Sunday, November 29, 2015

Literacy Coaching: the Essentials

Catherine Casey's book, Literacy Coaching: The Essentials, is an excellent primer on coaching. It covers everything from what do coaches do to professional development workshops. As someone who has been contracted to teach teachers a specific skill, some of the information is more pertinent to me than others. I do not have to get teachers to agree to let me in, my contract is their agreement. It is specific to particular teachers. That said, I need to build relationships and prove I can do what I say I can or there will be no more requests.

Under the structures part of the book, Ms. Casey goes over different ways to study instruction. During demonstration lessons, a coach must have a clear purpose for what to highlight. Knowing what the teacher knows and what she needs help with are what define the purpose. For the teacher I worked with who was particularly concerned about a transition within a Wilson Reading lesson plan I very carefully planned that transition. I videotaped and shared several sample transitions as well. This allowed me to showcase the area of concern and during our debrief, became a beginning point of discussion. One point that the author made was that teachers need immediate access to materials. Toward this end I provided one teacher with two sets of letter/sound cards so that she could utilize the technique I demonstrated.

She discussed inter and intra visitations- between schools and within a school. She mentioned purposeful involvement- demonstrating with the assistance of the teacher, lesson study- Japanese inspired (study, plan, teach, reflect, replan, teach, apply), co-planning, conferences and professional inquiry groups and videotaping with analysis. I am experimenting with video, but have not yet found any level of comfort with it. More practice is needed.

From observations she moves to models of intensive support. Spending 3-5 days/classes with a teacher to work on a skill. Depending on the model- gradual release or unit of study- this could take place on successive days or on days throughout a unit. Her description of these models with their focused planning and debriefing makes me greedy for the contact time to allow such work.

I think I have done some modified plans- present the Wilson program, assign reading the manual, return to answer questions after they have tried the program a few times, observe a lesson, demonstrate a lesson. They have not been as formally outlined as above. Perhaps a more ideal program would be tighter with more schedule flexibility than I currently enjoy.

She goes on to describe how she prepares for workshops. From determining the purpose of the workshop to ideas about how to incorporate gradual release of control, she outlines her process of developing the workshop. She highlights how important immediate use is to adult training. A teacher brought this home when she said she left my introduction so eager to start work but was delayed with school mandated assessments. The author also discussed the importance of the zone of proximal development is for teachers. They are not all in the same place, but training needs to meet them where they are and take them places. The reading teacher I work with does not need support in learning the basic phonics, but the middle school teacher learning Wilson did. If I am not aware of these differences, I will not be effective in providing support.

This book told me some of the things I am doing right and some things I need to work on- an excellent resource for the place I am in- just right for my zone of proximal development.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Teaching the ESL Learner

I have achieved access to Educational Impact's online course, Teaching the ESL Learner. I feel like this program is going to present really useful strategies that can be used today in the classroom to teach English Language Learners (ELLs).

At this point they have presented six strategies of supported language:
  1. extra-linguistic cues- things like gestures and visuals
  2. linguistic modifications- repetition, slowing down speech and gestures
  3. interactive lecture with frequent comprehension checks-
  4. active learning strategies- opportunities to try out language with peers. This could be labs, group work, or cooperative learning.
  5. focus on big concepts rather than the details- what will students need to know as adults rather than for the test.
  6. strategies to develop thinking- advance organizers, graphic organizers and connecting what you know with what is being learned.

Many of these have been mentioned in other resources, but I have not seen them addressed as a core groups of strategies. The presenters point out that these do represent good teaching, but where a native English speaker needs only one or two strategies to learn content, ELLs might need 5 or 6.

My biggest concern is with number 5- focus on concepts not details. While I agree that big concepts are the critical information, teachers who are asked to prepare students for tests may be pulled in the opposite direction. Teachers who have differentiated, compacted or accelerated instruction will be familiar with this idea. Identify the big picture, important things that everyone needs to learn. The must knows, good to knows and nice to know information. Provide scaffolds for the struggling learners to access the must knows and deeper or additional work for gifted learners so they can access the nice to knows. Some details will need to be left by the wayside for some students. Teachers often instinctively know this.

