Education Blog

February 2011 

How can computer-based activity make second language learning more interactive? 

A board wide initiative to encourage the use of technology in the classroom was implemented last year to ensure that students are using technology as much as possible. With this being a focus, especially amongst Grade 6 teachers who were asked to try to also incorporate computers into math classes, I have been using different programs, in all strands of the curriculum for all of my students, including my ELL students. The one program I would like to discuss is Read and Write Gold.

It is inevitable that teachers will require their students to do written work at some point during the school year. Different forms of writing, from simple recipes (procedural writing) to personal or business letter writing, to coming up with a story (narrative writing) are an expectation that teachers are expected to cover. Read and Write Gold is an interactive word processing program that is used predominantly by the primary grades, HSP students, and ELL students at my school.  When writing tasks are assigned, students tend to use MS Word to complete writing assignments. Read and Write Gold works as a companion program to Word and acts as a personal tutor for the student.

I recently assigned a project to the Grade 5 students (ELL students included) to research a renewable source of energy, to explain the advantages and the disadvantages of using this form of energy, and to design a school that incorporates it and other forms of energy saving strategies. The ELL students were to use Read and Write to help them complete their project. 

Features of the program:

ELL students are supported by the speech feature, which highlights words in colour as it reads back to them (in a human, not robotic voice) what they have typed on the page, so they can hear the words and decide if their work is correct. The speech feature can also be used when online. By highlighting websites, or individual words or sentences, the speech feature reads back the information that has been highlighted by the student. This helps students to independently sift through, and collect information that they may need for a project.

The word predictor, and the fast spell-check component of the program also help ELL students with the daunting task of writing. By automatically correcting incorrect spelling, and by predicting the next word, it takes away a lot of the student anxiety relating to making spelling mistakes in their writing.  The word predictor gives up to 10 possible words, and can read those words to the student to help them select the correct word for their work. When homophones arise, the program can provide the student with a definition of both words (again, the speech feature reads it to the student) to help them determine which word should be used based on the context of their writing.   

When working on a project, the program the Fact finder feature, which is a built in web-browser allows students to find information about their topic on the internet. When the information has been found it can be moved into the fact folder, to store the information, to log where it was found, and to attach pictures to it to help clarify the information. The built in dictionary (again, speech based) explains the meaning of new vocabulary words that may be encountered. Finally, the pronunciation feature also breaks the word down and reads it to the student syllabically to help them learn how to pronounce the word properly. If the student wants to see how to make a certain sound, the program visually shows them with the use of a cartoon mouth.

The advantage of this program is that it allows the student to interact with it at every stage of the writing project – from brainstorming and research to final published draft – without the help of a teacher. The independence that the student feels, and the release of anxiety because the support the program provides gives the learner the confidence about they need to be successful.

March 2011 

What about Games in the classroom? 

Games are easily incorporated into the classroom, and because of this reason I believe that games are relevant to my teaching. Also, teaching in the junior level, students are at an age where games are still part of their daily life – so using games in the classroom makes a lot of sense. I use a lot of cooperative games in gym class, to build trust and community in my classroom. For example, creating a task where students must create a plan to move their team from one end of the gym to other without touching the ground. They have to communicate to achieve their goal, but do not always realize that they are learning to problem solve while having fun. This activity works well with ell students, because they tend to listen, question, and watch, and participate to learn.

I find that games also work well in Social Studies and Science Class – where new vocabulary is often difficult to learn for both ell, and native speakers. I would really like to add a few games to add to my repertoire, so as to be able to change up the jeopardy, and flip the matching definition with the picture game we play for review prior to quizzes. 

I believe that games are a good way to have students learn, and participate without feeling anxious. The “fun” component tends to override the nervousness that many ell students have when active participation is expected in a lesson. The students tend to forget their fear/anxiety, and tend to open up because the learning is structured in a way that makes them feel more comfortable and more as an equal part of the class. Many times, students don’t even realize that there is a learning component to a game – especially if it is a cooperative task that has no written, and possibly no specific correct responses, but has a task that needs to be completed.

Although I really believe that games have a role to play in the curriculum, I often do find it difficult to integrate them into my teaching. I know that they are effective, but I also have a bias against using them in class as a regular teaching strategy. The stigma of “playing games” rather than completing more traditional activities in class, (even though I know that the two are not mutually exclusive), make it difficult for me to incorporate games into a regular weekly activity. I was hoping that my research on this topic would encourage me to view games more favourably in my practice. 

April 2011

Teachers recognize the importance of communicating with their students parents, but have very few options when the parents do not speak English. The teachers have focused much of their attention on attempting to find translators for parent teacher interviews, and on phoning home to let the parents know that an important event, or document was on its way. However, professional translators are far too expensive for the school to hire for all communication, and it is not always prudent to have others translate for non-English speaking parents. Sometimes the information is confidential and should not be translated by an intermediary, and having ELL children (or friends) translate may not necessarily explain the issue/information as concisely or accurately as is required. Teachers believe that there is a need for proper translators to be made available, but recognize that the lack of resources makes this next to impossible except in extremely sensitive (e.g., children who need to be taken to team, bullying incidents, etc.) situations. The lack of settlement workers and resources for providing school support for ELL parents was the principal’s main concern and wish for eliminating barriers.

What Recommendations Would School Representatives Make to Improve Communication with Parents of ELL Students

The recommendations that the teachers, principal, and student council chair made could be broken down into three different categories; Welcoming and acknowledging parent contributions, improving communication between school and home, and, providing the proper resources to help parents become better acclimatized to the school and the community.

