Hitting Two Birds with One Stone:
September Activities for English Language Learners
September still excites me. A brand new beginning, another chance to start fresh. As a child, I thought of it as a time for school supplies and shiny new shoes. As an ESL teacher, September is an opportunity for professional creativity and growth, for getting to know my students, and for setting the tone for the year. In September, we meet our “new” students; if we work with a self-contained ESL class, the students may be unfamiliar to us, if we work as a pull-out or push-in teacher, we may know them already. This may change, though, as students’ current language or literacy level may have changed since the last time we saw them, or they may have undergone transformative experiences in their lives. September is an opportunity to get to know our students all over again, and to set the stage for the acquisition of English in meaningful and authentic ways throughout the year, thereby hitting two birds with one stone.
To ensure the success of ELLs, we must look to best practices. Marzano (2003) advises us that ELLs should participate in a curriculum that is research based and grade appropriate. I advise graduate students in TESOL, many of whom are already teaching, to try the two activity types outlined here in September, to set the stage for their use throughout the year. These activity types, which can conceivably be used daily, are a scavenger hunt and a read-aloud/response. These activities may sound simple or “old school,” but they can add authenticity to a school day jam-packed with mandated curricula and edicts from school administration. Any number of icebreaker activities might be used, but for years I have successfully used these particular activities, redesigned to be age/proficiency level appropriate, to achieve both goals.
Find Someone Who.....
One type of scavenger hunt activity is Find Someone Who … This activity serves to both lower the affective filter (Krashen, 1982) and help students to get to know one another. During this activity, each student receives a set of clauses that completes the statement, “Find someone who …” The clauses should be culturally neutral and appropriate for the age of your students. For elementary students, the statements might be, “Find someone who went to the zoo this summer” or “Find someone who has three siblings.” High school or college students might be asked to “Find someone who read four books over the summer.” Students might be asked to write the name of the classmate on a line below the phrase.
This activity can be used year round; for instance, to focus on grammar, “Find someone who has traveled to another continen,” or to reinforce content, as in, “Find someone who knows how many legs and body parts an insect has.” Other types of scavenger hunt activities include Web quests, which are online searches of predetermined Web sites, and gallery walks, during which students work in teams or pairs to search for information contained within short texts or quotations.
Read Aloud and Written Response
Reading aloud to students is a tried and-true-practice that could be done daily. Birch (2007), citing Bond, Tinker, Wasson and Wasson (1989) notes that “better listeners tend to be better readers.” An interactive read-aloud (Barrentine, 1986; Herrell & Jordan, 2008) is an activity that most ESL teachers do unconsciously; while reading, the teacher supplements with gestures, pictures, think-alouds, dramatical techniques and discussion. Read-alouds develop students’ aural comprehension and literacy skills and love of authentic literature, and can also build students’ background knowledge while creating a quiet, calm respite for all members of a classroom community (Cappelini, 2005). The power of reading aloud to ELLs should be tapped into on a daily basis, as it supports the development of both second language proficiency and literacy (Peregoy & Boyle, 2008; Trelease, 2006). Students can choose from a variety of responses, which can include only drawing a picture, showing and talking about the picture to a partner/small group/the class, writing a postcard/drawing a picture, creating a travel brochure, writing a paragraph or essay, etc. Thus, read-alouds not only allow students to demonstrate understanding and acquire information and language, they also give us a window into their current level of proficiency.
Books to Read Aloud During the First Days of School:
- Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten
- First Day, Hooray!
- How I Spent My Summer Vacation
- Leo the Late Bloomer
- Miss Nelson Is Missing!
These are just some of the books I have read aloud to elementary-level ELLs. The Internet is chock full of such lists; check also with colleagues and librarians. Texts read aloud to students should be age appropriate but can be written at a considerably higher level, as students’ auditory skills usually surpass their reading level (Krashen, 1993).
While this is by no means an exhaustive description of all potential texts and activities ESL teachers might use in September, the two types of interactive activities described here give teachers and students more bang for their buck; with some creativity, they can be used with most English language learners to hit two birds with one stone, both setting a focused tone and revealing information about our students.
The best way to create an archive of successful September activities is to keep a manila folder on your desk. Jot down ideas on Post-it notes and stick them to the inside of the cover. Keep a running list of stories and poems you discover; also note what worked, what did not, and how you might improve these activities the next time you use them. When June rolls around again, look in your folder—you will be surprised at how many ideas have accumulated, just in time to hear the crunch of leaves and smell new pencils being sharpened.
Barrentine, S. (1986) Engaging with reading through interactive readalouds. The Reading Teacher, 50; 36-43.
Birch, B. (2007). English L2 reading: Getting to the bottom (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Bond, G., Tinker, M., Wasson, B., & Wasson, J. (1989). Reading difficulties: Their diagnosis and correction. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Cappelini, M. (2005). Balancing reading and language learning: A resource for teaching English language learners, K-5. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
Herrell, A., & Jordan, M. (2008). 50 strategies for teaching English language learners (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.
Krashen, S. D. (1993). The power of reading. Englewood, CO: Reading Unlimited.
Krashen, S.D. (1982). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. English Language Teaching series. London: Prentice-Hall International (UK) Ltd.
Marzano, R. (2003). What works in schools. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.
Peregoy, S. & Boyle, O. (2008). Reading, writing and learning in ESL (5th ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon/Pearson.
Trelease, J. (2006). The readaloud handbook. New York: Penguin Books.
Allard, H., & Marshall, J. (ill.). (1977). Miss Nelson is missing! New York: Sandpiper/Houghton Mifflin.
Henkes, K. (1996). Chrysanthemum. New York: Mulberry Books.
Kraus, R., Aruego, J. (ill.). (1994). Leo the late bloomer. New York: Harper Collins.
Poydar, N. (1999). First Day, Hooray! New York, NY: Holiday House.
Slate, J., & Wolff, A., (ill.). Bindergarten gets ready for kindergarten. New York, NY: Puffin Books/Penguin Publishers.
Teague, M. (1995). How I spent my summer vacation. New York: Crown Publishers/Random House.
About the Author
Jennifer Scully has taught ESL since 1992 and has had the pleasure of working with ESL students from kindergarten to college. She is currently working with graduate students in TESOL and ELLs in grades 2 through 4. Her joy is to help first-year teachers of ELLs develop confidence and competence; her research interests include the schooling of ELLs and second language literacy. She still thinks that the students are the best part of the job.