Encouraging our Students to be Critical Thinkers: The Importance of Student Self Assessment

Photo courtesy of Jade Rivera

In this day and age of 21st century teaching and learning, there are endless ways to assess our students.  From formative to summative to everything in between, we are sometimes up to our ears in student data! With a growing number of assessments available at our fingertips, we need to be selective with the types of assessments we give our students.  Allowing students to self assess after a project or group activity is one great way to gather information about our students. Student self assessment is when you give students opportunities to stop, think and determine if they fully understood a concept after a lesson, project, or cooperative learning experience.  It can be extremely helpful for ELLs, as it gives them time to slow down and process what they are learning.


According to Academ, there are a plethora of key benefits in guiding students to self assess.  Some of these may include:

  • Helps to develop important meta-cognitive skills that contribute to a range of important graduate capabilities. All professionals must be able to evaluate their own performance, so this practice should be embedded in higher education learning as early as possible.
  • Increases self-awareness through reflective practice, making the criteria for self-evaluation explicit, and making performance improvement practices intrinsic to ongoing learning.
  • Contributes to the development of critical reviewing skills, enabling the learner to more objectively evaluate their own performance—and others’, when used in conjunction with peer assessment. With peer assessment they become more practised in giving constructive feedback, and receiving and acting on feedback received.
  • Helps students to take control of their own learning and assessment, and giving them the chance to manage their own learning and development more independently.

The Importance of Student Self-Assessment (2017, April 4). Retrieved from http://academ.com.au/importance-student-self-assessment/.

With that said, there are many ways you can encourage students to self assess.  Rubrics, checklists, teacher-student interviews, discussions, writing conferences or learning logs are just a few of the ways you can incorporate student self assessment into your classroom.  It should be noted that you need to first model for students how to self assess. I like to do a think aloud in front of my students to show them how I would self assess as I look at each assessment criteria.  I would work through a proficient assessment of my own creation, as well as a nearly proficient assessment I created that may not score as high on a rubric. That way, students are authentic when doing this themselves-you want to let students know that self assessment is for them-the goal is not to give yourself a high rating just because you “want a good grade.”  It’s important to reassure them the process will be graded, not the actual self-assessment. Once you model and emphasize this, I have found that this form of assessment can be extremely reliable and students usually do an accurate job of assessing themselves.

Math Self Assessment Rubric

So as we move into the second semester of the 18-19 school year, try and give students opportunities to take some time and assess how well they understand a concept. Check out a sample self assessment rubric we’ve used for a math project in the past. Let us know how it works for you in the comments below!

SAMPLE: Math Self Assessment Rubric

“The Benefits of Student Self-Assessment for Academic Performance | Academ.” Software for the Education Sector | Academ, 6 Mar. 2018, academ.com.au/importance-student-self-assessment/.

Gradual Release of Responsibility: An Effective Teacher to Student Hand-off

Part 3:  Gradual Release of Responsibility Model

*This blog post is part 3 of a four part series on lesson planning that will be published in the next few weeks.

As we mentioned before in previous blog posts, a large portion of our student population is made up of English language learners (ELs).  More than one third of our 600 plus students are considered to be ELs. So when lesson planning, it is really imperative that we consider our ELs.  We need to think about their language proficiency levels and academic histories.

No instructional model works better than gradual release of responsibility or GRR when working with ELLs.  GRR was first introduced by Pearson and Gallagher in 1983. Since then it has been coined with many different names.  For example, “I do, We do, You do together, and You do”. No matter what we call it, it still involves 4 steps: 1) Teacher modeling and/or think aloud, 2) guided instruction, 3) collaborative practice, and 4) independent practice.

For the purpose of today’s blog we will examine GRR with an English language development (ELD) lens.

Teacher Modeling and/or Think Aloud

The first step in GRR involves the teacher explicitly teaching a process or content.  My students watch and listen while I explain and model the day’s learning objective. Remember, a learning objective has two components:  language objective and content objective. With ELs in mind, I am conscientious about using academic language when modeling and teaching.

The first step is teaching students the vocabulary.  Here I use pictures, illustrations, and realia to explain each word.  When vocabulary has been taught, then I move on to teaching the concept or content from today’s objective. While doing so, it is imperative that I use the expected academic language for the lesson.  Another EL support that I can use is demonstration or providing an example. For instance, in a cause and effect lesson, I might show (Gestures are a great scaffolding for emerging ELs.) and say, “Esperanza woke up late this morning, therefore, she was late to school.”  I use examples that students can relate to–dropping a cellphone, knocking over a glass of water, etc.  In my think aloud (When the teacher, shares his/her thinking while doing an activity.), I use a specific sentence frame:  “______________, therefore,___________.” I provide my students with a few other keywords such as: then, because of (Make sure to explain the difference between using because of and just because), and due to.  Explain the syntax and provide several examples.  I specifically chose these keywords because they are appropriate for my late emerging and early expanding students.  

After teaching the vocabulary and the sentence structure, I then bring in the specific content.  I will use what I just modeled to demonstrate the objective using the appropriate content. By first starting with concepts that my students’ are familiar with, I lower the affective filter.  Now I can focus on teaching the lesson objective while using the language forms I used previously. In this particular instance we are working on finding examples of cause and effect in a non-fiction text that was previously read multiple times using close reading.  I make sure to do a think aloud so that students learn the inner dialogue that is going through my mind while I practice finding compare and contrast examples in the text. I also make sure to use the sentence frames I provided previously.

