Material Selection in Diverse Classrooms

How can we as teachers guarantee our increasingly diverse student body experience educational equality? In choosing a secondary American history textbook, one of the first criteria when ensuring a multicultural perspective is how far into book one must read before Christopher Columbus shows up. What criteria should we keep in mind for our English language learners when choosing materials?

When selecting materials for English language learners it is important to take into account the diversity of the districts in which we teach. Commercially produced materials for L1 Spanish students learning English would be inappropriate in a US school district largely serving L1 Vietnamese students. Likewise, materials produced overseas for Japanese junior high school students would be of little value for somewhere like the El Paso Independent School District. When selecting commercially available textbooks for use in classrooms, one must look out for who isn’t included. You may find yourself thumbing through an entire, multi-level English learning series and not finding depictions of people with disabilities, characters living in non-traditional nuclear families, people of color in positions of power or high socioeconomic status, or women in male dominated careers.

When selecting or creating materials for the ESL classroom, educators must ask themselves if the topics, artwork, photographs, and/or videos ignite student interest? Are the graphics bland? Is the text overly-sanitized? Do reading materials have characters who experience challenges to which students can relate? What a Greenwich, Connecticut AP Literature class finds engaging likely won’t be the same a freshmen ELL-majority literature course in Dearborn, Michigan.

Publishing companies that produce educational materials often make incredible sales pitches as they fight over the shares of meager budgets that individual schools and districts have for purchasing instructional materials. They may claim that their materials are suited for a seemingly infinite range of proficiency levels, every known learning style, and students of any home culture. Unfortunately, no single textbook or series will ever meet the instructional needs of all students. It’s up to educators to incorporate a variety of materials into the curriculum in order to ensure all students experience educational equality.

By keeping in mind the students we serve, we can choose and create materials that they will find engaging. Through careful, thoughtful selection, we can ignite student interest to provide youngsters with a foundation from which to build academic success. We can choose materials that provide positive portrayals of diverse groups of people. Our classrooms have students who come from neighborhoods in which the wealthiest person on the block is someone who dropped out and engages in illegal activities. From an early age, students coming from these dire environments must see that there are individuals out there that speak the same first language, that have the same cultural heritage, that experienced the same hardships growing up but were able to be academically and professionally successful.

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Identifying and Explaining Errors

He is liking ice-cream. —> He likes ice cream.

Like is a stative verb so it is rarely used in the progressive form. Of course there are instances where like is used in the progressive tense colloquially to emphasize approval when one anticipated the opposite, for example:

My son doesn’t usually like candy but he’s liking these Twizzlers. [spoken as the speaker’s son is enjoying Twizzlers]

Due to the rarity of this usage, it likely doesn’t require much more than a brief mention in most ESL classrooms. However, the use of stative verbs in the progressive tense could be gaining traction due to the McDonald’s advertising slogan, “I’m lovin’ it.”

After encountering this error, students may need a lesson on stative verbs. A good way to start off a discussion of stative verbs is to draw two large circles on the board and ask students for examples of verbs. The teacher writes verbs that are stative in one circle and those that are dynamic in the other. Once there are several verbs in each circle, the teacher labels the two circles stative and dynamic. The teacher can explain that stative verbs describe a state of being as opposed to dynamic verbs which describes actions. The point can further be illustrated by having students stand up and do the actions from the dynamic side.

Some work to help students would be to have them take sentences with incorrect usage of stative verbs and rewrite them to make them grammatically accurate. Examples include:

These shorts are fitting me. —> These shorts fit me.

I am hating pineapple on pizza. —> I hate pineapple on pizza.

We are liking our new soccer coach. —> We like our new soccer coach.

Our class is knowing how to do long division. —> Our class knows how to do long division.

We go to home directly after school. —> We go home directly after school.

This is a common error with my English language learners. The error in the above sentence is that the word “to” doesn’t make sense in the sentence. Here, the word home is an adverb of place. Adverbs of place do not take prepositions such as at, to, in, or from. Besides home, there are several other common adverbs of place:

upstairs, downstairs, downtown, inside, outside, here, there, back, away, near, close, overseas, everywhere, somewhere, nowhere, underground, northwest

Teachers can guide students through the following examples to help illustrate whether they are looking at a noun or an adverb of place:

I went home.
I cooked at home.

