Diverse Teaching Strategies for Immigrant Children

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Alliance for Excellent Education, 2005b; Consentino de Cohen, Deterding, & Clewell, 2005; Crandall, 1994, 1998; Darling-Hammond, 1996; Educational Testing Service, 2005; Fisher, 2001; Frey & Fisher, 2004a; González & Darling-Hammond, 1997; Holmes Group, 1990; National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, 1996; U.S. Census Bureau, 2001; Zehler et al, 2003.

Strategy 3.1: Develop Basic Skills for Students with Limited Schooling. Teachers of students with limited or interrupted prior schooling use carefully planned lesson sequences to help students become accustomed to school and learn basic academic skills. These sequences build on students’ prior experiences, and to the extent possible, their first languages.


Increasing numbers of ELLs come from countries where political or economic upheaval limited their opportunities for schooling. Significant gaps in their education result (Crandall, Bernache, & Prager, 1998). Others come from rural areas that lacked the opportunity or even the need for literacy or formal schooling (Hamayan, 1994).

Many students enter U.S. schools with limited prior education and literacy, as well as limited English proficiency. They face the double challenge of compensating for years of lost education as they try to learn English (Crandall, 1995; Crandall & Greenblatt, 1999). Even if they do speak English, they may speak it in a way that is substantially different from that expected in school. Students who arrive in elementary grades face some difficulty catching up to their peers, but the challenge facing secondary students is enormous, requiring many years of assistance by bilingual, ESL, and content-area teachers (Short & Boyson, 2004).

Like all newcomers to U.S. schools, these students need help in becoming accustomed to an educational environment that may differ greatly from what they left behind. Classrooms that encourage discussion, promote interaction with students of both genders, and allow some freedom for self-expression are likely to pose adjustment problems for any student used to classrooms with a dominant teacher who inflicts strict punishment and expects rote learning.

For students with limited experience with schooling, the adjustment is even more difficult. They need to learn a complex set of policies and procedures, such as how to follow schedules and what is expected of them when they come to class. These students may be challenged by requirements as basic as having to be seated for long periods of time, bringing books and materials, and raising their hands to ask or answer questions. Students with no prior education or literacy experiences need to develop basic literacy skills, such as discriminating among letters and numbers and understanding sound and symbol correspondences, as well as small motor skills. Children with two or three years of education may have developed some of these skills, but may have limited exposure to print and little experience with reading and writing and the myriad uses of literacy that are expected in schools. Their exposure to the basic academic skills of sequencing, measuring, classifying, and comparing may be limited, as well.

Students with little prior schooling need sequenced literacy and academic instruction to enable them to move through the stages of English language, literacy, and academic development until they can participate in regular courses (Kamil, 2003). Ideally, they should first develop literacy and be introduced to the uses of reading and writing in their own language and then transfer these skills to English; doing so allows these new students to use their cognitive and oral-language resources as a basis for developing and understanding the uses of written language. If a classroom contains only a few students who speak the same language, or if appropriate materials or bilingual teachers are not available, then they may need to develop literacy in English first. Again, literacy in English takes more time and more steps than if literacy could be built on substantial oral-language development.

Literacy learners need different instruction from that of ELLs who have substantial education in their own language. Placing literacy learners and those with limited schooling in beginning ESL classes with no special attention to their literacy and cognitive needs is not sufficient, as many of their peers have first-language literacy and academic knowledge on which to build.

If limited numbers of these students prevent the formation of special first-language or ESL classes, then ESL and mainstream teachers need to explore ways to provide additional help. Peer tutoring, learning buddies, cooperative groups, or teacher aides can all help, as does the understanding that learning to be a student and developing basic literacy and academic skills takes time. Other students have acquired basic skills throughout their elementary education, an advantage that may have been denied to some immigrant students.

Literacy instruction need not be thought of as sterile instruction in basic skills. While it is important to teach letter formation, basic sound and symbol relationships, and left-to-right reading and writing skills, it is possible to do so within a framework that validates students’ prior experiences and uses them to develop more school-related knowledge and skills. A holistic approach to reading and writing, incorporating the teaching of basic skills where these become relevant, helps students see a role for reading and writing in their lives and makes literacy instruction both interesting and functional.

Time spent on drills and worksheets can cause boredom, especially among students who are new to formal schooling (Hamayan, 1994). Many ELLs come from cultures with strong traditions of story telling and oral history. Family histories, traditional stories, and rich personal experiences can provide a strong oral base on which to develop written language.

Linking students’ life experiences to needed academic concepts and skills provides a sequence of instruction that can enable students to experience success, develop confidence, and make an easier transition to content-area classes. This takes time, however, and is likely to demand after-school or weekend tutoring, summer school, or additional years of high school, all of which are difficult for students who work to help provide family income. Strategies within classes can include the assistance of peer or cross-age tutors who share the students’ first language or who have participated in higher-level ESL classes.

