Thursday, February 23, 2023

Supporting the New-to-Language Kids: Differentiation in Action

Something that comes up a lot for teachers who have been using an acquisition driven, comprehension based approach is this: what do I do when I have a student who has little to no language in a class of students who have had a year or more of comprehension-based instruction, and have a lot of language under their belts?

We have to accommodate them.

Now, I want to be clear: accommodating them is my job. It’s hard. And to some degree, a little unfair for them- I mean, who wants to be the person with a kindergarten reading level in a 6th grade class? (Which is a close equivalent.)

As a teacher, it’s reasonable to differentiate about 3 sub-levels; like Novice Mid, Novice High, Intermediate Low.

It is a big ask to do 4 or more levels in one class. And in 2022-23, it's totally normal.
So in this sub job that I went to in Fall of 2022, students were put in language class without regard to their level. They were just lumped in.

Which meant that students with 0 language were put in a class with students who had at least a year (or more if they were in 8th grade!) of solid comprehension based instruction. And just to add some more challenge, I wasn't told which of the students were completely new.

It was REALLY hard! For them and for me. 

However, there are some things that I did that are a) good practice, and b) allowed them to successfully read an ENTIRE page of text at the end of our time together. And frankly, I’m really proud of these interventions. 

So what did I do? What were my teacher moves and strategies? How did I think ahead to start to address this situation? 

WHOLE CLASS: Establishing Meaning

What this means is that I told kids what words meant. This looked mostly like me putting the most important words on the board in the target language and in our shared language.
Was it possible to put every word I was going to use on the board? No.
It was possible for me to put the most important words up, and with the support of the question words, cognates, and adding words as needed, I was able to keep our conversations pretty “sheltered”.

But wait! What about the recommendation from ACTFL that says that 90% of the language in class should be in the target language? By telling kids what things mean, aren't I depriving them of "productive struggle"? 

First, ACTFL's recommendation is just that: a recommendation. It's not the law. There are no ACTFL police that are going to come around and fine me. 

While it is absolutely true that I want my students to be hearing (and reading, and interacting in) the target language a whole lot, if I am just speaking in the target language and they are not understanding, they aren't going to acquire anything. And frankly, using a shared language to link meaning is the simplest, most efficient way to make sure that students are able to comprehend the target language. Efficiency is important when we have limited hours of contact. You can read more of my opinion about this here: 90% Target Language.

"Productive struggle" is one thinly veiled way to make sure that some kids succeed and some don't. It's also a concept from traditional education contexts that just doesn't apply in a language classroom. If the goal is for students to acquire language, intentionally making things difficult for them to understand (or making it such that only a select few, or a certain kind of learner can understand) is both elitist and a waste of time. It also leads to the belief that only certain people are good at learning languages, minimal enrollment in upper level classes, and eventually, program closure.   

WHOLE CLASS: Sheltering Vocabulary

When I say “sheltering”, I am referring to the skill of “shelter vocabulary, not grammar.” I was focused on sheltering vocabulary- or as Martina Bex puts it: “protecting students from the words they don’t know and the negative emotions that come from not knowing them.” (And for what it’s worth, this is one of the most challenging skills for a teacher to develop.)
I planned ahead as much as possible and pre-wrote words and their meaning on the board as well - which in turn helped me remember what words to use- it helped me shelter better. It meant that I had a reminder in front of me about which words to use (and if it wasn't on the board, I should really try to not use it!)

WHOLE CLASS: Pause, Point, Slow

I worked really, really hard to speak slowly and point to the meaning of words as I said them. Of course, they had to be looking at where I was pointing, and paying attention to the English meaning. That was tough- but I'll deal with that in a minute.

WHOLE CLASS: Glossing everything

Glossing means adding the meaning of words- like a glossary. If I gave the students a reading, I put the core vocabulary on the top with meaning, and other words that I would not expect them to know as footnotes.

Reminders to myself

I had to constantly remind myself: I can not assume that they know anything. I certainly can not assume that they remember anything because I have no idea who was in class before. So thinking that they "should" know a word or meaning is just not fair. As John Bracey, a colleague and amazing Latin teacher reminds us: there are no "shoulds" in class.

This is such an important thing to remember- and one that I feel so deeply as I sit in my Chinese class and ask about the meaning of the same word...every. single. week. (OK, I ask for one word like 3 weeks in a row, then I ask about a new one.) If my teacher made me feel ashamed for asking, I'd never show up again. 

