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.

Friday, June 5, 2015

New Resources For Students, Families And Teachers

I've recently created three new sections of Frontier ESL for ESL students & their families, ESL teachers, and mainstream teachers of EL's. I've included websites, articles and other tools culled from a wide variety of sources. On the right hand side of this screen, beginner and intermediate EL's (and their family members) will find the links in the "Best Sites" section to be "click and go"; that is, they are usable and self-explanatory just by clicking on the link in the list. The section for ESL teachers features sites and links that I have used and found to aid in my instruction and/or assessment. Lastly, I've created a section devoted to mainstream teachers who have EL's of all levels in their classrooms and who are looking for ways to support and maximize the success of their students. This section includes articles and resources that many teachers have already reported to be "extremely useful" in their teaching practice.

Like the blog itself, these sections are very much "alive" and are works in progress. I am always combing the web, reading blogs and participating in PLC's in an effort to identify resources to support students, parents, families and teachers of English Learners. As always, I am open to suggestions for resources to include on this blog. Please feel free to comment below with your ideas.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Here Comes SUMMER!!

There are 12 academic days remaining in the school year at Frontier Regional School. How could that be? It seems like just yesterday we were trudging through knee-deep snow and ice, dealing with temperatures below zero, and seeing nothing but white all around. Magically, June is here--and that means that our long-awaited summer break is right around the corner. As an ESL teacher, my thoughts turn to the "summer slide." No, not the pool slide, or the slip-n-slide, but the regression of reading, writing and other literacy skills that tends to happen when kids are not engaged in academic structure. That's something I work hard to prevent, or at least lessen, as I get ready to send my students off into summer break.

Thankfully, Frontier ESL will continue over the summer in tutoring mode. Each of my students will be scheduled for small group or one-on-one tutoring during the month of July. Awesome! But for those hours outside of tutoring time, and for much of August, we still need to keep our English in tune.

Two online literacy resources that I've used with students throughout the year are Duolingo and Raz-Kids. Duolingo is a great site that allows people to learn a new language anywhere, anytime, and it's free. It incorporates all four language domains (reading, writing, listening and speaking) and it provides individualized instruction. I happen to have my own Duolingo account for learning Spanish. It offers iPad and iPhone compatibility, but it also works great on a desktop computer. Students (as well as their parents and other family members) can use it and even compete with one another to motivate learning. One of my students currently has Duolingo on his smartphone, and he reports that he uses it regularly at home. Based on his steady progress over the past six months, I do not doubt his word.

Raz-Kids, a component of Reading A-Z, offers leveled e-books as well as assessments. Although it's not a free resource, for a yearly $99 fee, Raz-Kids can be added to a Reading A-Z license and used to expand a classroom library. The books available through Raz-Kids are talking books, meaning the text is both read and heard. Audio support is particularly valuable for ESL students as it cements letter-sound connections and improves pronunciation and automaticity. From the teacher's perspective, progress monitoring is made easy both for running records and high frequency word knowledge. Like Duolingo, Raz-Kids is available on iPad and iPhone. I am thrilled that my district offers this valuable literacy resource, and even more pleased at how my students have responded to it.

I plan to stay connected to my students over the summer during those times when we won't be in class together. Duolingo and Raz-Kids will make it easy. If any readers have other suggestions for great technology/literacy sites or apps, please share!

Happy summer,

Mrs. Blair
Frontier ESL Teacher

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Finishing Strong

It's the day before we return to school after a week's vacation. Hopefully, my ESL students made the most of their break by resting, playing, getting lots of fresh air and exercise - and, ideally, having the opportunity to practice their English language skills. As their teacher, I'm thinking about how to finish the year strong. Typically, it can be challenging to maintain focus and a solid work ethic between the return from April break and the end of the school year. The weather is warmer, the days are longer, and summer beckons.

One of the strategies I use in my teaching to keep students focused and to maximize our remaining instructional time is a goal-setting exercise that I got from Larry Ferlazzo, a teacher and blogger of all things related to ESL. When my students walk in our classroom door tomorrow morning, they will see a piece of paper titled "End Of School Year Goals" at their seats. On this paper will be a series of sentence frames that include a goal and an action for Attitude, English, Behavior and Academic categories. Students will complete these goal setting sheets, and then read back what they have written to be sure 1) it makes sense and 2) they realize that they are holding themselves accountable for working to achieve these goals. Following this exercise, they will choose their top two goals and create a poster that reflects these goals. Lastly, we will use the Shadow Puppet app to record their goals. I like this last step as it not only engages ESL students using that great hook we call technology, but it also cements students' goals that much more. Plus, it combines all four domains of language (reading, writing, listening and speaking) in a kinesthetic activity that truly has meaning for each individual. 

For those readers who would like more information about goal setting and English language learners, as well as a wealth of ESL/ELL related information, please visit the website of Larry Ferlazzo, whose contributions to the world of teaching ESL/ELL are like gold to me.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Vocabulary in the ESL Classroom

When it comes to learning a new language, the importance of vocabulary acquisition cannot be emphasized strongly enough. Words are like bites of food, and academic vocabulary--the words students need to understand and perform grade-level academic tasks--is like top-shelf health food. Vocabulary is the sustenance that makes language learning and academic success possible.