Guided Practice

During guided practice, we create an anchor chart together for cause and effect keywords and sentence frames. After that, we go back to the text and I guide them to a specific paragraph that shows a cause and effect relationship.  Together, through discussion, we identify the cause and effect. We use highlighters to mark keywords in the text that illustrates the causal concept. After we identify the cause and effect, I point them back to the anchor chart. Together we select a sentence frame to practice.  I write the sentence on the board (not forgetting my think aloud!), then, we echo read the sentence. It is important for ELs to have as many opportunities as possible for oral language practice.

After we practice our sentence, I ask students to rewrite the sentence using another sentence frame and keyword.  My students take turns sharing their sentences with an elbow partner. I make sure to walk around and listen in on my students practicing.  If I feel that they are ready, we move on to collaborative practice.

Collaborative Practice

Collaboration in itself is a great ELD teaching strategy.  Some experts believe that students learn best when practicing with a peer.

I ask my students to reread a specific paragraph, and as partners or small group, they find an example of the cause and effect relationship.  I use an altered version of the group response to the text graphic organizer and guide them during the collaborative practice.  I altered the graphic organizer to include a sentence frame for my newcomers or early emerging students.  For my late emerging and expanding students, I remind them to use any of the sentence frames we created earlier.  This portion of the lesson is rich in student voices. There is a lot of discussion and oral language practice. Again, while this is happening, I circulate around the room to provide assistance and to make an informal summative assessment of the students’ practice.  After writing their final sentence, the partners or group choose a reporter to read their sentence aloud. If I see that the students have a grasp of the concept, I then provide a formal summative assessment as independent practice.

Independent Practice

For independent practice I ask my students to submit an exit ticket.  Again, I direct them to another paragraph, ask them to read it quietly, and using highlighters for finding keywords, select the cause and the effect in the paragraph.  At this point in the lesson, I expect all of my students to use the different strategies we practiced in completing the assignment. The final product that they turn in as an exit ticket, is a cause and effect sentence, that is clearly written, using one of the sentence frames in our anchor chart.  

As I mentioned earlier, gradual release of responsibility is a great teaching strategy for all students.  It is especially useful in teaching ELs. One final reminder, GRR can be done in one lesson or multiple lessons during multiple days.  Good luck!

*This concludes part 3 of the 4-part series on lesson planning.  Please come back for the final installment on the use of summative assessment to guide instruction.

Language Boosting Routines for a Magical Math Time

We are so proud to announce our recent partnership with EdGems in creating ELL support strategies for their Math curriculum.  To celebrate this new project, we asked Ventura Unified School District Math teacher, Rosslyn Nikula, to be a guest blogger this week.

When I tell people I’m a kindergarten teacher, people often say “Oh that’s cute” or “Wow, you must be crazy!” While my students are very cute, anyone who has taught a five year old from a Title 1 school knows that the students are often in need of extra support with their vocabulary and speaking skills. Low language development coupled with low number sense and a general lack of mathematical background, which is common amongst many 5 year olds, often requires some “creativity” when crafting my lessons. I have found that embedding language routines into my daily math time boosts language development in my ELL students, as well as benefits all of my students.

One way to boost language is to create academic language “signal” words for transitions. Teaching kindergarten is often compared to “herding cats”, so the more transition chants and songs, the better! For example, when I want my students to sit along the edge of our rainbow carpet for a number talk or lesson, I say “perimeter”- they then chant back “Perimeter! Outside edge!”I also taught them to use a hand signal along with it that traces the edge of a rectangle. This visual, along with the definition, allows my students to place themselves easily in the correct position and they are learning academic language. I have used this same trick to teach definitions of shapes (and it’s an easy way to teach them to sit in a circle, which is no small feat in kindergarten!), addition and subtraction, comparing, and so on. I have found this is most effective when a hand signal is taught along with it. Sometimes, depending on their level, my ELL students might pause on a term but if I use the hand signal it jogs their memory. This could easily be adapted to older students, while they already know how to sit in a circle, the typical “class, class” chant for attention could be turned into endless opportunities for building academic language.

Another trick I use to boost language is a game I like to call “He said, She said”. I use this any time I ask my students to “turn and talk” to a neighbor. I find it especially rich during my Number Corner math time. When I say “Turn and Talk” my students chant back “Knees and eyes, head to head, he said, she said! This reminds my students my expectation for the conversation. Students know that they have to have their knees and eyes facing each other, heads together discussing the concept, and they will be responsible for using the words “He said” or “She said” at the beginning of their sentence if called on to answer. This strategy is three-fold. First, it gives my student a sentence frame (they aren’t able to read yet, everything is verbal) to begin their speaking. Second, it requires them to speak to their neighbors and listen to them enough to relay what they said. Third, this opens up discussion with my students about their agreement with the statement. I find this very rich at math time, especially. I ask my students whether they agree with the statement and have them “turn and talk” again with a new student. This allows my student multiple opportunities to engage in conversations with multiple viewpoints. It also allows my students to agree or disagree and explain their thinking. Mathematical discourse is an engaging and enriching tool for all students.

