Teacher-Student Conferencing: The Essential Component of English Learner Writing

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by Susan Zimmerman-Orozco

Susan is an elementary ESL teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools and consultant with English Learner Portal. 

 

I love co-teaching with the Lucy Calkins program. I get to use my expertise as the purveyor of academic language. At the same time I’m  learning from my co-teacher, my mainstream students, and the Lucy Calkins writing guide.

Once or twice a week I plan and teach a whole-class lessons that ESOL-izes concepts that I know are mystifying my English learners, or it anticipates confusion in upcoming lessons girlswritingby providing background knowledge I know my students and other diverse learners will lack. As the self-appointed expert in academic language instruction, I’m always ready with daily language objectives, strategies, and activities to provide support that will extend my students’ language skills. I’m especially proud that, at the same time, I’m probably extending the academic language of 70% of the rest of my diverse classroom.

Arguably, however, the most valuable component of the Lucy Calkins approach to writing, and where I feel I make my most valuable contribution, comes from the frequent opportunities it provides for teacher-student conferencing.  In the traditional Writing Process approach, dedicated teacher-student conferencing doesn’t appear until quite far along the continuum, after students have brainstormed, created drafts, peer edited, and revised their work. English learners, though, as we know, need quite a bit of hand-holding and scaffolding to be successful writers, especially if we want them to advance in their proficiency by adding more academic-level vocabulary and complexity to their writing.

In our co-taught classrooms, daily, once a whole-class lesson is presented, students wrconferencereturn to their places, usually with a writing partner, to work on their current writing. In our class, we maximize teacher-student conferencing time by grouping students at two large tables, each with a teacher. This configuration that allows us either to review student work in progress and make suggestions or to troubleshoot individual student needs as they arise, especially to answer their plaintive, “How do you spell…?” even though we invariably respond for the 100th time, “Sound it out, ” or “Look on the word wall.”

Our groups are fluid. Some students just prefer to work on their own, and we have some highly productive student partners who produce inspiring writing conferencing only with each other. I often work with non-English learners, and my amazing co-teacher, Tara, is tchrgirlwritingso beloved by some of my English learner girls that they usually make a bee-line to her group.  The point is that there are two of us, and we are both committed to getting our kids the individualized help they need to succeed as writers.

Furthermore, and frankly, as a school with a highly diverse population,  some of our students come to us better prepared than others to work independently. As Tara commented, “Conferencing in a group limits unwanted behaviors that would distract others. In a group setting, sitting all together at the table, I can conference with one student, get him or her on the right track, and quickly move on.”

She continued, “I feel all of our students need support, and more than anything they need reassurance that they’re doing the right thing.” Referring to some of our students with behavior concerns, she added, “Sometimes kids who are the most reluctant writers act out because they don’t want to fail.  If I’m there with them, insisting they can do it, and helping them, I can show them that writing doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and they CAN succeed.”

I know I’m not alone in feeling that the Lucy Calkins Writing program in particular, and tchrmodelingprobably teaching writing in general, is challenging when English learners comprise a large portion of our class.  I feel fortunate to be able to support my students, and my colleagues, by co-teaching writing. I can’t think of any other content area where my particular expertise in academic language has been more beneficial, not only to students, but also to my colleague.  

One of the most satisfying and unexpected outcomes of working with my co-teachers this year has been watching them evolve into educators who  have become sensitized to and skillful in structuring their classrooms to better support their English learners. More and more often I look around my co-taught classroom at my colleague as she’s presenting the whole-class lesson, smile, and think, “My work here is done. I don’t think she even needs me…”  For an EL educator, it’s the best feeling…ever!

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10 Ways to Get Started Using Thinking Verbs

beckyBecky Guzman is a full-time ESL teacher in Maryland.  She is also a professional development creator and facilitator with English Learner Portal.

“So, what is the big deal with these thinking verbs?!”  asked the newest ESL teacher on my team. I was getting ready to sit down and explain to her the importance of academic vocabulary, tier II vocabulary, how great the thinking verb icons were in providing a symbol to represent each verb, etc.  I then realized that before I started to coach her on what this great tool was, I may need to also provide her with some specific ideas for how to use this wonderful instructional tool.

