ELL Spoken Here
Online resources and educator networks areproviding teachers of English language learnerswith a support system they don't often get withintheir own school districts.
OF THE COUNTLESS TEACHERS of English language learners to whom CatherineCollier has provided counsel and support, there is one, she says, whose story resonates the most.
Collier recalls a talk she had with an ELL classroom aide who approached her following one of her workshops. The woman explained that, until participating in Collier's class, she had believed the daily difficulties and feelings of isolation she experienced working with ELL students were uniquely her own.
"She always thought it was just her," Collier says, "that the things she was feeling and experiencing were just hers-that it was her struggle. It was absolutely jaw-dropping for her to hear that her experiences were in fact an identified pattern of adaptation. Everything that happened to her was something that happened [to others]. She was almost in tears….Now she has a safe place to talk and to share."
That safe haven is Collier's CrossCultural Developmental Education Services, based in Ferndale, WA. For two decades, the company has been providing professional development and teaching materials to ELL teachers. The face-to-face workshops, technical assessments, and college courses have been complemented the last eight years by the company's website, born out of what Collier says was a "desperation for outreach." The site offers all sorts of useful resources, including books and games, assessments, software, a parent page, and an "Ask Dr. Collier" feature.
Online educational tools such as Collier's provide an assist all teachers, but for ELL instructors, a technology-fueled support system is critical to helping them deal with pressures and emotions that their colleagues generally don't experience. As an important example, though the No Child Left Behind Act holds all teachers accountable for student performance, ELL teachers have a less favorable starting point.
- Childtopia A multi-language and multi-ageworld of educational entertainment. Offers a broad supply of languagelearningmaterials.
- Dave's ESL Café Resources for ELL teachersand students around the globe.
- ESL Flashcards Hundreds of free flashcards to make teaching English easier. Each colorful set comes inthree different sizes.
- ESL-Kids Flash cards, worksheets, classroomgames, and song lyrics.
- Kindersay A free, online video websitedesigned to help preschoolers and English language learners learnEnglish words. More than 500 online activities are available.
- TeacherTube Educational videos.Watchhow carbon dioxide makes raisins float to the top of a glass, or kindergartenersdescribe what they would do if they were president.
For more help with ELL activities, visit these educator pages.
One other place to try is The Internet for ESL Teachers, part of a websitedeveloped by Claire Bradin Siskin, director of the Robert HendersonLanguage Media Center at the University ofPittsburgh. The page includes a list of ELL organizations, links towebsites, and online courses.
"With so much of the testing hinging on the ability to read in English, ELL teachers must not only teach the content, but also the academic English needed to simply understand the questions," explains Arturo Guajardo, instructional technology facilitator for Texas' Austin Independent School District.
Under NCLB, teachers have three years to bring students to fluency in English; after three years, ELLs can no longer take state tests in their native language. And no allowances are made for the test scores of ELL students when a school's adequate yearly progress rating is determined.
Yvette Hernandez, a sixth-grade teacher at Ysleta Elementary School in El Paso, TX, where roughly 60 percent of the students are ELLs, says that NCLB mandates are asking teachers to get results in less than half the time that research says is required for students to learn a new language.
"According to research, it takes seven to nine years for a person to develop fluency in a second language-and that doesn't include academic content-but NCLB says that students in our nation must be ready to do it in three," Hernandez says. "If I were to go to another country, let's say Germany, I could not see myself performing academically in three years."
"Because we're in education, how can we say that we don'tknow how to teach something? You don't want to admit thatyou're lost, that you need support."Yvette Hernandez, Ysleta Elementary School
In addition to dealing with more acute accountability pressures, ELL teachers often must contend with students who are entirely new to an academic environment. "Our kids aren't just learning English," says Robert Hillhouse, chair of the social studies department at International High School in Austin. "There are so many deficits."
Hillhouse's school serves newcomer immigrant students- 200 in grades 9 and 10, about a dozen per classroom. Many of them have never been in a school before or had formal education of any kind. "You have to teach them skills that other kids already have," he says, such as how to study, academic preparedness, storing and filing paper-skills that mainstream high school students are long past acquiring.
