Using Gamification to Increase Student Engagement and Learning

by Karen Solis, ESL Teacher in North Carolina

Whether learning online or in the classroom, our learners today are struggling to engage in the learning process. Students have told me that learning virtually is harder because the teacher is not there to answer questions. Those in the classroom say that learning is more difficult because wearing masks makes it sometimes harder to hear or understand others. For many middle schoolers, they would rather be silent than to project to be heard across the room. So, what can we do to motivate and encourage students to forget their current physical state and engage in learning? Enter gamification. 

As defined by Oxford Languages, gamification is the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g. point scoring, competition with others, rules of play). We often see this in the classroom as students earn points towards a goal or reward. This may be earning compliments as they travel to another classroom. 

At the elementary level, I have assigned avatars to students in a free platform, Class Dojo, to award points for good behavior as well as for speaking, listening, reading and writing in the ESL classroom. Teamwork, collaboration and cooperation are soft skills needed for our graduates, and explicitly modeling them and celebrating them when used properly and effectively brings students to a new level of understanding. 

Designed more for middle and high schoolers, Classcraft engages students with avatars and is more about creating an adventure experience as students travel on a journey while achieving content goals. 

Another site that I have used to gamify content is Flippity. Whether in person or teaching virtually, Flippity has resources to accommodate both. Many free templates are offered that you can customize, including game boards, flash cards, spinners, scavenger hunts, digital breakouts, and more.

Our students need a solid set of literacy skills today to be better equipped for whatever they face- with or without a mask- tomorrow. Using gamification is a way that we can engage our digital natives to stay motivated and learning.

English Learners and Advanced Placement Courses

by Carmen J. Melendez-Quintero
Manager of English Learners Programs, Worcester Public Schools, Worcester, MA

English Learners Should Not Take Advanced Placement Courses

I knew I would get your attention with this statement!  Now that I have your attention, please continue reading. 

Not only do I think English Learners (ELs) should be given equal access to rigorous coursework like Advanced Placement (AP) courses, I know it from years of experience! When the proper scaffolds and supports are embedded,  coupled with sound instructional practices, English Learners succeed and thrive in these courses.

Changing the Mindset

We need to change our way of thinking! We must stop equating language proficiency with the ability to process rigorous instruction in AP courses. Many believe that ELs are unable to participate in higher order thinking, take on problem solving, and engage in deep conversations about academic topics  because they still need to develop the academic language. Teachers need to realize that even students who are emergent bilinguals have the capacity to process information. We should not prevent ELs from participating in advanced coursework because they will learn English whether they are in level 1 courses or AP courses. The key for success is to create an environment where supports are given without sacrificing the rigor of the course. (Seidlitz Education, Using Sheltered Instruction to Drive AP/Advanced Classes, May 29, 2019, Fleenor, S.)

Ultimately, ELs deserve equal opportunities of academic challenges that peak their interest!  In 2015, the Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education released a “Dear Colleague” Letter’ informing school districts that English learners need to be given equal access and opportunities to accelerated learning, which includes AP courses. “School districts may not categorically exclude EL students from gifted and talented education (GATE) or other specialized programs such as Advanced Placement (AP), honors, or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. Unless a particular GATE program or advanced course is demonstrated to require proficiency in English for meaningful participation, schools must ensure that evaluation and testing procedures for GATE or other specialized programs do not screen out EL students because of their limited English proficiency”(Dear Colleague Letter, pg 21, 2015). This presents a compliance concern for districts. They must ensure equity, excellence, and access in all schools and provide the support students need to access advanced curriculum.

Nicauris, an EL from the Dominican Republic, took her first AP courses as a junior: AP Human Geography and AP Spanish Language. She loved the challenges of the AP courses. She admits that the vocabulary was difficult but to that she responds, “No one is really prepared for an AP course. You just have to take the steps and do your best. You have to have confidence”. Her Human Geography teacher, Mr. Stell, described Nicauris as “the most hard working student in all my classes”. Like Nicauris, many ELs want the challenge of AP courses but may not feel they have this option available to them.

Basic Action Steps to Start Making the Shift 

There are many practical ways schools and districts can make the shift necessary to allow ELs the same access and opportunities that AP courses bring:

1. Look for ways to increase enrollment for the AP Spanish Language course. This is one of the easiest, “low-hanging fruit” options that schools have for Spanish-speaking ELs. This may involve changing policies that create barriers for participation. For example, many schools only offer AP Spanish courses to 12th graders. Allowing students who are native speakers to enroll in AP Spanish as early as 10th grade will give students the opportunity to develop self- confidence and skills. These students, although younger, will work to match the expectations given to them. The earlier you give EL students the opportunity to participate in AP courses, the more likely they will branch out to other AP courses at the later grades and achieve success.  
Santos, a student from Guatemala, took both AP Human Geography and AP Spanish Language as his first two AP courses. He said, “I know I am smart, why can’t I take an AP course?  I realized if you put your mind to it, you can do it”. As a 12th grader, he wished he had taken them earlier. Santos now thinks he would have taken many more AP courses if given the opportunity earlier.

