Since oral language was a theme of the CREATE conference (www.cal.org/create*; Frankly Freddy, October 30, 2009), it makes sense that the presentations highlighted ways in which the oral language of English Language Learners (ELLs) can be facilitated. These oral language experiences are critical in several ways. Obviously, becoming facile as a speaker of English is one of the goals of the curriculum. At the same time, we know that oral language is a primary way in which meaning gets constructed and built. Through talk, we come to understand concepts and our interpretations and ownership of ideas.
But the willingness of students—especially young adolescents who are ELLs—to really express themselves orally and in writing depends on appropriate and compelling topics. Much of what students are asked to talk about in school simply doesn’t seem relevant to them or tap into their funds of knowledge. In particular, the topics of social studies seem to be particularly disengaging to many of this group (as well as their non-ELL classmates). Elizabeth Moje in the inaugural plenary presentation of the CREATE conference observed that many young adolescents/ELLs express a particular dislike for social studies. A study in one of her studies identified social studies as his least favorite class, stating: “Social studies, because there are lots of words that is [sic] new and I don’t know much about the country.”*
I was struck by this comment (especially since I have a passion for history and civics, being the child of immigrants to Canada and am immigrant to the U.S. myself). Civics, history, economics—the content of these topics are central to issues such as immigration, access to healthcare and employment, and the quality and opportunities of daily life for people. The content of social studies, in particular, is the “stuff” of everyday conversations and social interactions. Young adolescents have opinions about food, clothes, music, movies, jobs, friendships, and so forth. Opinions, rights, choices of groups of people (including those made by their governments and other institutions)—these topics are at the center of civics, history, and economics. The manner in which conventional textbooks and curricula portray the topics, however, fails to tap into students’ knowledge, interests, and identities.
I began to listen carefully for the rest of the conference for how effective programs are providing young-adolescent ELLs (and their classmates) with topics about which they will and want to talk about. What struck me in presentation after presentation was the need for ELLs to be engaged with content about which they have some background knowledge and interest. Every topic does not have to do be central to every student. My 40+ years in public education have left me convinced that “a little goes a long way.” In every school day, there needs to be at least some opportunity for students to be involved with topics and in tasks about which they have at least a modicum of knowledge and interest.
What follows is my list of examples from the conference that show how innovative projects are making these links to the background knowledge and interests of young-adolescent ELLs:
Elizabeth Moje: Elizabeth Moje and her colleagues in working with young adolescents who are Latino/a in the Detroit Public Schools have encouraged students to share texts that they read beyond the classroom such as anime and popular magazines (e.g., pop stars).
In a related project, Moje and colleagues have developed a set of project-based units around driving questions. These driving questions interest students and involve students in essential science content such as chemistry, ecology, and biology. Among the questions that have been addressed in these units are: What affects the quality of air in my community? How can good friends make me sick? How can I make new stuff from old stuff? Elizabeth Moje work can be found here.
Catherine Snow/Claire White: The Word Generation project is a cross-subject vocabulary program with discussion as the primary focus for developing academic language in the middle school. At the center of the program is a set of topics with accompanying passages that have been selected to engage adolescents in high-level discussions on nationally relevant topics as well as topics that are of great interest to this age group. Examples of topics include:
[The materials used in this program are available for free download (with registration) at the Word Generation website.]
Nonie Lesaux/Michael Kieffer: The Language Diversity and Literacy Development Research Group at Harvard has a project with the acronym ALIAS that stands for “Academic Language Instruction for All Students.” ALIAS has numerous components but a central one is the reading of articles on topics that will interest students (grades 4-8). An example of a topic that is used in a demonstration lesson is Single-Gender Classes in Middle School. ALIAS also involves activities that will engage students such as conducting a mock interview with a famous person.
The format of a lesson (and the role that texts and tasks have in a lesson) are available on Michael Kieffer’s presentation at the CREATE conference.* Lesaux and Kieffer have described this program in an article in The Reading Teacher (Kieffer, M.J., & Lesaux, N.K. (2007). Breaking down words to build meaning: Morphology, vocabulary, and reading comprehension in the urban classroom. The Reading Teacher 61, 134-144). They also have an article in press at Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy entitled “Morphing into Adolescents: Active word learning for English Language Learners and their classmates in middle school.”
Freddy Hiebert: I was the facilitator of the conference, not a speaker. But, as I reflected on “Talking About Things That Matter,” I realized that I had a set of materials for middle-grade students. The students for whom I developed the materials are slightly younger than those that are the focus of the CREATE work and conference: third through sixth graders. But the ennui that we see among young adolescents has its roots long before middle school. I’ve dusted off these materials —the program is called Talking Points for Kids— and have provided a prototype at this website that you can download here.
As you can see from the prototype, students are engaged with topics that will generate opinions and discussion—topics such as whether school days should be extended and whether bicycle riders and skateboarders should be required to have tests and licenses.
All of these efforts underscore a critical point: If you want children and young adolescents to produce meaningful talk in classrooms, they need something meaningful to talk about!
*Power points from the CREATE conference will be available as of December 1, 2009 (estimated) at the CAL/CREATE website.