Margaret Ma Murray Community School SD#60 Peace River North

School Name: Margaret Ma Murray Community School

School District: SD#60 Peace River North

Inquiry Team Members: Jaimelia Turner:, Sarah Platzer:

Inquiry Team Contact Email:

Type of Inquiry: NOIIE

Grade Levels: Primary (K-3), Intermediate (4-7)

Curricular Area(s): Language Arts – Oral Language, Language Arts – Reading, Language Arts – Writing

Focus Addressed: Core competencies (for example, critical thinking, communication, problem solving)

In one sentence, what was your focus for the year? By developing Tier 2 vocabulary and sentence fluency with ELL students both orally and in writing, can we enhance a sense of belonging and confidence for those students?

Scanning: At the beginning of this project, we did not fully understand the 4 questions and their significance in guiding our instruction. We did not survey the children in the fall. But, we had noticed the lack of belonging to the greater whole and low risk tolerance in our ELL students — which prompted our project. By looking at the OECD principles, we noticed a lack of socialization when learning and a limited sharing of personal experiences. Being very task oriented, the students were not always making connections between their personal lives and their school lives. We worried that we were not learning their stories, only expecting the students to absorb what we wanted them to learn.

Our ELL students avoid communicating with peers and adults outside of their comfort zone; use simple words, repetitive phrases, and sentence fragments; and speak predominantly with familiar people. They speak and write in simple or run on compound sentences, very safely, without depth or risk. As ELL support teachers, we were often asked to help students “finish their work” or explain the expectations to the ELL students so they could get their work handed in. We noticed that our opportunities for teaching meta-cognitive language strategies were limited.
We also noticed that as a LAT/SERT/ELL team we were often getting redirected to the highest needs students and not offering direct service to ELL students who appeared not to need support, but whose work was repetitive and awkward.

By avoiding conversations or writing that stretches them uncomfortably, we have observed our ELL students can become isolated in the school — hiding in plain sight. Teachers often don’t know much about their thinking, and notice that their writing is shallow and vague. As we are aware that exploring our identity and supporting well-being contributes to learning, we also wondered if home lives were so different from school that there wasn’t an adequate bridge between the two worlds and their experiences.

By supporting our diverse ELL learners, aged 4-12 years, we observed that the children were:
– often reluctant to participate in group discussions
– relied on simple social language to engage with others
– chose safe, predictable (Tier 1) words to express their ideas
– often hide their language deficits by controlling the conversations
– ignore unfamiliar vocabulary in new texts
– are very task oriented and focus on Tier 3 vocabulary but not general vocabulary
– speak and write in fragments or repetitive phrases
– are craving more connection in the school and need opportunities to express themselves

Focus: As we further develop their vocabulary and vary their sentence structures, we hoped to give the students confidence and allow them to take more risks in communication. By working in small groups and focusing on using novel vocabulary to get them to share their personal experiences, we anticipated them opening up. With focused direct instruction on Tier 2 words and sentence structure, we anticipated more risk-taking in classroom writing.

Hunch: Since our ELL students are often quiet, they are cautious about speaking in class. They are also cautious with writing assignments and whole class discussions. By remaining quiet, our students are able to hide their weaknesses. Their lack of vocabulary and understanding of complex sentence structure is a weakness they don’t even know they have. Consequently, they stick to simple or compound sentences with Tier 1 vocabulary. In classrooms, teachers are offering opportunities to brainstorm, plan writing, use graphic organizers, and edit work; but, these practices were not giving explicit instruction on how to further develop vocabulary or sentence fluency.

Through a 6 traits of writing lens, classrooms are addressing conventions, organization and ideas. They are also encouraging varied word choice but not necessarily with explicit instruction on how to integrate new vocabulary. Looking at the ELL student writing, we saw an opportunity to develop word choice and sentence fluency to give the students tools to write more, edit their own writing, challenge their use of voice, engage with literacy, and communicate more deeply.

Through a performance standards lens, our students get classroom instruction on meaning, form and basic conventions, but not as much on style and sentence structure. We suspect that there is an assumption that sentence styles and structure will develop on their own with time.

New Professional Learning:

We presented our proposal and shared the vocabulary words with our teaching staff, but we were unable to create authentic new learning opportunities for our colleagues. We started a team teaching partnership with one grade ½ class for a writer’s workshop, which shows promise for a UDL approach for writing.

Taking Action:
Testing: Using a random sample of students at each grade level and cohort, we tested their familiarity with vocabulary using a leveled list of words provided by our ELL district leader. We were not able to locate the source of the list but we cross referenced it with other Tier 2 suggested lists. The lists were not perfect but they did offer an increased challenge in each progressive grade.

Grouping: Due to cohorts, our grouping options were limited, so we made groups of 4-5 students, supplementing our groups with students with lower language skills. We did not explicitly explain to the students why they were selected. Just that we needed help piloting a project.

4-5 week cycle: Pulling students out of class once a week for 30 minutes, we chose 15 words and used those words in a 4 week cycle.

