Setting Reading Goals with English Language Learners

Do you need to set a reading goal for your "newcomers," aka, beginning English language learners, that measures a certain level of growth by the end of the school year? Some teachers, if not most, are asked to create SMARTR goals for student progress: S=Specific, M=Measurable, A=Attainable, R=Relevant, T=Time-bound. So, what is a realistic amount of growth for students who have not yet acquired basic communication or literacy skills in English? And what can we do to maximize their growth?

"Close the achievement gap." We hear this a lot because it IS the ultimate goal. In order to close the achievement gap though, the reading goal should be set for more than a year's growth. However, newcomers are a unique group of students. They have needs like no other group. Can we realistically expect a year's growth, or more, from this group?

Now, there are exceptions of course, some students are HIGHLY motivated learners and make incredible amounts of progress. Others come with gaps in their educational backgrounds, or perhaps undetected learning disabilities, and their progress is slower. For this post I am talking in general terms, about the typical beginning ESL student who comes to you with grade level educational experiences in his/her native language.

When I set goals for my newcomers, the first thing I do is look in their files to see, have they been going to school? How many years of schooling have they had? (If they've been in school, I assume they've received instruction.) Can they read and write in their native language? I may not have the answer to this last question about reading, but my district does ask newcomers to give a sample of writing in their native language upon registration. This sample can tell a lot about their literacy skills. 

Students who come with age appropriate literacy skills in their first language (L1) make quicker progress than those who lack skills in their L1. In turn, students who have gaps in their education make slower progress because they are also working to fill in the gaps.

Where to Start

With any student, we must have accurate data on the student's starting point, or baseline. What are they able to do already? If I want the SMARTR goal to measure reading progress in English, I assess them on their English reading skills. My school district uses the DRA2 to measure reading progress, so this is my assessment tool.

At the beginning of the year, I also assess their knowledge of letter names and sounds, for my own instructional purposes, so that I know specifically what to target in the beginning.

Let's take a newcomer in an upper elementary grade with age appropriate literacy skills in their L1.  Can they make a year's growth, or more, their first year here? In my experience, NO. They don't speak the language yet. They may be going through culture shock the first few months. They may also be going through their "silent period" the first several months. A full year's growth is NOT a realistic, or attainable goal.

So what amount of progress can you expect, realistically? Setting high expectations, utilizing best practices and providing targeted instruction with fidelity is a must. But let's be realistic and understand the process of acquiring a new language.

Beginning English language learners may be able to read in their native language, but here, we are asking them to learn a new culture, school system, and grade level curriculum (and assess them) all while learning a new language. If we set high, yet realistic, goals for them in reading, and provide targeted instruction throughout the day that supports their language development, then according to research, most ELLs will catch up with their native English speaking peers in about 4-7 years.

So, in my experience, the following is a realistic amount of progress...

>>> First year in the United States, newcomers make less than a year's growth in reading. My students receive guided reading and vocabulary development from me every day, plus guided reading with the classroom teacher several times a week. If they start the year reading at an emergent level, between a level A and a 2, then my expectation is that by the end of the school year they'll reach between a DRA 8 and a 10. That is about a half a year's progress. That is realistic, and that is awesome growth for a beginning ELL! At this level they are able to decode 1-2 syllable words, as well as comprehend AND respond to concrete questions about their reading, in ENGLISH!

>>> Second year, I expect my students to make one full year's growth in reading. This is a high expectation because they are still in the developing stages of learning English, but we should be setting high (realistic) expectations. In year two, our ELLs have foundational literacy skills in English. We were sure to build those during year one. Now the focus leans even more on reading comprehension, still strengthening phonics and vocabulary with our targeted lessons. With consistent guided reading instruction that incorporates best practices for ELLs, meaningful and scaffolded activities during reader's workshop, and focused mini-lessons that include our beginning ELLs, this expectation CAN be met!

This example is from a student starting his second year of learning English. He met his goal, and went a little bit beyond.