In the first sentence, teachers can point out that one is going in that direction, so home is an adverb of place and doesn’t require a preposition. In the second sentence, when one cooks they aren’t moving towards anything so in this case home is a noun and requires a preposition.
One activity to help students get a feel for adverbs of place is to go through the following actions with students:

Teacher: “Let’s go outside!”
Students: “Let’s go outside!” (everyone follows instruction and goes outside)
Teacher: “Let’s go to the office!”
Students: “Let’s go to the office!” (students go towards the office)
Teacher: “Now, let’s go inside!”
Students: “Now, let’s go inside!” (students walk into the office and exchange salutations with the staff)
Teacher: “Now, let’s go outside!”
Students: “Now, let’s go outside!” (students walk outside, again)
Teacher: “Let’s walk to the slide!”
Students: “Let’s walk to the slide!”
Teacher: “Let’s go up!”
Students: “Let’s go up!”
Teacher: “Let’s go down!”
Students: “Let’s go down!” (students take turns going down the slide)
Teacher: “Let’s go upstairs!”
Students: “Let’s go upstairs!” (students walk upstairs)
Teacher: “Let’s go to the classroom!”
Students: “Let’s go to the classroom!”
Teacher: “Let’s go inside!”
Students: “Let’s go inside!” (students walk back into the classroom and return to their desks)

I find physical activities like these help commit sentence patterns to memory. Students could also benefit from having a transcript of the preceding activity and underlining all the nouns and adverbs of place and circling any prepositions they see. They can also practice saying these sentences and acting out the actions with puppets.

Explaining the Difference between a Pair of Sentences

He teaches ESL in our school. / He is teaching ESL in our school.

The first sentence uses the simple present tense while the second sentence is in the present progressive tense. The first sentence describes a permanent situation while the second sentence describes a temporary situation. I would help students understand the difference by describing two scenarios. The first is about Mr. Lin. He is a full-time employee at our school. He has been working at our school for five years teaching ESL. He teaches ESL in our school. He loves his job so much that he will probably teach ESL in our school until retirement. The second sentence describes Mr. Lopez. He also loves his job but he is a long-term sub at our school. He started in November. He is teaching ESL in our school. He will continue teaching ESL in our school until Mrs. Dinh returns from maternity leave. Mr. Lin’s situation is permanent so we use the simple present tense. Mr. Lopez’s situation is temporary so we use the present progressive tense.

Monolingual America

The majority of Americans are monolingual largely due to the legacy of isolationism. Assimilation of new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe was the primary goal of school systems in the early twentieth century (Rowe & Levine, 2015, p. 253). Even into the twenty-first century, there is a sizable portion of the population who become irritated and combative when people around them speak languages other than English or because the automated call center has the option of pressing two for Spanish. According to Amelia Friedman, “Less than 1 percent of American adults today are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a U.S. classroom” (2015). This is very disheartening that so many students receive foreign language instruction in high schools across America and in the end less than one percent come out proficient. I think that if the country prioritized language learning it would be another story. If foreign languages were required from early elementary school through high school there would likely be more interest in continuing to pursue language learning in universities and into adulthood. Sadly, becoming proficient in a foreign language takes a lot of time and it is difficult for many Americans to see the benefit in something that takes so much energy without an immediate financial reward.

Speaking more than one language certainly has its benefits. Whether you are born into a bilingual environment or devote yourself to become proficient in another language you can help keep your mind sharp and according to one study can even delay the onset of dementia (Bak et al., 2014). I believe that speakers of more than one language have better diversity awareness making them more flexible at interacting with members of different culture groups. I have a lot of admiration for people who have devoted tens of thousands of hours into learning another language. My first Chinese language classroom in Taipei was an interesting group of people: Three students from Japan, two from Malaysia, one from Malawi, one from France, one from Mexico, and two Americans (myself and a retired NYC bus driver). With the exception of the other American and I, everyone else was already proficient in at least two other languages.