So far the course has been well built. Lecture components are intermixed with classroom videos and panel discussion. I look forward to the modules which address each component of supported language.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Writing instruction with TEAL

TEAL, Teaching Excellence in Adult Literacy, has published a variety of guides and fact sheets for teachers of adults, usually in GED-type programs. In their Just Write! Guide, they look at interventions and practices that support adult learners. An important caveat is that much of the research is with school aged students because there is a limited base with adult learners.
On page 19 they highlight Malcolm Knowles's assumptions about adult learners:
  • Move to increasing self- directedness as he matures
  • Draws on life experiences to assist learning
  • Ready to learn when he assumes a new role
  • Is problem-centered- apply immediately
  • Motivated by internal factors
Therefore he suggests that teachers of adult learners
  • Use a cooperative climate
  • Assess for specific needs and interests
  • Develop objectives on those needs and interests
  • Sequentially work to achieve objectives
  • Collaboratively select methods, materials and resources
  • Evaluate progress and adjust

One strategy they recommend is to use sentence frames as part of the gradual release of control. Sentence frames have been recommended for English Language Learners and students with language disabilities. We use frames regularly in the classroom. Examples of frames include:
  • I wonder what [the character] will do when ___________.
  • Although you believe that _______________________, I think ________________________ because ________________________.
  • In your essay you did ________________________ well.
The Guide is full of references to other fact sheets both as part of the guide and part of other guides both ahead and behind the point of reading. This is somewhat disruptive to reading. There are quotes from practitioners throughout the guide. It lends support and voice to the research-based, somewhat dry text. While providing good research and practical guidance on what to do, there are very few examples of the practices in action.

The beginning's information about adult learning information is important when considering instruction of adults whether in a high school equivalency, college or job program. In my coaching I need to keep in mind that providing choice is important- what do the people I work with feel is important to develop, when should they receive support, and how do I help them evaluate their progress and provide coherent feedback. If I can ensure that these are met, I will have happier teachers who will find my assistance more valuable.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

For Reading, Knowledge Matters

Common Core adoption has shifted the reading debate to include do we or don't we provide background knowledge when approaching readings. Leanna Heitin wrote For Reading, Knowledge Matters More Than Strategies, Some Experts Say for Education Week. Part of me wants to say, "Duh!" This is especially true when we discuss vocabulary. Many studies show that the leading indicator of reading comprehension is vocabulary. Students who do not know the words cannot understand the content. As the author points out, Google only gets you so far. Try reading a passage from a foreign language newspaper. You might be able to get the general content from the pictures or a few cognates, but beyond that you cannot understand it. Even if we give you the phonetic reading clues, it does not help you get it. We could let you have a translator app, but the general agreement is that they are not great. All the strategies in the world are not going to be enough until the language is transformed into one you understand.

The entire rationale that we as adults do not have teachers help us read our material for work is misguided. Rarely would you pick up a complex text about a subject in which you were a complete novice. You have background knowledge in your field. You go talk to colleagues. You play with materials to get a feel for them before you attack the reading. You attend a workshop or webinar or watch a video. Perhaps you start with an easier text and then advance to more complex ones. We certainly have some motivation to read it- interest, manager demands, promotion requirements. Thinking we should just send students into a reading cold is foolish. It is not what we do as adults. We need to give students, who are just learning to be sophisticated users of print, that same advantage.

That being said, this is especially true for students with a language disability or English Language Learners (ELLs). These students with limited English vocabularies need to be bolstered in order to try to attempt "easy" grade level texts, not to mention "challenge" ones. A student who does not have any idea what a video game is might have trouble understanding a story in which they play a key role. I worked with students at a Jewish elementary students where a majority of students did not have computers or televisions. If they were to read the video game story, their limited background would significantly impact their ability to comprehend the text. (This is an example of cultural background.)

I worked with students on a test in which they were asked to read two passages about Paul Revere- one a biographical sketch and the other more of a textbook passage. Then they were asked to answer questions and write a written response. Students who had a rich understanding of Paul Revere had a much easier time with the task than those who did not. It was independent of their reading level- it was all about their background knowledge.

I have a fifth grade ELL student who need to provide a written response to contrast two characters from a pair of stories.  When I got down to what is the question asking you to do? He had no idea. How is this student supposed to answer the question when he does not know what contrast means? Without help about understanding the question, we would have been unable to determine anything about his ability to really understand the passage.