A few years ago, I discovered a great tool for teaching vocabulary to English language learners. It's a developmental spelling program called Words Their Way, and it guides students through level-appropriate word sorts in order to improve their understanding of the English language. Word sorts are sets of words that fall into certain spelling, sound or semantic categories. One of the cool things about WTW is that students have a high degree of control in making sense of word patterns and their associated sounds and meanings. WTW doesn't teach spelling rules--which is good, because English is a language with many exceptions to its many rules. Instead, WTW gives students lots of opportunities for hands-on, developmentally appropriate word study, which leads to deeper learning of English vocabulary. In my experience, students respond beautifully to this program because they're in control and they can chart their own progress. They think on their own how to make each sort - and then they explain their rationales for each.

A great online tool for supporting our word study activities is a neat little site/app called Vocabulary & Spelling City (VSC). VSC allows students to study specific sets of words using a variety of learning activities. VSC is particularly useful for EL's as it includes exercises in phonics, spelling, language arts and writing. Word study is easily transportable as students can work on assignments using any computer, tablet or smartphone. Teachers can monitor progress and give feedback on writing. This is a very useful tool in larger classrooms in which teachers cannot always be giving direct instruction to every student. Regardless of developmental level, VSC is user-friendly, and they're constantly updating and improving their site. I appreciate their interest and responsiveness to EL's.

Although this blog is intended to communicate directly with parents and families, the Frontier ESL blog draws readers who are teachers of EL's. What tools and resources do you use for vocabulary instruction? What works? What do you love? Please share your ideas!

-Mrs. Blair

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Revisiting and Revising

Happy Tuesday! As promised, we returned to the NY Times' WGOITP column in class today to get details on what was really happening in the picture that we studied and made observations about in class yesterday. When we revisited the page on the classroom iPad and scrolled down for the much awaited update, here's what we read (aloud and in unison):

                     "Ivory tusks from up to 1,500 slaughtered elephants, worth about
                     $30 million on the black market, are set alight by President 
                     Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya."

"OH MY GOD!!" gasps one student. Another student immediately grabs the iPad and hits the translator app to scaffold meaning for a couple of key words. "Slaughtered," he says, not perfectly--but I can easily tell what word he means by his quizzical, sad expression. We talk about why these tusks may have been set on fire by Kenya's president. "VERY BAD," says one of my more emergent EL's. "Elephants are very beautiful," he goes on. Yes, they are, I say. I share with my students some additional details supplied in the article by the Times, that the public burning of tusks was an effort to discourage poaching. After having a little fun with kinesthetic learning by acting out the word "poaching" while translating it into Spanish and Punjabi, we scaffold between L1 and L2 and learn some new academic vocabulary.

Is this similar or different from what you first thought about the picture? I ask my students. "Different. More details now," says one of my students."Protect the elephants," says the other. 

Short sentences, but their conclusions are spot-on. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

What's Going On In This Picture?

Happy Monday, Frontier ESL fans! Mondays have special significance in our classroom--not only because it's the kickoff to another exciting week in English language learning, but also because we get to participate in a world wide academic conversation! How cool is that? Here's how it goes. Every Monday, the New York Times Learning Network publishes a weekly column called WGOITP, which--you guessed it--stands for What's Going On In This Picture? A photograph taken from recent current events is posted every Monday morning. Students are instructed to look closely at the picture for a few minutes and then think about the following three questions:
  •      What's going on in this picture?
  •      What do you see that makes you say that?
  •      What more can you find?
As a class, we first discuss what we see, using words in English we know or, if we don't yet know the vocabulary, using words in L1 (our primary language) to describe the details we observe. Then, we take these details and write our observations, using sentence frames and starters when we need to. When we have finished writing our descriptions and interpretations of the picture, we submit our writing to the NY Times Learning Network in the form of a comment. Other students, anywhere in the world, post their comments as well, to which we can respond. It's a neat little routine we've got going on here, one that develops not only academic vocabulary but also how to establish ideas and back them up using evidence. Students also get practice in listening to the views of others and discussing many possible interpretations of an image.

Feel free to add to the conversation! You can see what we're looking at (and read our writing, too) by going to We identify ourselves only as "Frontier ESL" in the comments section. On Tuesdays, the Times reveals more information about the WGOITP images so that students can check their inferences and predictions by reading the original caption and learning the image's true back story.

Can you guess what we're doing at the beginning of class tomorrow? Feel free to join us online!

Mrs. Blair

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Three Cheers For Frontier ESL!

Hip hip HOORAY!!! Frontier Regional School's ESL (English as a Second Language) program has officially joined the blogosphere! What's the blogosphere, you ask? Well, let's just say that this brand new blog represents the latest effort to expand and broaden learning opportunities for Frontier EL's (English learners), their families, and the wide world beyond. Although blogging has been around for the better part of the last two decades or so, blogging as a learning tool has seen recent growth in popularity, particularly for EL's. Not only is blogging a platform for communication and reflection, it's also a great way to engage students and encourage them to become more active in their own learning. For EL's, student blogging provides:

  • opportunities for reflection by students and their teacher,
  • a wider audience for student writing,
  • a way to empower the student's voice,
  • a supportive learning community,
  • a place for feedback for student writing,
  • a platform for recognition of students' academic efforts
For families of EL's, blogging increases transparency between home and school, as well as an easy way to engage parents in the learning process. This blog will function primarily as a home/school connection, featuring the headlines and happenings in our ESL classroom, plus tips and ideas for supporting English language learning at home. Comments welcome; dialogue desired! Granted, the ESL program is small here at Frontier, with just two students currently comprising the class roster. This can--and likely will--change at any given time, however, and Frontier's ESL program will always be ready and eager to meet the needs of new learners. Every student matters here. Check back often for news and updates!

Yours in learning,

Mrs. Blair
Frontier ESL Teacher