A Book
There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

– Emily Dickinson



Graphic Novels: Beginning ELLs

NOTE: I no longer use this approach.  After meeting the amazing Dr. Beniko Mason, I have a much more simple approach that is less prep and less targeting; more rich, pure Comprehensible Input: Story Listening.


Early readers who can’t decode or read basic sight words need visual support.  TPR, props, realia, and drawing pictures with children all work beautifully during storytelling.  Another option is panels of pictures that make a cohesive story, as in a graphic novel.

Here’s my method of using wordless graphic novels with early, non-fluent readers.

  1.  Language Experience Approach

Children vote on any wordless graphic novel.  They read it projected on the board with the Language Experience Approach, as explained here.  First, using a document camera, I write as children”read”the pictures and dictate the story to me.  Sometimes it is necessary for me to comment on the pictures and ask simple questions that students answer with yes/no or gestures.  Students are not forced to speak, but I find with high-interest graphic novels, children enjoy dictating the story (even just single words at first).


Continue reading Graphic Novels: Beginning ELLs

Boys and Reading


Study after study has found that boys lag behind in literacy achievement. Boys report reading less and score lower on reading tests, according to a 2009 study.

Many books that appeal to boys tend to be frowned upon in traditional classrooms.  “With some notable exceptions, boys’ preferred reading material rarely makes it to the Caldecott or Newbery lists so beloved of librarians,”  says Robin Boltz in 2007, who gives the example of “R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps (and)… Captain Underpants” which were “banned by many school libraries.”

Although increasingly popular, comics or graphic novels are also strongly preferred by boys, though sometimes treated as lesser in schools.  But comics, which boys report reading more often than girls, can be a good “light reading” as a first step toward more serious or academic text, according to Stephen Krashen in 2005.

In Educating Latino Boys, David Campos recommends integrating technology whenever possible.  Reading seems less stigmatized as “something girls do” when technology levels the playing field. Blogs, digital journals as response to text, digital magazines or ebooks are also highly engaging for boys.  In 2011, Stephen Krashen suggests that “Free Voluntary Web Surfing” may also help literacy.  These less-traditional approaches to reading may help reluctant boys feel like reading is “cool.”

To up the “cool” factor, consider a little healthy competition.  Why not have teams of students log self-selected reading hours to see which teams can reach their goal first?

For all students, but for boys in particular, reading for a clear, real-life purpose can be beneficial.  Students who love working on cars with family may love reading about cars; gamers make prefer to read up on their favorite Minecraft blogs to plan strategies and share with friends.

Never adopt an overly-generalized approach to connecting students and books.  Just look out for the girls and boys (who may not ask for books as readily as the girls) in your classroom to make sure everyone is reading what they love.

Standardization kills hope for differentiation.

Juan was a former English Language Learner I served and a hard worker.  He arrived with extremely limited prior schooling but worked hard in Pre-Algebra, his assessments and instruction were differentiated and he made significant growth in just a year.  Then came Algebra I.  He needed this to graduate.  His teacher kindly tutored him after school, but would simply say “I have to move on” when Juan was lost.  Teachers often find it hard to differentiate instruction with the PARCC tests looming over their heads.

At the end of the year, the high-stakes standardized test predictably had “stuff I had never seen” for Juan and no test items reflected the progress he had made in just two short years.  How could we expect a one-size-fits-all approach to assessment?  To differentiate instruction is fine, but not if we then refuse to differentiate assessment as well.

Juan had worked so hard and grown so much, but wasn’t able to show it on an all-important high-stakes test, so he felt nothing he learned mattered.   Juan was 16, and he just gave up.  He figured he could help his family more if he got a job.

“If you want to see students rapidly become hopeless failure acceptors, just set up an environment in which they actually learn a great deal but still receive low grades.” -Rick Stiggins

Ever felt like giving up?  So many of our children do.  Latino males, many of whom are English Language Learners, have the highest drop-out rates in the nation: almost 1 in 5.

Why?  There are many factors including shortcomings in Immersion and our national move away from bilingual education, or even just the pressures inherent in learning another language.

Nation-wide all children who require differentiated curriculum to succeed in school run into a tough obstacle: standardization.  There is nothing wrong with some degree of standardization, but not when it overshadows compassionate differentiation.

For teachers, we feel the very real pressure to increase “rigor.”  High-stakes tests don’t actually require us to teach to the test for the majority and leave the minority behind -that’s not written in the handbook.  Even so, in busy classrooms, when an ELL is the only one who doesn’t get it, and it’s time to move on (the standardized curriculum-map says so)…content-area teachers move on.  No time to differentiate, we have to standardize.  Our curriculum must be vertically, horizontally, and otherwise aligned in every direction to make sure we are all learning the same thing.

Every direction except towards where our children are at.   Otherwise, kids won’t be ready for PARCC, right?

High-stakes tests create an over-emphasis on meeting benchmarks.  This can be anxiety-producing,  which exaggerates gaps in achievement.  Children who are not traditionally academic or struggle in core classes will have been burned by past test experiences and expect to fail.  This creates negative washback and test anxiety, factors that can bias tests against lower-achieving students.   In a 2002 article on the brilliant Assessment for Learning movement, Rick Stiggins explained, “These students will see both the new high standards and the demand for higher test scores as unattainable for them, and they will give up in hopelessness.”

Our nation blows out of proportion the need for standardization of content, curriculum, standards or goals for learning, and high-stakes tests.  This can feel overwhelming for children who learn at a different pace or need additional scaffolding.  Working with children who require differentiated curriculum can leave teachers feeling like they are under the gun.

Working with different children in a standardized world can feel hopeless.

I’m starting year 10 in English as a Second Language educator, and I have to really dig-deep to find hope.


A More Compassionate Calling

Next week I start my 10th year teaching English as a Second Language.  I’ve had highs and lows; wins and fails.  There is no more wholesome profession or lofty calling than trying to give a voice to language minority students who struggle to achieve bilingualism and understand what it is to be bicultural.

As an ESL teacher, I seek to raise up little ambassadors for their heritage languages and cultures.  English Language Learners are often underestimated but they are mighty.  I have a room full of little Mexican-Americans, Honduran-Americans, Iraqi-Americans, and others who make our world more diverse and lovely just by being themselves.  These little ones will go out in the community and build bridges between countries and ethnic groups.  How could one not seek compassion for children tasked with something this important and burdensome?

Burdensome also describes prejudicial English-only laws in my home state of Tennessee. ESOL or ESL is a beast sometimes, and I seek to tame it.  Bilingual education is off the table for me, so here I seek solutions to offer comprehensible input in my pull-out immersion ESL classroom.

Here I will being writing out and thinking aloud about how best to serve English Language Learners.  Comment below or just sit and stew.  I’m just digitally thinking aloud as I work toward being a more compassionate teacher.