September is the month we most associate with school--the fresh start, the school supplies, and the excitement as the students return and the parents celebrate. Today I sent my kids back to school--and I was remembering how not that long ago, we prepped for and received so many newcomers from Syria all across Alberta and quite suddenly. And so many came with not a word of English! That was a challenge. Now I'm thinking those students are returning after a great summer (I hope). They should be a little more accustomed to Canada by now, and I bet they are speaking some English--and pretty excited about school. But this year poses a new challenge--helping these English language learners move from beginner skills to intermediate.
This isn't really new to us as educators. We have had English language learners in our school systems for many years. It's so wonderful to see students make that progress from no English, to speaking, understanding, participating and learning--and it seems to happen so fast. Amazing as it is, I think the bigger challenge (and more amazing feat) is moving from beginner skills to intermediate. For academic success, students need to understand and use academic language, read and comprehend in-depth articles, navigate complex topics, and write beyond familiar and personal topics. Supporting students at this level requires expertise and an intentional approach from teachers. What are we doing well and what can we do better to support our students in achieving academic success?
There are a lot of recommended, research-based ESL strategies out there and we know about the importance of visuals, building background knowledge, increasing vocabulary, and providing opportunities for oral language. I believe the challenge is to go deeper into English language development (ELD)--and tackle grammar and vocabulary, providing corrective feedback as well as an explanation of how English works. Not easy, but maybe something to consider as we set professional growth goals and seek out professional development opportunities. In his article "Why Teachers Need to Know about ESL Grammar Issues", Keith Folse points out that while we can correct our ELL's grammar errors, we may not always be able to explain why these incorrect structures are not possible. There can be negative consequences if ELLS are told to correct without being taught or shown how, if corrective feedback is not provided, or if teachers can't look beyond the errors to assess understanding of content. He goes on to explain a few common ELL errors and also points out the importance of grammatical structure in judging the level of a reading passage for ELLs.
At the intermediate level, it's still a lot about academic vocabulary development. Beth Crumpler provides strategies and links to resources in her article "Fostering STEM Vocabulary Development in ESL students". Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) content areas are challenging to ELLs and this short article emphasizes the need for ESL and content area teachers to work together in teaching vocabulary. This is just one example--but this article shows how to go deeper with content area vocabulary.
Many experts in the field of ESL come to mind when considering how to move beginners ELLs to a higher level of proficiency and there's no shortage of information on the topic. Suzana Dutro, Elizabeth Coelho, and Kate Kinsella provide information, methods and practical resources for teachers to explore. Certainly there are excellent books, but you can start by seeing what they have posted on the internet and their websites. Here are a few links to get you started...
Suzana Dutro and EL Achieve: http://www.elachieve.org/readings.html
Elizabeth Coelho: http://www.multilingualclassrooms.org/
Kate Kinsella: https://www.ncsu.edu/mckimmon/cpe/opd/ESL/pdf/kinsella001.pdf
"Why K-12 Teachers Need to Know about ESL Grammar Issues", Keith Folse (2009). http://www.tesol.org/read-and-publish/journals/other-serial-publications/compleat-links/compleat-links-volume-6-issue-3-4-(october-2009)/why-k-12-teachers-need-to-know-about-esl-grammar-issues
"Fostering STEM Vocabulary Development in ESL students", Beth Crumpler (2013). http://exclusive.multibriefs.com/content/fostering-stem-vocabulary-development-in-esl-students/education