April 2013 E-News from Elizabeth Claire
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Contents of the April E-News:
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
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
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
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
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
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:
Dr. Ali: Your Health: Obesity, Part 2
- National Poetry Month
- April Fools' Day
- What's wrong with this picture?
- Earth Day
- Patriots' Day
- Income-tax Deadline
- Arbor Day
- Administrative Professionals' Day
Ask a Speech Coach: Pronouncing the
American /r/ sound.
and History: April 19, 1775: "The Shot Heard 'Round the
At the Movies:
Plus our regular features: This Is Your Page (readers' stories),
Funny Stuff, Idioms, the Crossword Puzzle, Let's Talk About It, and Word
What's at the Website:
a copy of April's Teacher's Guide and Reproducible Quizzes, click here
April's Cloze Exercises, click here.
April's Short-Answer Tests, click here
here for the FREE 24-page generic "How To" with 9 reproducible
Elizabeth Claire books
- 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)
here to go to the Amazon Kindle Store at my website
- Voices of our New Neighbors Volume Two ($0.99)
- Voices of our new Neighbors Volume Three
- 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)
Carry on your good work!
© Elizabeth Claire 2013.