>>> Third year, I expect my ELLs to make MORE than a year's growth in reading. This is where we can really start closing the achievement gap between English language learners and their English only peers! Lets say for an example, year 1 my newcomers went from reading level A to an 8. Because of summer slide they came back year 2 reading at level 6. We should be able to get them back up to an 8 fairly quickly, now I need to get them to an 18 by the end of the year. That's a year's progress. Year three, they come back at a 16, (darn that summer slide) and I get them back up to an 18 fairly quickly, now they need a year's progress (28) PLUS a little more. I might set their end of the year reading goal at a 30.

>>> Forth year, I set an end of the year goal between a 40 and a 50. That's 2 year's growth! I know it won't be easy, but they can do it! If I stay focused on modifying my guided reading to provide the language supports my ELLs need to get to the next level, and they stay motivated and invested in their own progress, that achievement gap can close!

>>> Download this freebie! <<<
At the beginning of the year, students set goals, then track their progress throughout the year.
Note:  To glue inside a marble composition notebook, first reduce the page size 85%.
So, when you set reading goals for your students this year, I hope that you can take away from my experience as to what realistic expectations are for ELLs, and how to measure their reading progress.

To sum it all up... a realistic amount of growth for English language learners is as follows.

Granted, many students arrive mid way through the year, so if this happens, adjust the goals accordingly.

How to Maximize Growth

We maximize growth by consistently providing targeted language and literacy instruction using best practices for ELLs. We can make great progress in closing the achievement gap with English Language Learners, and that is always the ultimate goal. It can be done, if we work together for the common goal, classroom teachers, support teachers AND students. Even if the 1st year goal is 1/2 year's progress, we are setting our students up for success in year 2, 3, 4 and so on. But if someone says to you that they want your newcomers to make a year's growth their very first year here, my response would be that that is neither a realistic or attainable goal, not yet. That goal would not be setting the students OR the teachers up for success.

Note - This post is based on my experience working as an ESOL teacher in elementary education since 2005. I have worked with all levels of language proficiency in grades K-6, and it is my experience working closely with ELLs that has given me the insight as to what an "attainable" expectation is in regards to reading goals.

Teach Reading Comprehension Skills Using Short Films

I love using short films to teach reading comprehension skills, and my students love watching them!

Why do I love using them?
Show a short film and students are engaged! Visual learners and students who typically struggle with reading comprehension, including English language learners (ELLs), have greater success practicing comprehension skills with shorts. Most shorts do not have dialogue, they're all action. My students, regardless of their level of language proficiency, "get" the lesson more easily because the shorts are visual.

Where can you find short films?
My go to place to find great shorts is YouTube. Be careful to always view films before showing them in class. You don't want any unexpected surprises! Also, sometimes there is an advertisement to get through at the beginning, so I always set it up beforehand, that way it's all ready to go for the lesson.

Which reading skills can be taught using shorts?
Just about ANY reading skill can be taught with shorts: making connections, asking questions, sequencing, predictions, drawing conclusions, plot, character development, theme, and this list goes on and on!

Learning what the skills looks like visually, and practicing with a media kids are already familiar with, is an effective first step in students applying the skills to their reading.

One of my absolute favorite lessons to teach is "theme." Last year, my fifth graders were having trouble grasping the concept, so I searched for a good short film to visually "show" them theme, and I found the perfect one!

I describe theme as the heart of the story. I then share common themes found in stories, such as, perseverance, family, friendship, hope, honesty, self determination, courage, etc. For this lesson, my students watched the film twice. The first time was simply to enjoy the story. After their first viewing, I asked them to share what they noticed about the film. Then I asked, "What do you think the message or big idea was in this film?" They shared lots of thoughts, and I noted the common ideas the group came up, which were love and hope. Then I showed the film again. This time I set the purpose to look for symbols of love, and evidence of hope. After the second viewing they shared many of the symbols of love, and they noticed that the song lyrics sang about having hope. Discussions got pretty deep, which made my teacher heart happy;) To support my beginning ELLs, I printed pictures of the different scenes that symbolized love (couples- turtles, birds, whales, clouds).

