Friday, 14 February 2014

Building confidence in the ESL Literacy classroom


ESL literacy learners in both separate programs and mainstream classrooms come with a great need for motivation, developing self-esteem and confidence as a result of a poor previous learning experience or the pressure by surrounding mainstream learners who master reading skills much quicker.

In this post I am going to talk about some activities that I have been using in class to build the confidence in the ESL Literacy learners.

Authentic tasks

Offering learners authentic tasks to practice in class gives them confidence in the world outside the classroom. Calling in sick is one of our favourite activities. It can be adapted in lots of different ways such as calling the doctor’s office, the government’s office, the bank, pizza delivery, and a friend. All you need is an authentic dialogue and two phones. After having practiced it enough times in class in pairs, groups, with the teacher, individually, etc., the learners are ready to make a call. One student finds a quite place outside the classroom and then calls a classmate. In the beginning, there is a lot of confusion, hesitation, dropped calls, but gradually I can see how their confidence grows, the class feels with laughter and excitement. I ask them to call the office every time they miss a class. I believe it is a great way to motivate them to use the skills that they learn in class.

Songs - Good morning

The idea to use songs came from the observations I made while learning nursery rhymes with my daughter. I noticed that my own reading fluency of nursery rhymes improved while singing them. I have also come across a couple of articles saying that sing- and read-along activities are beneficial for improving reading fluency. I did not want to go with nursery rhymes as I personally think that many of them are so complicated even for me:) ... and also not to give my fragile learners a wrong impression that they are treated as children. However, my daughter and I have a favourite youtube channel where I find my inspiration: CHILDRENLOVETOSING So, I decided to adapt some of our favourite songs to the adult audience. This way, now we are singing songs thematically. Our first song was “Good morning”. You can see the handout here. I understand that not everybody may be keen on singing. Therefore, I approach it very cautiously. I think that for my class ideal is introducing one new song every month or two. We practice once or twice a week, half an hour each time. This has become one of the activities that is filled with happiness and enthusiasm. Together with my class, we have discovered that we sing better if we move our bodies. I have also noticed that singing songs in class is also a fun way to introduce metaphors, develop abstract thinking and an initial awareness of language and culture. We have learned about "shiny grins", "a thousand things to share", and "I can't wait for the day to begin". While listening to students practicing the song, I realized how singing alone can improve their ability to retain sight words, read with speed, connect words, chunk, feel the rhythm of the language. It didn’t take long to see it working. When learners got a new hand-out with the phone conversation, the first phrase they noticed and identified was “Good morning…”. Singing also works so well for demonstrating students that there are stressed and unstressed words, weaker and stronger forms! “I’ll be home for Christmas” is just perfect for it. Try it out!!!

Personalized reading lists - snaps

This is an idea I picked up from our placement student Kalim. We all know that students read better the words they understand. One way to boost their reading confidence is to make a personalize list by eliciting the words that they already know. It could be a list for each student or a list for the whole class. The teacher can easily type them in a bigger font and print out for each student. Learners can review their lists in the morning upon arriving to school.  A fun way to practice sight word recognition is a “word snap activity”. Print out individual words or short phrases on flashcards, place them randomly on the table, learners sit or stand around the table, they have to touch/grab/point to the word pronounced by the teacher or a classmate ASAP. 

Spelling words

Learners often ask for spelling practice. But not all of them can spell the words. There is one way that we have been doing short dictations on a regularly basis. When learners have practiced target vocabulary long enough to feel comfortable pronouncing it, I am doing a small dictation exercise (max 6 words) on the sticky notes. I attach a sticky note right on the hand-out with the text, story or just a vocabulary list. I also have the words previously written on the board. I do not ask them to cover anything or not to look in their texts. Quite the opposite in this class! During the dictation, some of the students will retrieve the spelling of words from their memory, others will be able to find them in the text, a few will look at the whiteboard. I am happy when everything of these happens. I think that it is much more important to be able to find necessary information in the text than to remember the spelling. A step forward would be asking a student to choose and dictate the words to class. When I tried peer dictation for the first time I was surprise with the word choice the lead students made. Their word choice was much broader and included more complicated words that I would ever ask them such as “the”, “wonderful”, “off”. Learners in my class showed me that they are not afraid of challenging words. 

Feedback for learning and teaching

It is a common practice to check learners’ listening/reading comprehension with YES/NO questions. We usually do it in a whole class feedback sessions.  Learners responses give me an understanding where we are at and what is still needed. It all sounds good in theory but in practice we have to consider a couple of things to set an efficient activity. In the whole class sessions students may get conditioned by other responses (the brainstorming effect), they may be inhibited by the outspoken ones, be afraid of giving a wrong answer, or disengage and daydream. When we started working on this kind of YES/NO comprehension check, I decided to use coloured paper circles attached to craft sticks similar to traffic signs (red is NO/ yellow is NOT SURE or MAY BE, and green - YES). When I ask students a question they all have to raise the colour according to their understanding. There are no right or wrong answers here. They are free to say “NOT SURE” as many times as possible. This way I know each student’s level of comfort with the target material. I will also hope it is the first step in teaching them to express their opinion. 

Utilizing students as resources - peer tutoring

I am a huge believer in the power of learner autonomy and self-directed learning. At the ESL Literacy level, these are the milestones of learner’s progress. I also know that we can not expect learners to know how to learn by themselves especially in some particular contexts and cultures. The good news the research has been telling us is that metacognition can be trained through strategy instruction. Once the learners enter my classroom the strategy training begins. I start with socio-affective strategies: I teach them how to work with a partner, the value of pair or group work, I try to show them how helpful they are to each other and gradually identify learners ready to become peer tutors. The best part about utilizing learners as the instructional resources for one another is that it is a fantastic confidence building tool. For example, different learners at different stages of ability can successfully tutor other classmates. I have  a student who can not read but she knows the alphabet very well and can read the keywords associated with each letter, so each time I have  a new student in class without ABC knowledge she is my first resource: the chief ABC tutor.  Needless to say how proud she is to be the one. It gives her confidence in her own abilities and her role in class. I have also noticed that I often do not have to ask her to tutor: when she sees that someone needs help with the ABC’s, she just jumps in and as the result of strategy training does it in a very unobtrusive way. There is another student with multiple challenges, but a couple of days ago working on a simple exercise where students needed to handle change in Canadian money (numeracy), she happened to be the only one very good at it. I have immediately assigned her to be the peer tutor. As a result, the level of her confidence in class has grown exponentially. And of course, those who have been successful in using a range of learning strategies, I am hoping to train them to provide peer assessment and support that triggers learning.

What have you been doing to build confidence in learners? Please share your wisdom!!!

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