2. Another way of increasing enrollment in the AP Spanish Language course is to create a pathway as early as middle school where students can take higher level language courses. These courses could be designed with heritage speakers in mind, to allow a feeder pathway to the AP Spanish Language and Literature courses.

3. Think outside the box a little. AP Human Geography, although dense in language, includes topics that are very relatable to many English learners and gives them opportunities to contribute to class discussions based on personal experiences. Knowing the level of the language demands of this course, it is imperative that we allow additional instructional time to support the language needs.
Yruen came from Vietnam and took AP Human Geography and AP Physics. At the beginning, she requested to drop the classes because they were “too hard”. We encouraged her to get extra help from the teachers before deciding to drop the classes. With time and support, she did not drop the classes. Regarding the Human Geography course, she stated: “The more I got used to the course, the more I liked it. It was a lot of fun”. She also felt she learned a lot of new vocabulary in the classes and felt better prepared for college.

4. ELs will not only need scaffolding embedded in the classroom instruction but also additional support to continue building their skills and confidence while closing the background experience gap. Examples of those supports may include: 

  • A summer AP Bootcamp where students can learn not only what to expect from the courses, but the skills they need to be able to do the work successfully.
  • For the AP Human Geography course, an extra period with the teacher that provides support with the language-based activities that ELs need more time to process and complete. With the extra period, the teacher can provide more individualized support to ensure success. 
  • After-school tutoring from ESL teachers and college students is a very easy strategy to implement in schools. Pairing ESL teachers with college students to support ELs in AP will reinforce skill development and comfort with the course.
  • Allow students to use dictionaries. Although dictionaries are not allowed on the AP exams, this support prior to the test will allow students to initially access the content. An AP Physics teacher shared with me that she was nervous about her AP class because in group projects, her class looked like the United Nations. She explained all the students spoke their native languages and used dictionaries to do the assignments. . I assured her that it was okay, and that she would notice a shift as the class progressed – and she did! As the students acquired vocabulary in English, they relied less and less on their dictionaries.

Ju was an EL from China who took the AP Physics class just a year and a half after arriving in the United States. When asked, he stated, “The AP course was helpful and very interesting.”

5. Get to know your ELs and the academic strengths and skills they already have. Use that information to guide them to the type of rigorous courses they may enjoy and do well on. Provide alternative assessments that don’ rely heavily on language proficiency to identify ELs’ knowledge and academic readiness.

Hector came from Colombia at the beginning of his senior year. When reviewing his previous school record, the guidance counselor noticed he was in an engineering school. The counselor suggested he take AP Calculus, suspecting the other math courses would be too easy for him. But there was one pondering question, how would he do in the class if he didn’t know any English?  After the AP teacher reviewed Hector’s notebooks from his previous school, she agreed with the recommendation. Language was the main challenge in the AP course for Hector, so the teacher paired him with other Spanish-speaking students, gave him a dictionary, and asked him to stay after school weekly for extra help for language support.

6. Don’t let students quit too soon. It is not unusual for ELs to “panic” in the first few weeks into an AP course. It is a new experience, especially with the language demands. However, with the right support, students will be able to come out afloat. Don’t hesitate to connect with families to see how they could support at home by rearranging chores and other responsibilities to allow plenty of time to study.
Erika Santana was born in the Dominican Republic. She took all college level courses until the opportunity arrived for her to take AP courses. She was reluctant at first, but realized that this was the pathway she needed to take. She made her decision to take three AP courses: AP Psychology, AP English Language and AP Spanish Language. She spent three hours a day doing homework. She wanted to drop the AP English Language class at the beginning of the year. After a meeting with her parent, counselor and the teacher, she stayed and expressed that she found it very helpful and was glad she was not allowed to drop the class. She successfully finished all three courses.

7. Teachers need support as well. First, teachers need to know they will be supported by their administration. The administration needs to make a commitment not to use AP scores against teachers that welcome ELs into their classes. Teachers that welcome more ELs in their AP classes may have more 1s and 2s  on the AP exam (although many ELs score 3 or higher), but those scores should not be seen as failure, as we have seen that ELs gain so much more than what is captured in the AP scores. Besides, an EL may score a 2 on their first AP exam, but if they take a second one, chances are that they are in a better position to score a 3 or higher. 
Professional development is key to help AP teachers understand that there is no need “to water down” the curriculum for ELs – it’s all about the SEI strategies and scaffolding provided. Building vocabulary is essential for students’ access to the curriculum and to ensure they are fully engaged with the content. Helping teachers navigate the various language needs in an AP course setting is new for the majority of AP teachers, so we need to make sure we don’t leave them to figure things out on their own. Pairing AP teachers with ESL teachers for additional support may be beneficial. If the district has ESL coaches, that could be another way of supporting AP teachers; they could get help with lesson planning, creating alternate assessments, and pre-teaching vocabulary.  

