Monday, March 14, 2011

Do children really learn languages more easily than teenagers or adults?

I recently received an e-mail from a colleague who stated “There seems to be some conflict with the statement you make in your book (Getting Started with English Language Learners) about adults learning language faster than children."
I do say this in my book. I present this as a myth of second language acquisition in order to give classroom teachers realistic expectations for the English language learners in their class. When I say that teenagers and adults learn a second language faster than children, I am talking about academic language. (Mc Laughlin, 1992) The purpose of presenting this myth to teachers is to emphasize that they should not expect miraculous results, assume that children have few inhibitions than adults or expect that learning a new language is easier for children than it is for adults.

I think we all recognize that young children easily acquire the language required for social interaction in an elementary school. Children outperform adults in the area of pronunciation, Children might also be more motivated to interact socially with their classmates and to acquire social language. They do not have to learn as much to achieve communicative competence in a second language. A child's constructions are shorter and simpler, and vocabulary is smaller.

Older students and adults, however, have access to the memory techniques and other strategies that more experienced learners use in acquiring vocabulary and in learning grammatical rules. These findings may reflect the mode of language instruction used in Europe, where emphasis has traditionally been placed on formal grammatical analysis. Older children are more skilled in dealing with this approach and hence might do better.

This same colleague told me that Patricia Kuhl’s findings prove that children learn languages faster. However, Patricia Kuhl's research does not negate the myth. She maintains that babies' brains have the ability to retain sounds from different languages There are many more factors involved in language acquisition than retaining sounds. .

New studies are being done all the time. New studies are exciting and do spark a lot of interesting conversations.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Reading Comprehension Strategies for ELLs: Inferring

Good readers make predictions and inferences while they read. Inferring is how readers “read between the lines.” Much of what an author conveys in English is not directly stated. It is implied. English language learners (ELLs) need to learn strategies to infer meaning. The goal is to help readers get deeper meaning from the text by making connections to prior knowledge, visualizing, and predicting. Inference is a very difficult task for English language learners. In addition to struggling with decoding, grammar, sentence structure, vocabulary and a myriad of other language and reading skills, ELLs are also trying to understand what the inferences mean. We want English language learners to develop critical thinking skills, interpret the text that they read and draw conclusions. These skills must be explicitly taught. Teachers need to give their English language learners a model in a frame to help them to express their ideas. Teach students phrases such as *I predict . . ., My guess is . . .I think that….., My conclusion is… I infer that……”

Let’s visit Mrs. Schnee’s 1st grade ESL class. Her students are on the rug on a cold winter day. They can see the field covered in snow from the window. Mrs.Schnee is holding up the book, The Snowy Day (Keats,1976) and tells students, "When I look at the cover, I can infer that this story takes place in the winter. I infer that because I see snow, just like outside my window." She then asks students to infer from the picture what happens in the story. One student, Karim, said, I infer that boy can’t play outside for a long time. ” He used the language that he had been taught to describe what he believed had occurred in the story. When Mrs. Schnee asked him why he thought that, he replied, “My schema tells me that it is winter and the snow is cold.” Then, Mrs. Schnee asked Karim to point out what in the picture helped him think it was winter and Karim pointed to the snowsuit that the boy is wearing and the snow, Thus, she checked for Karim’s understanding by asking him for a rationale for his answer. All students need strategies and language to infer meaning from pictures and text. English language learners especially need this modeling from the teacher and peers with a clear demonstration of how the inferences are made.

Reading Comprehension Strategies for ELLs: Determining Importance

Ms. Mc Bride was teaching animal adaptations to her 3rd grade science class. She wrote down the key idea of the chapter that the class is reading on the chalkboard: Adaptations are important to an animal’s survival. She taught her students that relevant information is that which is related to the key idea. She gave several examples of information from the chapter and asked students to practice deciding what is relevant and what isn't. Students then read the chapter. When they were done, Ms. McBride divided them into groups and had them brainstorm what they'd learned. Students in each group wrote a list of information they'd learned from the chapter, and then placed an R next to facts that they feel were relevant. Ms. McBride made a large T-chart and displayed the relevant and irrelevant facts from the groups' lists in front of the whole class.

Good readers can distinguish between important and unimportant information in nonfiction text. This ability is key to understanding the content that students must read. First, teachers should introduce students to the conventions of nonfiction text, such as by having them scan chapter titles, headings, subheadings, picture captions, maps, glossaries, and indexes. English language learners should receive plenty of support before they even begin to read the text. They need to understand that reading is not necessarily a front-to-back task.

Students can then learn to identify the title, table of contents, bolded words, photographs, captions, maps, headings, subheadings, and labels in a textbook chapter to preview information. These conventions of nonfiction text help students to identify what is important in the text. Even though the text as a whole was above the reading level

Reading Comprehension Strategies for ELLs: Asking Questions

Good readers are always asking themselves questions before reading, during reading and after reading. In this blog, I will discuss how to help English language learners learn to use this strategy. It's difficult for ELLs to ask questions about a topic for which they have no background knowledge.

Let's peek in Mrs. Mahoney's 6th grade social studies class and observe as she discusses the title of a nonfiction book about the Underground Railroad. Mrs. Mahoney modeled “I wonder” questions for the students. Maria, an English language learner in the class, wondered how a railroad could really be underground. It was apparent that she knew the meaning of the words “underground” and “railroad” but had a lot of difficulty with the concept. Through picture books and reading material on her reading level, Maria was able to participate in this discussion.