When sprinkling a little more magic into my math time, I concentrate on connecting visuals and kinesthetic movements, to verbal use. As I mentioned, we are working on our number sense (sometimes all year) in kindergarten. Finger fluency is a huge part of our understanding of numbers and the patterns that make up mathematics. In fact, many studies have come out that encourage the use of fingers in math, no matter what age the students are. It has been found that finger use and  finger fluency fires different synapses and uses a different part of the brain. For example, when I have my students use both hands to make the number 7, I have them repeat after me what they see. “Five plus two equals seven” or “five and two make seven”, depending on if we are past the beginning of the year. I then have my students cross their hands over one another’s and say “flip the addends”. They then say “two plus five equals seven”. This requires my students to cross the midline of their brain and use both sides of it. My number corner also has the visuals of each number made from hands, with the word and symbol underneath. As the year progresses, I challenge the students to substitute one finger from one hand and add it to the other, to find different parts of each number. This strategy could be adapted to older students with multiplication and division too.

As each new school year begins, sometimes I even find myself asking if I’m crazy for teaching kindergarten. It’s a labor of love, but when I see my students presenting and asking questions, and engaging in rhetoric, I know it’s worth a bit of my sanity.

Rosslyn Nikula earned her teaching credential and Master’s in Educational Leadership at California Lutheran University. She is on her seventh year of teaching primary elementary school, with the last four years in kindergarten. She was a recipient of a Teacher of the Year award her second year teaching and was recognized by the Ventura County Math Council as an Outstanding Educator of Mathematics last year. With a Leading Edge Digital Educator certification, Mrs. Nikula is a tech mentor for her school site, enjoys teaching GATE classes and an extended Enrichment math class for the 5th grade students, as well. With a fifth grader, third grader and a kindergarten student of her own, she uses her “spare” time to run half marathons and serve on the board of her children’s school PTA.

Targeted Planning: Shooting For A Successful Lesson

Part 2:  Creating clearly defined lesson objectives.

*This blog post is part 2 of a four part series on lesson planning that will be published in the next few weeks.

Last week I introduced our blog series on strategic and intentional lesson planning to better support all students (especially ELLs).  In that post, we talked about the importance of planning ahead and looking at the “big picture” in order to deliver quality instruction that will provide all students with opportunities to successfully navigate the topic and learn the key concept being taught.

In order to strategically lesson plan, you need to know your students and your state’s content standards.  Knowing your students will help with differentiating lessons in order to make it accessible to all types and levels of learners.  Being familiar with the state standards enable you to create lessons that are challenging but appropriate. These lessons will also prepare your students for the future and provide them with the 21st century readiness skills necessary to successfully navigate higher education and–eventually–the workforce.

Now that we are clear as to why strategic and intentional lesson planning is important, we are going to go over the how.  In this post, I will talk about the first crucial part of lesson planning–creating learning objectives that includes both the content and language objectives.

What Makes a Good Learning Objective?

  • A good learning objective should be a combination of both the content and language objectives.  The content objective focuses on the mastery of a concept or topic by using certain academic skills.  The best place to look when creating a content objective is the content area standards for your subject.  Most states have their own version of the state standards for each content area.The language objective, on the other hand, offers the opportunity for students to practice and gain academic language skills.  The language objective focuses on language discourse, form, and vocabulary that a student needs in order to successfully master the content objective. Remember, the language objective should focus on literacy or communication skills that students need to practice and improve upon.


  • A good learning objective can be observed and assessed.  When creating a learning objective, you have to keep the assessment in mind.  How will you know if students accomplished the objective? Making the objective observable helps you modify and/or adjust your instruction.  By making the modifications and adjustments, you are tailoring your instruction to address students’ immediate needs. The formative assessment based on the objective will give you data to drive your instruction.  Data driven instruction is very powerful. It is also the key to a good differentiated lesson plan/instruction that will help you reach all your different learners.


  • A good learning objective must be written in language that students can comprehend.  An objective is only good if both parties–teacher and students–understand it.  Letting students know what they are expected to master gives them some ownership of their own learning.  It also gives, both the teacher and students, a focus for the day’s lesson. It keeps them accountable and on-topic.  It’s like the idea…it is easier to get somewhere when you know where you are going.

How to Write a Good Learning Objective?

Remember a good learning objective should include the content objective and the language objective.

In order to write a learning objective, you need to know the following:

  • The content standard
  • The content or topic to be discussed
  • Language Proficiency level focus
  • ELPAC or WIDA language proficiency descriptors
  • Academic skill to be practiced
  • Context for discourse
  • Language forms to be used

The content standard and topic are used to create content objectives.  This part of the objective focuses on the academic skill necessary in order to comprehend the content.  

For example:

In order to write the language objective you will need to know:  1) What is the academic discourse used; 2) the context in which the discourse will take place (i.e. group discussion, partner share, etc.); and 3) the language forms to be used.  In order to know all these, you must be familiar with your language proficiency level descriptors. This will help you understand what is an appropriate language support and what to expect at each level.  

For example (This is an example of bridging level language objective):

Combine the language objective and the content objective to create a learning objective.

For example:

Students will be able to use sentence frames of complex sentences with conjunctions to explain how a bill becomes law during group discussion.

Once you have a good learning objective, you can start planning the lesson.  Your lesson will be intentional and strategic because your learning objective is very specific; it will be content standard and language proficiency based.

*This concludes part 2 of the 4-part series on lesson planning.  Please come back next week to learn about gradual release instruction.

Part 1 of 4: Strategic and Intentional Lesson Planning

*This blog post is part of a four part series on lesson planning that will be published in the next few weeks.

Strategic or intentional lesson planning is a plan that is clearly developed based on the standards, and the different types and levels of students in your classroom.  It is intentional by having well defined learning objectives. By creating strategic and intentional lesson plans, you are meeting all students’ needs. You are providing them appropriate supports based on their academic language and abilities that will enable them to be successful in the classroom.  You are creating learning scenarios that are appropriate and doable for all your students. In other words, you are meeting each student at a level that they can be successful in.

