Using no opt-out and its limitations with ELLs (and others)


Doug Lemov’s book, Teach Like a Champion, seems to be the hottest thing in teaching since the risograph. Some of the strategies can be problematic with EL students. The “no-opt out” strategy, in particular, is problematic with ELLs. “No opt-out” is essentially not allowing the student to give a non-response to a question you pose to them in front of the class. In other words, if you ask, “What did we just learn?” They can’t say, “I dunno?”

We had a good training the other day that was about some ways to adjust the getting oral responses from students in cultural groups where responding orally in front of the whole class is difficult. I got some good ideas there,  I have some of my own that I’ve used over the years. All of them still do not allow an opt-out, but give students a way to respond that is more culturally/personality congruent. Here they are:

  1. Have the student write their response on a post-it or note paper they have on their desk. This is suitable for higher level students who are just shy about talking in groups. You will still need to have them do oral language development, but start with low/no risk situations like podcasting/Voice Threads that they can do privately and correct.
  2. Have them whisper the answer to another student who will say it for them. This is suitable for students who are shy, but know the answer. You can also do the opposite with non-shy kids who have a hard time with the question by allowing them to “get the answer” from a peer, and say it. This is suitable at all levels, and not just for ELLs, but also for special education students.
  3. Give them a “dichotomy”, which is a fancy way of saying, word the question so they can give a yes or no answer. This is best for primary students at a very low level. This is also a good one to use with students with language development issues (ASD, etc.).

There are caveats. You should not be doing these forever, and when kids are up at Intermediate/Advanced, they really do need to be developing the skills to respond orally in class. You are better off starting with low-risk activities, like one-on-one interviews, so they can build confidence with those students. Other caveats, some African American kids are shy too. Not every black boy is a budding Chris Tucker. Attributions of loquacity and verbal fluency to a culture are ALWAYS generalizations, and there will be exceptions (I also have some real Hmong chatter-boxes, go figure). If they are special education students, whatever their race or culture, they will have issues about responding, and you will need to build that same safety net that ELLs need for them to participate.

Do you have any suggestions to add to this list? I’d love to hear them, and so would readers.

Reflections on Fall CUE in Napa, California


Pic looking out library/reg/recpeption area window at #FallCUE
Overall, I really like this conference. It was only a one hour drive. I stayed overnight and brought the family, and had fun going out with them the next day. One day is a nice length, but there was enough time to socialize too. I hear that CUE will return next year. If so, I’m signing up now!

My Preso with Larry Ferlazzo on Web 2.0 for ELD

Overall this session went very well from my point of view. The participants were engaged. Even though the conference had a lot of first time attendees, there were plenty of laptops open during the session. It was one of the few ELD sessions, and the only one titled specifically for ELD and ELLs. There is a big demand for workshops on that subject. The attendance was about the same as other sessions I was in, and larger than most at about 25-30. It was a whirlwind tour starting with why we use technology (basically, to solidify the face-to-face relationships that are necessary to help language learners and all students learn). We then went through some specific applications, like online game walk-throughs, VoiceThread, and blogs, oh and did I leave out Larry’s favorite new program, Fotobabble?

One of the participants asked, “Is the only advantage of using these online tools for oral language practice engagement?” Meaning, could you achieve the same results having students do these oral language activities face-to-face in class. This is an excellent question, and showed that the participant has the right attitude about technology and is  looking for things that add real value.

Larry shared how important being able to re-record, and correct oneself was in making students more confident, so that they practiced more, and then got better in real life speaking situations. I shared my own experience with this, which was that I had gone into podcasting with students assume that my loquacious students would get the most from it as it would provide an outlet for their need to talk. I discovered instead that my quieter language learners were some of the most eager to volunteer to participate in making the podcasts because they felt safe. They could record in an empty classroom, and erase and fix any mistakes. This was a very important learning processes for these students, and I was proud to see it.

Some folks expressed concern about not being shown how to set up blogs, etc. that were part of the presentation. I think you have the choice of either showing the tool, or showing how to use it. In one hour, you can’t do both, but I did provide links to resources because there are plenty of them online.

Library of Congress: The Power of Primary Sources

I thought we’d dig into primary sources, but this session was more about navigating the website. That’s okay because as the presenter pointed out, navigating the site can only be helped by getting some more information (i.e.: while the UI has some good points, it’s not always intuitive where to find stuff). This is not surprising since it is, essentially, the nation’s storage closet, and we all know that even in a well organized one of those, when you get too much stuff, just knowing what to look for and where, is hard to figure out sometimes. Here are my rough-ish notes, cleaned up a bit:

The discussion started around primary sources, and what they are?

  • Considerations (language, etc.)
  • Analysis rather than recall

Quick facts: 138M items in collection; 650 miles of bookshelves; 470 languages represented. 15M digitized items you can access.

There are ways to search subjects and history

Are the pictures CC licensed? If you click on about for an image, it will tell you.

All picture collections is often best:

By Subject:

You can also look by exhibits

THOMAS tracks bills, etc.

World Digital Libraries
to see what other countries have

My LOC, for your own info, but what? I missed that part.

Ask a librarian will help answer reference questions from 2-4 EDT they have live chat for the collections marked “Chat” here

Teacher page primary source sets available

You can do self-paced lessons to get recognized for your knowledge of the site

They have 4-day summer institute you can apply for (travel on you). Sorry didn’t get the link for that.

Using Data in a Professional Learning Community

This last session had the least technological, but it may prove the most fruitful over the long run. It was about Professional Learning Communities. Since these are being implemented at my site, it seemed worth my while to take a peek in at it. The subject/grade level was based on the presenter’s work in High School Algebra. A very different place developmentally from most of my kids, but a lot of it was about the adults (teachers) and getting them to play well with others. Here were some guidelines I gleaned:

  1. Pick a single unit to focus on, not the whole curriculum;
  2. Agree to common goals to teach students in that unit (it seemed to align to benchmark testing in the presenter’s case, and would at my district as well);
  3. Agree on the measures that will be used to assess which should included assessments beyond benchmark tests (e.g., multiple choice and written exam);
  4. Share score data, and discuss it with others in the PLN (sometimes the hardest part).

Among the various forms she shared (paper, so old school, but?) was one gem:

Student Self Evaluation Sheet from Napa High School

This was a student self-assessment, where they indicate with a 🙂 or 🙁 after a chapter test (formative assessment) whether they understood each concept. They then compare that after they get their graded test back.

There was a really great discussion about these sorts of tools on Lee Kolbert’s Facebook wall recently. She shared a student feedback sheet from Florida based on the annual FCAT test the state gives students. Forms like that are a dime a dozen in the schools (usually in PI) that I’ve taught in, and Sylvia Martinez zeros in on why they are useless. They are too little, too late, since they are summative, not formative in nature. I would also add that they lack in applicable specificity for the student.

The presenter’s story about her form is really what impressed. Even “F” students in the program could point to one skill they had on the form, and for the learning targets they didn’t have, they knew what they had to work on and could articulate it to teachers.

Keynote Speakers

One of the things that I enjoy about smaller conferences is I find I’m much happier with the keynote speaker. Sure it’s nice to see a famous author, but usually they cover territory I’ve already heard if I read their book. I have more than a passing acquaintance with Rushton Hurley the opener on Friday night, but his keynote was fresh and full of new material. The big take-away, using technology as tools for project-based learning for our kids. I don’t know how Hall Davidson manages to do it, but his presentations always seem up to date. Actually I do know, if you ever see him at a conference, he is usually doing last minute re-writes before he goes on-stage. His take away, sometimes folks on Facebook and Twitter at a lecture or presentation are talking about…the presentation, which makes it better.

posted under conferences, eld | 2 Comments »

Doh! I can’t believe I missed that!