The load placed on ELL teachers can create another stressor unlikely to be shared by other teachers: a sense of isolation.
"If you teach first grade," says Kristen Gundry, the ELL resource teacher for Wisconsin's Eau Claire Area School District, "chances are there is another person around who teaches first grade. If you teach eighth-grade social studies, chances are there is another person around who teaches social studies. If you are an ELL teacher in a small district, you may be it."
Without an actual physical presence to engage with, Gundry explains, ELL teachers have to seek help and commiserate digitally. "Online resources help you connect with teachers who harbor similar feelings and can keep you going," she says. Among Gundry's favorite websites is the very first one she discovered as a new ELL teacher: Dave's ESL Café, which has provided her with many ideas for working with ELL students at all levels.
Learn to Teach ELLs
An online resource for teachers of English languagelearners who want to receive formal professional developmentis PBS TeacherLine.Teacherline's Supporting English Language Learnersseries offers three courses for teachers who wish to "learnskills and techniques that accelerate students' mastery of Englishand enable students to keep pace with classroom instruction." The 10-hour courses are designed to accommodate teachers' busy schedulesand are set to ESL (English as a Second Language) and ESOL (Englishfor Speakers of Other Languages) standards. The three course offerings,which focus on preschool and lower elementary school students, are:
Oral Language Development. Offers theoretical and practical informationto apply in helping non-native English speakers develop language skills,meet learning standards, and experience success in school.
Vocabulary Development in Grades PreK-3. Explains the similaritiesand differences between strategies for teaching vocabulary developmentto ELLs and strategies for instructing native English speakers, and the rolethat students' knowledge of their primary language has in their success inbuilding a strong English vocabulary.
Assessing Language Development. Explore how to use classroom assessmentsas tools for diagnosing learning issues and as springboards to moreeffective educational practices, curricula, and teaching strategies.
PBS TeacherLine's senior manager of instructional design, ElizabethWolzak, herself a non-native English speaker, says that teachers taking thecourses review each other's work and share resources. "That community isvery strong in our courses," she says, "and it's one of the things that theteachers value most."
"In my first position, I was the only ELL teacher in the district," she says. "I was lost, and Dave's ESL Café offered a place to start."
Gundry, who once taught at a school where in one of her classes each of the 13 students spoke a different language, says her own feelings of being overwhelmed and alone subsided only when she began using different online tools and listservs. "You could ask a question and get a global response," she says. "Then I wasn't alone."
That sense of having to go it alone can drive teachers to lose faith in their own abilities. "You don't want to come across as incompetent," Hernandez says. "Because we're in education, how can we say that we don't know how to teach something? You don't want to admit that you're lost, that you need support."
Fortunately, support in the internet age is abundant. Technology has fast become the avenue for bringing ELL teachers together to share lessons, tips, and war stories. One popular web-based meeting ground is the Discovery Educator Network (DEN), an online community of educators swapping instructional ideas and resources. Linda Rush, a technology integration specialist at Notre Dame School, part of the Catholic Diocese of Dallas, became a DEN member two years ago and is now chair of the group's Texas Leadership Council.
Rush's school is attended by 130 mildly to moderately developmentally challenged students from ages 6 to 22. About 20 percent of them are Hispanic, and for many, no English is spoken in the home. Rush herself has become a valuable resource for other ELL instructors who need support.
"A lot of teachers go into the classroom and close the door," she says. "Technology opens it up-it's your school, it's your community."
In addition to participating in the Discovery Educator Network, Rush regularly visits a host of websites-some for teachers in general, others that specifically target ELL teachers. She downloads videos from TeacherTube. She chooses flash cards from ESL Flashcards. She prints out worksheets from Childtopia. She gets ideas for games from ESL-Kids. She uses ELL activities from Kindersay.
She also receives an e-mail alert whenever Larry Ferlazzo updates his edublog. Ferlazzo is an English and social studies teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, CA, where the student population is predominately ELL. In his blog, Ferlazzo links to activities appropriate for English language learners.
