Tag Archives: English Language Learners

Community Literacies en Confianza, Part I

This post is written by member Steven Alvarez. This is the first of two parts. 

In my book Community Literacies en Confianza: Learning from Bilingual After-School Programs, I focus on ethnographic case studies of two communities of students and families, the Kentucky United Latinos (KUL) and the Valle del Bluegrass Library (VBL). The communities were composed of emergent bilingual students and parents learning about schools as they learned English—in the case of VBL, students from preK to middle school, and for KUL, high school students. The two communities illustrated in two different contexts how emergent bilingual students and their families collectively navigated school systems and the English language with the help of after-school programs and their networks of members, teachers, and volunteers. I draw upon my experiences with KUL and VBL to create portraits of bilingual after-school communities that do this kind of work to offer relatable contexts that detail how schools and teachers can partner and draw from surrounding community learning. From these portraits, I explore what lessons we can draw from them that could impact how we teach writing in school. The focus on community puts the local knowledge and experiences of students and families in the forefront.

VBL had offered free after-school homework tutoring for emergent bilingual youths for over a decade. Located in a barrio of a small city in central Kentucky, the library mediated between the newly growing Latin American immigrant community in the area and local institutions, primarily local schools. VBL was the only bilingual public library in the state, and also the only one to offer after-school homework assistance, thanks in part to volunteer tutors and assistance from library staff. The homework assistance program served youth in grades K–8. Different VBL programs and events, however, were geared to preK, high school, and adult audiences.

Bilingual signs announcing homework help at VBL. The library was a valuable bilingual resource for the community.

The Kentucky United Latinos (KUL) after-school club formed in 2011 at a high school not too far away from the barrio where VBL stood. In fact, KUL often met at VBL since many students lived within walking distance of the library. Most of the KUL students had VBL library cards and had participated in the library’s programs when they were younger. With the coordinating assistance of teachers, KUL also partnered with a middle school to sponsor a mentorship program between students. KUL members met with middle school students to provide advice and guidance in English and Spanish to Latino/a students destined for their high school. KUL members encouraged the students to get involved in middle school activities and seek out ways to volunteer to help their communities. The KUL members noted the importance of making a strong academic start as a ninth grader, and how their community service prepared them for college and future internships.

High school student Bianca, with collaboration from the classmates in her ELL course at school, drew the artwork above entitled Don’t Cry. Bianca, a ninth grader, had migrated to Kentucky from Cuba earlier in the school year, and, since arriving, she had been a member of KUL. Bianca drew the figure and passed the drawing around to each of her classmates to write “don’t cry” in their home languages. Notice the rich linguistic diversity in her classroom.

Steven Alvarez is assistant professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky. His research explores the languages and literacies of Latino immigrants in New York City and Kentucky.

To read more of Steven Alvarez’s works, please visit Translanguaging Literacies and Community Ethnographies.

Steven Alvarez recorded Confidence in Community Literacies: Bilingual Writers Reading the World, an On Demand Webinar for NCTE.

What Happened in Your State This June?

This past month, nine policy analysts published reports about what occurred in the following states: Arkansas, California, Idaho, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Washington.

Higher Education

California: Daniel Melzer reported that the Cal State System Proposed to End Placement Exams and replace them with high school grades and course work, SAT, or ACT scores. He cited faculty concerns over “lack of local autonomy regarding assessment and placement.” Daniel also shared that the Report on Acceleration Writing Models in California Community Colleges revealed student success.

Michigan: In University of Michigan Offers Free Tuition for Low-Income Students, Robert Rozema described the Go Blue Guarantee program for high-achieving, low-income students.

New Hampshire: Alexandria Peary explained the House of Representatives Bill Requiring Annual Report of Remedial Courses. HB 180 would require postsecondary institutions to submit annual reports delineating the number and subjects of courses offered, enrollment, and costs.


Arkansas: Similar to her report last month, Donna Wake notes in Charter School Saved by External Resources that the Walton Family Foundation provided the funding to allow a charter school, initially slated for revocation, to remain open.

Idaho: Darlene Dyer shares that Preschool Funding and Enrollment Climbs Nationally but No Funding for Idaho, concluding that “If 90 per cent of Idaho’s 3- and 4-year-olds do not have access to preschool (as current figures purport), the impact will be felt for decades in the local economy.”

Montana: Anna Baldwin explains the Scholarship Tax Credit now allowed for contributions to a scholarship organization and the conflict over monies going to religious schools.

Pennsylvania: Aileen Hower reported, [Governor] Wolf to Sign Law Granting Career-track Students Alternatives to Keystone Exit Exams. These students would be able to demonstrate competency through their grades and alternate assessments or industry-based certifications.  In Report Reveals Eye-opening Data on English Learners in Philadelphia Schools, Aileen submitted an excerpt from Newsworks revealing how quickly immigrant students in Philadelphia learn English.

Washington: Barbara Ward described the state of Washington grappling with Funding Woes in a special session to address the high court’s demand that the state pay a fair share of costs for teacher salaries. Barbara also wrote about Possible Changes in State Testing Requirements for High Schoolers, allowing students who fail state-mandated tests in English language arts to show their proficiency in other ways.

Both PreK-12 and Higher Education

New Mexico: In State of New Mexico Sued for Inequities in Educational Opportunities, Erin O’Neill notes that the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty sued, “claiming that budget cuts and underfunding are preventing Native American students, ELL learners, and low-income students from receiving the necessary educational opportunities guaranteed by the state constitution.”

Don’t Forget about the Talk! Boosting Oral Language in Small-Group Reading

This is a guest post by Shannon Croston. 

