After significant research on the policies behind ELL education and their effects, I became curious of what a class with ELL students looked like. My research led to an article called, “A delicate balance: Enhancing literature instruction for students of English as a second language.” This study observed 12 ESL teachers for a period of two years and compiled a list of “constructs for effective instruction for language minority students.”
According to their criteria, an effective language instruction must include:
- Scaffolding/cognitive strategies
- Collaborative/cooperative learning
- Techniques for second language acquisition/sheltered English
- Respect for cultural diversity
To demonstrate some of these ideas, it compared two different ESL teachers: Sonia, who is an experienced teacher who uses many of these constructs to teach her 5th graders; and Larry, a second-year novice in teaching ELL students, who lacks many of these qualities.
Sonia was an ESL teacher who put a lot of emphasis on reading. She would always make her students read both silently and orally. To keep her students engaged and entertained, she mostly used literary works, such as James and the Giant Peach, instead of basal reading. She noticed that students were less fearful of reading longer materials when reading literature. The researcher observed that Sonia developed a shared language with her students and effectively used this to prompt critical thinking and oral discussions. A shared language is a mutual understanding of conceptual English literature vocabulary, for example, theme, character clues, obstacles, etc. Sonia would then ask questions using these vocabulary that prompted critical thinking and solidified the students comprehension of the works. “What kind of a character is Lyle?” she would ask. Students responded with their perception of the characteristics of Lyle and effectively proved their understanding of the story. When students faced trouble learning idiomatic phrases, Sonia modeled her cognitive process of inferring the meaning of the idiom from contextual clues. A pleasant surprise was that she allowed students of similar backgrounds to get together and discuss texts in their mother tongue. Most ESL classes that I’ve experienced and heard of had some sort of language use restrictions. Allowing students to students to organize thoughts in their own words and then translate it into English when sharing it to the class seemed like a respectful way to approach and integrate children from different cultures into English classrooms.
What differentiated Sonia’s instruction style was her incorporation of writing in her reading class. She would take her students to computer labs, where students wrote and refined stories. She also wrote questions she asked orally on the board as written cues for students to refer to as they read books silently. This was sharply contrasted to Larry’s way of teaching. Larry’s class spent majority of the time reading in a round-robin style. Sometimes he read stories to the students in a very dramatic and entertaining way (some students even shed tears because they were emotionally engaged with the plot and his performance). But the extent of writing in his class was when he recorded points for students on the board. The students did not have instructed opportunities to write.
Although Sonia’s inclusion of writing is better than not having a writing time at all (like Larry), I still felt that her class could be refined with more structured writing opportunities for students. My experience in a higher level IB English class greatly improved my literary comprehension and essay writing skill because I was pushed to translate my critical thinking into extensive written assignments under a time crunch. IB tests for higher level English class required at least 8 pages of close reading analysis in an hour. We read literary works and broke it down to identify the various literary techniques the writer used. Then we individually wrote essays that connected these different techniques to the theme that we perceived as the author’s purpose of writing the story. This was extremely challenging for me and my classmates who have never experienced such intense training in reading and writing. It was the first time in my 11 years of education that I learned to integrate topic sentences and examples in each paragraphs to build a coherent and logical paper. Sonia’s writing activities of writing stories and refining them definitely serves to enhance students’ creativity and language use. But I think it doesn’t develop their fluency in building arguments and logically supporting their opinions in English.
Scholars of the 1980s, considered reading and writing similar processes in which readers interact with the text. Because reading and writing are both ways of creating meaning, it is essential to use both practices to fully comprehend and learn English. Therefore, I would suggest researchers of this study to add another point to the construct: Writing exercises. The scaffolding and cognitive strategies build the foundation for students to analyze and comprehend texts. Why not let them use these to cogently express their thoughts?