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