Thursday, May 26, 2016

Tips to Make Texts Accessible for ELLs

Once students reach the upper elementary grades, much of the information we share with them is provided through written texts. Whether it's a reading passage, directions for an assignment, or important information about classroom procedures, there is content we expect them to read and understand on their own.

For English Language Learners (ELLs) at lower proficiency levels (e.g. Levels 1-3), they can only make meaning from key words or possibly short excerpts of text. So how do we present written information to them so they can understand? Do we have to have everything read to them or shorten it up so much that it lacks all detail? No, there's a better way!

Steps for Making Texts Accessible to ELLs

  1. Remember the different levels of English language proficiency? Take a look at materials provided to you such as the ESL roster at your building and the poster from Differentiating Instruction and Assessment for English Language Learners by Fairbairn & Jones-Vo. Reasonable expectations based on a student's proficiency level by sub-score (e.g. reading, writing, listening, or speaking) are explained in more detail on the poster and in the book. This will help you determine which types and how much text the ELLs in your class can comprehend.
  2. Collaborate with an ESL expert such as your building ESL teacher or the district ESL instructional coach. You can check not only about the levels of the ELLs in your class but also how you might best support your ELLs.
  3. Sometimes you'll determine that you need to provide a version of the text with additional supports or scaffolding. If that is the case, there are several different approaches. Consider the following:
    • Add visuals (Actual photos with students are awesome but even clipart or icons are helpful.)
    • Use laddered text sets (texts at different levels about the same concept). The K12 ESL Lending Library has some materials aligned to content areas that Ames teachers can borrow by request.
    • Elaborate the text using a site like Rewordify. (See previous blog post for tips on how to maximize use.)

Friday, December 4, 2015

Communicating with Parents Who Have Limited English Proficiency

I have come across several great blog posts recently about how schools and teachers can reach out to parents who may have limited English proficiency. I'd like to share these links with you here.

As a former ELL herself who has since become an ESL teacher, Anabel Gonzalez shares strategies that are culturally sensitive in her EdWeek post, Tips for Connecting with Non-English Speaking Parents.

In a similar vein, Edutopia published an excellent blog focused on communicating at parent-teacher conferences, 7 Helpful Tips for Conferences with Parents Who Speak Minimal English.

Finally, I'd like to mention two technology-related posts to build off Gonzalez's 2nd tip for using technology to help with communication in other languages. First is a post by AHS Technology Integration Coach, Patrick Donovan, about updates to Google Translate App - Scaffold for ELL Parents/Students. Second is a post about Remind Translate. Together, these two apps can provide support for communicating with parents with limited English proficiency.

Friday, September 4, 2015

What's in a Name?

Imagine two different scenarios. 1) You’re new to your job, and your boss keeps butchering your name. You finally give up correcting him and just answer anytime he says anything close to your name. 2) Your unique name isn’t easy to spell, and sometimes people pronounce it wrong, too. However, your new neighbor keeps asking repeatedly until she gets it right. The next time she sees you, it takes her a minute, but she remembers how to say your name correctly. Which situation makes you feel more welcomed and accepted?

While it’s true that many English Language Learners (ELLs) have names that are difficult for native English speakers to pronounce, that doesn’t mean teachers shouldn’t put effort into learning how to say their names. Take for example a program at the University of Iowa’s College of Business where professors are being taught how to pronounce the names of their Chinese students. (Scroll all the way down in the site for some audio clips demonstrating proper pronunciation of Chinese names.) How much more welcoming and engaging is a classroom where the teacher knows how to say a student’s name correctly? Or consider the situation of one Burmese student whose name was incorrectly recorded on her documents, effectively changing her name and altering her identity.

Sometimes ELLs are uncomfortable correcting teachers who mispronounce their names, so be diligent in asking if you’re saying it correctly. Another common problem occurs when teachers are not aware of which name (or part of the name) to use for a student. Sometimes teachers ask about a student and confusion arises because different names are being used in different classes for the same student. ESL teachers can often help you with which name to use and how to pronounce it.

Some ELLs will elect to use an American nickname. While we should honor the family’s decision about what name to use, we can certainly encourage greater understanding about names and their cultural significance in our classrooms. Consider this sample lesson for elementary students. For more information about naming traditions in different cultures, read Judie Haynes’ blog post, 7 Naming Customs from Around the World
. And of course, you can always ask students (and their parents) to tell about what their names mean. They often appreciate you taking the time to ask!

For resources about honoring students' names, take the My Name, My Identity pledge and check out REL Northwest's reference guide, Getting It Right. Colorin Colorado's post about NameCoach is another great resource.

Resources for Learning about Other Cultures and Languages

One of the foundational pieces for learning more about your English Language Learners (ELLs) is finding out more about their cultural background and learning some about their native language (L1). There are resources available online to help you learn more about languages and cultures. Here are a few.
We also have some resources available in print in our K-12 ESL Lending Library. Click here to read about them. Colorin Colorado suggests other ways for Educators to learn about their students' backgrounds in their article, and Educational Leadership published an article on the topic, too. Often families are pleased to share more information about their culture if someone shows an interest, so just ask!


Quizlet is a website that allows you to create your own sets of flashcards (including pictures and sound) to practice vocabulary, key terms, or even words in a foreign language. There are four main ways to study the terms plus two different game formats that make studying more exciting. Quizlet even has its own free app that you can download from Google Play or iTunes for study on the go.

Consider how to encourage your students to go beyond just rote memorization of vocabulary terms, though. See the Vocab QR Project made in collaboration with Kathleen Ary, Jeremie Knutson, and Shaeley Santiago.

Another great feature of Quizlet is that you can study sets created by other users. I know there are several Ames teachers who already use Quizlet. Here are usernames for AHS & AMS ESL teachers so you can see the variety of sets created for students: Kendall SchuldtShaeley Santiago, and AMS ESL

Elaborated Text Using

One issue that content teachers deal with frequently is finding appropriate, adapted text to use with students who have lower English proficiency levels. Using adapted text allows English Language Learners (ELLs) at lower levels to still have access to core content. The concern is where to find text that doesn't "dumb down" the content but instead uses scaffolding or supports to make complex content accessible to students at lower English proficiency levels. 

This is where the Rewordify website comes in. It allows you to copy and paste (or type in) a text, and then it automatically "rewords" or elaborates the text. An elaborated text is one that contains additional information such as definitions of challenging vocabulary or phrases, images, charts, maps, graphs, or other supports. This allows ELLs to be exposed to academic vocabulary and complex syntactical patterns while providing additional explanations to help them understand. 

Rewordify has multiple styles to display the adjusted text, but I recommend either Inline or Two Column. For more details including a step-by-step description of how to elaborate text, see the document below.