To preface this story, I need to remark that one of the areas of improvement listed on my school's Quality Review was the area of oral language. The reviewers noted that our students were not able to express themselves clearly or speak at length about a topic. With this in mind, my school has tried (not very successfully or systematically) to improve oral language and to target that area through classroom instruction.
Okay, so now here is the story:
Every April, my school offers a Title III after school program for ELLs. It is taught by Bilingual and ESL certified teachers from my school who are paid per session. This is my second year teaching the Title III after school program and it is by far one of my favorite things about springtime at my school. The reason I love Title III so much is because it is an enrichment program for our ELLs. It is a relaxed atmosphere for both the students and teachers. I feel that I get to know my students so much better during this brief time. It is really the only time that we are free to create our own curriculum and use some methods that don't usually jive with our current curriculum. This is where I get to put all of my TESOL training to work with a group of only 12 kids!
I structure the hour and a half sessions in a predictable way and post a schedule for the students so they know what we are doing. We start off with a "meeting." During our meeting, we usually talk about why we are in the Title III program (to learn more English and practice speaking it) and reinforce an atmosphere of safe risk-taking. The meeting followed by "poems and songs" which are part of a thematic-based ESL curriculum (Yes folks, thematic!), then we have "snack and conversation" at my big circle table, followed by a "project" (also from the thematic planning), and then "language experience," which I am really excited about because I am tape-recording a retelling of a wordless book, Follow Carl, and then typing out their language so they can edit what they said and we can essentially write original words to the story.
One of the routines during "snack and conversation" is to name our snack. It is amazing how little vocabulary our students have surrounding what they eat. On the first day of Title III, we all sat around a big circular table and had graham crackers and apple juice. The students could name the apple juice, but no one had any idea what the graham crackers were. We wrote it down on our snack chart and then described the flavor and the texture as sweet and a little bit crunchy. The students then began to eat in silence. This is when I invited the students to engage in a conversation. I asked them what they wanted to talk about. One student, Miguel, wanted to talk about his favorite food from the cafeteria. "Great idea" I said and I asked him to start the conversation. He eagerly said, "My favorite food from the cafeteria is..." long pause. "My favorite food from the cafeteria is... you know, the circle three" and he made a circle with his thumb and index finger to show the size. Many of the kids nodded and said "yeah, the circle three." They all seemed to know what they were talking about. "The circle three?" I asked, "Well, what does it taste like? Is it sweet, is it salty, is it sour?" Miguel thought for awhile and said, "It tastes like McDonald's." The other students nodded again, "Like McDonald's!" they repeated seeming happy with themselves. I thought for a bit about food that they eat that is circular and served in threes. "Oh," I said,"I think I know what you are talking about. You're talking about chicken nuggets." "YEAH!!" they shouted "Chicken nuggets!"
This conversation was so telling, so indicative of the way things work at my school and my students' lives. This is what happens when children are not spoken to outside of the academic arena. They lack basic vocabulary. Almost all of my ELLs were born in the U.S. and even went to PreK, Kindergarten, and now are at the end of First Grade, without being able to identify "chicken nuggets," something they eat at least twice a week. The kids are just given food in the cafeteria with no conversation surrounding what they are even eating. There is no lunch menu posted in the cafeteria and the workers do not even speak to the children. I just wish they would ask each child, "Do you want chicken nuggets or ravioli." Then, at least our students would be forced to communicate what they want and to give it a name.
What is so incredible about this story is that Miguel is a level E reader. Many of my ELLs are at that level or above (FINALLY!!!), but through our conversations, I can clearly that one of the reasons that they are not benchmarking (they should be at level G at this point in the year), is because of their oral language, and it is not just their English language that is preventing them from moving ahead. As many of you know, my students receive instruction in both their native language (Spanish) and in English. They also lack the vocabulary in Spanish. I am actually amazed that a student with such limited vocabulary has been able to reach level E.
So, what to do? Well, I am so thankful to have the opportunity to teach Title III. I think it is so great for my students and for me too! I find that so many of my typically silent students finally speak up. There are two students in my group who I can honestly say that I didn't know what their voices even sounded like until this experience. I mean, yes I had heard their voices before, but not their way of expression or natural conversation. I even had a student who I had previously thought was very limited in all academic areas, crack a joke about not having teeth (she, like many others, had lost all of her front teeth), showing a much more cognitively sophisticated side of herself. I just wish that this program could go all year. Imagine the possibilities of our students receiving enrichment through oral language instead of the substandard SES programs (like Princeton or Kaplan, where corporations get rich off of poor kids) that they get.