My colleague was referring to the new thinking verb icons I was using in my lessons.  While I’ve used various icon ideas in the past, this new tool ThinkingVerbPlacematwas recently shared by English Learner Portal in the format of a “Thinking Verb Bilingual Placemat”.  (You can download a copy for free HERE.)

My colleague was called to a meeting, so we tabled the conversation about the thinking verbs until later that afternoon. This was great, now I would have some time to think about the many ways in which I use them, and how I have observed other ESL teachers and classroom teachers using them so that I would sound like a much more knowledgeable and wise coach during our afternoon chat.

beckyTVobjAs I sat at my desk thinking about this, I could easily verbalize the reasons why she should use the thinking verb icons, as I had lots of training on the importance of academic language and the difference between social and academic language. I had taken book studies on teaching content vocabulary and knew that students’ proficiency with academic language is critical for reading comprehension and overall academic success.

I thought about ways in which I used the thinking verbs and found myself limited to 1-2 “go to” ideas. I had gotten so used to using these specific ways that I had trouble quickly recalling other ways.  Challenging myself, I took the time to brainstorm some ideas for my colleague and for you!

Activities and strategies for using the Thinking Verb icons:

  1.  messyobjContent and Language Outcomes-Replacing the verb in your outcome with the thinking verb icon allows students to have a visual representation of what that verb means.  Students will visualize the actions they will take with the objective.
  2.  Making Outcomes “Messy”- This strategy is great for explicitly going over outcomes at the beginning of the lesson in order for students to understand exactly what they will be learning. I like to use the icons in place of the verbs (words) and ask students to tell me what they think the verb means. I usually write their ideas or draw pictures (primary grades) directly around the icon on the actual outcome. Once students have had a chance to discuss what they think it means, I read them the correct definition or tell them what it means. We may also come up with some other examples of when that verb is used.
  3. “Mirrors Up” Outcomes Strategy– When introducing your outcomes to students, it is always better to make it a kinesthetic activity. A great way to use the thinking verbs is to place the icons on your outcomes. You ask students to put their “mirrors up” and they hold their hands up. They copy you, repeating after you as you read the outcome. When you get to the thinking verb, have students help you come up with motions to match that verb. You will be surprised how much students love coming up with motions for each and how much more they will remember the words!
  4. Vocabulary Games: “Taboo”– Students love this game in which one student faces away from the displayed thinking verb icon. The rest of the students must give him/her clues to describe that verb without telling them the word. The student must guess the actual thinking verb. It’s a great way to review the meaning of a number of thinking verbs!
  5. Thinking Verb Bookmarks- The bookmarks help students see the thinking verbs in action! I create bookmarks with all of the thinking verb icons and labels only, no definitions. The bookmark is laminated. As students read and they come upon one of the thinking verbs in the text, they make a tally mark on their bookmark. Higher proficiency students can note how the word was used in the text.
  6. Lesson/Activity Closure– I like to show students a few thinking verb icons or have them use the bookmark at the conclusion of a lesson or activity. I ask students to reflect and evaluate which verb they think we used during the lesson and why they think that. This is also a great way to formatively assess if students know the meaning of the words.
  7. Activity: Thinking Verb Forms– createActivitiesWhen there is time, and especially if it is a newly introduced verb, I like to ask students to help me come up with a list of the other forms of the verb and we will list them near the icon on the actual outcome. (example: Identify-Identified, identifying).
  8. Bilingual Thinking Verbs– For my students who are already pretty literate in Spanish, I like to introduce them to the verb in English and see if they can come up with the Spanish word before I show it to them. We then brainstorm some ways in which that verb is used in Spanish and discuss any cognates.
  9. Thinking Verbs Memory Game– I have played this with students and it is a great vocabulary review. Students take turns flipping over cards and must find matches between the thinking verb icon/word and the definitions. Another variation of this game is to match the English and Spanish icons. They must read the words correctly in English and Spanish when they find the match. You could also have students give the definition when they find the match depending on the students’ language proficiency.
  10. Planning Differentiated Learning Outcomes– I have used the icons when planning my lesson outcomes. I know my students’ language proficiency and can TVidentifysee how some of the verbs may build on others. I especially use them when planning for my small group lessons. For example, in my three math groups, one group has an average language proficiency of 1.0-2.0 whereas the next group has a proficiency of 3.0 and the third group an average language proficiency of 4.0. My outcomes are related to being able to read decimal numbers to the thousandths. Because of language demand, I created different outcomes. My P:1.0-2.0 language group was focused on identifying the decimal numbers. My P:3.0 group had to read and compare the decimal numbers, and my P:4.0 group had to read and compare and contrast the decimal numbers. I knew that students would not be able to compare and/or contrast until they were able to first identify and so the thinking verbs helped me to plan my learning outcomes based on my students’ different language and content needs.  Remember, I was focused on language while my content co-teacher was focused on the grade level math outcomes for all students.