Where to Start?

The first place to start is with the data. Review district and school data to see what story the data tells.  What are the trends? Which students are underrepresented? Secondly, engage administration with the “why” you need the change. Be prepared to back up your “why” with data to highlight the urgency. Third, once the administration agrees that change is needed, meet with teachers from various disciplines, including AP teachers, to discuss ideas and a plan of action that makes sense for your school community. Some ideas you may consider are already outlined above. Bring allies from the district’s administration if possible. Lastly, follow through with the ideas you generate as a group, even if it’s only one step at a time.

A Check on Our Values

In conclusion, if we truly believe in equity, then we have to live by that principle and ensure all students have access to rigorous instruction, not just to meet federal compliance mandates, but because it is the right thing to do. Let’s honor the “all students” that is often embedded in districts’ and schools’ mission statements. It is not up to the students to figure out how they could take advantage of all of these opportunities. It is up to us, as educators, to create these opportunities and various entry points for diverse learners, and to be intentional and proactive in bringing students in. Make AP participation part of the culture of your school and not something associated with a select group of students. According to the College Board, in AP courses “students learn essential time management and study skills needed for college and career success. They dig deeper into subjects that interest them and learn to tap their creativity and their problem-solving skills to address course challenges.” ( ELs, like any other student, deserve to learn, achieve, and be propelled to tap into all of their potential. The conversation needs to start with the adults, the decision-makers for the students. The students need to see that teachers have faith in them, that they can also do the work of AP courses successfully. Change can be made, and you will not be disappointed as the testimonies of the students included here clearly show.
Changing the landscape of your AP program may appear challenging, but it’s actually easier than it seems. It does require a commitment to equity and faith in your students. I won’t deny, the most difficult part is having conversations with the adults who may challenge these concepts. But if you persist, I promise you it will serve as a platform that will catapult the culture and climate of your school for ALL students to learn and achieve.

Student Engagement and Interaction During Virtual Teaching & Learning

by Leticia M. Trower

Leticia M. Trower is a former ESL teacher with over ten years of experience designing, delivering, and managing professional learning experiences for educators. She is passionate about equity and student voice. Leticia is currently a member of Margarita Calderón & Associates, Director of Professional Learning at Velazquez Press, a graduate student at the University of Illinois, and the parent of a middle schooler.

Even for teachers who are typically superstars at promoting student interaction, getting kids talking, and engaging students in learning, those things can be difficult to do during a virtual lesson. Parents I’ve talked to describe long, awkward silences as their child stares silently at an equally silent screen, punctuated only by a teacher’s occasional prompts of “Anyone?” Here are a few ideas to get students engaged in virtual interaction:

  • Start Safe: Start with no-risk or low-risk questions, like “cats or dogs?”  Remember, your goal at first is just to get kids used to the new routine and get them comfortable talking. Once you’ve met that goal, you can work on getting your students to engage in academic discourse about their learning.
  • Small to Large: Have students talk in small groups first, then share out in the whole group afterwards. A gradual release model works best for this. Students won’t automatically start talking in the small groups either! Provide them with a structure that encourages each student to contribute at least one thing to the conversation, then have them choose one of those things to share in the whole group. Once the whole class reconvenes, call on one student from each group randomly; this requires students to talk in their small groups in order to make sure everyone knows what they plan to share. (You can start safe with this idea too, and have students discuss something fun the first time, moving into more academic topics as they get used to the new routine).
  • Chat Blast: Ask a question, and have everyone type their answer in the chat box but NOT hit “enter.” Let students know you expect 100% participation! Then, on your cue, everyone hits “enter” at the same time.
  • Quick Draw: At random points in the lesson, give students 30 seconds to draw a visual representation of something the class is discussing, then show it to the camera. Call on volunteers to describe what they drew.
  • Tech Tools: Use a tech tool like Pear Deck, Poll Everywhere, Nearpod, Kami, Google Jamboard, or Padlet to keep kids engaged. Find out which tech tools your district supports, or turn to your professional network (within the district or on social media) to find out what’s working well for others. Don’t use a tool just because it’s fun – always start with your learning goals.
  • Be Honest: Acknowledge that talking to a screen can feel awkward. Let your students know about how you’re feeling, too! The most successful virtual lessons I’ve seen so far are the ones that include the teacher as a learner, partnering with their students in this strange new world of school.
  • Use the Chat: Encourage students to type comments or questions in the chat, then use positive language like “Priyanka, I love what you wrote! Would you be willing to unmute and tell us more about that idea?” to invite students to speak to the whole class.
  • Be Patient: Even as adults, we need time to listen to a question, think of an answer, type it in the chat box, and hit “enter.” Students need even more time. Sometimes, another 30 seconds of wait time may be all you need.
  • Be Flexible: If you have a student who never turns their camera on or unmutes themselves to speak in class, look to other ways to gauge their engagement in class. Do they complete their assignments on time? Do they email you when they have questions? Have they contributed an equal share to group projects? Does their work demonstrate mastery of the content? If so, perhaps they don’t actually need to be engaged in traditional classroom interaction during virtual learning.