References

Bak, T. H., Nissan, J. J., Allerhand, M. M. and Deary, I. J. (2014), Does bilingualism influence cognitive aging?. Ann Neurol., 75: 959–963. doi:10.1002/ana.24158

Friedman, A. (2015, May 10). America’s Lacking Language Skills. Retrieved November 26, 2017, from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/05/filling-americas-language-education-potholes/392876/

Rowe, B. M., & Levine, D. P. (2015). A concise introduction to linguistics. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Arm Blending

I use this technique with my pre-k and kindergarten students. My elementary school aged bodily-kinesthetic learners also respond well to this technique. Arm blending helps students develop phonemic awareness. Arm blending involves sweeping one arm down the length of the other as words are being pronounced (Fox, 2000). For example: the teacher’s hand starts on his or her shoulders and the student mimics. For the word scrape the teacher says, “S-C-R, S-C-R, /skr/ /skr/ /skr/” and the student echos. Then, the teacher moves their hand to their elbow and says, “A-E, A-E, /ā/ /ā/ /ā/” and the student echos. Afterwards, the teacher moves their hand to their wrist and says, “P, P, /p/ /p/ /p/” and the student echos. Finally, the teacher and student move their hands to their shoulders and say the whole word while moving down to their wrists, “/skr/ ! /ā/ ! /p/ ! scrape!”

Fox, B. J. (2000). Word identification strategies: Phonics from a new perspective (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Thoughts on Vocabulary

As an ESL instructor, rarely do we have an entire class period that does not have time devoted to direct vocabulary instruction or guided practice. This emphasis on vocabulary acquisition is necessary for my students to comprehend text. Every student comes to school with a different sized word bank and varying levels of word knowledge. Through instruction, we can grow our students’ vocabulary base of known words. There are many strategies educators can use to help students learn content area language.

The first step is choosing words to teach. Our content area textbooks contain boxes of key words that we should focus our attention on. Since most of my classroom’s textbooks are designed for students whose first language is English, there are often additional words throughout each chapter that also require direct instruction. It is essential to select words that are important for understanding a reading selection or concept and words that are generally useful to know and likely to be often encountered in reading.

I frequently teach new vocabulary words through directive context and using the Talk Through technique. We can give students a rich understanding of new vocabulary by connecting with students’ lives to make complicated concepts within reach of our learners. Providing opportunities to encounter vocabulary words frequently and in more than one context is also essential for learning vocabulary (Diamond & Gutlohn, 2017). This could be accomplished through field trips, the use of different mediums, and by using a variety of practice exercises. The use of semantic gradients can help students distinguish the between the meanings of related words and help students (Wolfe, 2016). I find that these help my students become more imaginative in their writing and help them grow out of using tired words. Guiding students to classify and categorize vocabulary words helps students understand word relationships so that a new word becomes known.

References:
Diamond, L., & Gutlohn, L. (2017, February 13). Teaching Vocabulary. Retrieved February 25, 2017, from http://www.readingrockets.org/article/teaching-vocabulary

Wolfe, L. (2016, May 11). Using Semantic Gradients in the Classroom. Retrieved February 25, 2017, from http://www.reallygoodstuff.com/community/semantic-gradients-and-the-common-core-standards/

Change a Word / Change the Sentence

Language Skill/Content: Reading and writing – allows students to develop an understanding of parts of speech, syntax, semantics, synonyms, and antonyms.

Level: Novice to Advanced

Preparation Time: Minimal

Implementation Time: About ten minutes

Teaching Materials/Equipment: Paper

Procedures: Students and teacher sit in a circle at a table or move desks to create a circle. Can be done with small or large groups. Teacher asks students to write a sentence. Students pass their papers to the right, read the previous writer’s sentence, and rewrite the sentence changing one word. Once the papers have rotated all the way back to their original owner. The teacher or students can read their first and last sentences on their papers. Teachers can use this activity to assess their students’ understanding of parts of speech, syntax, semantics, synonyms, and antonyms.

Options: Lower-ability students may benefit from partnering with a higher-ability student, a teacher, or teacher’s aid.

Adapted From: Gipe, J. P. (2014). Multiple paths to literacy: assessment and differentiated instruction for diverse learners, K-12. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Example:

The children rode the scary rollercoaster.

The children rode the scary donkey.

The children rode the friendly donkey.

The children fed the friendly donkey.

The teacher fed the friendly donkey.

The teacher kissed the friendly donkey.

The dinosaur kissed the friendly donkey.

The dinosaur ate the friendly donkey.