When Erin Sucher teaches her third graders about measurement, she draws a big rectangle on the board and marks it end to end. Then she stretches out her arms like two ends of a measuring tape. “Show me length!” she says, and the students stretch out their own arms and call back, “Length!” From here she teaches width, height and weight, taking care to represent the vocabulary verbally, visually and kinesthetically (with body movements). It may seem like overkill to the casual observer, but this sort of multidimensional teaching is critical in Sucher’s class—more than one third of her students don’t speak English as their first language.
When Erin Sucher began at Sharonville Elementary
14 years ago, teaching English vocabulary to speakers of Spanish, French and Uzbek wasn’t part of her lesson plans. Over the past five years, however, southwest Ohio has seen a 250 percent increase in its English Language Learner (ELL) population. Cincinnati Public Schools
has close to 2,000 students identified as ELL. Princeton’s population is smaller, but its more than 1,000 ELL students constitute nearly 20 percent of the student body.
“About six years ago, we got a girl from Uzbekistan. It was the first time we ever had an ELL student, and we really had no idea what to do with her,” Sucher says. “We gave her a kindergarten assessment just to see if she knew her letters, but in a flash we found out that she could do things like multiply and divide fluently. I thought, ‘We’ve just insulted her intelligence.’ We were amazed at what she could do.”
Some students come into Sucher’s classroom at the initial, “silent period” of language acquisition. Others have been in the school system since kindergarten and have a more advanced handle on English. Sucher’s ELL students are just as capable of grasping the lesson material as native speakers, but the trick is making the content comprehensible.
“I find it very interesting and it’s an added challenge to what I teach,” Sucher says. “It takes a little extra preparation, really drilling down to those core concepts I want them to know, checking into vocabulary and finding ways to make it comprehensible using pictures, motions and constantly discussing.”
One of the ways Sucher does this is with a method called “Think-Pair-Share,” in which students take time to think about a concept, and then talk it over with a partner before finally sharing with the class. She has found that with ELL students, providing time to internalize new vocabulary and then practice it in informal interactions with classmates helps bring them up to speed linguistically.
Learning to teach
Until recently it’s been up to Sucher to discover these kinds of techniques on her own. This year, however, she and about 900 other teachers throughout Cincinnati Public and Princeton City Schools
have the opportunity to participate in professional development courses that will equip them with teaching strategies based on current best practices developed for English as a Second Language (ESL) classrooms.
The professional development courses come as part of a new program called Future CLASS (Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Systems of Supports) for Diverse Learners, made possible through a $14.5 million grant from the Ohio Department of Education’s Straight A Fund
. The goal of the program is to provide broader educational support for ELL students, students with disabilities and diverse learning needs, as well as their parents. Program services are estimated to reach 14,400 students and families.
“I’ve always felt that there are some holes in what I know,” Sucher says. She and 11 other teachers from Sharonville Elementary have begun work on 18-credit hour TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) endorsements through Xavier University
. “We’re looking at research about how ELL students learn, the importance of oral language development and what happens in ESL classes," she says. "I think this is going to change our classes for the better.”
The Future CLASS program set aside tuition for 100 teachers to take the master’s degree-level courses. To be eligible for the licensed TESOL endorsement, teachers needed to demonstrate special commitment and leadership regarding their school’s diverse learner population.
“What we want to do is to build the capacity and understanding of the teachers in our schools that are most diverse,” says Marie Kobayashi, ESL/Foreign Language Manager at CPS. “It’s sustainable because once we train the teachers we have, they will use those skills and carry them over for years to come.”
On a broader scale, CPS and Princeton teachers, staff and administration also have access to TESOL workshops. The workshops, which began in February, focus on teaching cultural diversity and practices for effective English language instruction. Recruitment extends district-wide but focuses on staff in schools where ELL enrollment is highest.
Future CLASS funding has also been allocated for 700 teachers to receive SIOP
training. “Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol” is an instruction model created by researchers from the Center for Applied Linguistics and California State University. SIOP address the academic needs of English language learners and outlines instructional strategies to improve achievement, and make grade-level academic content more comprehensible to students who don’t have native English proficiency.
SIOP training equips teachers with skills for lesson preparation, building background and comprehensible input, classroom organization and delivery of instruction. It gives teachers additional strategies that utilize multiple styles of learning, as seen in Sucher’s presentation of measurement concepts to her third graders.
