Encouraging Literacy through Pen Pals

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Last fall my grades one through four English language learners in central Taiwan began writing to their ELL pen pals in southeast Missouri. The slideshow below is just a sample of the more than 40 letters that are sent at a time between our students. The project has been met with a lot of enthusiasm on both sides of the Pacific! On my side I’ve noticed my students have been highly motivated to put a lot of effort into their work and frequently ask for updates about whether or not their letters have been received and how much longer I expect for new letters to arrive.

 

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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.

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.

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.

Comic Book-Style Summaries

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A student’s summary of The Lost World – Chapter 4

One activity that my students really enjoy is creating their own comic book pages to summarize chapters in our class readers. For my beginner to lower-intermediate level students I supply the narration boxes and have the students create their own artwork along with speech bubbles and thought clouds. I find that my mid to upper-intermediate level English language learners have no difficulty deciding what to write in their own narration boxes. At the end of the reader, students use their chapter summaries to create their own graphic novels.

Text Messages

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During a discussion of teaching techniques, a classmate of mine shared Senora Holeman’s blank iPhone texting template. There are several similar templates out there but hers is free. The photo above contains a few slight modifications I made to the original design so there’s only one template per page making it better fit my printing needs. These templates can be used in a variety of activities, such as:

  • Making plans
  • Invitations
  • Conversations between story characters
  • Giving advice

After reading a short story in The Real McCoy and Other Ghost Stories about a ghost that used instant messages to encourage the main character to follow her dream, I had my third grade ELLs use texting templates to create their own conversations.

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Skimming and Scanning

Skimming and scanning are two rapid reading techniques. Anyone teaching young or weak readers will notice that they tend to read every word. Skimming and scanning are essential techniques for learners to develop as they become more proficient readers. Scanning is fast reading used to find the answers to questions while skimming is fast reading to find the general idea of a text.

A good way to illustrate to students the importance of these techniques is to ask them to find a word in the dictionary. Any student with basic dictionary skills will first flip till he or she finds the page with the correct first letter, followed by looking for the entry based on the guide words, followed by scanning the page for the correct word. Unless students have no experience using a dictionary, they will very unlikely start reading the first page to find the definition of the word preposterous.

Students can probably think of other times that they skim or scan material outside of school: movie times, restaurant menus, troubleshooting guides, ect.

Here are a few techniques from Gipe’s Multiple Paths to Literacy: Assessment and Differentiated Instruction for Diverse Learners, K-12 that I have found useful for helping students develop scanning and skimming:

  • Give students menus and ask them to find items that cost below a certain amount of money.
  • Ask students find a certain number of verbs (or another part of speech) from a passage within a certain amount of time and continually decrease the amount of time or increase the number of words they need to find with each practice.
  • Grab books from the library and have students skim the books then share the general idea with a group.
  • Give students questions they need to answer from the classified section of a newspaper. For example: How much does a 2006 Dodge Stratus cost? Or what is the cheapest riding lawnmower available?
  • Prepare questions related to the table of contents or the index in a content area book. For example, which page has information about Eugene Debs?

Dialogue Journals

Language Skill/Content: Writing

Level: Novice to Advanced

Preparation Time: Time required to respond to previous entry. Depends on the level of the students’ writing and how many students are participating in dialogue journals.

Implementation Time: Roughly ten minutes per session

Teaching Materials/Equipment: One notebook per student

Procedures: With your students, carry on a conversation over time in journals. Dialogue journals provide a chance for students to participate in risk-free writing. Journals are never graded or corrected. Teacher responds to each entry and models spelling, handwriting, and grammar in his or her response entries. In responses, teachers stay on the topic that the student wrote about and compliment students’ work, effort, and keep the conversation moving. Implementing dialogue journals is simple: give each student a notebook, give time for each student to write an entry, collect notebooks, write a response, and repeat.

Options: Can be done over e-mail.

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.

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