Saturday, March 8, 2008

Thematic Units

One of the methods mentioned by Dr. Jill Kerper Mora is that teachers use thematic units when working with English Language Learners. Instead of drilling children on grammar points, why not engage the children with interesting topics? When students take a personal interest in a subject, their speaking and writing increase.

To test this theory, I just completed
a two month unit on dragons with all of the ELL children that I work with from first to fifth grade. Through a movie, drawings from different cultures, and discussions, the children became completely engaged in the subject. First, they drew their own dragons, then they wrote dragon stories to go with their pictures. In the editing process, they were able to read the stories and correct the grammar in their writing. They were also open to suggestions from me and my assistant to alternative ways of saying that same thing that would be grammatically correct. Because the children had written the stories themselves, the grammatical suggestions were important to them because they wanted their readers to be able to understand what they had written. After making the final written corrections, they orally recorded their stories. Of course, the final products still contained many grammatical errors, but the students had found the errors that they were developmentally ready to process. It is this type of self-correction that can facilitate the learning of English and new grammatical forms.

There is now a very interesting discussion taking place on ELL Advocates about the teaching of grammar in ELL classrooms in Oregon.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Appropriate practice for ELL

During the past two years, school districts in Oregon have been moving quickly towards implementing standards that dictate the teaching of forms and functions to elementary-age English Language Learners. At the same time, there has been a strong push towards discouraging or forbidding the teaching of reading skills to these students by the ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher. To many new teachers and people who are not in the education field, this seems logical. If a child does not know the grammatically correct way to say something, then use classroom drills and exercises to make that grammatical form a part of the child's speech. Many new teachers like this because they are given ready-made exercises that they can use with their students.

In Oregon, one of the most frequently adopted series to teach this is Systematic ELD, established by
Susana Dutro and Michelle Thelander in 2005. In this program, children may listen to short stories or sing songs, but these songs and stories are only used to teach a specific grammatical form. To see what I mean, look at this video that shows several different lessons taught using this method.

While this may look impressive to people checking for implementation of No Child Left Behind, it is highly unlikely that these grammatical forms are going to stay with the children for 15 minutes after class dismissal (or after the assessment that "proves" that they are working).

I know from my own study of Spanish as a second language that the reading of well-written literature is one of the best ways to learn a language. Words and expressions are especially meaningful if you have picked out the books yourself and it is a subject that you are interested in. For instance, I have learned so much more by reading quality literature by Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez than if I had been forced to read only snippets of writing that were meant to teach me the subjunctive or the past perfect.

Stephen Krashen has shown that introducing children to quality literature can start them on a lifetime of enjoyable reading. Even comic books, if that is what interests the child, can inspire further reading. At the same time, Krashen has been very critical of the grammar drill approach to language learning. An ELD program with a rich literature component has also been advocated by Dr. Jill Kerper Mora, associate professor at San Diego State University. The futility of attempting to teach grammar through drills and fill-in-the blank exercises in elementary school is also discussed in Tatiana Gordon's book, Teaching Young Children a Second Language.

If grammar drills and a focus on language structure are what is being mandated at the state and federal level, what approach should ESL (or ELL or ELD - depending on the nomenclature in use at the moment) teachers do to teach second language learners in an effective way that still follows the mandated guidelines? Is this possible or should we be advocating for a more realistic set of standards that follow the way children actually acquire languages?