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Middle School English Language Learners: Mindful and Strategic Instruction

by Dr. Antonio Fierro on Jan 13, 2022

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Dr. Antonio Fierro

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Just a few weeks ago, I was driving my soon-to-be-11-year-old nephew, Axel1, and myself to a Saturday afternoon college football game. Although my alma mater is having a stellar football season compared to previous years, the local radio sports show we were listening to reminded us that our opponents would probably prevail.

I looked over at my nephew, who was stunned by all the radio chatter. He turned to me and said, “Tío (uncle), I’m going to cross all my fingers so we can win today.” I told him that was a great idea and chuckled, as I knew we didn’t stand a chance. “What I’m going to do,” he went on to say, “is cross my fingers down there, too,” as he pointed to his feet. He said he would cross “these fingers” as he waved his hands in the air and “the other fingers down there.” We arrived at the stadium, and after the first quarter, it became apparent that my nephew’s strategy of crossingall his fingers wasn’t working. As our team slowly went down in defeat, I kept wondering why Axel had pointed to his feet when he said he would cross all his fingers.

The drive home was lively as Axel had consumed enough sugar to keep him going for at least another day or two. Since he’s quite the chatterbox as it is, I asked why he pointed to his feet when he said he would cross all his fingers, hoping that our team would be victorious. He gazed at me puzzled and said, “Tío, you have fingers up here, shaking his hands, and fingers down there, again pointing at his feet.” I finally understood his logic.

Axel is an English Learner, just like me and most of my family. However, Axel belongs to a very special group of English Learners, those born in the United States. Approximately 85% of elementary and 65% of middle school and high school ELs are second- or third-generation English Learners. At a young age, they enter school with either an early production or speech emergence-level of English proficiency. This language head start is beneficial for the young learner.

The question arises as to why we have many middle and high school students still identified as English Learners. I am fearful that some students' accelerated rate of basic interpersonal communication skills (the acquisition of Tier I words) may give us a false sense of security. Axel, who will soon be in middle school, is a perfect example of this.

As a 3- and 4-year-old, Axel was stringing Spanish words together to form complete sentences at the amazement of many around him. He and his family did not live in our hometown, but the few times I got to see him, I knew that his linguistic gift would facilitate his acquisition of English in the future. A few years later, and now having moved closer to us, I get to see Axel regularly and experience his acquisition of English and the development of literacy skills firsthand.

Every time I write or teach about the English Learner, I take great pride in trying to keep everyone from getting lost in the weeds. There is so much to discuss and consider that the topic of English Learners can have a dizzying effect on most. However, let’s look at the English Learner through a linguistic lens and consider two different constructs: language acquisition and literacy development. These two are independent constructs with their own characteristics and phases of development. Yet, they are also interdependent as they rely on each other for student success. As we work with the English Learner, we must be mindful and strategic and deliver instruction that targets both.

Let me go back to Axel. When Axel pointed to his feet and playfully said he would cross those “fingers” as well, he was looking for the word “toes.” He did not possess that word in his mental lexicon for some reason. However, he used all his knowledge of Spanish and strategically made it fit into English. He took what he possessed and made it work for him. I applauded him for his brilliance and (notice I did not use the conjunction but) taught him that English has a single word to describe what he wanted to say, “toes.” A direct translation does not exist in Spanish. In Spanish, we say, “dedos de los pies,” which translates directly to fingers of the feet. When we arrived home, I did some phoneme/grapheme mapping and taught him the phoneme/grapheme correspondences. You can only imagine his surprise when I explained that the -oe grapheme represents the /ō/, and his struggle with articulating the /z/ at the end of the word had to do with him being Spanish dominant. The /z/ does not exist in Spanish, so I taught him the difference between voiced and unvoiced consonant phonemes and the turning on and off our voice box (see Kid Lips, 2017).

For older English Learners, many words that we may consider Tier I words or common words are not common and need to be taught explicitly. My recommendation is to help tell that word’s story through the language components of phonology, orthography (spelling), morphology (to complement vocabulary), and syntax (the function of a word in a sentence). Telling a word’s story helps us move beyond just the meaning of a word and embrace and celebrate what the student brings to the learning. Next steps can include writing and reading tasks to extend the learning. Teachers can frame this instruction around the context of language development, giving students many opportunities to hear appropriate vocabulary and sentence structure and many opportunities to use it. LANGUAGE! Live® is a reading intervention program that does this explicitly and follows the Structured Literacy approach. It’s age-appropriate, too. At the beginning of this blog post, I mentioned that we must be strategic and promote the interconnectedness of language acquisition and literacy development. The uniqueness of LANGUAGE! Live is that it supports language and overall vocabulary development and content knowledge while strengthening the foundational skills leading to automaticity. Another one of my favorite resources is the practice guide published by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School.

Axel is a great kid! He’s energetic, considerate, intelligent, and curious about the world around him. He brings a desire to learn and a wealth of linguistic know-how from another language that can hamper and facilitate his learning of English. I will be discussing Axel’s journey as an English Learner and those of his middle school peers in my upcoming webinar, Reading Intervention for Middle School English Learners: Changing the Trajectory, which you can register for here. I hope you’ll join me!

1In English, Axel is said with the stress on the first syllable. In Spanish, Axel is said with the stress on the second syllable.

Antonio A. Fierro, Ed.D., is a former Texas State Teacher of the Year and currently a member of the national LETRS® (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) cohort of literacy consultants led by Dr. Louisa Moats, co-author of LANGUAGE! Live. He also is a visiting professor working with university and college professors throughout Mississippi. Dr. Fierro has more than 25 years of experience in the field of education and has contributed to several literacy curricula focusing on instruction for the English Learner. He is a co-author of Kid Lips®, a curriculum that teaches the phonetics of English to young children. His areas of interest include early childhood education, all aspects of phonology, and research that impacts students’ learning of English as a second language. Dr. Fierro has a personal interest in advancing the knowledge base and understanding of dyslexia and other reading disabilities because his son, currently attending his second year of college, has dyslexia.

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