Like most teachers, I am guilty of “winging it” on some days.  There could be many different reasons for it:

  • my previously planned lesson is bombing;
  • there was a sudden change in the day’s schedule;
  • I’m having a tough day and I know that this lesson needs my 110%;
  • the students are having a tough day and I can already foresee disaster;
  • Or, an awesome teachable moment just presented itself!

Whatever my reason be, I give myself a pass some days to “wing it”.  Doing it from time to time is normal and acceptable.

However, in teaching, we all know that strategic lesson planning is often the key to a successful lesson.  It is especially important to create intentional lesson plans when we teach a very diverse class (Whose class is not these days?).  Teaching English language learners (ELLs) require very specific objectives, process, and assessments. We have to be aware of–not only the standards–but the language proficiency of the students which will dictate our lesson expectations.

Know Your Students

It is important to know who and what level your students are in.  You can look at formative assessments or previous summative assessments.  You can look at their language proficiency levels and their educational status–GATE, SpED, EL or EO (English only).   

Knowing who comprises your class will help you write purposeful lesson objectives (Lesson objectives will be discussed further in part 2 of the series.).  Lesson objectives should include a content objective and a language objective. The content objective focuses on the skill needed to access the core content.  The language objective is the the language form and function needed to complete the objective. It is always important to keep in mind that language objectives should promote academic language growth in all your students.


Know Your Standards

Because I know my students, I am aware that their needs vary.  The one size fits all lesson plan is not going to be as effective as a differentiated one.  In order to create a good differentiated lesson plan for instructing ELs, you’ll need to be familiar with your content area standards, and your state’s English language development (ELD) standards.  In California, ELD standards are based on the ELPAC (English Language Proficiency Assessment of California). The ELPAC is a test that that has two components:  initial assessment–to be administered once when an EL student enters a United States school system; and the summative assessment–a yearly assessment carried out in the spring semester to all ELLs. The assessment results place each student at a certain level in a language proficiency continuum. Other states follow their own–most follow WIDA (formerly known as World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment).

ELPAC and WIDA have different levels of language proficiency.  Each level dictates what EL students are capable of in language skills and what should be expected of each.  ELPAC has three proficiency levels and four performance levels. WlDA, on the other hand, has six proficiency and performance levels.

Knowing your ELPAC or WIDA proficiency levels and your state’s ELD standards will help when creating strategic language objectives.  By creating targeted lessons, you are setting students up for success. You are meeting the students at their instructional level. You are providing them with opportunities to practice at a language level that they are capable of.  Think about it…a level 3 student is able to participate in a much more complex language discourse than a level 1 student. So, next time you plan a lesson, ask yourself the question, “Are my expectations appropriate for all my students to be successful?”

*This concludes part 1 of the 4-part series on lesson planning.  Please come back next week to learn about creating clearly defined lesson objectives.

3 Powerful Differentiation Strategies for Second Language Learners

As we wrap up the first quarter of the 2018-2019 school year, classrooms around the country are now in full swing; routines have been put into place, students have settled into their communities, and Term 1 report cards are going home. As a teacher, you are beginning to get comfortable with how the year is progressing-then you notice a new name on your roster. Yumiko is a new student from Japan-he and his family have just moved to your district and he is getting placed in your classroom.  His English skills are low-you are tasked with not only teaching him English but also making sure he is accessing grade level curriculum. How can you best support him in your classroom? What are some strategies that could help him learn the language AND access grade level content? Here are a few differentiation strategies that can support ELLs in the mainstream classroom.

1. Keep it Visual



Students who are learning a new language have a harder time processing spoken language.  Using images and realia can support a student’s understanding of concepts. As well, input charts can be a powerful tool when teaching second language learners.  Input charts are visual representations of the concepts you are teaching. They can be used in any content area and help students build vocabulary and organize information. Here is a quick step-by-step process on how to incorporate these charts into your classroom.

  1.     Determine the type of input chart that fits the content standard. (Comparative, pictorial, compare/contrast)
  2.    Pencil the information on large chart paper. Use a document camera to trace the visual.  Besides the sketch, include bulleted notes of all important information.
  3.    Decide beforehand how the information should be chunked and color coded. Hint: put a dot of the color next to the section.
  4.    Write/sketch as you talk to students. Stop to provide frequent opportunities for ‘heads together’ processing of the information. Give specific prompts about what has just been sketched/written.
  5.    The next day  add real pictures (from the picture files)  during the review of the chart.

And voila, you now have a pictorial representation of a grade level concept!

2. Use Close Reading

Close reading is thoughtful, critical analysis of a text.  In a previous blog post, we outlined the process of close reading: Supporting ELLs in the Mainstream Classroom.  We can’t stress enough the power of incorporating this strategy in your classroom. Here is a quick example of how this could look:

1st Reading: The teacher reads the text aloud, modeling good reading and allowing the students to listen for the gist of the text (what the text is mostly about).  At this time, students can note any unfamiliar words or ask any clarifying questions.


2nd Reading: Students work in partners to reread and interact with the text in order to create a collaborative summary.  Students might circle the nouns and noun phrases, underline the verbs, and box the keywords as a strategy to help them break the text down and find the meaning of the text.  (Highlighters are helpful!)


