Monday, September 5, 2016

Welcome Back!!

It's a new school year! Yippee!! I love September. Sure, I miss summer, just like any other person, but the time has come for school books, new routines, and fresh opportunities. This year, our ELL population has dramatically increased, which is great! More students, more families, and more healthy connections to facilitate for both newcomers and returning EL's. It seems that now, more than ever, the job of teaching EL's is so vitally important. The political climate is not always exceedingly welcoming or rock solid for immigrants, refugees and other folks looking to learn English. Maybe that's an understatement, but part of my job is simply to make my students and their families feel safe and welcome. That's really the foundation of learning at any level. And so that's what I'm doing on the eve of the first day of school: hosting a Welcome Back Tea for ELL's and their families and advocates. We will have iced tea, snacks, interpreters, and opportunities to ask questions, to be seen and heard.

Good stuff ahead! Can't wait to get Frontier ESL up and running this year!

Best wishes for a GREAT year, all!

Mrs. Blair

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Say No To The Summer Slide

What?!? It's June?? How did that happen? Time flies when you're teaching and learning a new language. Here at FrontierESL, we have been acquiring academic English by leaps and bounds--and we could even prove it by bragging about our just-released ACCESS scores. But we won't do that here, as it's 1) a violation of student confidentiality and 2) not polite to boast.

Still, we've learned a great deal this year, and as we begin to head into sweet summertime, we are making plans on how to prevent the inevitable summer slide - that yearly regression of academic language and skills that plagues many, if not most students. Research shows that students can lose up to 2 months' worth of what they have learned in class over the summer. In addition, 2/3 of the achievement gap between lower and higher income students may be due to summer learning loss.

HAVE NO FEAR! FrontierESL has a plan! Part of this plan includes a cool summer hybrid learning program that involves a little at-school programming, a little tutoring, and a little virtual-classroom instruction - plus the added incentive of a trip to Six Flags!!! Sign me up!!

One key part of our virtual classroom instruction will include participation in Duolingo's #DuoNotErase program, in which students continue to study English over the summer using the incredible language learning program known as...Duolingo. We've even submitted an entry into their summer #DuoNot Erase program, and if we get enough votes, we could win a cool Mac Book for our classroom. So, if you're reading this post, won't you please help our cause by voting for us? Click here:

Thanks! And hopefully you're making plans for avoiding your own #summerslide. The figurative one, that is. As for the real one, well...perhaps we'll see you at the water park!

Happy Summer!

Mrs. Blair
Frontier ESL Teacher

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

6 Quick And Dirty Tips For Supporting ELL's in the Math Classroom

Okay, so there's really nothing dirty about these tips at all. But quick they are, in the sense that mainstream math teachers can invest relatively little time in implementing these strategies and get a lot of return for their small efforts. Each of these suggestions is designed to lead to more supported, more comfortable ELL students, who thereby will be more likely to learn math content as well as acquire academic English. Win win!

Recently a colleague sought advice on how to support a beginner ELL student in his math classroom. While many see math as a language of its own, a remarkable amount of learning in math is dependent on the language of instruction. For ELL's, who are learning both math content as well as a new language, this new challenge can feel overwhelming, particularly for those students who are brand new to English. Here are a few simple suggestions to support ELL's in the math classroom:

1. Create vocabulary banks. Use charts that provide key terms with L1 translations. It's ideal to create vocabulary banks that a student can keep and refer to in a notebook, but even better to have a larger classroom-sized version that makes up the "real estate" in the math classroom. Classroom sized references like this often become useful for non-ELL's as well.

2. Use sentence frames. Math sentence frames do a number of jobs for ELL's. They bring a context to math vocabulary; they provide a structure for extending English language skills; they provide support for ELL's in class discussions; and they help ELL's to apply new vocabulary to discussion and writing using correct grammar and sentence structure. 

3. Use manipulatives. Using tools allows students to create concrete representations of abstract topics, thereby making content more comprehensible. Plus, it makes learning more interesting.

4. Adjust teacher talk/practice wait time. ELL's require more time to process information. Slow down speech and enunciate clearly. Reduce teacher talk, and use a variety of words for the same idea. After asking a question, wait a few moments before asking for a volunteer. Also, avoid "teaching in the air" and write questions on the board for additional language support.