By the end of the lesson my students had a good understanding of the skill, and they were ready to practice looking for a theme in their own reading. We continued to practice during guided reading, and spiraled back to theme as we read throughout the year.

Other favorites...

Piper: Character Development

For the Birds: Infer, Predictions or Cause and Effect

Home Sweet Home: Asking Questions  This short is a bit long (10 minutes).

Kiwi!: Drawing Conclusions  Warning- this one is sad.

Boundin: Lesson, Theme, Plot

Lifted: Plot

Dustin: Inferring, Conflict, Conflict Resolution

Take Me Home:  Inferring

Jinxy Jenkins and Lucky Lou: Compare and Contrast 

Soar: Predictions, Plot, Story Elements

Sweet Cocoon: Story Elements, Drawing Conclusions

and Lava: Theme

I have found that using short films in my reading mini-lessons have given my students a deeper understanding of the skills being taught, which allows them to then transfer the skills to text. And the fact that the kids are so engaged makes it a win-win for all!

These are just some of the short films out there that are great for teaching reading comprehension skills, there are a lot more!  In an era where kids are visually stimulated more than ever before, using film to teach reading comprehension is effective, fun and engaging for ALL students. Add this tool to the 'ole teacher toolbox!

K.I.M. - A Highly Effective Strategy to Build Vocabulary Across Any Content Area

In my last post, I shared briefly about a strategy that I use to build vocabulary for my beginning English Language Learners (ELLs) called the K.I.M. Strategy. Today I want to share with you in more detail about what this strategy is, why I use it, and how I differentiate it to meet the needs of ALL students.

The K.I.M. Strategy is a low prep, high yield strategy that supports ALL levels of learners across ALL content areas. Now, you can't get much better than that!

What is it? It's a direct vocabulary instruction strategy. The acronym stands for Key word, Important information, Memory clue and Sentence. I have my students do this right inside their notebooks (n0-prep), but you could also use a graphic organizer or vocabulary booklet (low-prep).

K.I.M. strategy in a science notebook

K. I. M. Strategy Graphic Organizers FREEBIE!

Vocabulary Booklet - Click HERE!
Why I use it! I use it because it's effective in building vocabulary, and my students enjoy it. As vocabulary grows, so does comprehension. I teach English language learners who happen to be of low socio-economic status. Those are two subgroups who come to school with significantly lower vocabulary knowledge than their English only and higher SES peers. I believe explicit vocabulary instruction is a crucial component of instruction, especially for kids in these subgroups. However, as we know, every child benefits from direct and purposeful vocabulary instruction.  I say purposeful because looking up definitions in a dictionary is not purposeful, or meaningful, IMO.

How I use it! In my students' notebooks, I have designated a section to vocabulary. This includes notebooks across content areas (math, science & social studies).

The K.I.M. Strategy format is easily modified to meet the needs of students. For example, my beginning English language learners build their basic vocabulary using K.M.S. because they are new to the language, I do not have them add "Important information;" I simply want them to learn words and what they are.

My "new to English" students learn monthly themed vocabulary each month.
My intermediate and higher students always include K.I.M., and usually add "S" for a sentence as a follow up activity.

A typical vocabulary lesson looks something like this... Before I give my students a word, I show them examples, pictures or drawings of the word. Then I'll say, this is a "_____." So, what do you think "_____" means?  I let them explore the meaning first based on the visuals that I provide. I then steer them to the important information that they need to add in their notebook.

Here's a recent example with my 6th grade math group. They were starting a geometry unit and needed to learn some new vocabulary.  I used the document camera to project my notebook.

The visual of my notebook provides them with a scaffold to ensure accuracy with their spelling and the "important information" of new terms. Memory clues and sentences are independent activities.

First, they drew 6 KIM boxes for their 6 new words...

... then, drew various sized and shaped quadrilaterals on the whiteboard.

I said, "These are all quadrilaterals. What do you think a quadrilateral is?" Hands shot up and students shared their guesses. With teacher support, we narrowed down the information to the most important information. Students then filled in the Key word - quadrilateral, the Important information - 4 sided shape with 4 angles, then they drew a quick picture for a Memory clue.