TVchemicalchangesAny list I come up with certainly won’t include all the potential ways that thinking verbs could be used to support instruction. I was happy that I at least had a few ideas and suggestions for my new coworker to get her started. I know that there are tons of vocabulary strategies and activities out there that would also be great for teaching our English learners (and ALL students) these thinking verbs and other tier II vocabulary which is so critical to accessing grade level standards. The most important thing is that the more we expose our English learners and involve them in playing with and using this academic language, the more successful they can be academically. It is not enough for them to be able to socially communicate in the English language, they must be explicitly taught academic language and critical thinking skills such as the thinking verbs.

How are you using the Thinking Verbs Bilingual Placemat or icons with your students?  We’d love to have you share ideas with us and perhaps even write a blog post!  Send your thoughts to info@englishlearnerportal.com and you could win a set of Thinking Verb Icon Magnets for your classroom.  Haven’t downloaded your Thinking Verb Bilingual Placemat yet?  You can find it HERE!

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logoevensmallerIf you aren’t already part of our mailing list, please sign up HERE to receive freebies, announcements, and just to get to know us!  Looking for new ideas and graduate credits? Visit our Online Professional Development School!  Please visit the ELP website to meet the team and learn more about our services.

Teaching Writing: Problems Students Face

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Frank Bonkowski is an educational writer, English language teacher, and e-learning specialist, passionate about learning and teaching. As a lover of writing, Frank has a twofold mission: to teach English learners to write better and to train language teachers in teaching effective academic writing. He was a teacher trainer at several universities, including McGill, Concordia, and TELUQ, a center of distance education.  We are thrilled to have Frank as a member of our online course community at English Learner Portal.

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In today’s post I want to introduce you to a new three-credit graduate course in teaching writing.  I’ll give you a peek into one of the lectures in Module 1, “Problems students face in learning.”

JOIN me on June 28 for a 2-hour online writing workshop

New Online professional development course

Teaching Writing to Intermediate and Advanced English Language Learners is now available. This 3-credit graduate course is aimed at beginner and experienced English-language teachers who want to improve their knowledge and skills in teaching academic writing.

Teaching Writing, a multimedia course containing five modules, is your complete guide to teaching academic writing. Each module has a short video introduction, several recorded lectures, an accompanying tape script, a reading, an interview with a writing expert (in three of the modules), and a self-assessment exercise. To obtain university credit for the course, participants must complete five quizzes and two assignments.

A peek inside Module 1

peekinsideThe first module explores the context for teaching and learning academic writing to adolescent English language learners. Topics include some effective ways for teaching academic writing,  problems English language learners face in learning, the distinction between comprehensible input and output, and an overview of the WIDA writing rubrics with Kelly Reider. In today’s post, I want to share with you parts of Lecture 2.

Teaching Writing

Module 1: Problems student face in learning

External issues

externalissuesHow well do you know your students? Experienced teachers realize that they have to take the time to get to know their language students as human beings. I have always taken the time to relate to my students, to understand where they are coming from, to learn about their interests and hobbies, and to ask about what they are good at.