Here’s another idea, posted to Twitter by Theresa Wills: Breakout Room Phases

(Wills, 2020)

Wills, T. [@theresawills]. (2020, August 14). One does not simply create breakout groups, there is a sequence of gradual release when students show mastery and responsibility. [Infographic]. Twitter.

How to Keep Kids Engaged Without Requiring “Cameras On”

By Leticia M. Trower

Leticia M. Trower is a former ESL teacher with over ten years of experience designing, delivering, and managing professional learning experiences for educators. She is passionate about equity and student voice. Leticia is currently a member of Margarita Calderón & Associates, Director of Professional Learning at Velazquez Press, a graduate student at the University of Illinois, and the parent of a middle schooler.

In the face-to-face classroom, with students up close and personal, question-and-answer is just one of the many, many ways teachers assess student engagement and understanding. Teachers can also look at students’ facial expressions, body language, or posture; listen to their hmms and mm-hmms; watch the pace of their work; or notice how they look at each other (are they silently asking a peer what’s going on?). For the thousands of teachers teaching virtually this fall, though, many of these quick comprehension checks — which have become second nature — are no longer available. How can teachers assess student engagement and comprehension via computer screens?
One answer has been to require students to keep their cameras on throughout an online lesson. However, we already know that teacher actions that control students’ behavior have a detrimental effect on student motivation (Reeve, 2009). Instead, let’s look at ways that teachers can check in on student engagement and comprehension while simultaneously increasing motivation and engagement! Here are some ideas for how to engage and check in on students with cameras off:

  • Ask a quick and easy check-in question from time to time, and direct students to respond in the chat to let you know they’re still listening. This could be something as simple as “If you’re still there, type your favorite kind of fruit into the chat,” or a quick comprehension question like “If you’re listening, use the chat box to tell me one of the five themes of geography I just talked about.”
  • Building relationships with students takes time. Instead of responding to a student who turns off their camera by just asking them to turn it back on, make a note and check in with them later to ask why they turned it off. Chances are, even if it wasn’t a big deal, the fact that you cared enough to notice and follow up will bolster your relationship with that student – and will also make them more likely to keep their camera on in the future. (Of course, if there is a bigger issue at hand, checking in with the student will definitely turn out to have been the right move!)
  • Make time in front of the camera a positive experience. For example, ask students to turn their cameras on for fun games. One teacher I know does a “brain break,” in which students have one minute to find a certain type of object and show it to the camera. The rules are that they have to leave the room they’re in to find it, and it has to belong to a category the teacher chooses, such as “something round” or “something pink.” This quick activity gets students up and moving, provides an opportunity for them to share something about themselves, and best of all it’s fun!

Reeve, J. (2009). Why Teachers Adopt a Controlling Motivating Style Toward Students and How They Can Become More Autonomy Supportive. Educational Psychologist, 44(3), 159–175.

Successes, Challenges, and Tips for Virtual Teaching & Learning

What has school been like so far this year? What are the biggest challenges? What’s going well? And what can educators learn from the first few weeks of 2020-2021?
We reached out to people in various roles in education, and in various places throughout the U.S. Here is what they have to say. (Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity).

Hector Montenegro, Former Superintendent:
Meet students’ social, emotional as well as academic needs

