OnCUE

Author - Nicole Beardsley

#AllMeansAll: How are you engaging your English Language Learner students?

Student Working on Paper
Quick question: what are you currently doing to elicit feedback from your students? I’m talking about anytime you want a response from them to check for understanding. I’ll give you some think time…
Did your response include any of these:
  • Ask a question to the class and call on students with their hands raised
  • Pull from the cup of popsicle sticks which have students’ names written on them
  • Cold call on students
We’ll come back to this in a bit.
As innovative educators, we are always looking for ways to incorporate future-ready strategies and tools to make learning more engaging and meaningful for our students, and to better address the needs of a student in a classroom in this century. But have you ever thought specifically about your English Language Learners when you are designing lessons incorporating those tools and strategies?
According to the California Department of Education, there are approximately 5 million English Language Learners in United States public schools today. That’s 1 out of every 10 students in the U.S. classified as an English Language Learner. In California (where I live), we have the highest number of English Language Learners in the country. The California Department of Education reports 21.4% of CA students are designated ELLs, more than triple the U.S. average.
English-language proficiency is taught and measured in four domains: Reading, Writing, Listening, and Speaking.
Obviously, this means high quality English Language Development instruction incorporates these domains throughout a lesson so that ELL students are continuously practicing them in meaningful ways.

Let’s go back to the question I posed at the start of this post. Hand-raising, cold calling, and “Equity” sticks (side note: the word “equity” is in “quotations marks” for a reason…because it’s not equity! It’s luck of the draw!! If you’re going to use these, please do me a favor and STOP calling them “equity sticks” and call them something else! “Lottery sticks”, maybe.) are all default strategies still being used by many teachers to elicit feedback from their students. But if we look at these strategies through the lens of addressing the needs of our ELLs and the Four Domains of Language Fluency, are we doing a good job?

Focusing on hand-raising in particular for a moment. When you ask a question to the class and ask students to raise their hands, what usually happens? Does your classroom look something like this, maybe?

Note: students who are having side conversations, throwing stuff at one another, and getting up out of their seat have been conveniently cropped from this picture. #MiddleSchoolTeacher
When we call on students and use hand-raising as our only source of engagement. The only student practicing their Speaking domain is the student who gets called on. What are the rest of the students doing?
Listening. Or…listening? Maybe? In our utopian teacher brains, they’re all, of course, absorbing the information being shared in deep, meaningful ways. But here’s a probably more accurate depiction of what’s going on:

Amiright??? Where my middle and high school teachers at? You know exactly what I mean by these images.

So now I want you to go back to that class picture above and think of each and every one of those students as an English Language Learner, and the Four Domains of Language Fluency. There are far better ways to be engaging students in their learning that relying on these old school, ineffective, and, frankly, publicly humiliating strategies.

Here are three ways I’ve used innovative strategies/tools in both my content classes as well as my Designated ELD classes to make sure I am engaging ALL of my learners:

Google Forms
Google Forms are a quick and easy way to elicit feedback from 100% of your students. Literally 100%, as in something you could point to and proudly say I got feedback from 100% of my students. One of my favorite reasons to use a Google Form to get feedback from my students is it comes with a super low affective filter. My ELLs (and everyone else, TBH) don’t have to worry about “looking stupid” or not having the perfectly crafted response prepared to share out loud and face public ridicule from their peers or their teacher (yes, public ridicule from the teacher still happens).

This was a quick exit ticket I threw together in 60 seconds and posted to my Google Classroom. I could see each student’s response, have tangible data to determine my teaching next-steps, and I gave every one of my students an opportunity to share their voice. To better include the Four Domains, I might allow my students to practice their response with a partner first.

Whole Class Google Doc
You haven’t really lived until you’ve had your entire class on one shared Google Doc at the same time. It’s a bit like the wild, wild west until you get the kinks out and lay some ground rules. But once you get through the initial excitement, this strategy can offer your students a unique opportunity to share their voice without being completely drown out by their more vocal peers.

A few logistics: I set up a Doc with a table that includes space for students to put their names, and I always include more rows than needed. Before the form goes “live” I tell students to scroll down a few rows and then claim one for themselves by typing their name in the Name column, not to all try to claim the first row (There’s always that one though. You know what I mean) After that, they respond to whatever questions I pose in the subsequent columns.  I then leave the last column for comments, where students can comment on one of their classmates’ responses (heavily moderated by me, obvi). Here’s an example:

What I love about this strategy is my ELLs or other reluctant participants can see their peers’ responses, and can either align their response or have the moment of realization that their response wasn’t as far off base from everyone else’s as they may have feared. And again, this is 100% student voice and participation. I can have students work with partners and orally share and craft their response before adding to the Doc, I can have students come back to the Doc and share with a shoulder partner a response they want to respond to or what changed their thinking…the possibilities are endless!

Interactive Journal
This last strategy is the most involved and time-consuming on this list, but by far has the best payout. An interactive journal is basically a two-way conversation between student and teacher that takes place on a shared Google Doc. As a teacher, you can model conversation skills and letter writing, but what I feel is the greatest gain to be had by using this strategy is in relationship building. Through an interactive journal I can have a meaningful 1-on-1 “conversation” with a student who may not feel comfortable talking to me verbally. Bloggers know it’s almost always easier to write what you are thinking than actually say it out loud, and this is true for students as well.

I’ve gained some incredible insights from my students when I used interactive journals with them, things I probably never would have learned about them in our typically day-to-day classroom interaction. What’s also great is they are able to learn things they want to know about me, and we can highlight and celebrate the things we have in common in a more authentic way.
Interactive journals may not necessarily meet the Four Domains of Language Development, but I am a firm believer that good teaching and learning CANNOT happen unless it takes place on a solid relationship foundation. When our students – our ELLs in particular – know they are being listened to and genuinely cared about, it can translate into a more productive approach to meeting their academic needs in the classroom.

All kids are our kids. When we say we want all students to achieve, we need to mean ALL students. To me, these are the two essential messages I am conveying when I say all means ALL. Not just my English-only speaking students, not just my reclassified students, not just my high achieving students, but ALL of my students need and deserve high quality instruction that gives them access to the what they need in order to be successful global citizens.

What ways are you embracing #AllMeansAll in your work? What does innovative engagement for ELLs look like in your classroom? I would LOVE to hear what you’re doing to make sure you are meeting the needs of all of our students! Tweet at me @beardsleyteach and be sure to include the #AllMeansAll hashtag!


Nicole is an equity TOSA in Campbell, California. Her passion includes connecting teachers and servicing ALL students. Find her moderating Twitter chats and engaging in Voxer conversations for connectedtl, hyperdocs and cuechat.