This unit is intended to be used with bilingual or ELL students in the lower elementary grades. My first grade bilingual class at John S. Martinez is composed of students from first-generation immigrant families from Spanish-speaking countries. At this time in their development, they may have varying levels of oral proficiency in Spanish, but are struggling to communicate in English, their second language. Many sit silently through class, trying to make meaning whenever possible. Many make attempts at communication, stringing together nouns and verbs perhaps conjugated incorrectly. The majority of students are able at most to communicate through simple sentences without much elaboration. It is my job to provide a rich language experience where students can build vocabulary and model proper grammar, while also engaging my students in a judgment-free environment where everyone's voice is heard and valued.
Part of my job is to respect that many of my students, being new to English, just need to listen for a while. The title of my curriculum unit refers to stages in second language acquisition, which range from a silent stage to a fully advanced fluent stage. The first stage is called "pre-production" or "the silent stage," in which students may have up to 500 words in their receptive vocabulary but tend to "parrot" what others say rather than producing their own speech. The second is called "early production," during which students begin to speak in short phrases. This stage is followed by "speech emergence," "intermediate fluency," and "advanced fluency," which can take up to 10 years to develop. During the earlier of these phases, students greatly benefit from the repetition and rhythm of songs and poems to help them learn the structures of English language. Once students have progressed to the more advanced of these stages, they are ready to make sense of the systematic sounds and structure of the language which can allow them to learn to read and write in conventional English.
In Connecticut, students identified bilingual upon entering school in kindergarten are administered the LAS Links test for English proficiency each year. According to the Connecticut RESC Alliance documents I received at a training on differentiating for English Language Learners, students scoring at the lowest levels on the LAS Links test understand very little English, may not talk at all, and are beginning to speak in one or two word phrases. As they become more familiar with the language, they can begin to understand most conversational English vocabulary, but not necessarily academic vocabulary, and speak in simple sentences with some incorrect grammar usage. The Alliance suggests that students in the lower stages be taught explicit phonemic awareness, phonic rules and skills, provided shortened text and provided materials with patterned sentence structure. Songs and poems, being rhythmic and repetitive, provide students with some of the very first language structures to hold onto and should be used often to give students the opportunity to feel comfortable and confident in their language production. As students become familiar with the materials, the teacher can begin to point out and later focus on the phonics, phonemic patterns, and print skills found in many poems. I would suggest for the purpose of this unit that the teacher not choose to use poems with unconventional grammar or punctuation, as these concepts can be brought in after the students have developed an understanding of these systems.
Teachers of English Language Learners know that the best, and most fun, way to promote language development is through song. Songs are easy to learn and remember, and when words are set to music, students instinctively pick up the rhythm and melody of the song. Since it is easy to teach students a song, songs act as a wonderful tool to use for early language and literacy skills. They help teach students' basic pre-literacy skills such as phonemic awareness through rhyming, phrasing, and 1 to 1 correspondence of spoken words to print. They also provide opportunities for vocabulary development, and their repetitive nature allows for students to master and take ownership of them to further practice all of these skills independently. I use songs frequently throughout the year as mnemonics for students to remember the days of the week, months of the year, addition facts, and other basic information. Even as an adult I rely on some of the mnemonics that I learned in elementary school to recall these facts!
Poems are inherently fun for young students. Many teachers and researchers have found that students reluctant to read or write in narrative forms connect in a different way with poetry. Poetry and song also create a natural transition from young children's instinctive use of song and rhythmic language in their early development to the more structured and rigid language of prose literature. In fact, as noted by Northrop Frye,
"[T]he rhymes and jingles, the familiar verse children
, would make the best reading material for beginners. Frye (1970) wonders why elementary educators fail to capitalize on the young child's propensity for and delight in riddles, conundrums, tongue twisters, rhymes, and puns. Surely their oral lore, full of chanting and singing, is the perfect first reading material for them."
Poets work for a living to do what for many children comes naturally: string words together to create a sing-song rhythm, rhyming lines, and repetitive verses. While in many cases what they come up with is nonsense, young students are gathering their first language experiences in a meaningful and important way that creates a transition from spoken to written word. As teachers, we need to use students' background knowledge, or in this case their natural tendencies, to ease them into the written world that will make up the bulk of their schooling experience.
As I researched for this unit, I was amazed at the availability of well-written, quality children's poetry. I have often been discouraged by many of the poems used in published curricula, which in their emphasis on rhyming or sight words accessible to the earliest readers tend to leave out any real meaning. However, my discouragement quickly turned to excitement as I thought about how my students would react to these quirky, educational, and/or emotional poems and how they would integrate them into their schema of literacy and language. Some of the poets that I suggest for use in this unit are: Eloise Greenfield, Joyce Sidman, Jack Prelutsky, and Paul Fleischman. All of these poets write kid-friendly, highly relevant poems that communicate their messages through the use of fun, clever, and often silly sound techniques, which I will discuss in the following sections.