Next, I drew several examples of parallel lines and told them that these lines are parallel. "What do you think the word parallel means?" Again, hands shot up.  After that, a right angle, and so on...

On this day I did not have them write a sentence because of time constraints, but that could be a follow up activity at a different time or day.

When I do direct vocabulary instruction, I typically teach about 5 new words in a lesson, but that can vary. I also typically add a fun, kinesthetic activity as an exit ticket.  Recently I needed to teach my students just 2 words, "ascending" and "descending." We did the K.I.M. Strategy for those 2 terms, then towards the end of class we did a quick human number line activity! I passed out index cards with a percent written on each, then told them to get into "ascending" order. Once that was complete, I mixed them up and told them to get into "descending" order.

"descending" order - exit ticket to reinforce new vocabulary
For the follow up activity of the geometry terms, I wrote each term on an index card, and corresponding pictures on another. I randomly passed out all the cards and told them to find the classmate who has the matching term or picture for their card, then stand next to each other. That was their exit ticket for that day.

We are a good ways into the school year now, so my students know the process and expectations of using the K.I.M. strategy, however, when the strategy was first introduced, I did provide an anchor chart for students to use as a reference.

K.I.M. strategy anchor chart
If you are looking for a new way to incorporate direct vocabulary instruction into your lessons, I think you'll find this strategy to be effective, engaging and super easy to implement. I also think that your students will find it to be a fun way to learn new vocabulary. It's my go-to strategy this year for teaching new vocabulary.

If you have a great strategy for direct vocabulary instruction, I'd love to hear about it!

Small Group Work with Beginning English Language Learners

As an ESL teacher, I often hear from classroom teachers that they don't always know where to start when it comes to working with beginning English language learners (ELLs), or newcomers, in small guided reading groups. In this post I'll share a typical "guided reading" lesson that I would give to my beginning ELLs, as well as a glance of at what a typical week would look like.

Let me start by saying, the very first thing I do before I start instructing my newcomers is, I assess what they already know. First, I see if they have literacy skills in their native language...can they read and write? Then, I see if they know alphabet letter names and sounds. Next, using the DRA2, I assess their reading level. Since they don't have English literacy skills yet, their reading level typically starts at level "A" (emergent). I can say that most students do have some literacy skills in their home language, and often times, many know some letter names and sounds. So now I've got my starting point! 

When I first begin working with my newcomers, the main components of reading that I typically focus on are vocabulary, phonological awareness/phonics and sight words. So a typical week would encompass all three of these components into my targeted lessons. Down the road I add comprehension skills, but they are not ready for that yet.

Step 1 - Choose an appropriate book. I carefully select books that have relevant vocabulary. For the most part, my main focus is building their vocabulary. The literacy skills in their native language will transfer to their new language, however, they have an extremely limited vocabulary, so... vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary! 

I chose this book because I wanted to teach my students the word "big."  It's also about animals, and I know that most kids are interested in reading about animals!  I used gestures to SHOW them what "big" means. 

It's important to be mindful of your students' age when picking out books. You don't want to give 4th-6th graders books about bunnies or teddy bears. Try picking age appropriate books; which I know can be a challenge if the selection is limited, but you don't want your students feeling embarrassed.

Step 2 - Preview the book. Point to and say each animal's name and have the students repeat the names back to you, keeping in mind to speak clearly and to enunciate the sounds in each word. It's important for them to hear how to pronounce the names.

A side thought...Think about "A" level books... they are not created with English language learners in mind. "A" level books have repeated sentences, which are GREAT, but they also have very specific vocabulary that students are expected to decode using picture cues. In the book my students read last week, the repeated sentence was, "We go to the _____."  The pictures show the family in different locations like the pool, park, library, soccer game, etc. In one picture the family is standing in front of a large fish tank. If I asked English only students where the family is, some might say a fish store or they might even guess aquarium, depending on their background knowledge. Then they'd cross check their thinking with the word and see that it begins with the letter "a" and hopefully they'd say, "It's an aquarium!" But our newcomers don't know what a big fish tank place is called in English, so it's important for us to support our students by saying the names of each vocabulary word. 