As a literacy coach in an international school, where almost all of our students are learning English as a second (or third!) language, I often hear this question: How do I foster students’ language development alongside their reading development?

Are you wondering the same thing? Here is one way to do it.



Picture Warm-Up

Start your guided reading or small-group reading lesson with a short, student-led conversation about a picture. Think about the words in the book or text they will be reading that may be new to students or may be somewhat unfamiliar. Vincent Ventura suggests finding a picture that can evoke an emotion or reaction that will give your students the opportunity to use that vocabulary before they jump into the book. It is this emotion or reaction that will start the conversation. Reveal the picture in a dramatic way and then get out of the way. This is a student-to-student talk; no teacher involvement! You may even choose to stand behind the students so they will look and talk to one another. The goal is for them to use whatever words they have independently and to feel confident expressing themselves.

Younger children love funny animal pictures and older students tend to be motivated by surprising action shots. This could be a picture from the book, or just an image you found online that references words you know students will encounter when reading.

Use the students’ ideas to segue into your book introduction. Since your students were just engaged in talking about the ideas in the book, they will be ready to learn new key vocabulary. They will be motivated to use these new words because the words stem from their own conversation.

Ask questions

As you begin your small-group reading lesson, be conscious of your own language. Push yourself to ask questions instead of instructing as much as possible. Who’s Doing the Work suggests instead of guiding students to do a picture walk before reading, ask them, “What can we do to get ready to read this book?” When a student gets stuck on a word, don’t tell them what strategy to use. Ask them, “What can you do to try to solve that word?” Give students as much opportunity to do the talking and thinking as possible. Be a facilitator and depend on asking questions so that students can practice explaining their thinking and using language to think through the process.


Shared Writing

The next step in boosting oral language during small group reading comes after the reading. Ask comprehension questions that explicitly set students up to use new vocabulary from the book. Always allow students to answer in turn-and-talk partnerships so that every student can answer every question, thereby significantly raising the amount of language used compared to answering one question and listening to others.

Solidify this language practice by turning the comprehension discussion after reading into a shared writing experience. Have each student choose one idea or thought about the book. Before sharing with the group, allow students to say their idea in a complete sentence to their partner to rehearse, which is important for language learners. Encourage students to use the new vocabulary words and share as detailed a sentence as they can.

As each student shares their sentence out loud, you may choose to take a quick moment to talk about different ways to express an idea in English. For example, if a student shares “The house of the boy is big” you can introduce possessives in English and offer the suggestion “The boy’s house is big.” It is important that you are not correcting students, but rather guiding them to other possibilities for sentence structures to express the same idea. If students feel that you are correcting them, it will seriously inhibit them from taking risks and trying to use more complicated vocabulary and sentences. Allow the students to choose if or how they would like to reword or lengthen their sentences, and then write the student’s sentence onto a piece of chart paper. Doing the writing of the sentences for the students provides a scaffold for all of their attention to be focused on the language.


Shared Reading

What about fluency? The text, or sentences, created by the students during the share writing on chart paper can be an excellent source for shared reading. You can end the lesson, or begin the next day’s lesson, with a choral read and rereading opportunities. Students are invested in this text because it was created with their ideas. If you guided an effective language discussion as students created their sentences, the resulting text should be just outside of the students’ productive language parameters. This group read will take only a few short minutes but will have a big impact.

PASS fits into a balanced literacy classroom and can be used in pieces or in its entirety. Supporting students’ language development is key to English learners’ success during reading instruction.

Shannon Croston works with P–5 teachers as a literacy coach at the American School of Guatemala. She draws on 11 years of teaching experience in Georgia, Connecticut, and Washington, now focusing on English learners in an international setting.

Powerful Stories

blog-Sonia NazarioThe following post is excerpted from an article by Phil Johnson published in The Council Chronicle (November 2014.)

Speaking to a high school class in Chicago, author Sonia Nazario was approached by a young African American girl. The student had read Enrique’s Journey, a national bestseller drawn from Nazario’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series on a young man’s treacherous expedition from Honduras to the United States in search of his mother. The book, the girl said, made her realize how similar her Latino classmates’ history is to her own.

“We’re so separate, Black and Latino,” the girl said of her school. “But I read this book and I thought about how my grandmother came north during the Great Migration and left my mother behind. I get this. I have a bridge now to relate to my classmates. . . .”

Nazario believes 90 percent of good writing starts with a strong idea. While she considers herself a natural reporter, she rewrote Enrique’s Journey 12 times. She believes teachers
must dissuade students from believing writing is always easy. Like any worthwhile pursuit, she said, good writing [can be] difficult.

“You build a house one great brick at a time,” Nazario said. “I work to make my writing as clear and simple as possible. If you have powerful scenes and powerful details in the narrative, you can take readers on a powerful ride. Sometimes the most powerful stories are simply told. . . .”

While visiting colleges, Nazario is both exhilarated and terrified when first-year students say her book is the first they ever read cover to cover. She views literacy as a top priority for the immigrant population. . . .

“Immigrant children or the children of immigrants are the fastest growing demographic K–12,” Nazario said. “These kids are the future workforce of this country. Nearly half of Latino students drop out of high school. That is the highest percentage of any ethnic group. Succeeding with literacy is critical, and we are obviously failing.”

When teaching Enrique’s Journey, Nazario encourages teachers to use the text to foster critical discussion. . . . “Always remember,” Nazario says, “one of our first instincts should be compassion, to try to put ourselves in other peoples’ shoes. It does not mean we always agree with their choices, but before you judge you should try to see things through their eyes. We have to be open to being transported to different places with an open heart.”

Sonia Nazario was a keynote speaker at the 2014 NCTE Convention in Washington, DC.