We must acknowledge that background knowledge must be built. We can do this through paired texts. NewselaReadWorks, Reading A-Z, and the Virginia Department of Education are some sources of paired texts and lessons about them. We can build them ourselves. I have taken a high school history and science texts and found elementary trade books, PBS and history channel videos, and low reading level texts on the same topic. The students read the low level material. Examine video clips, maybe play an on-line game. They are introduced to vocabulary in a slow and controlled manner. Then, when we present the grade level text, it is manageable. We have built the background to understand the information they need for class. Just throwing them into the text means they probably won't read it at all and if they do, they will not understand it. We might teach them to copy sentences with key phrases from the questions to formulate answers but this is a mechanical task, not a learning one. We need to build literacy smartly, not throw them into the deep end hoping they will find our scaffolding, i.e. the ladder.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Considerations for literacy coaches in classrooms with ELLs

Since this year I am looking at improving my knowledge of both literacy coaching and working with English Language Learners (ELLs), I was delighted to find the Literacy Coaching Clearinghouse's white paper, Considerations for Literacy Coaches in Classrooms with English Language Learners, by Kathy Escamilla. This article specifies some instructional recommendations for teaching ELLs literacy skills. She approaches this in a myth verses reality format. Before she enters that part of the article, she points out that native language literacy instruction promotes English literacy instruction. So my Ukrainian student benefits from going to Ukrainian school that reinforces the language, culture and literacy of the native language.

Myth 1- Good teaching is good teaching.
Reality- Because second language acquisition is different from first language acquisition we cannot assume that the acquisition of literacy is the same and "distinct first languages may interact differently with English" (p. 1).
So- Learn about the first language. For my Ukrainian student I learned that Ukrainian does not have articles (a, an, the) like English. This means that including articles is a challenge for him. I now understand when he omits these words in written English.
Use interactive rather than process approaches to instruction. For students this means asking questions about the story, words and/or pictures; playing word games with the text; encouraging student questions
Center instruction on meaning.
Teach concrete high frequency words before abstract ones. For example, look at the selection about the Dolch pre-primer list examples


Myth- Oral language before literacy.
Reality- Do both concurrently.
So- Include specific language development.
Transformative exercises such as statement into question, present to past tense, simple to compound sentences  are important.
Language Experience Approach Lessons- planned oral language activities to use English. Then edit oral language to standard English (provide a good model).

Myth- Native language is a barrier.
Reality- Native language is a scaffold.
So- provide opportunities to process language from English to Native to English again.
If possible group native language speakers to be able to discuss in native language then convert to English- it is a scaffold for English.
Understand that comprehension is often greater than expressive ability.
Validate Native language and enhance learning with Native language scaffold.

Myth- ELLs have homogeneous needs.
Reality- Beginning, intermediate and advanced ELLs need daily, explicit, structured literacy instruction but the nature of it may differs based on language proficiency.
So- Beginning ELLs need time to process, meaningful input (pair with concrete experiences, visuals and vocabulary enhancement) and appropriate wait time.  They need information about basic language structures like English adjectives usually are before the noun but in Spanish they are usually at the end of the sentence. Instruction that complements, expands and is integrated is important. Instruction needs to have a nonintegrated component.
Advanced ELLs need instruction to compliment and expand literacy instruction--> integrated into general education instruction, and includes things like idioms and advanced discourse. Advanced speakers do not generally need increased process time since they are thinking in English rather than the native language.
Without instruction beyond the intermediate stage, students may have language stagnation.

Myth- It's all about background knowledge.
Reality- Cultural Schema is different from standard thoughts about background knowledge and needs to be specifically addressed. They use the example of being put in a corner. Students may need to know what being in a corner is- chair sitting in a corner facing the wall- and what it infers in America- punishment. Students may know about Christmas, but Orthodox Christianity practices are different than American Christian ones (date is January7th, involves fasting and involves burning palms verses December 25, feasting and Christmas trees). Inferences might be especially difficult because they combine what is said with what you know.
So- Learn the language and the culture.
Understand that cultural information plays into the qualitative difficulty of a reading. This is where the Lexile/DRA/F&P level interact with the stuff of the text. Students need a mix of culturally easy books and culturally difficult ones. The authors advise that "Analyzing texts for cultural schema can enable teachers to explicitly and directly include cross-cultural teaching into their literacy programs" (p. 5) If we are talking with students from China about Fourth of July practices, bringing up the Chinese New Year and firecrackers, or reading about them first, may make the fourth of July passage accessible.

This white page offers valuable suggestions on how to provide instruction to ELLs. It offers little from the coaching advice, other than to be knowledgeable in ELL instruction. One key take away is that to work well with an ELL, specific research into the native language and culture essential. This is the launch pad of literacy instruction especially for ELLs.