Step 3 - Choral reading! Newcomers feel more comfortable in a choral reading setting. They need help pronouncing the words. They need to hear YOU pronounce the words. Choral reading helps to keep anxiety levels low. (In a few weeks, the choral reading decreases and I will start focusing on decoding.)

Step 4 - After reading, review the animal names. Point to an animal and see if they can remember the name. Perhaps make a matching activity with animal pictures and names. Support as needed. Encourage a LOT!

Step 5 - I always provide a guided writing activity based off of the book we just read. I use sentence frames to support their thinking and writing. Sometimes I create my own, like the picture below, and other times I'll use a graphic organizer as a follow up activity. On this day I wanted them to understand the meaning of "big," so their writing supported this goal.

As they finish their writing activity, I'll ask each student to read some of their writing to me. Then they'll draw a quick picture, which I always ask them to label.

I know that my newcomers don't understand every word in the book, and that's OK!  They are being exposed to new words and ideas in a repeating format. I want them to get used to the structure of our lessons so that they know what's expected.

So, here is what a typical week of small group work entails for my newcomers. Knowing what the focus is each day helps me to zone in on their learning goals. This schedule works for me and my students. The variety keeps it fun and interesting, yet it's consistent so that they know what's expected.
As you can see, on Tuesdays I include direct vocabulary instruction, either using the vocabulary from the book, like the animals, or monthly themed vocabulary, or content vocabulary from another content area.
October themed vocabulary
One activity I have my students do with their vocabulary is use the K.I.M. Strategy.  In their notebook they write the key word (K), important information (I), sketch a memory clue (M) and write a sentence (S). For my newcomers, I leave out the (I) portion. They are not ready for adding "information." Right now the goal is for them to learn the names of things and simple sentence structure. My higher ELLS definitely include all components of the K.I.M. Strategy in their notebooks.  

This is what the K.I.M. Strategy looks like.


And this is how it looks modified for my newcomers...

On Thursdays, I focus on building sight words. When teaching ELLs sight words, it's important to teach them in context. Your beginning ELLs need context in order to make meaning of the words. I pull a sight word from our book and I include an extension activity with that word. (A link to this resource is provided at the bottom of this post.)

I do teach sight words throughout the week, but on Thursdays we always have an extension activity for one of them. 

As an "exit ticket" I have them orally use the sight word. Today, I asked each student, "What can you do?" And they responded with "I can _____." Then they get a high five, a sticker (big kids like stickers too!), or some encouraging praise. 

I also include Word Study activities in my small group work. I like using the sorts from Words Their Way. Each Monday they receive a new spelling pattern. Remember, I assessed my students to see what they already knew. Most already knew initial sounds, so I started them with word families. If they did not know initial sounds, I would've started there. I do have one student in this group who does not know many initials sounds, so I spend a little extra focus with him on initial sounds. 

My newcomers use this activity to learn spelling patterns AND vocabulary. They are introduced to their new word list on Mondays, then they have independent activities to do with their word list throughout the week. (It's so important to set newcomers up with meaningful activities that they can do independently during Reader's Workshop.) Below is their Word Study Activities list. It gets glued into their Reading Notebook. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays they work on their independent activities.  Friday is Word Study Quiz day!

And that's what small group instruction looks like with my newcomers. 

To recap, assess what students can do to evaluate your starting point. Focus on building vocabulary, sight words in context, word spelling patterns and choral reading to start. My guided reading lessons usually looks like... preview the book, front load main vocabulary, choral read, and end with a guided writing activity with sentence frames.

Here's a TIP:  Many times I make my own guided writing activity based on what I want the students to learn from the book. I'll write the activity in my notebook, make copies, cut them to size, then have students glue it into their notebook. Keep this notebook!  You may get a newcomer next year, and when you do, many of your guided writing activities will already be made. You'll just need to find the book that goes with the activity.