5. Check for understanding using nonverbal cues. Receptive language (listening and reading) typically develops earlier than productive (speaking and writing). Give ELL's the opportunity to safely participate and "show they know" by seeking a thumbs up/thumbs down as a yes/no or agree/disagree. This option allows even brand new students the chance to feel included and offers opportunities for participation.

6. Use partner talk. Partner talk builds opportunities for student participation in discussions without the pressure of being in the spotlight. Partner talk also builds trust and positive collaboration among peers. 

If you happen to use one or several of these strategies, I'd love to hear your feedback!

Mrs. Blair

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Newsela in the ESL Classroom

As an ESL teacher, I am constantly searching for the latest tools to help my students learn English. There are literally thousands of resources for teachers on the web these days. I spend a fair amount of my planning and free time poking around the Internet looking for the newest, edgiest, highest quality apps and sites to hook my students and boost their language skills. One that I've used for a few years now--and keeps getting better and better--is Newsela. Newsela is a leveled reading program that takes high interest articles from national and regional news sources and presents them across a variety of reading levels. This is particularly important in an ESL classroom in which there are students at varying stages of English language acquisition. As a class, students can read the same article while accessing it at his or her own reading level. Articles are paired with quizzes and writing prompts that are aligned with Common Core standards.

What's more, the talented staff at Newsela provide a wealth of tools for teachers and students, including a Learning & Support section that is brimming over with useful ideas. Most recently, Newsela has added Health and Sports to its sections, providing a wider array of articles that can be used by more teachers across more disciplines. Newsela also provides articles in Spanish, further supporting Spanish-speaking ELL's while giving teachers another method to check for understanding.

With the added bonus of being free, Newsela really is a gem. This semester, my ESL students have a goal of reading two articles per week. I'll post an update on our progress in a few weeks. In the meantime, I encourage readers to visit and browse around. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Ideas For ELL's

Frontier ESL is always exploring new ways to expand our English language skills, and as an ESL teacher, I find this discovery process to be a lot of fun. Recently, my colleague Ms. Walters brought a fantastic new language learning resource to my attention. The New York Times' Learning Network offers lots of interesting materials for ELL's that focus on worldwide current events (see Frontier ESL post dated March 23, 2015). The Times' latest feature for ELL's incorporates both a video clip as well as a set of pictures, infographics and text to stimulate thinking and conversation around a topic. Click the link to view this dynamic column:

In this week's Ideas For ELL's column, students view a short video called "Slow Motion Catastrophe" which highlights the developing issue of drought and wildfires in California. Next, students make observations of a series of pictures, maps and text having to do with the same topic. We discuss what we see, making note of specific observations. Our next step is to focus on academic vocabulary words from the article, using context clues to make inferences about the meanings of new words. Students then articulate how they make their inferences from reading clues in the text to practice reasoning and writing. Lastly, students have the opportunity to submit comments about the video and article online, which is really neat as it takes our little ESL class and connects it to other learners of English around the world. Here are a few comments from yesterday's lesson:

"I am very excited to learn about this. So, thanks, I feel this is very amazing and wonderful to understand."

"I saw a fire once when I was four years old. It smelled smoky. It sounded like "WOOOOO!!" It felt spooky."

"I saw a fire one month ago. It smelled terrible and unhealthy, and it sounded crackly. People evacuated because the fire spreads with intensity to many places."

I could definitely see my students getting engaged in this topic, and the format of the presentation (video, pictures, text) stimulated their curiosity and motivated them to want to learn more. So thank you, NYT Learning Network, for collaborating with ELL experts like Larry Ferlazzo, the author of this column. You're doing wonders for ELL students near and far.

Frontier ESL has a new frontier...

Monday, August 17, 2015

Translate This!

Today's post is a quick one, but the topic delights me. As I was poking around Blogger, the platform I use to publish this blog, I found a neat little gadget that translates blog content into a wide variety of languages. I've popped this gadget onto the right hand side of the blog so that FrontierESL! can be accessible to a much wider audience. My hope is that my students' parents will be able to follow the activity of their child's ESL classroom and have a stronger connection to me and to our school. Yay!! Check it out, and let me know what you think!