Week 1: Introducing words in multiple ways and using them to get students to share about themselves.
For Example: Avoid
DEFINITION – Avoid means to stay away from something.
GIVE EXAMPLES – I avoid eating avocados because they are slimy.
ASK QUESTIONS – Would you avoid eating ice cream?
ASK FOR REASONS – Why would you avoid touching spiders?
MAKE CHOICES – Which of these things would you avoid, drinking a milkshake or going to the dentist? Why?
RELATING WORDS – Why would someone avoid talking to new people? If you avoided your homework for a month, what would happen?
COMPARISON – Would you avoid playing a board game or eating a cupcake?
CHILDREN CREATE EXAMPLES – Tell us something you would avoid eating?

We helped students self-assess their knowledge of a word. This action eased the discomfort of not knowing what a word means, and showed that strength is knowing what you know and don’t yet know.

  • I have never heard of it before.
  • I have heard it but not sure what it means or how to use it.
  • I can use it but not describe its meaning.
  • I can define the word and use synonyms and antonyms.

Week 2: Brainstorming in each cycle, we chose one silly, engaging photo, often photoshopped animals or beautiful scenery – intriguing images. In the second week, we shared ideas on how to use the new words to describe the photo. The words were selected from the list to work well with the photo. We loosely used a PWIM approach to generate context around the photos.

Week 3: Drafting: We also chose to discuss point of view and genre each month. At first we proposed a genre and guided the students to talk in that style of writing. We encouraged them to choose how they wanted to write — with a scribe, in a group or alone. As the year progressed, we gradually released responsibility for their own writing and increased the expectations. When the expectations increased, we added a second week to complete the writing pieces.

In the fall, our expectations were to use 6+ words from the list in their writing. This later increased to 8+.

We also introduced a variety of ways to start sentences. These strategies can be used as sentence “dress-ups”, and we found that teaching them as sentence starters got both uses.
– subject starters (most sentences already start with a subject)
– clausal starters: when, while, where, since, as, if, although
– ing word starters
– prepositional starters
– ly word starters
– very short sentences (5 words or less)

Each month we used a different genre of writing.
Story – (how the hamster got stranded at sea)
Newspaper article (missing pug)
Letter (in a bottle)
Point of view (the farmer, a child visiting the farm, the pig, the ice cream)
Descriptive (a cabin on a lake in a valley)
Persuasive (advertising a vacation property)
The writing was a bit mechanical due to the integration of new words and sentence structures. We worked to draw them back to the agreed upon subject, rereading and celebrating meeting the criteria of words and sentence starters.

Week 4 (which became Week 5): Game day. Using a variety of games, we practiced using the words and the starters in sentences. This was a BIG hit with the students. It felt a bit like family game night, and we laughed a lot.

  • Jeopardy (definitions, synonyms, antonyms, use it in a sentence, true or false,
  • Kaboom
  • Invented board games
  • Go fish/Memory

Checking: The project focused our attention as ELL teachers and gave us legitimacy in the school when pulling groups of students. As a baseline, we have vocabulary assessments, writing samples, and anecdotal observations by ELL and classroom teachers.

By getting the students to use the words in context, we facilitated learning them without memorizing the goal. We believe this took pressure off of them and made it a process oriented endeavour. This made taking risks easier and the writing process measurable.

As the year progressed, and the students were praised for self-assessing and taking risks, we noticed their willingness to ask more questions and try new words even if they might fail. And, as we made mistakes and laughed all the time, the kids took more risks.

As the months went by and we modelled how to rephrase a sentence using the different structures, the students began to model and orally edit each other’s sentences. They began self-assessing and asking for help.

The changes we noticed in students were:
– enthusiastic conversations and sharing of personal experiences
– improved personal relationships between students and ELL teachers
– increased writing volume both in small groups and in class assignments
– awareness and use of new vocabulary, noticing and mentioning when they didn’t know words
– increased use of sentences starters and dress-ups (mostly in small group settings) — we suspect that the expectations in class assignments were more complex and the students were not yet able to integrate the new writing strategies
-student satisfaction and desire to participate

“The small group practices have given them their voice”

The responses to the four questions were timid. We expect that if we had asked them in the fall and then again in the spring, we would have had less hesitancy. The themes in the responses were:
– Students appreciated the help and attention.
– They’ve gained confidence in multiple areas, gaining confidence and making friends.
– Writing more, with more details, vocabulary and variety.
– It’s okay to make mistakes. They are braver.
– They had fun in the groups.
– They named the ELL teachers often as an adult that believed in them.

Reflections/Advice: We were very successful in building deeper relationships with the ELL students. There was an excitement around the project that made other students want to participate. To flesh out our cohort groups, or as some of our ELLs moved away, we added students to our group and they also benefited.
In the small group setting, students were able to make connections, share ideas and further develop oral language. Through rich discussion and direct instruction on sentence fluency, they increased their writing output and editing skills. We did not see many examples of the sentence starters in their class writing, but they were able to use them independently in their small group project-based writing.

Although the grade 1’s were able to use the new words orally, they did not have the literacy skills to read them in the fall or reread the scribed sentences. By spring, however, they were able to reread their own sentences and retain the vocabulary words from week to week. We had several examples of students recognizing the project words in their guided reading lessons, but not yet using them in their class-based writing.

During and at the end of each day, our ELL team sat together to recap how the lessons progressed and what adaptations we each made on the fly. We then tried to incorporate each other’s ideas into the following lessons. Early in the year, we were always so excited to share what we had learned about the kids’ lives and families. We laughed so much. Later in the year, we strategically shared how we could further develop their writing and integration into their classes. We found the project not only improved the student’s relationships, but also deepened our own.

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