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April 2013 E-News from Elizabeth Claire

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Contents of the April E-News:

Preliterate Students...What to Do?

Contents of April's E-NEWS

What's at the Website?

Preliterate Students...What to Do?

It was my first day at a new school, 1970. There were overwhelming numbers of students, and many different subjects to teach at an experimental "Mini School" at Haaren High School for Boys. There were TV cameras filming this experiment---a high school divided into 12 mini-schools, each self-contained, where a limited number of students would be known to all of their teachers.

That first day, some of our brand new, 17-year old students from the Dominican Republic could not write their names on the intake forms. In fact, one young man copied his name from his green card, and still misspelled it.

The name on his green card: Antonio. As he wrote it on his intake form: ANTONONIO. In the time given to fill out the intake forms, he did not have enough time to copy his last name. Four other boys from the Dominican Republic had the same difficulty. They were to be in my ESL 1 class, along with 26 other students, who were literate in Spanish.

What to do? I hadn't the foggiest notion.

Nothing had prepared me to teach older students who were not literate in their own language. Plunked down in the midst of literate students.

In Haaren High School's "ESL Mini School", five ESL teachers had 125 boys to teach all of their subjects in what today would be called "Sheltered English." My schedule: two periods of English for Level One students, two periods of science (Level One and Level Two), one session of math (Mixed English Levels, but at a basic math level).

There were no text books for any of these courses.

My background: I had a brand new M.A. in TESOL from New York University, a BA in Spanish, and one year of teaching "the Non-English" students at Junior High School 43 (now Adam Clayton Powell Intermediate School).

Each night, I prepared lessons and materials for the next days' ESL class, math class, and science classes. (My qualifications for teaching science was nothing more than one semester of college zoology, one semester of geology.)

With a masters in TESOL, I no longer relied on translating lessons into Spanish as I had done my first year at JHS 43. Which was good, because we soon had an influx of Haitians in the class. My knowledge of Creole was non existent.

My job was to make lessons comprehensible through pictures, actions, repetition, and hands-on learning. There was no curriculum of what to teach first or second. There were no science materials for the science class, and as I said, no books.

There was no time for individualizing for Antonio, Rafael, Miguel, Jose, and Ricardo. Today, they call these students SIFE (Students with Interrupted Formal Education). They had never had a chance to go to school. They said their parents had moved them to the countryside so they wouldn't be drafted into the army...and there were no schools in the rural areas, or their parents did not have money to send them to school. They had worked cutting cane.

These strong, hopeful young men were intelligent. It ate at me that I could not find time to address their needs. Not much time even to help them with writing the shapes of the letters and learning their sounds.

The five ESL teachers at the mini school met every day after class to discuss issues we were having. The five boys' learning to read was an urgent issue. We contacted the Urban League who supplied us with volunteer tutors. Each boy got one period a week with a senior citizen.

The next semester, we ESL mini-school teachers wrote up our new schedules. We created a daily period of literacy for "the five."

Yet, it was clear to us that you can't teach literacy in English when there is no English vocabulary base. Phonics in English depend on a student having an aural familiarity with the sound system of English and a familiarity with obscure words used in phonics books, such as vat, cob, bib.

So the case was handed to me, being the most fluent in Spanish, to teach them literacy in their native language.

Where to find textbooks? Not easy.. Not in my catalogues, and no Internet to do research. In a Five and Ten, I found Donald Duck Phonics for Spanish Speakers, and bought one of them. I wouldn't think of giving a copy to each of these young men, but would use the sequence in the book to give me an idea of how teach basic reading in Spanish...

The five boys were encouraged. Learning in a class that was taught in their native language let them relax. They felt competent. There were no embarrassing onlookers to see how low their level was. I was able to give them individual attention with letter formation. They mastered reading ba be bi bo bu, and progressed to reading baba, bebi, bubu. the first day.

I was encouraged, too. Although the lessons were drab and even embarrassing to me, Spanish was phonetic...Each letter always made one and only one convenient...

The boys learned how to form those letters and copy the words. They smiled. I had hopes. I thought the lessons boring, but they loved it. I had no idea what else I could do or where to find materials. By trial and error, over the next three weeks, I found ways to help them progress. They were intelligent kids, and had a very strong desire to learn to read.