Language teachers need to understand the external and personal issues in the lives of their students, so well described in “Teaching writing to diverse populations” (Fowler). Let’s look at three external issues.

First, learning to write well is challenging cognitively and linguistically, not only for English language learners but also native speakers of English.

Second, some English language learners come from disadvantaged homes at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder. Many students work part time which cuts into their study time. In addition, some of them have learning disabilities. In the school where I teach ESL, over 10% of the students are dyslexic or have learning difficulties often related to stress.

Third, English language teachers may not be up to the task. They may lack the pedagogical knowledge as well as effective strategies and techniques to teach academic writing. They could benefit from professional development courses to upgrade their teaching skills, such as this course.

Furthermore, English language teachers may not have access to good resources. They may not know how to implement consistently academic writing into their program.

Let’s now move on to three personal issues or problems that English language learners may have (Fowler). Learners often lack the knowledge and skills to write well. Even more importantly, they may not be motivated to write well or write at all.

internalissuesPersonal issues

Knowledge problems

I teach academic writing to intermediate and advanced ESL learners. Yet many of them do not know what good writing is. They do not know how to start to write, thinking that just putting ideas on paper pell mell is good enough. They need to improve their knowledge of vocabulary—using synonyms and antonyms for example.

Moreover, students often have a poor sense of sentence structure and variety. Learners may know who the latest pop stars are, but they have limited knowledge of current events or social issues in general.

Finally, learners are not always familiar with some of the purposes of writing, such as to persuade or inform readers.

Skill problems

Let’s move on to skill problems that many English language learners face (Fowler).

A common problem I see among learners is that they are not interested in planning. They fail to plan which effectively means that they plan to fail.

Another problem is that they do not how to revise their writing. It is like pulling teeth to get them to reflect on their writing. Another issue is that they do not know how to self regulate their ideas and actions. It is a metacognitive skill that they have perhaps never been taught.

As most teachers know, learners have limited attention spans. That is not surprising. The latest research shows that the attention span of adults is only eight seconds. As I mentioned before, many learners have either visual or motor disabilities.

Motivation problems

Let’s have a brief look at some of the motivational issues that English language learners have (Fowler). For example, they have rarely been taught to develop writing goals. So they do not know how to achieve success. Some think that they fail to write well because they are not smart enough. They may have this erroneous self-belief that they can never succeed.

In addition, many learners are not very persistent in their attempts to write well. They are easily discouraged by constant failure.

What are some effective ways to teach academic writing?

lightbulbEnglish language learners need to be taught how to write effectively. They need to know how to achieve their goals within a given context. Learners need to be taught how to express themselves effectively. They need to learn how to write well-organized, clear texts.

Here are three effective strategies for teaching writing that we will explore further in later lectures (Graham, 1-2).

  • First, teachers should explicitly teach learners appropriate writing strategies. They should use effective instructional models, such as Engage-Study-Activate that we look at in lecture 2.1 (Harmer, 25-29).
  • Second, teachers should help learners develop their reading comprehension skills to become better writers. Reading can be an important tool to develop writing skills (Writing). Both reading and writing can help learners think and learn better. Teachers should show learners good texts, highlighting their outstanding features.
  • Third, students should receive regular feedback to keep track of their own success in writing. This feedback can take the form of teacher to students, students to students, and student self-reflection, using for example the Virtual Writing Tutor. More about this online tool in lecture 5.5.

Other strategies that we can mention include teaching grammar explicitly, providing challenging activities, and helping students build their vocabulary (Writing).

In Teaching by Principles, Brown recommends teachers get students to:

  • Use the practices of “good” writers, such as following an organizational plan as they write
  • Do prewriting activities, such as conducting outside research or discussing a topic or question.

In the next blog post, we will take a peek into one of the lectures in Module 2,  “What is successful language learning?”

JOIN me on June 28 for a 2-hour online writing workshop

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