When I did my review of the 19th ELL/EFL/ELD Blog Carnival, I left out a wonderful piece by Shelly Terrell about growing up in the U.S. in an immigrant family. She does a brilliant job of contextualizing the personal in the larger policy and legal issues of the different times she writes about. This is a must read for teachers of immigrant children. You can check out all of the articles at Flecha’s blog and tell me what other gems I missed.

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English Language Development of Standard and Academic English


Ebonics, Ebonics, Ebonics! So much controversy and so little rational discussion surrounded the attempts by the Oakland School District to address the gap in African American achievement. Rather than go through history, I’m going to explain why using both specific ELD methods and a culturally positive approach are a good idea, and share some examples of how to do this.


Why is this important? Even those who are hostile, or disagree with the idea of Ebonics generally agree that the lack of acquisition of academic English is one of the main reasons that many African Americans are not doing well in school or as well as white peers. For this discussion, I will use the terms African American Vernacular English (AAVE) to discuss the home language of many African Americans, and the more general term, non-standard English to encompass English variants from African Americans, whites, and those from an immigrant background who have non-standard versions of English as a home language.

The assertion that AAVE has its own qualities of language, is not just a political opinion, but supported by linguist and other expert in the field. For instance,  this resolution in the aftermath of the Ebonics debate by the American Linguistics Society was passed unanimously. This post does not argue for teaching Ebonics, but instead, for teaching those who have AAVE and other non-standard English variants as a home language, both standard and academic English explicitly,  with sensitivity to their  home culture.

Cultural Context

Much of the thinking in this area comes from the work of Gloria Ladson Billings, a former president of the AERA (American Educational Research Association). Her worked focuses on seeing childrens’ home culture in a positive, rather than a negative light. If students are lacking some academic or cultural competency, they will need to be taught that skill, but teachers should also seek to create ties to students home culture, and to value the culture competencies they have developed there. This article, Ladson-Billings: But That’s Just Good Teaching, from the Teaching Tolerance site, is a good introduction to this theory in a very accessible form. Why is this important? If you are telling students to largely leave their culture at the classroom door, and only allow mainstream culture in the classroom, you are forcing them to choose between cultures, and some will turn their back on school. This is not an all or nothing proposition. It doesn’t mean that any and all behavior is attributed to their home culture, and allowed. Like most of your teaching, it will involve you making decisions and adjusting instruction based on what is best for your students.

What are some elements of this? One of the trainings I attended over the summer was put on by the Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning (CRTL). My own background on this issues goes back to my early teacher trainings, so this will include some ideas from that organization, and some from my own experiences. For those of you new to this blog, my experience has solely been in high minority, low-income, high language learner population schools, and I’ve been teaching for over 10 years. Here is a list from the Center for CRTL of what a culturally responsive classroom should have, and the Ladson Billings article gives examples from teacher classrooms.

How have I done this in the classroom and computer lab? One thing I try to do is to locate diverse images. To supplement the stock photos from Microsoft, I particularly like the Flickr user CARF, which is from a non-profit in Sao Paulo, Brazil working with children at risk. They have many beautiful and happy photos of kids, not just pictures of children in third world squalor. Because it’s Brazil, they are ethnically diverse. When I have students talk about their culture, I have them dig deeper than just the food they ate, but how and where meals take place. How long does it last? Who is included?  It’s all about digging down into the context and reason for the cultural behavior, so they and you, get the big picture. Most of my classes have had a least three sizable ethnic groups in them. This means that not only are they explaining their culture to you, and to other classmates in that group, but to classmates from other backgrounds. This is really key for building community and understanding of each other in your classroom.

A lot of the methods from Center for CRTL are around participation and discussion. The hows and whys will be very familiar to any good ELD/EFL teacher. They want teachers to eschew calling on raised hands, for methods that will involve more students more actively.