3rd Reading: The students reread the text again in pairs, answering text dependent questions provided by the teacher.  They will work together to create collaborative responses.

3. Structured Student Talk Time

How often do we have students “Turn and Talk,” without explicitly teaching them how to do this?  As a teacher, I am guilty of giving my students talk time, but not structuring it in a way that best supports students.  For ELLs, structuring student talk time can help them build oral language skills as well as help them gain confidence in their speaking abilities. First, set a purpose for the talk. EL Achieve suggests, “Knowing your purpose is essential to selecting the right routine. When we want students to go deeper in their understanding of content, we may use a routine that requires them to discuss a correct answer, rather than one designed for repeated language practice.”  Do you want students to practice:

Fluency: Getting “miles on the tongue”

Flexibility: Putting sentences together in different ways to express the same idea

Depth: Supporting conversations to elaborate and grow ideas

Shine: Collecting summative assessment data

Knowing the goal of student talk will help you choose the appropriate speaking protocol.  Our friends at the Sacramento County Office of Education and EL Achieve put together this great resource outlining student talk protocols.  Explicitly teaching these protocols can aid in developing students oral language skills, as well as allow them to discuss grade level concepts.

Structured Student Talk Protocols

As educators, we are always looking for new ideas on how to differentiate for students in our classrooms.  At Smart ELD, we are constantly implementing and revising strategies that support second language learners.  For more ideas on differentiation, contact us at info@smarteld.org.

Newcomer Success: A Chapter Preview

English language learners are a broad category of students that are at varying levels in their English language acquisition.  A particular group within this population that require a lot of specialized attention and strategies are newcomers. Newcomers are students that have recently arrived to the United States from another country, and are trying to acquire the language on top of everything else they must face socially, emotionally and academically.  At our site, a student is considered a newcomer for their first school year in the U.S.


Among the academic challenges that newcomers face, such as developing proficiency in a new language and accessing content in their core classes, they are also trying to navigate a system that is completely new to them.  The very procedures and processes that keep a school running could be immensely challenging for newcomers that are unfamiliar with these routines. Their previous schools were likely conducted very differently, and in many cases, newcomers may not have had much school experience before (if at all).  They may also be facing a lot of trauma from such a move, or from events that could have occurred before moving. This means that this has to be a huge focus of a newcomer program- and yes, there should definitely be a newcomer program in place whether your site sees 2-3 newcomers per year, or 200. What that program looks like will clearly differ, as there is no one-size-fits-all approach, but some processes should be in place to bring newcomers on board, as it will likely occur throughout the school year.  Remember, newcomers truly need and deserve specialized attention to help them acclimate to their new environment.


At our site, we see a large number of newcomers yearly, and they continue to arrive throughout the year.  In order to best meet their needs, we have a designated newcomer class for 2 periods in the morning. This class focuses not only on academic content, but aims at meeting some of the social emotional needs of newcomers.  We intentionally placed this class in the morning, so that newcomers are able to start their day in a place where they feel comfortable and welcome. As previously mentioned, these students may be experiencing a great deal of emotional stress, which must be taken into consideration.  To help address this, one of the key highlights of our program includes valuing, utilizing and incorporating the students’ home languages and cultures to their benefit. Equally important is the role of goal setting with students, both academically and socially. From this, we are able to tailor our program to help students reach their goals, and by frequent conferencing and progress check ins with students, they feel confident about meeting their goals and setting new ones.


Other important components include the emphasis on learning routines and procedures of our school, involving families when possible, especially in terms of sharing a set of clear entrance and exit criteria for the program, providing connections to content area classes, and continuing our support with newcomers once they have exited the program.



Creating a Meaningful Home/School Partnership: Making Connections with Families to Encourage Student Success

The ancient African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child” continues to hold true even today.  Now more than ever, schools and families need to come together and develop a partnership to ensure the success of all students.  As educators, we know all too well how important parent involvement is for our students. In fact, the National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education states, “Parent involvement in education is crucial. No matter their income or background, students with involved parents are more likely to have higher grades and test scores, attend school regularly, have better social skills, show improved behavior, and adapt well to school” (National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education, 2006).   As a teacher, partnering with families is one of my top goals every year. This is easier said than done with those whom have just arrived to a new country. As previously mentioned, families immigrate to the United States for a myriad of reasons. Many families arrive here with immediate hurdles to overcome. Some of these issues can be attributed to trauma they encountered in their home country, low literacy capabilities in their primary languages, or an overall misunderstanding of how the educational system functions in the United States.  In many Latin American countries, for example, parents view education as the school’s responsibility. Many times, parents are hand’s off when it comes to their child’s schooling. As well, Latino parents may feel self-conscious when it comes to discussing education in a system they are unfamiliar with themselves (Delgado-Gaitan, 2007). This cultural difference can become an obstacle for U.S. Teachers. The good news is there are ways we as educators can get our newly immigrated families assimilated to our schools.

Acclimating the entire family to how schools function in the United States is an essential first step in developing that school/home partnership.  Parents need to understand our educational system in order for them to realize the vital role they play in their child’s education. Every year, I make it a priority to hold regular, on-going parent support meetings to educate and support the families of the students in my classroom.  During these hour long meetings, I discuss an array of topics, such as my grading practices, when to expect report cards, homework expectations, how to access their child’s grades online, the daily ins and outs of school in general, and the importance of their role at home. I have translators in the top few languages of my students (Spanish and Vietnamese at my school) to ensure the understanding of the families present.  I also answer any questions they may have and emphasize that they contact me throughout the school year if questions arise. I usually hold these meetings once every two months, in the evening when parents are most likely able to attend. Yes, this is after my contractual hours. Yes, this can be seen as extra work. However, the benefit to my students and their families who choose to attend outweighs the slight burden this puts on me an average of 6 nights a year.  This is a great first step in getting parents onboard with their child’s education and breaking down the cultural barrier that may exist between you and your families.

