students take giant steps when non-fiction writing is introduced to beginners in writing workshop and steps are modified as shown above. Yimin wrote this piece on a forest animal in her ESL classroom.

    “Eagle are carnivores. They live in forest. They eat small mammal, fish and snakes. They use eyes to see prey. They catch food with sharp talon. They are diurnal because they hunt in the day.”

    Tuesday, January 5, 2010

    DSL- Digital as a Second Language

    Hi everyone. This is my very first blog. In order to get my feet wet, I am basing this entry on an article from my website,

    “Are we writing on the computer today?” my eager 4th grade beginners asked as they piled into the ESL classroom. My English language learners are suddenly excited about writing. They enter my classroom with enthusiasm and leave reluctantly. Last year I wouldn’t have believed it possible. What brought about my students’ enthusiasm for writing? The purchase of wireless Apple iBook laptops for the ESL classroom has transformed the way I teach my English language learners. I have seen remarkable progress in their writing and in their motivation to learn.

    When I first started to use a computer about 19 years ago, it took a while before I felt comfortable writing directly in a word processing program. In contrast, I’ve found that most of my students prefer writing directly on the computer. This has a huge impact on writing because students are much more disposed to edit and rewrite. They are also more willing to begin by putting their ideas on a graphic organizer and developing their compositions from there. As a result, the length and depth of their written work has greatly increased and they are more willing to expand on their ideas. Most importantly, they have become much more enthusiastic about writing, and projects that once took weeks are now completed in a few days.

    According to Mark Presensky (2001), today’s students are “digital natives”. By this he means that they have grown up in an environment that has always included computers, the Internet, cell phones, digital cameras, and MP3 players. We, the teachers of these digital natives, are what Presensky calls “digital immigrants”. We speak “digital” as a second language (DSL). We grew up in a drastically different text-based environment and even if we have tried to keep up with current technology, we speak this language with an accent. Presensky contends that our educational system was not designed to teach today’s students.

    Technology has had an enormous influence on my teaching. I feel that elementary-age students need to be encouraged to do research, take notes, and write on computers. This keeps them engaged. As an example, let me explain a project I developed for my 4th grade intermediate learners.

    In response to a fictional story we read, I asked my students to describe a place where they enjoyed spending time. They first arranged their ideas on a graphic organizer using Kidspiration software. They completed this organizer directly on the computer. One of my best writers, Erin, wrote the organizer to show three activities that she liked to do at the park.

    From this outline, I asked Erin to expand the information under “Have fun with my family.” Her resulting organizer showed three ways she had fun with her family in the park. Next, I asked Erin to write about the badminton game that she had listed on our organizer. Here is what she wrote:

    The last time I went to the park, I play badminton with my family. We divide into two teams and play against each other. I practice badminton with my dad for a whole week so I thought I could beat my cousins. Unfortunately, I was wrong. My cousins are much better than me!

    You can see how Erin expanded one part of her organizer and fleshed it out so that it became a paragraph of her completed essay. She repeated this technique with each part of her organizer.

    With 5th & 6th grade groups, I used Inspiration. With the latest version, my students could research information for a report or other writing assignment and organize it on a template in Inspiration directly on their laptops. They can spell check their work, use a thesaurus or dictionary, change the organizer into an outline and export that outline to their word processing program. These outlines become their frame for writing.

    Let’s face it, students do not learn in the same way that they did ten years ago. We can blame technology or we can use it to our advantage. We can no longer, however, teach in the same way. Even though digital may be our second language, as digital immigrants we can become more collaborative in our approach, while learning from the digital natives in our classes.


    Kidspiration (2001) Inspiration Software, Inc. Portland, OR

    Inspiration 8.0 (2006) Inspiration Software, Inc. Portland, OR

    Prensky, M. Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1, On the Horizon, September/October 2001, Volume 9, Number 5; NCB University Press.