  • Call and response (to bring the class back to the teacher or transition to another activity)
  • Shout it out (for short answers)
  • Think, Pair, Share
  • Pick at stick to randomly select students
  • Train (students call on other students to respond)
  • Put your heads together (table group discussion)
  • Circle the sage (a student expert shares)

Most of those are going to sound pretty familiar. The general idea is to get away from hand-raising and picking because it leaves kids out. It also creates opportunities for oral language practice, and an outlet for the kids to express themselves. Even though my fellow Sacramento teacher, Larry Ferlazzo, has never done this particular training, he uses a lot of these participation methods in his high school classes, as I observed when I visited his Theory of Knowledge class last year.

Development of Standard and Academic English

The last section was more about classroom climate, and management so that students are in a better frame of mind and on track for learning.  There are also teaching strategies to help more directly with language development. They are:

  • Vocabulary development through the use of students’ personal thesauri and dictionaries;
  • Building background knowledge about unfamiliar situations and vocabulary by activating prior experiences and knowledge;
  • Explicitly teaching  students to recognize differences in home language English, and standard and academic English, and the rules for both;
  • Activities such as games, and readers theater to help students recognize when it is situationally appropriate to use standard English, academic English, and their home language;
  • And finally, teaching students how to use this knowledge to “code-switch” and use the correct language for the situation.

Vocabulary Development: The Center for CRTL sees vocabulary development as key because non-standard English speakers usually have a basic level English word for what you’re trying to teach, but they need to learn the higher level vocabulary to move up in knowledge and attainment. For example, students will know the standard English term “money” and may have a home term, like “cheddar”,  but in school they also need to learn “currency”. The thesaurus is the child’s own, and they create their own taxonomy, by choosing which term among the synonyms will be the “guide” word. It could be the home language term, it could be a standard English term, but they choose.

Building Background: Defining academic and technical terms  stresses using students background knowledge as part of the definition. I have also used background knowledge with students to build comprehension in a similar way, and here is an example. Recently, I had a discussion with a co-worker, who is also from an Eastern European Jewish background, which is part of my heritage. We discussed a story in our anthology about a family of Jews escaping from Czarist Russia during the pogroms. She thought is was a great story to teach our kids (who are not Jewish). I thought it could be a great story, but only if taught well because it’s long, and pretty dense. She had made the story work by tying it to her own family’s story of escape at that time. My tactic was to to do that, but take it  one step further, and have my students, many of whom come from either refugee or undocumented immigrant families, think about how it related to their experience. Before reading the story, I asked them to reflect on whether they or family members ever had to leave a country or a home under duress. Here (NightJourney) is an organizer that I used with that story. The questions on the left column are done before reading, and are about the students’ experiences. The right column is done after the story is read, so they can compare their experiences to the story. Even though there were students who did not have that sort of experience in their lives, just having classmates share brings those situations that much closer, and makes the story more meaningful.

Recognizing Home and Academic English: As this is going on, students are taught to recognize the features of their home language, and the rules for standard and academic English. At the lower level, it would emphasize things like the use of  “ain’t” and other non-standard vocabulary. At the higher end, it would involve  pointing out that double negatives (as in Spanish and many other languages) add emphasis in non-standard English, but in standard English they cancel each other out, and are not used. This works best when done in conjunction with your language arts, or other instruction, but it should not be random, but planned out. As students begin to learn to recognize the differences, they do activities, like Jeopardy games to identify whether a word or statement is standard or non-standard usage and why, or readers theater, where different scenes show different English being used, and you discuss why that is done with students. The best example I’ve seen of the later is an activity where students acted out scenes from the life of Ida B. Wells where she met with President Lincoln, and then went home to discuss it with her husband. The first conversation used academic English, the second AAVE, and students discussed why it was appropriate to use them in each context and not the other way around.

Code Switching: This is the beginning of teaching “code switching” which is an essential skill for entry into professional life in the United States. It may look like you are teaching “Ebonics” but you are simply providing enough structure in their understanding of their home language, to transfer them to standard English usage. The other alternative is to demand standard English from students at all times. In addition to alienating students, this will not be an “efficient” or “effective” way to get them using standard and academic English, which is our goal. They will understand it better in comparison to home language rather than in isolation.

