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Adjust Your Teaching Styles for English Language Learners (ELL) in ESL/Bilingual Classrooms

How Do We Ensure Student Voice in the Classroom
Tobey Cho Bassoff

Frequent Formative Assessments. Anyone in education hears these three words more often than our students ask, “How many more minutes until recess?”  As Professional Learning Communities become common place in every school from rural Texas to the Bronx, teachers are finding it increasingly valuable to find tools to check for student understanding of a concept (DuFour&Eaker 2004). Yet, as that toolbox grows, teachers with ELLs in the classroom know that those resources are often exclusive of language learning students. This article gives practical ideas for quickly assessing students in the classroom, addresses the need for greater dialogue around ensuring student voice in the design and delivery of formative assessments and the importance of confronting the cultural sensitivity with which assessments are designed.

Practical Assessment Ideas

The ELL exit ticket is being used and modified at our school as a way to ensure student voice, foster strong teacher/student relationships, and monitor what is being learned with respect to standards and learning objectives. Students are asked to fill out this exit ticket during the last few minutes of class. The ticket asks the student to reflect on what was taught during the class, how it impacted the student, and to what degree the student actually engaged and retained the standards being addressed. It also leaves an open-ended section for the student to communicate whatever may be affecting his/her learning at the time. The teacher uses the ticket as a part of a weekly student/teacher conference, as well as a way to gauge student engagement in the classroom. (Click here to see a sample ticket.)

Letter Writing is how we give our students an authentic opportunity to express themselves and share what they know or don’t know about writing a letter. We challenge students to write a letter to convey a desire or as we so affectionately call it at the Middle Level, “self-advocate for change.” As a staff, we see a real opportunity to help identify students’ need through a useful skill. Many students care about self-expression and want to be heard. These letters, which are written to their parents, friends, newspapers, colleges, and other organizations, are a jumping off point to find out about our students’ hopes, dreams, and aspirations, as well as their fears, challenges, and obstacles.

Snapshots are labels with students’ names on them. They are often kept in a folder and are quick entries that capture a significant “a-ha” moment with a student or marks an important growth step in their development. For example, while teaching a math class, I noticed that Pedro did not know how to organize a paper in a way that facilitated note-taking. After working with him, I noticed that he had transferred what he learned in math to his science class and began applying his new skill across content areas. This is powerful. I shared this knowledge, captured via snapshot labels, with the eighth grade team.

Expanding the Conversation

As we look to support the learners of the 21st century, we must invite more participants to join in the conversation about how to effectively assess students and identify what intrigues, inspires, and motivates them to learn so that we can get a clear picture of who they are as learners. Furthermore, we must not be afraid to engage the community, including our ELLs, in mapping the challenges and thinking about how to design assessments that meet the needs of a diverse student population growing up in a complex world. With the advent of the PLC structure, we are able to open our resources up to a broader range of professionals who all have a vested interest in student success and we can share best practice.

Cultural Sensitivity and Assessment Design

An entire book or ten could be written on this subject, but I’m going to be brief. As teachers we must advocate for assessments that take a diverse student population into consideration. It is not acceptable to say, “Well, they can’t read the math problem, so they can’t do the math.”

Research shows that if a student must make sense of a problem in their L2, or a language that is not their first language, then they often transfer the problem into their L1, or their first language, solve it, and then transfer it back to the L2. This is often time consuming and can often be confusing. I was at the Colorado Association of Bilingual Educators conference in Denver, CO last week when a presenter discussing this very issue posed the following problem: I have two sons. Kyle is one year old and Diego is three years older than Kyle. Both of their birthdays are in the same month. When will Kyle be exactly one half of Diego’s age? Our presenter pointed out that a direct translation of this problem into Spanish will render the problem nonsensical. This is one example of how the very way in which a question is asked can make it inaccessible to students.

As you work to address the needs of the students in your class, in your school, and in your community, please remember that our greatest resources to this most worthy cause is each other. Please e-mail me your thoughts, questions, and/or suggestions.


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