Welcoming Parents to the School and Acknowledging Their Contributions

One of the recommendations made by the teachers was that parents be personally invited by the classroom teacher into the school to act as a volunteer. The belief was that parents who were explicitly invited into the school would feel wanted, and would be more willing to participate in school activities as they would not consider themselves to be an outsider. Parent council has been using this strategy at my school for the past five years. The head of parent council believes that they have had some success issuing personal invitations as more ELL parents are volunteering, but the numbers have only improved by a slight amount. She believes that a more formal issuing of invitations, rather than by word of mouth, would yield more success in involving ELL parents in school activities.

By issuing invitations, the school would act in a more welcoming manner allowing the parents to become more appreciated, and it would break down the barriers to their integrating into the school environment. Furthermore, having parents come into the school and prepare a presentation about a cultural festival, a professional demonstration (e.g., a parent who is/was a doctor coming in to do a demonstration for the Grade 5 human body unit), or having a parent come in and help to coach a team (e.g., South Asian parent who knows the rules of Cricket), or complete a traditional art project that represents their culture. Finally, thanking the parents who participate and acknowledging their contribution in the school newsletter or at a function that celebrates their contributions (e.g., volunteer breakfast or lunch). 

May 2011

Keeping Pace in Suburbia and Rural America

Article by Rebecca Freeman Field


The article discusses the increasing enrollment of ELL students in both suburban and rural areas, how school administrators are attempting to create programs to help these students improve their academic English to become successful.

Cultural Competency

Article by Stan Paz


The article discusses why educators need to develop cultural competence, and the importance of some of the intangible aspects of education – the ELL’s family, and programs that engage students – in improving achievement of ELL students.

“English language learners are the fastest growing segment of the K-12 student population”, (Field, p.3) found in our schools today. It isn’t only the specialist ESL teacher that works with these students, but all teachers at any school will have contact with, if not the responsibility of teaching, ESL students. Taking this into account, I have to ask what should be the primary role of the teacher of ESL students? Rebecca Freeman Field believes that the teacher’s primary role is to create a program to help ESL students to gain a proficiency in academic English, and gives only secondary regards to creating a “positive learning environment characterized by an enrichment orientation toward linguistic and cultural diversity” (Field, p.4).

As a teacher of ESL students, I agree with the ideas that are presented in the article, especially, that a “comprehensible standards-driven, grade-level content instruction (in the student’s home language or in English)” (Field, p.4) is needed to help students achieve academically. Yet, I find it difficult to believe that the primary focus should lie on helping ELL students to learn academic English to achieve good grades, or to meet the requirements of standardized tests. This view tends to miss out on the fact that ELL learners are more than just students hoping to do well in school. It misses out on the fact that engaging students in the classroom is not only related to the curriculum, but also to other factors, such as the connections made with peers, teachers, and the broader school community. Engaging students, and having them be interested in showing up to school to learn is far more important than their achievement levels – at least at the beginning of their English schooling. A good example of this is found in the article “Cultural Competencyby Stan Paz, who under his sub-heading of Value Diversity, discusses creating programs to encourage students to attend school. He cites the example of how “Clark County’s fine arts department developed an exemplary mariachi music program… And that nothing connects students better than participating as a student in middle and high school activities with pride and respect” (Paz, p.4).

So, what should be the role of the teacher? Strictly to help improve academic achievement and performance or to provide an engaging environment to have students want to feel as they belong, believe they are valued, and hopefully to internalize the idea of wanting to achieve?

Another idea presented by Rebecca Freeman Field is that “many educators see linguistic and cultural diversity as problems to overcome rather than as resources to develop” (Field, p.3). This is true, and there are many reasons for these feelings to persist. First and foremost, the lack of training that most teachers have when it comes to creating differentiated instruction for ELL students. Even if teachers have the understanding of what level the ELL student(s) is at, the problem becomes that ELL’s spend most of their day in a mainstream classroom, that may have upwards of 32 students (as in my case), there are many who require differentiated instruction. The numbers impact the amount of work a teacher can do, and on the instructional methods used to teach the class. One suggestion for overriding this concern is to have the ESL teacher work with other teachers to help create a better program, based on cooperative teaching (partnering).

Second, although a lot of lip service is paid to the importance of ESL programs and supporting ELL students, the lack of resources tends to dispel the myth that it is of major importance for most school boards. Next year, at my school for example, we do not have a dedicated ESL teacher even though we have a school population that is about just above 35% ELL. Our ESL support person will be the school MART (Special Ed) teacher and will dedicate 0.2 FTE to ESL programming. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the idea that ELL students are high on the agenda.

 Add to this the fact that we know that “it takes five to seven years on average for English Language Learners to acquire the academic English they need to achieve at school” (Field, p.2), and teachers face some real challenges in creating, or adopting, programs for specific students. Only to complicate matters more, add to this the fact that the ministry of education continues to tweak or revamp curriculum every seven to ten years, and, it takes at least three years for administrators to implement a program (or at least the elements of one based on the curriculum changes) into a school – the two questions that arise are:

What is the best way for a school to create a program for ELL students that will stand the test of time, and not be discarded for every new initiative that arises?

How do we change teacher perceptions about mainstreaming, in order to improve the ESL program for ELL students? 

June 2011

Helpful ESL Sites for teachers: