Building a foundation

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Ramona Richards, a 1st-grade teacher at Lloyd Elementary, leads an English lesson with fill-in-the-blank “sentence frames”—one strategy used in the Systematic ELD program to help students become more confident in using English. The program is currently being piloted in 28 schools.  [Photo by Jason Reblando]

Photo by Jason Reblando

Ramona Richards, a 1st-grade teacher at Lloyd Elementary, leads an English lesson with fill-in-the-blank “sentence frames”—one strategy used in the Systematic ELD program to help students become more confident in using English. The program is currently being piloted in 28 schools. [Photo by Jason Reblando]

Lloyd Elementary teacher Ramona Richards puts one hand over her mouth and raises the other, signaling to the 1st-graders sitting on the carpet that they should be quiet. In Spanish, she tells them to cross their legs. “Ahora es tiempo para el desarrollo de Inglés,” she adds. Translation: “Now it’s time for English language development.”
As if a switch has flipped, her speech changes to English.

“I drew this picture of my trip to Wisconsin, and I went in a canoe,” Richards tells her class. “The canoe was made out of aluminum, made out of metal.” She leads the students in repeating after her. “A gray canoe,” they say.

Richards takes the opportunity for a mini-lesson in how English is different from their native Spanish. “Do we say ‘Canoe gray?’ ” she asks. Some of the children shake their heads. “That’s how we say it in Spanish. But in English we say, ‘the gray canoe.’”

Richards is teaching a lesson from Systematic ELD (English Language Development), a pilot curriculum that CPS launched this past fall to strengthen English instruction for bilingual education students in 28 schools. The program provides something many teachers say is missing for these students: a framework for English instruction at each proficiency level to teach basic conversational to more advanced academic English early in children’s schooling. Each teacher receives a binder of materials, nearly 6 inches thick, and the program aims to provide training all school administrators and K-3 bilingual teachers, plus additional training if teachers want to learn to give introductory workshops themeselves.

Some schools that want students to be in mostly-English classes by 2nd or 3rd grade don’t consistently offer children the things they need to achieve that—a gradual transition into English, and instruction at each student’s level, according to Sara Exposito, a researcher and assistant education professor who works for Targeted Leadership Consulting. Better English instruction could keep children from landing in the middle grades with floundering English skills at the same time they’re tackling higher-level academic content.

The CPS pilot grew out of a smaller-scale project in 11 predominantly Latino schools on the Northwest Side that were participating in a school leadership initiative of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI), a public-interest law and policy organization. Exposito works for Targeted Leadership Consulting, BPI’s partner for its school leadership initiative. As part of that project, BPI flew 75 principals and teachers to Chula Vista, Calif. to see school improvement strategies there. The educators wanted to bring the Systematic ELD curriculum back to Chicago.

Emma Sanchez, the district’s executive director for language acquisition and development, says that it’s not enough just to set aside time for English instruction (which all schools, by law, must do in California). But putting the time to use with plenty of training for teachers and consistent implementation is one thing that has helped Chula Vista make progress with its English learners, who are meeting state and federal accountability targets. 

“We want to provide clarity, something we can stick to, and then, three years from now, see if this is making a difference,” says Lloyd Elementary Principal Kiltae Fernando Kim.

Curriculum author Susana Dutro says that Systematic ELD identifies what students at each grade level need to learn and “gives kids practice in using the kind of language that allows them to think and talk, and read and write, accurately and fluently.”

Any further expansion will depend on results of a program evaluation, according to CPS spokesman Frank Shuftan.

As Richards continues her lesson, she points to a poster she created about her trip and gives a brief lesson in the names of colors and objects, telling the students about a pink and purple butterfly, red apples, a green and brown tree, the yellow sun and blue water.

Then Richards hands out cards labeled either “A” or “B” to students, and tells them to pair up with someone who has the opposite letter. “Now we are going to practice asking for materials.”

As a warm-up, she has the students practice the words for school supplies.

“I have blue scissors. I have a white piece of paper. I have a gray crayon. I have an orange marker,” she says. The students repeat each sentence.