In general, there is not a strict line in the sand about when you demand they switch to standard usage. For example, over the years, I have had a rule that students use standard English in their writing, unless, it is an autobiographical narrative or poetry. Shouldn’t all writing in school be in standard English? Autobiography is personal, and needs to be in the student’s language. If you demand that they write about themselves in a language that is not personal you are killing something. Imagine The Color Purple, or any of Roddy Doyle’s work in standard academic English. By removing their language, you may be killing a literary voice. The student may learn to write great memos, but the world will lose something. On the other hand, if they don’t learn academic English, don’t learn how to write an expository report, and can’t write a memo, that’s not a good either. Ideally, you want them to keep their voice, and learn how to navigate mainstream culture with words.

After the fact addition: I came across this post by Jose Vilson that covers a lot of this issues on a macro-level quite nicely and in a more literary style.

Fourteenth Edition of the ESL/EFL/ELL Carnival


Welcome to the Fourteenth Edition of the bi-monthly ESL/EFL/ELL Carnival! Sorry it’s a few days late folks! Blame it on tryptophan narcolepsy from the turkey!

First up, Dave C opines that Dan Brown is rather like Pringles posted at The Cambridge Professor’s Blog. You may ask what this pithy little opinion piece has to do with English language instruction. The post is a short but full of tasty meaning layering the simile with lots of comparison points, all great skills for teaching college level English, BUT it gives me food for thought in how I approach teaching higher-order skills with my younger kids.There is nothing “cheesy” about this post!

Shelly Terrell shows how she keeps up on the news and engages her students with Current Events Lesson for English Language Learners posted at Teacher Reboot Camp. I loved her descriptions of the interesting discussions students had around why they picked topics, and how interested the students became in using some of the tools to practice at home.

Christina Markoulaki shares My Teaching ‘Journey’ in Greece (by Christina Markoulaki) posted at Teaching Village. This was a great article about her experiences teaching English in Greece. She starts her story with primary students which was a real eye-opener to me as a teacher of ELLs in the states.

I always look forward to reading Karenne Sylvester, and Kalinago English: What is BELTfree? posted at Kalinago English was a little different than her usual submission. She is promoting Bloggers in ELT, a new group of English lagnauge teachers that is going to be small, and private, but she’s looking for members, so check it out. I hope that she’ll share how that project goes.

Tara Benwell gives a peek in her mind and classroom with Writing Challenge #12: My Dream English School – My English Club posted at Monthly Writing Challenges. Where she “challenges” students to describe their dream English school, and shares some ideas of her own.

Larry Ferlazzo pulls back the curtain in The Best Ways ESL/EFL/ELL Teachers Can Develop Personal Learning Networks | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day… posted at Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day… Full of easy to implement suggestions about building a network to support your teaching practice.

Many of us know what a great go-to resource twitter can be for teachers, but Neal Chambers shows how to use it as support for students at: Mr.Maru and Sparky Debut on Twitter posted at EnglishSpark. Very inspired use of technology!

teacherdominic calls his blog Dominic Cole’s Really Boring English Blog but it’s anything but, as he slays my old bête noire from H.S. French, the dicatation exercise in Dictagloss and spelling, then offers up a more useful alternative. Way to go Dominic!

The thirteenth edition of the ESL/EFL/ELL Carnival was hosted by Jennifer Duarte and Michelle Klepper at ELL Classroom.

Future hosts will include Shelly Terrell at Teacher Reboot Camp: Challenging Ourselves to Engage Our Students on February 1st and Karenne Sylvester at Kalinago English: Teaching Speaking Using Technology on April 1st. You can contribute a post by using this easy submission form.

You can see all the previous twelve  editions of the ESL/EFL/ELL Blog Carnival here.

posted under eld, fun, reflection | 3 Comments »
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