What it looked like:

Here's an example: I knew that we were going to be doing a ClipChat about a man, on a sofa, who opens and closes the door. On the board, I put up every word that I thought would be unknown- mostly it was verbs (opens, closes, walks, runs, there is, etc.). I tried to do this ahead of each class- this is why I love having a lot of whiteboard space.

Here's a picture of my white board:

Image of a whiteboard with Spanish words, underlined, and English meaning written in blue

For another story, using the EXACT same vocabulary, I made sure that all the words were on the board and on the copy of the text that they were going to read.

We did a gallery walk style reading, where they had to decide who said what based on the reading. Again, all the words were on the board. 

This is differentiation

I want to be clear: making sure that everyone is able to understand is differentiation. It is so easy to teach to the top tier of student- the motivated, the ones with tons of language, the ones that are engaged because they love it. But our job is to teach all the students, and this is the first step: making sure all students understand the target language input.

The Results

Was it perfect? Nope. Not at all. I was imperfect because I am not a mind reader, and I had no idea what they did and didn’t know, and who knew what, and so on. I was imperfect because it’s been since last May that I was in a classroom. I was imperfect because I am human!

It was messy too- because the students who had no prior language experience really struggled with believing that they could understand. They didn’t believe that I was pointing to the meaning of the words as I used them, and they didn’t believe that they were going to succeed. They arrived tuned out, turned off, and disconnected. 

And slowly, they started to come around. The magic really began to happen in 7th grade, when I started using an early unit from Somos. The thing about Somos is that it is structured in such a way that students get a lot of repeated exposure to the same vocabulary and it is written so that it is very easy to shelter vocabulary for the teacher. (Read about my relationship with Somos here.) 

The students really responded to the structure of the unit plan, but more importantly, we were keeping the language really focused on just a few key terms. 

INDEPENDENT WORK: Individual interventions and Small Groups

Any time I had students doing independent or partner work (reading a story, responding to questions about that story, etc.), I tried to either modify the task for the newer students or pulled them in a small group to work with them separately, or both. (Of course, it took a few days for me to figure out who was brand new.)

Sometimes this looked like having them just read the first paragraph with me and translating it. Or just reading highlighted sentences (that I highlighted as they sat down to work- no prep.) Another option was to not answer all the comprehension questions, or not complete the entire task. Remember: all students need not be doing the exact same thing. This is differentiation!

I also had them working together in a homogenous (same level) group so I could work with them and the other students could work independently. 

In 8th grade, I had one student new to language, and she sat with me and read some stories from the very first units of Somos (that I happened to have from previous classes). She translated them or drew them while everyone else was working on a more appropriately leveled activity. 

When we did Quick Draw, a partner activity that I did want her to participate in, I had already created two versions of a text (one in present tense, one in past tense). I put her in a homogenous group and modified the task: I invited that group to play with just 5 of the 10 sentences from the present tense, familiar version. (Read more about quick draw, from AnneMarie Chase, here.)

In another class, I had my 7th graders do a fun variation on a volleyball reading: one I first saw demonstrated by Craig Sheehy of TPRS Books. Note: this was a text that they had listened and read along with me already- it was familiar. 

In this activity, I arranged chairs to be in the formation of a small airplane, 2 by 2. Students were seated with a partner and had to do a volleyball reading: one person read the target language sentence, then the other translated it, and then read the next target language sentence. Then the first partner translated that one. Read more about volleyball translation here from The Comprehensible Classroom (Martina Bex). 

The twist is this: I put up a map of different countries, put on my best flight attendant voice, and every few minutes, announced that we would be landing in a different destination, and the first 2 or 3 people in first class (either on the left or right) had to move to economy. Everyone else moved up. I alternated what side of the "plane" had to move so students would get different partners. They had to go back to the earliest part of the text of either partner, even if one of them had already read that section. 

Image: students sit with their backs to the camera in rows of 2, reading out loud

SUCCESS: Two out of the 3 new-to-Spanish students were able to read and translate the ENTIRE page with their partners.

Note: Only 2 of the 3 did it. I had not managed to convince the 3rd kiddo that I was there to help them succeed. But that’s not too bad for 3 (shortened) weeks of instruction! 

What would I do next?

In practical terms, moving forward, I would plan on giving the new students nearly the same assessments, but I would discuss a few different options for reporting their assessments with them and their caregivers.

One option would be that they would take the assessment but I would not report their scores for the first trimester or 2. Since my grades are standards-based, this is something that has worked for me before, with admin and caregiver approval. 

I hope this helps you get some ideas about what to do with different levels, new students, etc.! 

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