Marathon EL Instruction Blog 11-19-21
During a recent visit to the Marathon Elementary School, accompanied by principal Lauren Dubeau, I popped into an English learner “EL” classroom. In a small and cozy space, designed for pull-out English-for-Speakers-of-Other Languages or “ESOL” instruction, an English learner educator sat with four Marathon first-grade students. These four children all speak different languages. There are 127 ELs enrolled in kindergarten and grade one at Marathon.
People perhaps wonder why it is that very young children who are learning phonics need English learner instruction when they are getting incredible literacy instruction in their regular classroom. Consider this: Phonics asks children to turn letters into sounds and then make meaning of the words constructed from those sounds. Native speakers of English typically know the words they’re “sounding out”: BAT, MAT, CHAT... But, consider what happens when children are not native speakers and we ask them to sound out words. They are pronouncing words without meaning. (When Urdu, for example, is your primary language, what the heck is a “bat” or a “mat” or a “chat,” right?) Teaching students to read words they don’t know only reinforces the idea that reading is simply pronouncing sounds, as opposed to turning sounds into words and then words into meaning.
What I encountered last week might help people understand what English learner educators do. This particular teacher had the children cutting strips of colored paper and gluing those strips onto a paper plate. These backgrounds made a blank-face monster-like character, on which the children would create a face. The faces they were making needed to express some emotion. The emotion could be anything: happy or grumpy or excited or...you name it.
Certainly, a lot of skills were being built in this classroom. First, teaching children about their emotions helps them to grow emotionally strong. Children need to be able to identify, understand, and describe their emotions so that they can confidently articulate their feelings when they need to do so, and let’s acknowledge that all people need to do that throughout their lives. Consider how many times young children are afraid or unable to share what they’re feeling. That’s not OK. Consider how many adults don’t articulate their feelings well. Hmmm. That’s another blog entirely. ;-)
Second, these kids were using scissors and glue sticks. The use of these tools helps support the development of fine motor skills. One little girl had to ask her peer to help her take the cover off the glue stick, thus using language that supports the building of social skills. Then, kids had to wait to use the glue stick, as they were required to share, thereby practicing turn-taking.
Most importantly, however, in this safe space specifically devoted to English learners, these children could practice using social and academic language, and expressive and interpretive language in a small group, where in a regular, larger classroom they might not have the same opportunity or the same safe space to “try on” language. They were learning to name and describe emotions as well as colors: red, orange, green, blue; to ask for the scissors or to ask for help; to engage in polite discourse--”please” and “thank you.” This kind of small-setting instruction accelerates English language development by helping English learners make the connection between what they know in their first language--colors, emotions, polite language--and what they need to know as first-grade students at the Marathon Elementary School.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education anticipates that students will stay in English learner education (ELE) programs no longer than six years. Most Hopkinton students average two to four years in our ELE program. Why? Because our curriculum, instruction, and commitment to Hopkinton’s ELs is second to none. Marathon’s commitment to English language instruction is the foundation for our students that allows them to test out of our ELE program and thereby access the curriculum in English without support as they advance through our schools.
Prior to our leaving the English learner classroom at Marathon last week, Mrs. Dubeau wrestled with a glue stick while I asked a little guy, “Why did you choose a happy face?” He told me, “This is a silly face.” OK then. Pardon me. Thanking the teacher and the kids for their hard work, I put on my sheepish face, gave Mrs. Dubeau the “Are-we-ready-to-go?” look, and left the very capable and wonderfully engaged children and their teacher to their work.