Friday, 14 June 2013

You are my whole world...

On Pinterest, I saw a wonderful thought: "Every child in your class is someone's whole world!". It is so beautiful and so true... Is this idea of any use in my adult ESL literacy class?  Some might think it doesn't apply to me but it does, and I believe, in the most significant way.

A special thing about teaching ESL literacy is that  for many of of my students I am their first encounter with formal education, and almost for all of them, their first Canadian teacher. Due to some cultural considerations, many of the students consider the teacher a supreme authority. Therefore, there is a very good chance that the way I treat them this is how they are going to treat their little ones. If I show them a gentle and caring way to teaching they might take it home. If I respect their opinions and listen to them, give them choices and show them that making mistakes is not a bad thing at all, there is a big hope that these things will penetrate their minds and, eventually, homes, too. 
I have realized that what I do in class affects many more people than just the number of students on the list.
It's very important to be able to see beautiful things in each of the students even if they are not visible at the first sight. I have a student in my class, her name is Zah (not her real name, though). Zah is one of the students who need more time to grasp and embrace letters and sounds. She has not figured out reading yet, but we do not give up. I respect her efforts very much, a mother of seven ( her youngest is 2) she comes to class on time and never misses it unless she has a reason to. Once, she burst into tears when she wasn't able to read a short sentence on her own. I realized then that we had to take it easy and go back to ABC's. Nowadays, we have been preparing for the graduation party ( end of the year official celebration). We decided to do something special, make some posters and drawings to express our feelings about Canada, learning English, classmates and so on. A couple of days ago, I gave out craft paper and all necessary tools and this is when Zah magnificently turned from a troubled student into the star of the show. Gracefully as an artist, she brought paper to life and turned it into beautiful letters. I was impressed how easily and quickly she did the thing that would've taken me two days at least and not as beautiful regardless my Master's Degree. I felt sorry that I didn't give them any opportunity earlier to show off their talents and nurture their motivation. Zah has gained self-confidence on that day!

It’s the end of the year, and I am absolutely delighted to see that my students have developed a strong sense of autonomy and finally have mastered pair and group work. I decided to print out some of the ESL Literacy readers (a fantastic resource by Bow Valley College), staple them into individual books and give them out to students as a part of their morning reading routine. Zah can not read on her own yet, so she works with the partner. Today she grabbed a reader about a hairdresser Inge. The moment she looked at the cover she lit up. I have never seen her as interested in reading as this morning. She did not even want to return the book to me: she asked the permission to take it home and read it with her family. She told me that she used to be a hairdresser and they owned a barber’s shop in their country. She was happy to read and speak about it. English was not a problem anymore...

Give each of your students a chance to shine! Make their learning meaningful. Do not forget that we all, in fact, are someone's whole worlds.

These pictures are inspired from the work of Angela Maiers an advocate of children's rights. I strongly believe that these ideas are universal and so very much apply to my adult ESL literacy 

This is a picture drawn by Zah's husband ( who is not my student). It’s a flag of a different country (the country where Zah is from): two countries and two cultures come together. When I talked about it, I didn't know how much it would impact them...

Saturday, 8 June 2013

C is for Cuisenaire Rods, Part 2

Since I joined Twitter, I 've come across lots and lots of profound and true observations about learning and teaching made by the educators all over the world. A very good opportunity to catch up on these kind of ideas and thoughts expressed by teachers is following or, even better, becoming a part of the weekly Twitter chats.

Some time ago, my attention was caught by the following opinion: "Silent teachers make students talk..." I couldn't agree more! How about you? What do you think?

As a teacher, I strongly believe in learner autonomy, learner's ability to figure it out by themselves, comprehensible input and the idea that if all of the above is present in the instruction the "language learning will take care of itself".  

One day I was sharing the room with a teacher. Oh, poor students... I heard the teacher's voice (by the way, a very strong voice) 90% of the time!!! And that was a higher level! How exhausted she must have been after the class!? But what about the students, how much did they learn that day? I am not sure about that...

On the other hand, dealing with the ESL literacy, how much time does the teacher talk in class? Most of the time, you would think? Not at all!!! One thing I am sure about, every time teachers speak instead of the students, they deprive their students from the precious opportunity to develop.

It's true, that at the literacy level, unless students come with pretty good speaking skills already (once in awhile, I get students in the class who have been living in Canada for 5-10 years but have never had a chance to go to school), learners are afraid to speak. Especially in my class, the majority of my students are women who come from a background where they were educated not to speak. We get to the point where their reading is getting so good that they are able to read independently and instruct others, their writing is also developing very fast and they can write down what I am saying with minimum mistakes, but with speaking it's a dead lock. Every time they are asked to say something they usually say this: "English is a problem" and then ... giggles.

