The New Haven school system has produced guidelines for the first six weeks of school and what teachers must cover. As the year progresses, teachers are trained in several writing programs--all designed ultimately to teach third grade children to do narrative writing as required on the CMT and thus achieve higher scores. As previously mentioned, it is unrealistic to expect these students to advance at the same rate as mainstreamed native speakers. Can a child who reads at first grade level be expected to sit for forty minutes and produce a coherent, organized composition? The standard writing program supposes that ESL students have reached a particular skill level that few have reached.
The truth is in the research which clearly indicates that “...writers will transfer writing abilities and strategies, whether good or deficient, from their first language to their second language.” (Friedlander, p. 109) Since writing is the last skill to be mastered and since reading comprehension and the strategies that good readers use in order to be successful precede writing ability, I was faced with the task of getting students who lack basic vocabulary to write. This is frustrating and exhausting for children and teacher. One student acted out each time we worked on a writing prompt until I told him to write whatever he could, using Spanish if need be. After that he settled down and as the year progressed, made more of an effort.
Although I “tested” these ideas throughout the school year, they are better used during the first six to eight weeks of school to get students writing. This is especially important in an ESL classroom where children are not only learning to read and write; they are learning to speak. It is a classroom where the strategies used by Special Education teachers are the very same strategies that work with children learning English as a second language. That is, writing directions down; making sure through repetition that instructions are understood; simplifying or “sheltering” the language; slowing the pace for some children; and doing examples on charts and the overhead projector.
It can not be emphasized strongly enough that every aspect of writing must be modeled again and again. These children may not be accustomed to writing in a journal. They have no idea what it means to write a scene or a description. They need to have superior writing as well as examples of dull writing at hand. They need to be allowed to express their opinions about what makes a story interesting and readable so this is where examples of superior children’s literature and the guided reading program are extremely helpful. These may all be aspects of teaching that a more experienced teacher takes for granted.
There is something less tangible at work here too. Donald Freeman, a well-known ESL researcher and longtime teacher believes that teachers “...have to know the story in order to tell the story.” He gives an example of a teacher reprimanding a student who has acted up; the teacher realizes that the student has just returned from gym class and is still overly-energetic. Freeman explains that this knowledge goes beyond knowing how to teach subjects in the classroom. “...it involves a cognitive dimension that links thought with activity centering on the context-embedded, interpretive process of knowing what to do.” (“Redefining Research,” p.99) Freeman clearly understands that teaching involves more than knowing what to do, following a lesson plan. Teaching is a complicated process where personalities blend and clash. I call it being able to bond with your students.
This is never more true than in an urban bilingual environment. Over the course of a year, the teacher gets to know the personalities of the children better and better. Many children have few boundaries at home; it may be a home where the child sleeps four to a room; it may also be a home where drug use is evident or where a parent is absent. Such children are seldom independent workers in the classroom. This lack of independence is why, in a beginning writing program, it’s important to proceed slowly, modeling and repeating. It is useful to give children a sentence they may copy and a starter word or phrase they can use. This is a controlled writing lesson. However tentatively, it leaves the children feeling they can write.
It is important to emphasize a whole language approach, since literacy includes reading and writing. Ideally, writing is tied into literature, that is, children are exposed to books that provide them with background knowledge to help them in their writing. This literature would include science and social studies books; this is the body of literature--an all-inclusive body of literature--from which teachers may choose. This is an important factor since research on non-native speakers (Rigg, “Whole Language in TESOL,” p. 71) “...confirmed that these readers’ backgrounds strongly affect the meaning constructed from the page.” And although it is more meaningful for students to write about something they understand and choose to write about, the reality is that bilingual students entering the third grade must be led slowly through the verbal response process and ultimately through the writing process. As they begin to improve in their reading, the writing ability will follow.
Stephen Krashen’s well-known theory of input for language learners supposes that “we acquire (not learn) language by understanding input that is a little beyond our current level of (acquired) competence.” (
The Natural Approach
, p. 32) Krashen feels that both reading and listening are essential ingredients in a language program and that “...the ability to speak (or write) fluently in a second language will come on its own with time.” (p. 32) It is therefore important for the teacher to use visual aids and anything that adds that element of “extra-linguistic content,” according to Krashen. In addition, teachers can use a sheltered or simplified approach in talking with the children, in an effort to aid them in understanding much the way that caretakers simplify their speech. In fact, Krashen has named the special talk that goes on between child and adult caretaker
to distinguish it from talk between adults and to emphasize what he calls the “here and now” aspect of it.
Given Krashen’s theory outlined above, it is easy to understand how teachers can become frustrated with the demands made on us to follow a curriculum that is designed for regular education or native English speakers, and to be required to review material for the Connecticut Mastery Test, a test given to fourth graders early in the year. Nevertheless this is the reality of the job and it is why I have decided to design a six-week program for the beginning of the year.
The idea of reviewing fourth grade material with children who write at a kindergarten and first grade level is almost mind-boggling. As a coping mechanism, I have seen young learners sail through the material ticking off answers in an almost random fashion.
There is a term for what I call an internal coping mechanism: Krashen calls it the affective filter--an attitudinal factor that can determine how quickly a learner acquires the second language. (
The Natural Approach,
p. 37) Students with a high filter tend to learn more slowly; they have fears that affect their ability to pick up and use English. It follows that students who are forced to plod through long texts containing vocabulary and structure that is very difficult for them will respond poorly, effectively closing down. I have found that my students have an extremely short attention span for the required CMT reviews. I eased the way by going very slowly, discussing each aspect of a subject and determining their knowledge of it through questioning. A text on sharks, for example, held more interest for them than a text on dust storms. This is not surprising.