Hector Montenegro is a former superintendent of three districts in Texas. He is currently a Senior District Advisor with the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and works with districts nationally and internationally on implementing Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) strategies.
These are difficult times for both students and adults. The level of stress, anxiety and uncertainty among adults and children is considerably high. Whether it be remotely, hybrid or in person, teachers and students are having to adjust to an entirely different way of teaching, relating and managing personal health and responsibilities. Virtually, districts are experiencing major challenges with connectivity, access to equipment and the availability of computer programs and instructional strategies that are user friendly, support learning and address the basic needs of belonging, feeling included and having social and emotional needs met. The COVID Slide is already having an impact on student achievement at all levels.
Now more than ever, SEL strategies are needed to balance out the focus on academics, achievement and accountability. Teachers’ own personal health and wellbeing need to be a priority in order for them to be able to better manage their own emotions and stress while navigating the complexities of new equipment, new programs and pressures to get students focused on academic achievement. Working with teachers in establishing daily routines, whether they be 10 or 30 minutes, to calm the mind through breathing exercises, mindfulness practices such as a body scan or stretching exercises have contributed to their ability to refocus, relieve and manage stress more effectively. Likewise, students also need adults to guide them to be able to understand and manage their own emotions, feel personally connected, participate in a safe learning environment, and ask for help as needed. Teachers have successfully implemented practices such as Three Signature SEL Practices which facilitate the development of regular routines such as Welcoming Rituals, Engaging Activities and an Optimistic Closure. Just as in person, teachers are also using virtual morning meetings and community circles to allow students to touch base with each other, creating a greater sense of community and support. One welcoming activity that I have seen done successfully in the virtual classroom is to give students quality time together in breakout rooms to check in, to connect, to tell their stories and to support one another. This is best done within the context of further developing SEL skills and competencies such as empathy, compassion, relationships, and a growth mindset rather than it being an unstructured free-for-all. Teachers are finding out that spending quality time focusing on social and emotional needs first makes managing the demands of virtual learning much easier and even enjoyable.
Creating a sense of community virtually is not only good for children but also good for adults. All adult interactions should also have welcoming rituals to check in with each other to further build SEL competencies, offer support and lighten the load. Virtual meetings shouldn’t just be focused on training and disseminating information but on sharing and practicing skills that could be used with students. Adults need time in breakout rooms to process new information, to make meaning out of what is being required of them and to confide in one another and never leave a meeting without doing an Optimistic Closure to keep spirits high and self confidence intact.

Solon Hefner, Student:
Make it more efficient!

Solon Hefner is a middle school student in a large urban district that started the year 100% online.
Many schools have begun the year using a virtual platform that can be confusing or messy. So far, teachers could work on cleaning up the pages for whatever platform they are using whether that be canvas or google classroom or something else entirely. If there are too many pages or posts on this platform, it could cause students to become confused and not understand what they are supposed to work on. If the number of posts could be reduced and made more brief, then this would be greatly beneficial to the vast majority of students. Another problem I have encountered is attendance taking up class time. This seems to be an unnecessary problem but still takes up 10-15 minutes of already limited class time.
On a more positive note, something that has been going well this year is communication between teachers. They mostly seem to be on the same page on subjects such as timing, due dates, and not overloading us with work.
For schools going forward I would suggest having teachers use a link for attendance that either automatically logs absences or lets teachers do attendance at a time other than the middle of class.

Lisa Tartaglia, Assistant Principal:
Be flexible, and don’t panic!

Lisa Tartaglia is an assistant principal in one of the fastest-growing school districts in Virginia.
Our district went back to school on Tuesday, September 8, 2020. We are 100% virtual at this time. We are using a new platform, called “Schoology,” and Google Meet.
The biggest challenge was training the teachers and the students in the new platform. The second biggest challenge was the intruders in the Google Meets. This occurred several times the first week. Students were exposed to inappropriate language and pictures. We are learning how to ensure safeguards are in place when running Google Meet.
As teachers are settling in, I am beginning to see more students on camera and more engaging lessons. I’m seeing some effective management techniques and I’m seeing everyone doing their part to make this successful.
My advice is to be patient and flexible and not to panic. Technology issues will occur, but by relaxing and not worrying, it assures the children that it is okay and that learning will continue once the issue is fixed. Having a back up plan is also helpful. Lastly, constant communication with the families is so helpful. We are all in this together.

Carlos Ramirez, Principal:
It takes a village.

Carlos Ramirez is principal of an IB Title I elementary school in Arlington, VA.
What a first couple of weeks of online learning! Lots of challenges, yet many success stories, were the prevailing state of affairs.
From connectivity issues to lack of technology savviness to language barriers, each family’s story and need was vastly different. Nevertheless, we went from 60% percent connectivity rates the morning of the first day of school to 95% by the end of the first week. As we closed the second week of online learning, we were able to reach a 98% connectivity, attendance, and participation rates.
How was that possible? By looking at individual needs and providing targeted supports. We taught parents how to log in, how to connect, how to help their children navigate through the multiple learning platforms. This was safely done either in person or via teleconference. The support team we put together grew by the day in numbers. We started weeks before school opened its virtual doors and were able to recruit 10 staff members (instructional technology coordinator, test coordinator,  bilingual family liaison, administrative and instructional assistants, and teachers) who spoke different languages, were tech savvy and willing to “return” to work early. These individuals called the families of every single student enrolled at our school equipped with a series of scripted questions to find out whether or not they had internet access at home, Wi-Fi, a school-issued device, log in information, etc. Additionally, these callers also inquired about any possible needs each family might have had in terms of applying for internet access, obtaining a new school-issued device, food insecurity, imminent eviction, etc. As the reported issues began piling up on a common spreadsheet, more staff were added to this accoined “Connectivity Team” to ensure proper communication, follow up, and support in a timely manner. Our connectivity team grew to more than 20 staff members during pre-service to all staff once school started.
That was the key to success and the so many stories that each team member relayed in the process of getting every student connected, attending, and participating in online learning. As the adage goes, “It takes a village.”