Along with families, students need to understand their role in education.  It is essential that we spend time setting a “school foundation” for our students. This means walking them through their schedule, showing them how lunch time operates, giving them a safe space to go when they are feeling overwhelmed, and giving them basic tools (including vocabulary) for surviving the first few weeks of school.  Every year, I spend the first couple of weeks not only teaching basic, survival language to my ELLs, but I also make sure to walk them through the lunch line (I set up a convenient time with the cafeteria to do this). I take them to their PE class (during my class time) and discuss what happens in the locker room. I walk around and introduce them to the front office staff, our Principal and Vice Principals, Counselors, Librarian, and anyone else they may encounter outside of my classroom walls.  I also open my room at lunchtime for the first few weeks of school so students can come and eat lunch in a safe place if they choose. I find that I only need to do this for the first few weeks of schools, as middle school students do not want to eat with their teacher once they start feeling comfortable with their surroundings. Doing these things for students at the beginning of the year can have lasting effects on how they view school for the rest of the year.

Another way we can connect to our families is by becoming familiar with Funds of Knowledge.  Funds of Knowledge are collections of knowledge based in cultural practices that are a part of families’ inner culture, work experience, or their daily routine (No Time for Flash Cards, 2018).  This concept was developed in 1992 by educational researchers Luis Moll, Cathy Amanti, Deborah Neff, and Norma Gonzalez. It is an extremely powerful resource for teachers to tap into when teaching ELLs.  In my Newcomer classroom, I use Funds of Knowledge as the basis for my first academic unit. For this unit, I focus on the cultural traditions of students in my classroom. We learn about one another’s home country, daily life, and favorite customs that play an essential role in my student’s lives.  At the end of the unit, I invite students to share a traditional dish and recipe from their family. If able, students cook and bring in a family dish to share. We invite students’ families and some of our selected school staff members to attend our potluck. At the gathering, each student presents (in English) about their dish.  As we know, food is a great barrier breaker and our students, staff and family members really enjoy sampling and sharing their traditional dishes with one another.

Research from the National PTA tell us “The most accurate predictors of student achievement in school are not family income or social status, but the extent to which the family creates a home environment that encourages learning, communicates high yet reasonable expectations for the child’s achievement, and becomes involved in the child’s education at school (National PTA 2000).  It is absolutely necessary that we bridge the gap between home and school and developing a strong, working relationship with the families of the students in our classrooms. Flexibility is key; we know our students can be transient and our classrooms are dynamic and ever changing throughout the entire school year. Striving to include families into your classroom on a daily basis can have lasting effects on the educational success of your students, especially those who are not native to the United States.

Leveling the Playing Field for ELLs: Equitable Grading

We can officially say goodbye to summer break and hello to another school year.  At this point in time, you are probably into the third week of school. Procedures and routines have been explained and practiced multiple times.  Back-to-school and community building exercises have been shared and implemented. You’ve spent hours lesson planning for the next several weeks; and the class is ready, and you are ready to get into the meaty details of your first unit.  


Having great and well thought out lesson plans is important.  But more than just looking at lesson plans, we, as teachers, have to investigate who the students are in our classrooms.  At our site, it is even more important to know your class because we have many ELLs of all levels and special education students mainstreamed in CORE classes.


We’ve written several blog posts on lesson differentiation and modification.  Today, I am going to talk about differential grading. What is differential grading?  Let me ask you this, “Would you compare an art project done by a kindergartener to a project done by a freshman in highschool?”  Most likely your answer is no.


In our classrooms today, we have students of varying levels of abilities and language proficiency.  We have our general ed students in the same classes as our newcomers and ELLs, and special education students.  But just as the example mentioned above, we wouldn’t grade our newcomers the same way we would grade our native English speakers, right? So, let’s go back to “What is differential grading?”  First of all, a grade is an indication of a student’s understanding of content based on the state or federal standards. The standards are set with the assumption that all students in the classroom are well versed in English and have no other issues that may hinder their learning; but we know that that is not true.  Our classrooms are as diverse as boxes of crayons. So again, “What is differential grading?” Differential grading is an equitable way of grading students with considerations of their language abilities and/or special needs.


The most important word in the definition of differential grading is the word equitable.  Let’s not confuse equitable with equality. According to the Learner’s Dictionary (A wonderful online dictionary for lower grade levels and ELLs), equitable is “dealing FAIRLY and equally with everyone.”  Equal is defined as “not changing:  the same for every person.” Let’s go back to my previous example–grading a kindergartener and a high schooler based on the same standards makes it equal.  But, is it fair? Your answer is probably a hard “NO.” Grading a kindergartner and high schooler based on his/her grade level standards is not equal (different standards), but it is equitable.  It is fairly grading each student based on appropriate measures. We grade the kindergarten based on his/her grade level standards, and the high schooler on his/her grade level standards. It is equitable because we are comparing them appropriately.  It is equal because both are measured against grade level standards. The criteria is the same, but the measurement is different.


