To Be or Not To Be

June 15th, 2010

Holding Hands

Originally uploaded by WolfS?ul

Recently I have been observing a number of K-5 teachers of English language learners doing their practicum in order to get their ELL Endorsement. Part of the Endorsement requirement for ELL is that the instructor is required to demonstrate a respect for each child’s culture. In a bilingual classroom, in which most language learners are Spanish-speaking, there are various, more-or-less obvious ways to support a child’s culture: relevant texts, classroom decorations, films, and whatever creativity an individual teacher may show.

Of course, most classrooms contain mixed students and so culture awareness is more of a challenge. Nevertheless, it is imperative that teachers try to instill cultural pride in each student by finding available materials, studying the customs of a country and making each child feel unique, important, and proud This is a job for the schools and the families because greater society works against cultural pride, and therefore humanity, one of two ways.

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A Great Surprise – Going on a WAL Activity – On My Own?

June 15th, 2009

Welcome to Poulsbo

Photo Credit: Debbie Chan

Recently, I was going to go to Bainbridge Island with a small group of WAL students as a Saturday activity.  But, due to some unforeseen reasons, my expectations were wrong.  The activity did not draw as many students as I thought it would, and the lone student who wanted to come, cancelled at the last moment.

So there I was…. at our usual WAL meeting spot at a Starbucks store in Pioneer Square, but with no students and no where to go!  What was I to do? Just go home, or go shopping in downtown Seattle to enjoy my free afternoon?  Nope, I thought. I decided that I STILL wanted to go to Bainbridge Island  – even if I went alone.

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June 1st, 2009


Originally uploaded by MikeJonesPhoto

In my previous blog I discussed the legal background of the case before the United States Supreme Court. Nogales, Arizona borders Mexico. Its school district is mostly Latino students who speak Spanish at home, with neighbors, and in the playground at school. They attempt speaking English in class only when class is in session. The plaintiffs argue that the state and district are in violation of the federal law specifying that students must understand the language of instruction or they are not receiving an equal education with native speakers. The Defense is arguing they have improved and are doing much more than they did a few years ago to help the Spanish speakers. One complaint that the plaintiffs make is that the district has not supplied any trained teachers with a clear curriculum to address the needs of their non-English speaking population.

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English Language Learners and the Law

May 25th, 2009


Originally uploaded by MikeJonesPhoto

On April 20, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court began to hear arguments in a case testing what states might do to comply with the federal law requiring state public schools to teach children to speak English. What is the law and how does it work? The major court decision was Lau v. Nichols. That case began in 1970 when a San Francisco poverty lawyer learned a client’s child was failing because he could not understand the language of instruction. The lawyer filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of Kenny Lau and 1,789 Chinese-background students that he found in the same predicament. The lawyer’s claim was “that these children were being denied education on equal terms.” The lawyer intentionally used the same language as the famous 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which upset the separate-but-equal Jim Crowe Laws. The San Francisco Federal court ruled that there was no disparate treatment and the School District was not to blame that the children only spoke Chinese. Unlike the Brown case, the State does not cause children to start school speaking Chinese. In the Brown case, the State forced children to be segregated.

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Second Language Learning and Software

May 11th, 2009

Old computers

Originally uploaded by eurleif

I am often asked about learning a language through software. What are the strengths and perhaps shortcomings of learning with the aid of modern technology? Some learners prefer the dynamics of a live classroom where interacting with teacher and classmates is integral to their learning. Some learners prefer the convenience of studying at a time of their choosing and being able to control their own rate of learning. It seems to me that approaching a discussion in terms of individual value and preferences is one way to proceed and the end of such a discussion will sound much like the beginning of it. In other words, attempting to deal with the question in terms of individual preferences doesn’t really address the question I posed.

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Testing Reading

April 27th, 2009

creative reading

Originally uploaded by panta rhei.

On the one hand testing for reading seems easy. Take a passage, ask a few questions about it, and you have a test. On the other hand the test may not test what you want tested. A problem for a reading tester is to produce behavior that can somehow be measured. When people write and speak we see and hear but nothing overt happens when people are reading silently. So, for reading, what behaviors can be measured?

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Super Surprises at WAL Make for Great Connections!

April 20th, 2009

Fortune Hunters DVD cover

Wow! I’m glad to say that our on-going student activity, called “Super Surprise Thursdays,” has really been new, fun, and different lately! What a great benefit to our WAL students, and for the guests that have come and graced the halls of WAL!

First of all, in March, we hosted Thom Harp, the director and co-writer of the upcoming feature film, Fortune Hunters (here’s a shameless plug by me:

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April 13th, 2009

Baseball is Back!