I used Cuisenaire rods to overcome this speaking barrier. Provided that students are very familiar with the topic ( earlier I have introduced the story with the pictures to make sure that the content is comprehensible; we have read and practiced it  for a while; we have reconstructed the story using the flashcards; students are able to easily answer yes or no questions based on the story), I sit down at a desk (in a whole class or a small group) and take a set of rods with me. I show the students, using some body language, that I will remain silent and they have to speak. Usually, they have pictures in front of them. They take the first picture and I line the rods (one by one; the size of the rod I choose corresponds with the actual length of the word) and elicit the words to make a sentence. There are so many things involved: their memory and speaking skills are activated, they are prompted to produce grammatically accurate sentences. I was surprised how well it worked with the common mistakes such as “go to home” instead of “go home”, articles, pronouns, etc. Self-correction and peer-correction are encouraged: even if they miss something in the first try they are figuring it out in the second or third times. 

Please be mindful that the first couple of times, the students will require more prompts from the teacher but when they become familiar with the activity, many of them will be able to take it up by themselves. A friend gave us the second tin of rods (they are pretty expensive), so I am able to give one set to a more advanced group and they are working with it individually while I am working with a group who needs more help.

Conclusion: Cuisenaire Rods are a great tool to have in an ESL literacy classroom.

Learn more:

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

C is for Cuisenaire Rods

There are so many things to be said about rods in the language classroom that I feel overwhelmed to start writing this post. So, I decided to split the topic into two parts. First, I'll talk about how it all started  and then, I'll describe some useful techniques I discovered along the way.

Part 1.

It's pretty common for my TESL mentees, when they first see the Cuisenaire rods I am using in class with the ESL literacy students, to exclaim: "Oh, WOW, the rods, I've never understood what you are supposed to do with them."

Some time ago I did not know either until I bought a set for my class and started experimenting with it. The first time I saw the rods I knew that they were made to be used in my class I just did not know how and when to apply them properly. I turned to Pinterest to see what other literacy teachers were doing with them and checked Youtube to review the videos about using the rods as a part of the Silent Way approach. Some of the ideas were really  good and I could partially apply them but I realized that they were not  suitable for my students' needs.

Another question that I get pretty often is whether I use the colors for coding the words. No, I don't. Not at the moment. I am considering to integrate this element later as I have been teaching phonics using colors, but not at the moment. Now, I am trying to keep it simple so students can easily get the sense of learning with the rods and start enjoying them ASAP.

The beginning

There is one student in my class his name is Ah (not his real name, though). What is special about Ah is that he could not learn to read the way other students did. I had been struggling to find a method and a way to get him going but no luck for a very long time. Every day after class, Ah would come to my office to say good-bye and would say "I am sorry, I could not understand anything today!" And I would reply, "Ah, I am looking, I will find a way to teach you reading."

We have tried many things with Ah, phonics, whole words, sight words, flash cards, etc but it seemed that he just didn't see the words the way we see them. His road to reading started with the rods...

First, I introduced the rods. We explored, moved and measured them and realized that there are rods of different shapes (just like words, some words are small and others are big). Second, I introduced a short sentence orally: I go to school every day (it's very important that the sentences are familiar and students understand them). I lined the rods in front of the student on the desk  (I chose the rods according to the size of the words, rod sized as 1 for “I”, 2 for “go”, 2 for “to”, 6 for “school”, 5 for “every” and 3 for “day”). Third, I repeated the sentence a couple of times pointing at the rods as I was saying it. Then, I asked the student to repeat the sentence and he could easily do it pointing at the rods. Fourth, I shuffled the rods and asked Ah to reconstruct the sentence as he remembered it.  He was able to place all the rods correctly from the first try. We started doing that every day until I was sure that he could clearly see that a sentence is made of different words and words have different length and there are spaces between words in the sentence. It also proved to be a good memory exercise (some students in the literacy class come with poor memory skills and this is a very good way to begin with). Needless to say that Ah's writing improved as he sensed that physical dimension of the words on paper.

Next step was introducing written text in combination with the rods. I wrote the sentence on the index cards: each word on a separate card. Lined the words in front of the student and then matched with a corresponding word on the card. I repeated the same procedure as earlier but using the words on the cards this time. I left the sentence made of the rods untouched to give some additional support to the student and shuffled the cards. And then similarly asked the student to order them in a sentence.

Very soon Ah had no problem remembering, identifying and then reading common sight words such as "I", "go", "to", "and", "in", "at", "school", "student", "teacher", etc.

Then, I introduced the short stories about Sam and Pat, using the same method. First, making sure that the student understands the story, then lining the rods, matching the rods with the words on the index cards and then practice reading, shuffling and reordering again using the story as a prompt. Soon, after four stories read this way, Ah didn't need the rods anymore, we continued reading about Sam and Pat from the book.

The first time Ah was able to read a short story by himself using the rods he came to my office, his face lit up and he said: "I am so happy! I could read everything today!" I have never been happier. Oh, wait, I was happier: one day I was busy with some students and then I turned my head to see what Ah was doing I saw him tutoring a small group of students who had just joined our class. Not only he was able to read the story by himself but also teach other students to read it.

Of course, this wasn't it, we are still learning to read without rods now, and have many ups and downs with every new story. But certainly using the rods made a difference for Ah: it was a turning point in Ah's reading experience. It changed his life. It changed my life, too.

I just wanted to mentioned that this method worked very well with the students who have difficulties with reading and writing. Students who respond well to written text on the paper do not need it. With these students I used the rods differently mainly for their speaking needs.

Learn more about Cuisenaire Rods in the language classroom:

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