In addition to physical and visual instruction, teachers learn to get students practicing verbal skills through interpersonal and cooperative learning activities. These are made clearer to students when teachers use activity modeling and pre-teaching techniques, and divide content into shorter, more meaningful chunks for students to absorb.
Bringing home language learning
While the largest piece of funding goes toward professional development for teachers, another important component of Future CLASS is educational and support services for students and their families. Funding provides for licensing of web-based language acquisition software called Tell Me More. The goal is for this software to be a supplemental classroom tool, helping ELL students to learn English and teachers to learn another language.
Although language acquisition software usually calls to mind big names like Rosetta Stone, program coordinators decided to go with Tell Me More because it incorporates a large amount of academic vocabulary, and not just social language. And it's web-based, so students can use the software in the classroom and then continue practice at home. It also gives teachers the opportunity to work on French, Spanish and a number of other languages—skills that will help them communicate more effectively with their students and become better equipped for work in the global economy, which now extends even to the classroom.
“The goal isn’t just to have English language learners learn English, but also to help our staff, teachers and native English-speaking students and parents learn another language,” Kobayashi says. “As we learn other languages and understand other cultures, we can bridge gaps and bring about greater community.”
Tell Me More includes vocational English modules that will be available to parents of ELL students. The modules are designed to help adults boost their language abilities and prepare them to enter vocations from hospitality to medicine.
“Say we have a family from Guatemala, and mom is a nurse interested in working in Ohio, but needs some extra practice in English. The software has career focus areas to help people learn English in particular professional and academic areas,” says Heidi Stickney, Princeton City Schools Director of Special Education.
The software can be accessed from any computer with the internet, but one of the challenges is getting parents ready for that first step of logging in and feeling comfortable using it. Not all parents are computer literate or confident navigating a computer in English.
“To get parents to use software, face-to-face training is critical at first,” Kobayashi says. “But once we get them going, they can access the software from anywhere.”
The first step is outreach to get parents coming to the school and meeting with faculty to help facilitate use of the software. CPS and Princeton City School districts purchased computer literacy software called EasyTech, which assesses users’ current skills and then guides them to develop greater ability in areas like keyboarding, internet use and any other skills needed to use a computer more effectively.
More than 40 languages are spoken by students and families throughout the two school districts, and so the third significant portion of funding goes toward translation.
“Communicating with parents can be a challenge,” Sucher says. “We often use translators in the building, and we sometimes use an online translator service we can call when we don’t have anybody in-house, but it’s harder to make a connection with parents that way. ELL parents want their children to learn and will do anything to help.”
Getting school documents translated is the first step toward bridging this teacher-parent gap. Although most school documents coming from the state are available with translations in the region’s commonly spoken languages—Spanish for instance—documents at the individual school level don’t always get this attention, nor do other languages like Mandarin and Russian.
In fact, while Spanish speakers constitute 30-40 percent of the ELL population in CPS and Princeton City Schools, Arabic comes in second and French third. Princeton also has a large Russian community, and numbers of Mandarin-speaking students are growing throughout both districts as well. Documents translated through the Future CLASS program in Cincinnati will then be shared with other school districts all around Ohio, widening the program’s mission of improving student achievement and better integrating families into the community.
Building a multilingual community
“To me, success means creating a community that is multilingual, and understanding and accepting of each other. That’s our ultimate goal,” Kobayashi says. “Language is an important part of culture, and by helping people to learn another language, we can bring them together.”
Sucher recalls a meeting with a new Guatemalan third grader and her mother a few years ago. She and the student’s mother could communicate only with the help of a translator. But when Sucher did a follow-up meeting the next year, not only had her student’s English taken a leap forward, but her mother could also articulate in English how happy and proud she was of her daughter. The goal of Future CLASS is to make these kinds of stories more common.
“Our ELL students work so hard, sometimes even harder than the regular students. And they don’t always make as much progress as quickly. It just takes more time,” Sucher says. She sees the training and support available through Future CLASS as powerful means to help close that gap. Further, adapting classrooms to improve achievement of diverse learners helps create a more cohesive learning environment overall.
“I’m really about building a classroom community,” Sucher says. “When we apply these educational strategies, I believe they benefit not only the ELLs, but all of our students.”