The literacy class was not to last...This was 1971, and bilingual education had just been born in New York City.

As with many new waves and pendulum swings, bilingual education was not the immediate success in practice as it had been in theory.

But where was New York City going to get bilingual teachers? There was no certification set up for such a specialty.

The city imported bilingual teachers from Spain!

Speaking a different dialect of Spanish and without an ounce of teacher-training in American educational philosophy or methods, the new bilingual teacher at our school took over. My literacy class that had lasted just three weeks was dissolved. All of the Hispanic boys in our other classes were sent to the new bilingual teacher for science in Spanish rather than sheltered science in English; math in Spanish rather than sheltered math in English, and there was no space in his program for basic literacy in Spanish. They were lumped in with the others, and before long, the five boys were gone...they were old enough to quit school and work in the garment center, pushing garment racks through the streets from factory to factory.

Our guidance counselor tried to stop them, but they hadn't liked the strict ways of the teacher from Spain, the rigidity or the rote lessons he taught. Or the continued humiliation of being illiterate. The new teacher had shown contempt for them, they said. And their families needed money. If they weren't going to learn English and weren't going to learn to read, what could justify their being in school?

I never heard from those boys again. Their faces and their predicament gnawed at me for years though. And over the years, that gnawing became more acute. I came into contact with many other older newcomers who arrived sans alphabet skills. I waited for the big publishers to produce materials but in spite of there being books called ESL phonics by well-known ESL authors, they were actually regular phonics, and made few concessions to the needs of students without the aural skills needed to distinguish a as in cat from o as in cot. I kept experimenting with my own older, non-literate students, and now in a more leisurely program (classes of 12 or less) in Fort Lee, NJ, created time in my program for their needs. Bit-by-bit I made materials and illustrated them with my stick figures, Thirty years from the days at Haaren High School, I self-published five books in the series ESL Phonics for All Ages...answering the conditions needed for teaching reading in English to students with very limited English vocabulary, and a beginner's aural discrimination skills. And put the lessons in a context of whole language, with high-frequency words, and meaning was paramount.

ESL Phonics for All Ages is dedicated to ANTONONIO.

You can read descriptions of the issues these books address, and find sample lessons from each of the five books at my website. CLICK HERE

Contents of Easy English NEWS for April 2013

Is Earth in Danger?

Paying Taxes, Part 2

Events in April covered in Easy English NEWS:
    • National Poetry Month
    • April Fools' Day
    • What's wrong with this picture?
    • Earth Day
    • Patriots' Day
    • Income-tax Deadline
    • Arbor Day
    • Administrative Professionals' Day
Dr. Ali: Your Health: Obesity, Part 2

Ask a Speech Coach: Pronouncing the American /r/ sound.

Heroes and History: April 19, 1775: "The Shot Heard 'Round the World"

At the Movies: "Les Miserables"

Plus our regular features: This Is Your Page (readers' stories),  Funny Stuff, Idioms, the Crossword Puzzle, Let's Talk About It, and Word Help.

What's at the Website:

For a copy of April's Teacher's Guide and Reproducible Quizzes, click here

For April's Cloze Exercises, click here.

For April's Short-Answer Tests, click here

Click here for the FREE 24-page generic "How To" with 9 reproducible graphic organizers.

Elizabeth Claire books on Kindle:

  • ESL Teacher's Activities Kit Part One ($0.99)
  • ESL Teacher's Activities Kit Part Two ($0.99)
  • ESL Teacher's Activities Kit Part Three ($0.99)
  • Kristina, 1904, the Greenhorn Girl ($4)
  • Voices of Our New Neighbors Volume One ($0.99)
  • Voices of our New Neighbors Volume Two ($0.99)
  • Voices of our new Neighbors Volume Three ($0.99)
  • English Language Learners in the Mainstream Class (from Classroom Teacher's ESL Survival Guide) ($3.99)
  • What's So Funny? An International Student's Introduction to American Humor. ($0.99)
  • Phonics for English Language Learners? What the ESL Teacher Needs to Know $0.99)
Click here to go to the Amazon Kindle Store at my website

Carry on your good work!

Elizabeth Claire

© Elizabeth Claire 2013.
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