Support for English Learners

By Sarah Noble

I am in the midst of grading my 8th graders’ first interpretive paper of the school year. I am pleasantly surprised by what I see in the first few papers. My students are thinking deeply and engaging in the text based on the evidence they pull from the story. I breathe a sigh of relief, and keep slogging through the remaining 63 essays. The next essay is by “Johnny,” a low-intermediate English learner. He just moved here from his native country and is brand new to our town and school. I read his paper, and sigh, and feel discouraged, and ok I admit it, I set it aside. Part of me wants to conclude that this assignment is simply too hard for him; the text complexity is beyond his English ability and I should give him a simpler task to complete.

I talk to other teachers about what scaffolds or supports he needs so he can write a viable paper. “Instead of having him write a paper,” one teacher suggests, “have him look up all the words that he doesn’t know in the story and write a definition for them.” Another suggests giving Johnny a completely different story to read, one that is at his reading comprehension level for English. All of these options swirl in my brain, yet none of them feels right. Then on Saturday morning, while drinking coffee, I decide what I will do.

Fast forward…

We just finished reading the second story in the 8th grade interpretive unit (our fifth short story of the year). We have followed the Inquiry By Design cycle of work; I read the story aloud to the class, the students work in trios to make sense of the story, and we share important moments. As I prepare to assign the writing task, I second guess my resolve and I wonder, Have I provided enough support for Johnny to write a “good” interpretive response.

As I think of scaffolds to put in place for Johnny, I reflect on how he is performing in class and the work he is producing. Even though he is silent during group discussion, he takes notes. He sits next to a student who also speaks his first language; he can and does ask her clarifying questions. After further reflection, I realize that following the Inquiry By Design lesson structure is enough and no additional scaffolds are needed.

I continue the lesson as planned. Students’ first response to the interpretive question is a quick-write in their journals. After a brief, small-group discussion, students are asked to look for evidence by annotating the text to support the ideas that came out of their quick-write. As I circulate through the room, I check-in with Johnny to review his quick-write. The interpretive question is “What is the it that hurts?“ Johnny thinks the “it” that hurts is that the main character, Tomas Rivera, is letting down his family. I look through his carefully marked text and see that he has marked relevant lines of evidence to prove his position.

My Saturday morning coffee conclusions are confirmed. I do not need to provide additional supports for Johnny or any of the other English learners so that they can understand the story. The close reading design of the Inquiry By Design sessions (read, re-read, discuss, retell) has given him adequate comprehension of the story to enable a solid interpretive response.

When I look at student work, I want to see that students are showing an understanding of the text, by taking a position on the interpretive prompt, supporting their positions with evidence from the text, and explaining how their evidence proves their interpretive position. Johnny is doing all of those things.

True, he is not yet able to write in English at grade level, but he is able to think at grade level and should not be denied that opportunity.

By allowing him to do grade level work, he will continue to learn the language and become a better writer in English. These things will not happen if I rob him of the opportunity to think by working with complex texts in English.

I have concluded that Inquiry By Design and English learners go together like coffee and Saturday mornings.