My notebook where I write out the guided writing activities.
I know that many school districts lack ESL resources and often times the classroom teacher is the only one providing instruction. Knowing where to start with beginning ELLs is probably the biggest challenge. I hope that this post gives you some ideas about where to start and what to focus on with your new students.   

  Affiliate Link to Sight Word Resource

Read more about K.I.M., a highly effective vocabulary strategy, here!

Classroom Organization: Setting Up a Guided Reading Binder

Hello!  This summer has flown by, and the countdown for going back to school is on!!  In just under a week I official go back, but I know that many teachers have already been back for several weeks.

One of the first items on my to-do list is to set up my guided reading binder. I thought I'd share with you how I do that, in case you find it helpful in setting up your own.

Guided reading is such an important part of the day. That's when we meet with our small groups and target their reading instruction. There's nothing more important than teaching our students how to read, or how to become stronger readers. And let's face it, there is a LOT of organizing involved with guided reading! We need to know our kids' reading levels. We need to know their strengths and weaknesses. We need to keep track of  their progress (data!). We need to have a weekly schedule. We need to make lesson plans!  And more!  Here's how I keep all of that organized...

First, I print out the pages that I need.  (Divider pages are printed on cardstock.) Then I make multiple copies, front to back, of my lesson plan template, assessment forms, and reading conferences forms.
 Then I three hole punch my pages.
At my school, we also have a binding machine, so in years past I made my guided reading plan book, aka "binder," with a spiral spine. It looked really pretty, but personally I have found that 3 ring binders are simply easier for adding papers throughout the year. My pretty blue binder is from Target, and it was inexpensive, just a few dollars.

I organize the sections in the order that works best for me, then I put them in the binder and add tabs using these Post-It tabs. Tabs like these. They work great!

My Reading Groups page goes in front. I put mine front to back in a plastic sleeve.  I usually have about 8-9 reading groups each year. (I'm an ESOL teacher who pushes into the general ed classroom).
 Next is my weekly guided reading schedule.  This really keeps me on track!
Click here to grab this FREEBIE!
Next up is my Notes section.  I'm a post-it note kind of gal, and I usually have sticky notes EVERYWHERE!  This "Notes" page is a new addition to this year's binder (the binder is updated every spring), so I'm hoping it'll take the place of some of my post-its and help keep me organized even more! :)
LESSON PLANS!  The meat of the binder!!  This is where the main action happens!  Each reading group has their own section in my binder. Behind each groups' divider page is where I keep my weekly lesson plans.

This is the divider page for my Tiger group.  I created guided reading group names for animals and colors, but there is also a customizable divider page so that you could create your own group names.

Here is one of my lesson plan templates and my "Week at a Glance."

The calendar in my guided reading binder keeps track of things like when I am giving reading assessments or taking running records on certain students. I also keep track of activities that may interfere with my guided reading plans, like assemblies or an assessment being given by the county.
In years past I've kept my reading conference forms separate in their own binder.
However, this year I plan to keep my conferences in my main guided reading binder. Less binders means less I need to keep track of!  I like that!
Data, data, data!  We all keep data, and we all need to share our data when asked, usually with our administrators. This is how I keep my data organized, and so far it has worked out great. I formally assess my kids at the beginning of the year. I also set end of the year reading goals for each student. Now I know their starting point, AND I know where I need to get them. Each and every month I assess their reading progress. Typically I use reading records and comprehension checks, but at the end of each quarter I also give more formal assessments. This allows me to see who is on track and who might need some interventions.

I keep several copies of Running Record and Comprehension Check forms in plastic sleeves. I simply pull them out as I need them. They are handy and always right there at my guided reading table in my binder!

And that's it!  My guided reading binder helps to keep me organized throughout the year.  Not only does it benefit me, but it greatly benefits my students!  

No matter what tools YOU use, staying organized is half the battle. :)  

One of that the great things about this particular binder is that it is customizable to meet YOUR needs. If you think this could help you stay organized, you can take a closer look at it HERE.

I hope that you've had a wonderful summer!  I also hope that you have a fabulous start to the new school year!