Originally uploaded by WisDoc

Sometimes a second-language teacher gets so caught up in the question “What is reading?” the person forgets that the sentence “I read it but I don’t understand it” is not only correct but said all too often by native speakers. Anyone whoever signed divorce papers, a rental agreement, or bought a used car may have used the phrase about a document. But why start from the question, “What is reading?” Let us inquire from a different direction.

Consider the following two writing samples with accompanying questions:

1. A snapling teetered the roset to the doblet. The doblet beshmekled the roset. The crackomet was wundergant.

a. What did the snapling do?
b. What did the doblet do?
c. What was the crackomet?

You can certainly answer these questions. How is your reading comprehension?

2. A shortstop threw the ball to the second baseman. The second baseman dropped the ball. The runner was safe.

a. What are they playing?
b. What does the second baseman have to do to get the runner out?
c. Why is it possible to have an argument on this play?

You may not be able to answer these questions unless you know something about baseball and perhaps the larger context of the story.

At least one thing is very clear: If I transformed question 1.a. to read “What did the shortstop do?” I would not be asking a reading comprehension question because just as I can say “The snapling teetered the roset to the doblet,” I can also answer “The shortstop threw the ball to the second baseman.” So I may be testing eyesight or the ability to manipulate symbols, but I am certainly not testing reading comprehension. Sadly, many people who make up standardized reading tests believe that it is a comprehension question. That is an issue for another day.

From the little example we can, as second language instructors or learners, conclude a few factors about a fairly decent native language reader.

A. She picks out the most important points of the piece fairly easily if she has some background knowledge.
B. She predicts what is going to be read on the basis of syntactic and semantic information.
C. She can make predictions and test them.

Let us assume that our second language learner is a beginner and cannot begin to satisfy characteristic A. because she doesn’t know the sound of some letters or how to pronounce them. We have to keep in mind that our goal is to have a reader who can satisfy qualities A., B. and C. Each quality takes multiple steps. So at the moment we have a student in front of us who has limitations as she does not know all the sounds, but we may not wish to entirely separate those sounds from a context or we may never advance our student from quality A. all the way to quality C. What could a teacher possibly do? I have tried the following type of an example which still allows me to keep my eyes on the prize.

Consider the sentence, “A tan toy is on top of the table. It is taking too much space.”
At the beginning I can make use of sight and sound recognition. I read the word “tan” and focus in on the letter (and sound) of “t.” We work on this a little and then I ask the student if he recognizes other words which begin with “t.” We arrive at “tan,” “toy,” “top,” “table,” “taking,” and “too.” These are also fairly common sight words and I have put them in a context which I can use realia to demonstrate. In other words I am attempting to utilize a variety of material at my disposal to integrate and engage the prospective reader with the material to be read. There are many ways to success as long as a teacher realizes that reading is an ongoing process and the instructor doesn’t lose sight of where he/she wishes to help create a competent, independent, reader.

– Dr. Paul Schneider, Director of Teacher Education Programs, WAL

Emotions and Grammar

March 30th, 2009

Brown bear

Originally uploaded by madbronny52

Once upon a time I was a philosopher. That time was even before electric typewriters, let alone cell phones and computers. One area of interest of mine was human emotions. Like others, I took my lead from William James who once asked “What is an emotion?” I will use James’s most famous example and I paraphrase, of course. It is natural for us to say we see a bear, fear it, and run. James said, to the contrary, that we see a bear and run, consequently we fear the bear. We run because we notice we are in danger and we are afraid of what will happen if we don’t.

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Teaching Speaking to Second Language Learners

March 23rd, 2009


Originally uploaded by Johannes de Jong_

Recently, I have been interviewing several ESL teachers and teacher trainers and I find I had to rethink a few matters with regard to teaching oral language. Since the 80s it has been politically correct to describe oneself as a ‘communicative teacher’ during job interviews. Every ESL teacher knows that. The communicative approach states that tasks should provide the learners language to use in order to communicate meanings without focusing on accuracy. In other words, fluency is encouraged as fluency leads to creativity and the independence of a language learner. A central issue with this approach comes from asking the question: How can accuracy and fluency come together? Any answer to that question involves the instructor deciding on a range of discourse skills taught to a particular audience. For example first graders who are playground-fluent in language may need a discourse emphasis on accuracy in an academic context relevant to their maturity level. Adults may need more discourse tasks having to do with fluency and integrating such skills into what they have learned in grammatical drilling (if that is the way that they had learned a little English abroad).

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