Elizabeth Montes, Private School:
Start the world, I want to get on!

Elizabeth Montes has over 35 years of experience in education, in roles spanning from teacher to assistant superintendent. She currently serves as Head of School at a private K-8 academy in Texas.
The year 2020 provided us with 20/20 vision to see other people, ourselves, and the world more clearly. As humans went on lockdown, the natural world was revitalized. The oceans and other waterways were cleaner. The air quality was improved as people worked from home reducing carbon emissions. Our credit card bills were negligible without dining out and shopping. Families in lockdown spent more quality time together.
The greatest challenge for parents, teachers, and students has been virtual school. Working from home and teaching from home is like juggling several balls. Parents who did not have the opportunity to work from home had to find childcare, but nannies and grandparents were on quarantine also. Remote instruction is based on the assumption that every family has access to a laptop and internet connection. Schools have stepped up providing hot spots and equipment as needed.
Many schools and universities have created hybrid schedules this fall. When will we return to normal? Or will it be a new normal as we live with what we need, not what we want? Having been characters in the play, “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off”, we are ready for the remake, “Start the World, I Want to Get On!”

The Importance of Vocabulary Instruction in the Core Subject Areas for ELs at the Secondary Level

by Giuliana Jahnsen Lewis

Giuliana Jahnsen Lewis immigrated from Lima, Perú when she was fourteen years old. Breaking the language barrier and other challenges of being a newly arrived immigrant, she became an advocate for equitable instruction for ELs. She has served in multiple positions for Loudoun County Public Schools including EL Teacher, EL Curriculum Writer and Coordinator, EL Professional Developer, and currently serves as a Middle School Dean at Sterling Middle School. 

“Vocabulary – because of its direct association with meaning, the sheer weight of its numbers, and the natural disposition of the learner to break into a language through its words – may be the most important single factor in learning a second language” (Lado, 1988).

Acquiring new vocabulary is the key to success for any student. However, for English Learners (ELs, also called ELLs or English Language Learners) at the secondary level, acquiring new vocabulary is the most valuable path to comprehension and assimilation of a new language. “In secondary schools, ELLs have double the work in learning because they have to master both content and the language of that content” (Calderón & Soto, 2017). In addition to their academic challenges, students also face the hardships related to being an immigrant in a new culture and fulfilling other duties given to them to support their families. Considering these factors, educators should note that vocabulary instruction is not only crucial for comprehension but also that it entails processes that must be incorporated into the instructional experience of the student.


Arriving in the United States as a fourteen-year-old EL student in the ninth grade was challenging in many aspects. I had to work harder than my non-EL peers to learn English and exit the EL program so that I could take higher level courses and be able to graduate high school on time. Meanwhile, I faced additional obstacles as a result of my status as an EL student including racism and teachers telling me I was not going to succeed. Attending a university in the United States was one of my dreams, not only for myself, but also to show gratitude to my parents for their hard work and many sacrifices.

As a newcomer EL at the secondary level, you are racing against the clock. However, when EL students are presented with quality instruction that embodies an “asset-based” (Calderón et al., 2020) environment, the following takes place: (1) students’ identities and strengths are recognized (including their personal, cultural, socio-emotional, and world experiences); (2) students’ home languages and literacy experiences are viewed as assets, not deficits; and (3) all teachers recognize the assets their ELs bring to the table and also view themselves as “teachers of ELs” (Calderón et al., 2020). I was fortunate to be placed in some classrooms where these practices were present. Because of magnificent educators (teachers and counselors), I was able to overcome various challenges and feel empowered to continue learning the language and content. As Dr. Calderón and Minaya-Rowe (2011) state, “the most important factor in attaining EL success is quality instruction.”


During instruction, ELs tend to transfer the structure of the native language onto the second one. During the second quarter as a newcomer student, my brain started translating word by word as I read texts, handouts, posters, and other items in the classroom or provided by my teachers. I would read a word in English and my brain would automatically translate it into Spanish. At first, I thought I was getting my brain confused, but as I learned more academic language in English, the transfer from one language to the other started disappearing.

It is important to note that ELs are immersed into a process when learning a new word. Once the word is learned, including its functionalities, they are able to apply it in various forms through the four domains of language. EL students are then equipped to utilize the word in other linguistic contexts as well as connect it to language and behavior within specific situations (Nsar, 2010).


A powerful instructional experience must be intentionally planned by teachers in order to elicit student participation and develop an environment of ongoing learning. Vocabulary instruction should be “robust” which is characterized by being vigorous, strong, and powerful. “A robust approach to vocabulary involves directly explaining the meaning of words along with thought-provoking, playful, and interactive follow-up (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2013). It needs to be understood that a powerful vocabulary instruction will lend itself to strong reading comprehension across the content areas of study.