Educators need to distinguish between students with delayed (though normal) literacy development and students with learning disabilities. The difference can be hard to assess initially, especially when students are experiencing separation from family and country, dependence on extended family or friends, frequent movement from one home to another, memories of traumatic experiences, or isolation in their new community. Over time, however, if a student is not recognizing and understanding sound and symbol relationships or has difficulty remembering vocabulary or concepts from one day to the next, an assessment for special education services may be necessary.

Classroom Examples

Ms. Thompson has taught only three years, but she is a masterful teacher of literacy learners. Her classes combine a predictable sequence of activities while fostering engagement and creativity. Her students keep journals, write stories about themselves and their families, and also focus on reading and writing conventions.

Ms. Thompson begins each class with a whole-class warm-up, in which she establishes that each student has the necessary materials and supplies and is ready to learn. She also uses this time to engage in conversation with each student, finding out what he did over the weekend or the previous evening (which usually involves substantial time working outside the home, thus leaving limited time for homework) or talking about school events. Ms. Thompson ends each class with journal writing and a writing workshop. She requires students to have a class notebook organized into categories that correspond to the various phases of the class (Tate, 1997).

The warm-up is often followed by the development of a language experience story, which the students dictate while Ms. Thompson records the words on the chalkboard (Allen & Allen, 1982; Dixon & Nessel, 1983; Taylor, 1993). The story may stem from something that students have talked about during the warm-up, a school event, a sequence of pictures, a short story or text that Ms. Thompson has read aloud, or something that happened in class. She draws out their experiences, writes vocabulary on the board, and makes mental notes of grammar or other items to work on later.

Ms. Thompson may use a semantic web or another graphic organizer to capture students’ ideas and provide all students with access to the vocabulary that only some of them might know. She might ask students to work in pairs or small groups to fill out a storyboard identifying the setting, characters, and major events before trying to write a story together. Students build on that oral discussion as they dictate the story to Ms. Thompson. Together the students read what they have written and suggest changes. Ms. Thompson also offers suggestions, providing a more appropriate word or tense, often seizing the opportunity for a minilesson on some aspect of English vocabulary or structure.

Students then copy the story into their notebooks; they may be asked to engage in additional writing, either at home or in the next class, perhaps adding an ending or describing a character. Ms. Thompson builds oral and written-language activities around these stories, focused on developing specific language skills. She might, for instance, give students a typed version of the story with key words omitted, listing them at the bottom for students to identify. Or she might develop vocabulary exercises such as word matching, fill-in-the-blank sentences, or synonyms and antonyms. She might focus on a specific aspect of spelling, perhaps encouraging students to find other words that exhibit the same spelling rule. She might also divide the story into sentences on strips and ask students to work in groups to put these sentences in an appropriate order. Eventually, she might ask them to try writing the story themselves, in their own words.

Students spend a great deal of time in this class writing. They write about themselves and their lives, their class, and their school. During writing time, they receive individual attention from Ms. Thompson or help one another to find appropriate vocabulary or verb forms. Their early writings may consist of collecting and labeling pictures and creating class bulletin boards or books. Or they might spend time illustrating a story they have heard in class and working in pairs to write captions.

Over time, their stories become longer and culminate in an “autophotography” (Moran-Ender & Ender, 1995), an autobiography using both photographs and words. Each student uses an inexpensive camera to take pictures of families, friends, pets, home, job, or anything they feel helps to identify who they are. They use these pictures to write a story about themselves, which is reproduced for both the learning resource center and Ms. Thompson’s collection. Along with magazines and other reading materials, these books serve as readers that students may choose during periods of sustained silent reading or in developing ideas for their own writing.

Through their writing, students see the value of developing literacy and that serves to extend and reinforce literacy development. They come to understand that expressing oneself in writing is a process full of starts and stops; writing can be difficult and discouraging, but it can also be liberating. The students have the support of their teacher and each other in conferences and on review sheets. The review sheets begin simply by asking students to identify one thing they liked about their partner’s story, and then ask questions that help writers extend their writing and suggestions for revision (Peyton, Jones, Vincent, & Greenblatt, 1994).

Students take turns using the computers, with priority given to those who are editing or in the final stages of publishing their work. Ms. Thompson finds that using computers encourages revisions and makes the task of writing less troublesome for students learning to read and write; it also reinforces alphabetization and supports reading and writing development. Students may illustrate their stories, produce a cover and title page, and even write a brief description of the author for the back cover. These activities build pride in students’ newly acquired literacy.

Dialogue journals are central to Ms. Thompson’s class. These written conversations between student and teacher offer private places where meaningful written dialogue can take place and students can receive immediate feedback on both their thoughts and their English (Peyton & Reed, 1990). In these journals, students are free to write about their concerns and their experiences, at whatever level they are able to or are comfortable with. Ms. Thompson responds to each journal, modeling appropriate English but never correcting the writing. Instead, she responds to thoughts, concerns, and questions, validating the importance of literacy in authentic communication. She provides something for students to read that is at their level of literacy and is interesting and important to them.

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