A few years ago I was talking with a teacher about how to help her Spanish-speaking students increase their English language proficiency, a common discussion in schools in the US. She was frustrated that her students communicate in their native language when interacting with one another in class and in the halls, while reserving their communications in English exclusively for exchanges with their teachers. I remember her asking, “Why don’t these students speak English all the time when at school?”
I told her of a recent trip I took to Mexico. I was traveling by car down mainland Mexico in the states of Michoacán and Jalisco. My traveling companion was a friend who is a fluent Spanish speaker. Excited to practice my Spanish, I perused the menu of a small restaurant the first night we arrived. I could not comprehend the entire menu but enough to know what I was ordering. The server came to our table, I was ready to order in Spanish, she smiled and politely asked what I would like to order. I froze like a deer in the headlights and looked to my buddy and sheepishly mumbled my order in English, which he quickly translated.
I knew how to order, I knew what I wanted to say, and I had the ability to say it in Spanish. Yet, when the time came I defaulted to what was comfortable. The same is true for our students, but the fact is that these students need to practice. If we are going to close the achievement gap for EL students we must continually give them opportunities to increase their English proficiency.
Jack O’Connell, the former California State Superintendent of Public Instruction, emphasizes this point by saying, “The academic achievement gap between students who speak a language other than English at home and other students…is among the most persistent and pressing challenges facing public schools nationwide.”
We must incorporate in every lesson at least one structured activity for students to practice both written and spoken academic English. If this activity is part of a lesson and everyone in the class is doing it, then students are more likely to engage and practice. If we wait for students to do this on their own, the results will be as mine were on my trip to Mexico.
It is not the exclusive responsibility of English teachers to teach English literacy and help boost proficiency. It is the job of ALL teachers. Students learning the English language need this practice in every class regardless of the subject area. The more students practice the more they acquire the language. The question is how do we authentically build in this practice in all subject areas?
One answer is to simply incorporate it into your starting routine. If you teach students for whom English is a second language such starting routines can be problematic if the routine is too vague. To make the routine tangible and crystalclear use the Weekly Lifeline and the Kick-Off prompt and be sure that the prompt is a grammatically correct.
When students walk into class they do not just see a question written on the board. Rather, to help reduce confusion, they see projected the exact page that is in front of them in their binder. When the grammatically correct prompt is revealed students record the question in the same location it is written on the projected Weekly Lifeline. All guessing about what to do with the starting routine is removed, allowing the student to focus on comprehension and practice and responding in academic English. When a school makes an effort to mirror this routine in all classes the impact is exponentially greater, giving the EL student at least one moment in each class period to practice thier English.
Thanks for reading and sharing,