Vocabulary instruction is dependent upon the purpose of the text and author, audience, and the content area being studied by the student. In order to build a solid repertoire of words, teachers must identify vocabulary words and corresponding features that are necessary for comprehension of the text (Calderón & Soto, 2017). Additionally, once instruction takes place, these words must appear in the students’ oracy, reading, and writing practice to ensure dominance in the four language modalities, constant practice and retention, and meaningful utilization of the words.


Three tiers of words have been identified to better direct the focus in instruction. Tier One words are identified as those being learned by constant oral interaction through conversations at most part. These words can also be acquired by looking at the word and its visual representation. Some of these words include happy, cold, cat, baby, and many more. Tier Three words are higher level concepts specifically related to the subject area or discipline being studied. Some of these words include legislative, photosynthesis, chemical, and more. While Tier One and Tier Three words are important for students to know, Tier Two words are the critical group. Tier Two words are known to influence students’ comprehension of text across all content areas. Tier Two words are encountered more often by students in written forms than orally (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2013). However, as educators, we must ensure that students are able to master the usage of these words across all four domains of language.

When selecting new words for our students, it is imperative to consider the levels of students in the class. While it is stated that Tier One words are acquired through conversations, we still need to provide instruction of these words to our ELs. This includes words that are challenging to spell (e.g., rough, tooth) and pronounce (e.g., sheep, ship, chip, cheap, this/that, tenth) (Calderon & Soto, 2017).

When preparing for instruction, it should never be assumed that students already know the word necessary for comprehension of the material. As educators, our role is to constantly assess our students to be able to provide personalized and enriching instruction. Therefore, we must teach vocabulary words that will support our students’ reading comprehension and learning experience.


It is critical that students are involved in a robust and meaningful learning experience when learning new words. Therefore, vocabulary instruction must involve all key components: vocabulary instruction, oral

practice, reading, writing, and context – the purpose of learning the word. By incorporating all of the key components, we provide our students with opportunities to apply and practice with their new words, while working collaboratively with other students in class and utilizing their words in reading and writing activities (Calderón & Minaya-Rowe, 2011).

Vocabulary instruction should be the foundation of every lesson. As students master new words, acquisition of skills and comprehension of text become much easier. It is important to remember that teaching vocabulary “is not an end in itself. It is only a precursor into reading, writing, and conducting rich discussions in every content area” (Calderón & Soto, 2017).

Lado, R. (1988). Teaching English Across Cultures. Mexico, D.F.: McGraw-Hill.

Calderón, M. E., & Rowe, L. M. (2011). Preventing Long-Term ELs: Transforming Schools to Meet Core Standards. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Calderón, M. E., Fenner, D. S., Honigsfeld, A., Slakk, S., Zacarian, D., Dove, M. G., Gottlieb, M., Singer, T. W., & Soto, I. (2020). Breaking Down the Wall: Essential Shifts for English Learners’ Success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Calderón, M. E., & Soto, I. (2017). Academic Language Mastery: Vocabulary in Context. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Beck, I., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Nsar, R. (2010). Language Pragmatics in the ESL/EFL Classroom. Unpublished data.

Take a Virtual Museum Tour!

by Joanne Marino

Many museums across the globe have made virtual visits to their collections available online. With social distancing limiting our ability to visit museums in person, this is a perfect time to explore these virtual tours! Read on for just a few examples – and then look up your favorite museum, topic, or artist to find other virtual experiences you may enjoy!

British Museum, London, England

The Ancient Maya
This tour includes photographs of sites such as Tikal, Palenque, and Chichén Itzá; stone stelae; casts of monuments and inscriptions; pottery; carved jades; and other artifacts.
This video (07:36) shows how Mayan artifacts and hieroglyphics are recreated so the past is made available for people today.

View a collection of art and artifacts from Australia, New Guinea, and the many islands across the South Pacific Ocean.

American Museum of Natural History

Explore some of the features of the museum, such as the Titanosaur, a meteorite, and a giant sequoia tree.

Austrian National Library

This museum has an impressive collection of art and print, including elaborately decorated books and the oldest card catalog.

Stone Monuments in India

This is a tour of six of India’s stonework sites.

Louvre Museum, Paris

Take a virtual tour of this world-famous art museum by following the links below. As you scroll through each one, be sure to click the arrow to the right of each numbered artwork to read a full description.

Masterpieces of the Louvre, Denon Wing
This tour examines major works from the Italian Renaissance, including the Mona Lisa and the Winged Victory of Samothrace.

Masterpieces of the Louvre, Sully Wing
This tour includes major works of ancient Greek art including the Venus de Milo, as well as Egyptian art.

Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), São Paulo, Brazil

Art From Brazil Until 1900
This tour presents a selection from MASP’s Brazilian painting collection, from the 17th to the 19th century.