Then, pairs of students practice asking each other for supplies. “Even when you’re done asking the question, ask it again or ask for some more materials,” Richards says. “You should be talking the whole time, so that we get lots of practice.”

Finally, Richards gathers the class back on the rug to evaluate their own progress. She asks students to indicate with thumbs up or thumbs horizontal whether they think they’re getting better or need more practice. Most of the thumbs are up.

Earlier in the school year, several teachers noted that while it was too soon to see much in the way of results, they believe the program is a positive step.

“It gives you a break as a teacher,” says kindergarten teacher Marvin Blanco.
First-grade teacher Elizabeth Lopez says teachers were previously “kind of on our own” trying to integrate English lessons into content areas.

The carefully organized curriculum is a far cry from the landscape in BPI’s 11 schools before the pilot got started, Exposito says. At the time, it was not clear whether students in all classrooms were consistently receiving English as a second language instruction.

Some of the BPI schools struggled with a drop in student achievement around 3rd grade, the year that many students transition into English reading instruction and have to take the ISAT in English. A host of factors could have contributed to this, including a lack of time to build a solid literacy foundation in Spanish, a dearth of explicit English language instruction, and inconsistency in introducing English literacy skills early enough.

“Even within the same school, English language development was not taught in a consistent way,” says Exposito, who teaches at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. In some classrooms it was embedded in other academic subjects while in other classes, English was taught on its own.

A focus group with bilingual teachers found that “in some schools students were not consistently transitioned into English over time,” even though schools were following an early-exit model that requires English learners to receive increasing amounts of English instruction.

Even schools with a designated period for teaching English as a Second Language might not have a specific curriculum to use, Lloyd Elementary Principal Kim notes. “Or, there are curricula people have that they have brought in piecemeal. It can be the wild, wild West, of teaching ESL one way in one classroom, one way in another classroom, or sometimes not teaching it.”

Kim’s goal is to have students proficient in English by the end of 5th grade. But there are hurdles.

One is attitudes. Transitional programs aim to quickly move students in English-only classes, but some teachers may have a deeply-held belief in the concept of having students become strongly literate in their native language as well as, eventually, English. Also, teachers may be far more comfortable teaching in one language than in another, which can affect their decisions about teaching and short-change student learning.

Exposito notes that, according to research, developing strong literacy skills in a native language leads to better achievement, even in English, down the road. But schools must have a strong model in place to achieve that goal.
“What we’re telling [people] is, pick a design and implement a structure that supports the design you pick,” she adds.

At a training session in mid-September at Lloyd, trainers Marta Serna and Aidé Vasquez list their goals. 
One is the skills teachers need to learn, including the various levels of English proficiency and how to design frequent opportunities for students to practice speaking in English.

During the session, teachers learn that practice must be meaningful to students and include monitoring of how students are doing and correcting mistakes.

As homework, the teachers are told to practice using interactive routines with their students. There’s a list of 14 in the binders.

Those routines include having students hold a “talking stick” while speaking or having students use up chips when they speak, to encourage turn-taking; using cards lettered “A” and “B” to help organize who is taking which role  during a routine; and “turn and talk,” in which students briefly share their results from an activity or question with a classmate.

The trainers note that it is critical for students to understand what expression they should use to meet their goals.
Most expressions can be categorized by their purpose—such as predicting, comparing and contrasting, giving directions, expressing feelings—known as a “language function.” Vocabulary words are bricks, language functions are the mortar.

Elizabeth Tilley, who was Lloyd’s assistant principal until she left in October, says she hopes the explicit instruction will help students avoid hitting “a glass ceiling” with language proficiency as they transition from Spanish to English.
By the third training, over a month later, road bumps are evident. One teacher complains that not all of the bilingual staff members at her school have even received binders.

“If they really want this to succeed, are they going to buy the rest of the materials?” she asks.

Serna explains the possible mix-ups. As the group continues its review, the trainers note the importance of listening for the language students are missing—words and phrases that would help take their proficiency to the next level. Serna drills in the importance of letting students practice.

“Who normally does most of the talking in the classroom?” she asks. “The teachers,” the group acknowledges.
“We want our students to be proficient… to have that language in them,” Serna says. “We cannot teach students to write in a language they don’t own.”