Hyung Jae, another ELL in Mrs. Mahoney’s class, read an entire book at home about the American Civil War in Korean. This background information gave him a springboard for asking questions. Although his language was still quite limited,he developed the schema that he needed to participate in the social studies lesson. The important point is that the ELLs in Mrs. Mahoney’s class were able to read about the topic on their own level or in their own language and ask questions that were on their English language levels. They were able to follow much of the class discussion and pose simple “I wonder” questions such as “Why is this family running away?” “Were the people afraid?” Also, they were able to participate because their teacher had made a point to teach her students about the ways to respond to “I wonder” statements. The teacher modeled these questioning strategies and Maria and Hyung-Jae were able to draw from her examples.

English language learners may not be able to ask questions about the author’s language or vocabulary in the same the way that proficient English native speakers do. However, they can begin to make a habit of questioning and this habit will improve their capacity for understanding and thus support their becoming more proficient readers of English text. It is important to emphasis with ELLs that they need to voice what they don’t understand and use reading strategies to figure out answers.

Here are some questions to help your ELLs get started.
• Ask students to predict what the story will be about based on the title and/or a picture on the cover. This is a strategy that can be used at all grade levels.
• Explain that a prediction is a guess. It doesn’t have to be correct. It just needs to make sense. Help students to become aware that their predictions might change as they read.
• Help ELLs identify “stopping places” in the text where they may have questions or should make predictions. Ask them to mark these places with sticky notes or write about them in their reading notebook. This will help ELLs to become better readers and supports their reading comprehension.

Reading Comprehension Strategies for ELLs: Making Connections

Good readers make connections to their background knowledge. They activate their schema. Schema is the prior experience that students bring to the text they are reading. In the case of ELLs, the schema that they bring to the classroom may be very different from their classmates’ experiences. It is important that classroom teachers help English language learners to relate their schema to the book they are reading. Our goal during Reader’s Workshop is to help our students make the following connections: text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world.
Text-to-self connectiona are associations that readers make between the text they are reading and something that happened in their own lives. This connection allows ELLs to share their unique schema with classmates. They learn the phrases, “ I have a text to self connection; “This reminds me of when I....” We use this strategy so that students see how their own experiences help them better understand what the characters in the story feel.
Text-to-text connections is a link that students make between the text that they are reading and another story that they have read. It is important to teach students the language of text-to-text connections. When I teach this strategy in my ESL classroom, I prompt the connections by asking, “Does anyone remember another book where children had to share with their friends?”
Text-to-world connections are those links students make between the text and something that has happened in the world. My students make connections to their lives in Korea, Japan, China, India and South America. If we read about a hurricane in a 5th grade ESL class, the students have the language to make the connection between the text that we are reading and extreme weather that has occurred in their own countries. This is a powerful strategy for ELLs because they are using their schema to contribute to the class discussions..I teach them to use sentences such as “This makes me think about,” “I remember when..” or “this is what happened in my country.”
Help your ELLs to learn how to comprehend what it is they read in English. Begin by using the strategies used in Reading Workshops.

Reading Comprehension Strategies for ELLs: Visualizing

I am reposting several blogs that I published #ELLCHAT will be able to read them.

Part One: Reading Comprehension Strategies for ELLs: Visualization

I was reading a story with my 2st grade ESL class entitled The Doorbell Rang (Hutchins, 1989). I wanted to teach my students the reading comprehension strategy of visualizing what was happening as they read. At the end of the first page, I asked them to make a picture in their minds of the cookies they thought Ma made for the two children to share. Once they had the picture in their minds, I asked them to draw it. After students made their drawings, we examined the picture of the twelve chocolate chip cookies that appeared on the next page of the book. One of my students, Yeon Ji sighed, “I was wrong” and showed me her picture of twelve sugar cookies with red sprinkles. I explained to students that the “movie” in their minds could change when they got new information and that a picture is new information. This is important to teach to students from other cultures because they are often product-oriented and focus on the “right” response..

When teachers in my school started exploring Reader’s Workshop and began to teach their students what good readers do, I immediately saw the application to teaching reading comprehension strategies to English language learners (ELLs). I liked the format of a short mini-lessons about comprehension strategies followed by independent or partner practice using books that are on each student’s reading level. The mini-lesson is directed to the whole class but the practice is individualized. Classroom teachers are able to differentiate instruction by holding extra conferences with English language learners. I decided to adapt this instructional model to teach reading to my ESL classroom so that I am using the same language as the classroom teachers.
Over the next few weeks I will be talking about 6 different strategies to teach reading comprehension to ELLs. In this first blog, I will discuss two reading comprehension strategies that ESL teachers adapt for English language learners of any age: Visualization and Making Connections.

Visualizing what is happening in the story
Good teachers teach students to visualize, to make pictures in their minds as they read. We might ask students to practice this skill as we read to them. Have students close their eyes and imagine what is happening in the story. In the above scenario, the visualization techniques in The Doorbell Rang, help students understand how the 12 cookies are divided first by 2 children, then by 4 and by 6. Eventually, 12 friends are sharing the cookies. We want students to use visualization as a means of understanding the story structure. As the story progressed, students were asked to visualize four children and the cookies that they would have on their plates. Students then made a drawing of their mental picture. If students didn’t draw a plate of three chocolate chip cookies at this point in the story, the teacher could monitor how well they were understanding the meaning of the story. She could have the class get in groups of four and make and divide twelve cookies. Students should be taught to visualize before, during and after reading.