Now that we are clear on what differential grading is, let’s look at how to set the appropriate expectations for ELLs with different language proficiency levels.  In California, we recently adopted the ELPAC (English Language Proficiency Assessment of California) as a way to measure students’ English language abilities. There are four proficiency levels, and three performance levels (ELD standards):  Emerging, Expanding, and Bridging.


ELPAC​ Proficiency ​Level​ ​Descriptors according to the California Department of Education

Level 4–English learners at this level have well​ ​developed​ ​oral (listening and speaking) and written (reading and writing) skills. They can use English to learn and communicate in meaningful ways that are appropriate to different tasks, purposes, and audiences in a variety of social and academic contexts. They may need occasional linguistic support to engage in familiar social and academic contexts; they may need light support to communicate on less familiar tasks and topics. This​ ​test​ ​performance​ ​level​ ​corresponds​ ​to​ ​the​ ​upper​ ​range​ ​of​ ​the​ ​“Bridging”​ ​proficiency​ ​level, as​ ​described​ ​in​ ​the​ ​California​ ​English​ ​Language​ ​Development​ ​Standards,​ ​Kindergarten​ ​Through Grade​ ​12​ ​(2012​ ​ELD​ ​Standards).


Level 3–English learners at this level have moderately​ ​developed​ oral (listening and speaking) and written (reading and writing) skills. They can sometimes use English to learn and communicate in meaningful ways in a range of topics and content areas. They need light to minimal linguistic support to engage in familiar social and academic contexts; they need moderate support to communicate on less familiar tasks and topics. This​ ​test​ ​performance​ ​level​ ​corresponds​ ​to​ ​the lower​ ​range​ ​of​ ​the​ ​“Bridging”​ ​proficiency​ ​level​ ​through​ ​the​ ​upper​ ​range​ ​of​ ​the​ ​“Expanding” proficiency​ ​level,​ ​as​ ​described​ ​in​ ​the​ ​2012​ ​ELD​ ​Standards.


Level 2–English learners at this level have somewhat​ ​developed​ oral (listening and speaking) and written (reading and writing) skills. They can use English to meet immediate communication needs but often are not able to use English to learn and communicate on topics and content areas. They need moderate-to-light linguistic support to engage in familiar social and academic contexts; they need substantial-to-moderate support to communicate on less familiar tasks and topics. This​ ​test performance​ ​level​ ​corresponds​ ​to​ ​the​ ​mid-​ ​to​ ​low-range​ ​of​ ​the​ ​“Expanding”​ ​proficiency​ ​level,​ ​as described​ ​in​ ​the​ ​2012​ ​ELD​ ​Standards.


Level 1–English learners at this level have minimally​ ​developed​ oral (listening and speaking) and written (reading and writing) English skills. They tend to rely on learned words and phrases to communicate meaning at a basic level. They need substantial-to-moderate linguistic support to communicate in familiar social and academic contexts; they need substantial linguistic support to communicate on less familiar tasks and topics. This​ ​test​ ​performance​ ​level​ ​corresponds​ ​to​ ​the “Emerging”​ ​proficiency​ ​level,​ ​as​ ​described​ ​in​ ​the​ ​2012​ ​ELD​ ​Standards.

Considering all these leveling descriptors, this is what we came up with for differential grading and assignment considerations.  

During the first few months of a newcomer’s exposure to school,  the student might go through what is called a “silent period”. This is a period when the newcomer student sits quietly in a class, not participating, but taking in everything around him/her.  The silent period is very important because it is the first step to language and literacy acquisition. Even though the student is not doing anything, he or she may be absorbing all the language and literacy around him/her.  Typically, after the silent period, a newcomer will start speaking with simple one word responses. Then, it becomes phrases, and with proper scaffolding, sentences, and so on and so forth.


Acknowledging the different stages of language acquisition, we assign and grade student work accordingly.  Newcomers or emerging language learners are not expected to do the same work as his other native English speaking classmates.  Knowing that their work needs to be differentiated and modified, the grading must be too. A pass or fail is the simplest way to grade a newcomer.  We expect, with proper scaffolding and support, the student will be able to do simple tasks such as labeling, pointing, copying, etcetera. At this level, students will need a lot more time to identify, process, and hopefully respond.  We will be writing about what to expect from your ELLs at each standard level in a later post.


At the expanding level, students are expected to  produce some product. But keep in mind, they will need lots of support in order to complete assignments.  At this level, students are graded on the same standards but with well-scaffolded and modified assignments or tasks.  Students at this level also require extra time to complete their work because it takes them longer to process information and compose their responses.  Sentence frames are very helpful for ELLs at this level.


The bridging level is when students have a command of everyday English but require support in academic language.  Even though the students can talk fluently in English, they will still need help. Sentence frames, graphic organizers, and close reading are just a few scaffoldings that can be put in place to help ELL students (Actually…all students) better comprehend the concepts taught.  With all the supports in place, students at this level can be graded according to the grade level standards.


So as you can see, it is not the grading that is modified, it is the process and expectations that are adjusted to appropriately fit each student’s needs and abilities.  We grade a kindergartener based on kindergarten standards, and high school freshman based on 9th grade standards.

Benefits of Co-teaching: Success of ALL Students

Co-teaching is not a new buzzword or concept.  It is a strategy that some teachers have used for quite sometime now.  The only difference is that co-teaching is again coming to the forefront of education.  There are many different ideas on what co-teaching means. At our school site, co-teaching is made up of two teachers with specific specialities.  One teacher is the content area expert and the other teacher is either an English language development (ELD) specialist or a Special education (SpED) specialist–especially trained in differentiation.