Mrs. Blair

Monday, August 10, 2015

8 Great Ways To Welcome And Support ELL's In The Mainstream Classroom

Holy cow, it's August! Summer never fails to whiz right by, especially for teachers and students, it seems. Even though Frontier ESL was in full swing during the month of July in tutoring mode, this part of August is dedicated to planning and preparing for another great academic year. I'm looking to incorporate a few new rituals and routines in my ESL classroom, which I most certainly will be blogging about in the coming weeks. But right now, my thoughts turn to my incoming students and how I can best potentiate their learning in their mainstream classrooms as well as in mine.

Below I've outlined eight solid strategies that all teachers can use in their work with ELL students. They're simple, they involve minimal prep time, and most of all, they benefit all students, not just English language learners:

1. Use sentence frames for support with academic language.

Many ELL's need support with academic conversations and vocabulary. Post partially completed sentences like, "I disagree with ____________'s point because _______________" or "__________ is similar to _______________ because ________________." Post these and other frames relevant to your content in visible places in the classroom. It will reinforce all students' academic conversation and it provides opportunities for practice with tier 2 and 3 vocabulary words.

2. Visualize.

Whenever possible, use pictures, graphic organizers, kinesthetic movement -- anything to avoid "teaching in the air," which refers to relying on speaking to instruct students. ELL's have a harder time deciphering spoken language independent of other supports, so be sure to post written instructions, even for classroom routines. More complex tasks and concepts can be diagrammed and/or supported with photographs and illustrations. 

3. Provide scaffolding with a student's native language.

Students will learn new vocabulary in the target language, or L2, much faster if they can connect with words they already know in their native language, or L1. Provide L1/L2 glossaries for content vocabulary. Post FAQ's in both a student's home language as well as in English. For example, a set of mini posters that say "How do you say ___________?" "Can you repeat that, please?"and "Can you explain ____________?" provides newer ELL's with ways to practice speaking and asking for clarification, both of which strengthen language acquisition and help the student gain confidence and a sense of belonging in the classroom.

4. Pre-teach.

Identify key vocabulary words in reading material and spend a few minutes going over those prior to beginning an assignment. Consider giving ELL's articles or videos that you're going to use in class a day or two ahead of time. When given the chance to preview material, ELL's stand a much greater chance of understanding content on the day it's presented to the rest of the class. This also gives ELL's an opportunity to ask or prepare questions in advance.

5. Consider using NewsELA.

NewsELA ( is a great, free website that collects nonfiction current event articles across a variety of disciplines (science, money, law, health, etc.) and presents them at several different reading levels. This is a FANTASTIC tool for teachers working with any classes made up of students with varying reading abilities. If you assign an article on the rare, mysterious bonneted bat population to a 9th grade biology class, an ELL student with a 4th grade reading level can access the same article as his or her peers and participate in relevant discussions and activities. Both my students and I have found this site to be very engaging and useful. I can't recommend it enough.

6. Recognize that language ability does not equal cognitive ability.

So often I see evidence of teachers looking at ELL's as less intelligent, less capable, less than their native English-speaking peers. Just because a student may not be able to express him or herself in English, it doesn't mean that these concepts don't exist inside their brains. Beginner ELL's work twice as hard as their English speaking peers, and they tend to have half as much to show for it. Remember that language acquisition is a process that takes time. Look past the mispronunciations and L1 accents, and praise ELL's for their efforts and contributions, no matter how small.

7. Set the tone for the class.

ELL's, particularly beginners, can feel isolated and lonely. Make a clear statement and set a strong tone of empathy, tolerance and celebration of diversity in your classroom. Encourage all students to welcome ELL's and value the unique contributions they bring. Students who work with others of varying language abilities and cultural backgrounds develop skills that help them to become more productive, empathetic and global-minded citizens.

8. Communicate with your school's ESL teacher.

The ESL teacher in your school has a wealth of training, knowledge and expertise specific to working with second language acquisition. Seek this person out if you have questions or problems. Ask to have this person sit in on a class, troubleshoot, or simply lend an ear to whatever situation you're dealing with. You're likely to find the support you need from an in-house expert.

I hope that these ideas are helpful as you gear up for this school year! As always, comments and suggestions are most welcome.