Supporting English Learner Literacy

By on April 30, 2012

Dance has always been a huge part of my life. While I was growing up, I spent many hours learning tap, ballet, jazz and hip-hop. I will never forget how I felt when my dance instructor, Diane promoted me to the advanced class. I was the only 3rd grader at the time to be promoted to dance in the same class as the junior high girls. I was intimidated, and I think my fears and lack of experience caused me to doubt my abilities. Diane taught me a very valuable lesson; she was adamant about erasing the word "can't" from my vocabulary. Every time she would challenge me by teaching a more difficult step or complex routine, I would become flustered and exclaim "I can't!" She was always patient, always consistent as she would say, "Never say you can't do something!" And she would redirect my attention to support me in how to learn the steps. We would learn 8 counts at a time...practice...practice...learn 8 more counts...go back to the beginning practice...practice...practice. We were always adding new steps by revisiting the old ones. Diane always believed in our capabilities and never let us fail. She never allowed us to take the easy way out, quit, or say “can’t.” Because of her, I don't allow my students to take the easy way out, quit, or say “can’t,” and with patience and consistency, I redirect their attention to finding ways they can.

I know this sounds idealistic and some students are really challenging to work with. However, educators have the intellect and power to solve problems, so we shouldn't become defeated and say that we can't help all students learn. Diane would be proud to hear me say that to you. My students are high school level English learners, and some of my students know very little English. I look to strategies to help them read and write although they are feeling intimidated with their fears and lack of experience. Instead of thinking reading is too difficult for them or they are not ready to try higher level texts, I use "Scan for Vocabulary" which is a strategy that allows my students to access the text. Just as Diane stayed with us to support our learning, I stay with them to help them find their translations and synonyms. Sometimes the words in the text are idioms or spark connotations which need the cultural background explained or the students will miss the meaning. The students need me to support their practice as they learn to rehearse and move to higher levels of reading. We read the text multiple times for multiple purposes. Most first-time reads are messy and awkward, like learning a new step; I don't treat all reading as the final performance. Literacy strategies are the solution to the difficult work we need to do with our students, so that we can stop fixating on the things they can’t do, and start moving toward what they can do.

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Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
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