"A lot of teachers go into the classroom and closethe door. Technology opens it up." Linda Rush, Notre Dame School
"Just today there was something that came through and I thought, oh my god, this is absolutely awesome," Rush says. "It was a site where I could download sight words. [The activity] was called Sight Words Buddy, at Quiz-tree.com. I had been there before, but I had never found this."
Rush herself has a page on Del.icio.us, a social bookmarking site popular with educators, where she passes along resources and ideas for teachers of English language learning, as well as for teachers of other subjects.
"Teaching is not about making things only for yourself-it's about sharing," she says. "I create and then I share. And then somebody else creates and then they share."
Another online gathering hole for ELL teachers is Teachers Network, where Tobey Bassoff has a page dedicated to adjusting classrooms to meet the needs of English language learners. Bassoff is in charge of the ELL program at Angevine Middle School in Lafayette, CO, where she is also the vice principal. She joined Teachers Network as a "web mentor," which has provided her with the opportunity to share her knowledge with other educators while engaging in dialogue about best practices for ELL instruction. A recent heading on her page was titled, "How-to: Adjust Your Teaching Styles for English Language Learners (ELL) in ESL/Bilingual Classrooms." Scan the screen, and you'll find articles, lesson plans, and other resources, and even "Daily Classroom Specials" such as homework assignments.
Bassoff says that, through her web page, she hears from ELL instructors from all over the world and tries to link them together. "Research-based information is great, but it takes years to get it translated to how it works in a classroom," she says.
"In the US, there has been an explosion of English language learners. The need for the information is outpacing the publication of research and books to assist the educators, so we are finding that the most useful tips and strategies come from our global network of colleagues. Technology provides an incredibly fast and effective forum to communicate and share those ideas."
She offers the example of an elementary school teacher from Milwaukee who was trying to find a language assessment tool for her classroom. Bassoff put the woman in touch with a teacher in Colorado who had just developed one. "People are hungry for knowledge about best practice regarding ELLs," she says.
Considering the proliferation of online support, there actually may never have been a better time than now to be an ELL teacher, says Austin ISD's Guajardo. In an entry on his blog, Guajardo points up the abundance of materials now available to teachers.
"This is a good time to be a bilingual/ELL educator," he writes. "Bilingual/ELL educators now have access to more instructional tools than ever before. These digital tools include the computer-based programs that we can use to produce and publish things like videos, slide shows, and e-books, as well as the Web 2.0 sites that we can use to collaborate, publish, and reflect on our creations."
Guajardo, who specializes in the use of digital media with ELL students, has begun a social networking site he calls "Educational Technology for Bilingual/ESL/ELL Educators." As the page's subtitle indicates, its focus is the sharing of ideas about using technology in ELL classrooms. Guajardo believes that in addition to serving as a repository of instructional resources, the web can be used by ELL instructors as simply a place to vent.
"I think that sites like Ning-MySpace/Facebook lookalikes- may be the tool that finally takes us to the tipping point and gets teachers engaged in an online community," he says.
This online exchange of ideas, experiences, and resources doesn't strictly serve teachers, but presents many benefits for ELL students as well, who are also prone to feelings of isolation from the rest of their peer community. Bassoff says that one of her most memorable e-mails came from a middle school student in Illinois.
"She was searching for an answer to why there was a negative perception of ELL students," Bassoff says. "She felt that people in her school believed and perpetuated the belief that being ELL means that you are not as smart as native English speakers. I responded to her that part of our work is dispelling that belief."
Just as Catherine Collier did with the ELL aide, Bassoff let the student know that her struggle was not hers alone. "I urged her to continue working to become an advocate for multilingualism. I told her that I do what I do because I believe, along with many others around the world, that diversity and multilingualism are amazing and powerful concepts. The belief that together we can grow and learn from each other is what keeps me going every day. And the beauty of all of this is that I was able to connect with her from Colorado, through the tool of the internet."
For more information on English language learners,visit www.thejournal.com. In the Browse by Topicmenu, click on Special Needs Students.
Neal Starkman is a freelance writer based in Seattle.
This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.