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Friday, September 10, 2010

Effective ELL Science Intervention

My son read this article and said I was ahead of my time yet again. Fifteen years ago, I spent an important chunk of my career as the middle school science teacher in an international school whose students were 49% ELL. Although none, not one of the ELLs, spoke Spanish, they spoke many other languages, mostly East Asian languages. I quickly realized the old, time-tested sequence of “read the textbook, do a few labs, test the material” would not work. I created several interventions, all of which leveraged the native speaking skills of peers.

First, I started every unit with a series of labs, an intervention similar to having "students initially observe the process of osmosis with a tea bag and water" as the opener to a lesson about osmosis. Each lab team consisted of one native speaker and one ELL. The effect was that students gained experiential understanding of new vocabulary or schema before they encountered the vocabulary in printed form. Schema is the set of experience that informs comprehension. It is the frame of reference. For example, I would venture to guess that if you do not possess the schema of engineer, this sentence is gobbledygook, "A duct-less split can produce the exact amount of energy needed to temper an envelope.”* Developing schema is crucial to first language acquisition and just as important in second language acquisition.

Second, I adapted a primary school literacy program for use in my science class. The program came from Johns Hopkins University with the acronym CIRC (Cooperative Integrated Reading and Composition). I used my science text as a "basal reader" to create "Treasure Hunts" and other CIRC-based materials. Every student, even the native speakers, used these materials.

(The original design of CIRC provided templates for teachers to adapt their own school-adopted texts. It was later found that teachers lacked the will or the ability to create their own adaptations, so CIRC was reincarnated as the now-famous Success For All program. Today, teachers complain about expensive, scripted curriculum, but they did not take advantage of inexpensive, non-scripted curriculum when they had the chance. The creators of CIRC had no original intention of usurping teacher autonomy).

Third, I had students read their text aloud in class CIRC-style. Each lab team sat with their chairs next to each other and facing opposite directions so that the right ear of one student was close to the right ear of the partner. Each native speaker read one paragraph to their ELL partner, and then the ELL student read the same paragraph to their native speaking partner. The native speaking partner would supply words or correct pronunciation as needed. The team then repeated the process with the second and subsequent paragraphs. Thus, no student was a passive listener. At any moment, half of the students were reading aloud, and half were actively listening, either as ELLs preparing to read the same paragraph, or as native-speakers assisting their ELL partners.

Researchers say that the most valuable education research comes from teachers testing strategies in their own classrooms and reflecting on the results. However, when teachers report their own classroom research, it is often denigrated as being merely anecdotal or lacking sufficient sample size. Whatever. I am going to go ahead and report my results.

I gave the same unit tests to all students, native speakers and ELL students alike. Every single ELL student passed the tests, sometimes exceeding their own expectations. Even more remarkable, the native speakers' achievement skyrocketed. I was appalled to find that in the past I had denied native speaking students such high levels of achievement. The interventions worked so well with the first unit that they became my standard operating procedure ever after.

* Example from Marilee Sprenger, "Teaching the Critical Vocabulary of the Common Core"

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