We’ve created such a program to help our content area teachers better differentiate and modify lessons to allow access for all students.  Majority of our Long Term English Learners (LTELS) are mainstreamed in the content area classes. Teaching LTELs is crucial because they are right on the cusp of reclassification (When an EL student is reclassified as  Fluent English Proficient (FEP).


Our school site has over 250 ELLs.  Not all of them can be in a language support class but require services according to California Department of Education; so, we decided that the best way to get the most bang for our buck is to create co-teaching classes that have ELD support.  This way we are able to reach more students and model differentiated instructional strategies ot the content area teacher. The hope is that, after a year of co-teaching, the content area teacher will have a myriad of differentiation strategies that s/he can apply in the years to come.


A few years ago, I was paired with a brand new 7th grade History teacher.  We were concerned that placing him in a co-teaching class might be too overwhelming for a year one teacher.  After a few weeks of adjustment (and some struggles), we found our groove and had the best school year. We witnessed our students, including all the ELs, engaged in every lesson.  The History teacher was so thankful for the experience because even though we only co-taught one class a day, he learned teaching strategies that he was able to incorporate in his lessons for the other class periods.  He was able to replicate the methods we worked on for each lesson. If the co-teaching strategy is done well, it can benefit so many students because the content area teacher gains a portfolio of differentiation strategies he or she can apply in the school years to come.


Another co-teaching partnership I’ve seen is  when two teachers from different content areas teach side by side.  One example is a Science teacher and a Physical Education teacher. This is a great way to do cross-curricular activities such as Project Based Learning (PBL) activities.  Buck Institute of Learning defines PBL as a teaching strategy wherein:


Students work on a project over an extended period of time – from a week up to a semester – that engages them in solving a real-world problem or answering a complex question. They demonstrate their knowledge and skills by developing a public product or presentation for a real audience.  As a result, students develop deep content knowledge as well as critical thinking, creativity, and communication skills in the context of doing an authentic, meaningful project. Project Based Learning unleashes a contagious, creative energy among students and teachers.


With co-teaching in mind, here are a few tips on how to have an effective and successful experience:

  • Meet with your partner teacher before the start of the school year to discuss discipline expectations and teaching styles.  You want to make sure that you are both on the same page to prevent a good cop/bad cop scenarios.


  • During the first few days of school, make sure to explain to the students what and why co-teaching.  This sets the tone for the class. If the students understand what co-teaching is about, they will be more receptive to the idea.  Make sure to share with them how this format is going to benefit them.


  • It is also important to explain to the students what role each teacher plays in the class.  Make sure to send the message that both teachers are equal partners. This prevents students from forming an idea that they only have to listen to one teacher.  


  • As the school year progresses, make sure that you have a standing meeting time for planning.  It is a “sacred” time where both teachers drop everything else they are doing and focus solely on planning for the class.  It is also a great time to reflect on how the class is going, and whether changes need to be made. Common prep periods really help with planning.


  • Try to plan ahead.  Plan at least one week ahead to make sure that you both know the flow of the lessons.  It will also give you an opportunity to discuss who is teaching what part of the lesson.  From my experience, it was really hard to teach the class “on the fly.” I found that the lessons tend to be unsuccessful and chaotic.  Another reason for planning ahead is that it gives the “specialist” an opportunity to create modifications or come up with differentiated strategies for the lessons.


  • Make sure that both teachers have a role in the instruction every day.  You want to avoid students believing that the other teacher is a “helper.”  Again, you are showing your students you are equal partners. It is also great modeling for collaboration.


  • Most importantly, be open and get to know each other.  Knowing your teaching partner can make for a pleasant school year.  You might even gain a new friend.


In the end, there are different models of co-teaching available today, but only you as partners can decide what is best for your class.  Your cooperation and collaboration can make or break a co-teaching team.


Co-teaching Models

from www.edu240coteaching.wordpress.com

  • One Teach, One Support: In this model, one teacher is “leading” the lesson, while the other is monitoring student behavior, setting up the classroom for later activities, or generally supporting the primary teacher. It is important to remember that both teachers are playing an active role in the lesson at any given time, despite one teacher being at the front of the group while the other teacher circulates. (Murawski and Spencer, 2011).


  • Team Teaching: In this model, the two teachers work as a team. Instead of one teacher circulating, both educators are at the front of the class leading the class and complementing one another throughout the lesson time (Murawski and Spencer, 2011)


  • Parallel Teaching: This model involves two lessons occurring simultaneously with smaller teacher to student ratios. The students are grouped into two sections. There is no particular way in which students must be grouped; however, it should be in a way that best meets the goals and objectives of the lesson. (Murawski and Spencer, 2011).


  • Station Teaching: In this model, learners are grouped into three or more groups to progress through specific workstations. Teachers may choose to each lead a station, one may lead a station while the other circulates, or both may circulate as students move throughout the classroom. Groupings here are not necessarily determined by grade level (Murawski and Spencer, 2011).


  • Alternative teaching: One teacher works with a larger group of students, while the second teacher works with a smaller group of students who might need more attention, whether they have disabilities or are gifted students. It is important that no new information is given to either group at this time so that students are not falling behind their peers based on their need for additional support or practice. (Murawski and Spencer, 2011).


These five models constitute some of the most common forms of co-teaching in the classroom today. Each can be used individually, or a team can alternate between forms. It is important that whichever model is used, it is used so that students are receiving the maximum benefit of having multiple educators present.