Picture Gallery in Transformation
This exhibition focuses on figurative art and also includes works by artists frequently excluded from the Brazilian canon of art history.

The Museum of Popular Art, Mexico City, Mexico

Several virtual tours through the museum are available at this site, including an exhibit about Mexican dress inspired by nature and another about the Ofrenda of the Day of the Dead.

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, South Korea

The 100th Anniversary of the Birth of Korean Modern Masters: Yoo Youngkuk, 1916-2002
Yoo Youngkuk was a pioneer of Korean contemporary art. The works in this exhibit celebrate his talent.

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands

This museum covers 800 years of Dutch art and history, from the Middle Ages to the present day.

Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

This tour highlights portraits of important Black Americans.

Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

The Uffizi contains one of the world’s most important collections of paintings. Take a virtual tour here – and be sure to use the 1 and 2 on the right to tour both floors of the museum!

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Take a virtual tour of this museum dedicated to the art, biography, and legacy of Vincent Van Gogh.

BONUS – Here are two more ideas for virtual tours:

In this video (29:29), Discovery Education tours Shakespeare’s family home, his father’s workshop, and his school in Stratford-Upon-Avon, as well as examining his life in London.

National Parks
Take a virtual tour of some of America’s national parks at this link.

Joanne Marino is an educator who provides professional development, coaching, and leadership support to schools with culturally and linguistically diverse students. Marino had a multifaceted career in education as a teacher (English as a second language (ESL) and social studies), materials developer, teacher trainer, and administrator.  Learn more about her on the ExC-ELL Team page.

COVID-19 and Social-Emotional Learning

by Hector Montenegro

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has created deeply disturbing unimaginable scenes of ghost towns in urban centers and emotionally unstable times for communities around the world. As we watch the numbers grow of people being infected and the death toll both locally and globally from the coronavirus we are also watching the numbers fall in the stock market. We are being impacted by terms that will forever be etched in our memory – pandemic, coronavirus lockdown, social distancing, stay-at-home orders, quarantine, and self-quarantine

As of March 25, 46 states have decided to close an estimated 123,000 public and private schools indefinitely, affecting at least 55 million students. It is uncertain the number of teachers, administrators, support staff and service providers that have also been impacted by these school closings, but what we do know is that it has totally disrupted the routines that educators are so accustomed to. Teachers bring order to their classrooms and make life secure for the children they teach by setting clear expectations and making outcomes predictable. Now carefully constructed routines have been halted, and field trips, concerts, festivals, sporting events, fundraisers and final exams all canceled with very little warning. Educators are also having to care for sick loved ones, are quarantined for their own exposures, are caring for children home from closed schools, are trying to teach virtual classes, or are otherwise coping with the rapidly changing national and local responses to the pandemic. 

No telling what impact this will have on student learning, on families, on the economy, or on teachers’ ability to cope and manage their own careers. How will we support students who rely on school for meals or the stability that their classroom provides? How will our students without access to computers or technology continue to learn? What will this do to our school and campus communities? How will this impact our schools’ funding? And then there’s the uncertainty around when teachers and students will be allowed to return to school—and what school will be like when we do. 

As we cope with these uncertain times and the radical change of routines, here are a few thoughts and practices to consider: 

  • Find Calm and Nourish Resilience in the midst of the change. This is a perfect time to revisit personal practices and nourish your inner resources by taking time to reflect on accomplishments, creative ways to manage your time, explore personal practices of self care, well-being, open-hearted self compassion, mindfulness, and even rewire your brain for resilience and calm.
  • Be Careful about Media Consumption and becoming addicted to the latest news. We are being inundated with anecdotes of both good and bad news. Take a media break and focus on your health, unfinished projects and even consider preparing for your return to the classroom better prepared and more informed about options for re-entry. 
  • Consider Looking into Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) for evidence-based practices to help you now and to support you and the students when you eventually return to school. SEL is for everyone. It’s especially critical for students with the greatest needs—the ones who will be severely impacted by the psychosocial and fiscal effects of this pandemic. In times of high stress, negative emotions like fear, anxiety and panic diminish our mental resources and ability to think clearly, make healthy decisions and behave prosocially and productively. 

Chronic stress impairs our ability to function well and impacts the quality of our relationships. Navigating uncontrollable, unpredictable, ambiguous situations like the new coronavirus, in addition to being confronted with many new demands, is challenging and for many of us amounts to chronic stress. We can’t control what has happened, but we can control how we respond to what is happening (Cipriano & Brackett, 2020).

Dr. Hector Montenegro, President/CEO of Montenegro Consulting Group, LLC, is currently Senior District Advisor for the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and works with districts and administrators nationally and internationally on systemic implementation of SEL.  He is also a Senior Associate for Margarita Calderon and Associates (MC&A) and provides training on instructional strategies for ELLs, leadership development for administrators, instructional coaching.  Learn more about him on the ExC-ELL Team page.