Betsey Domenico is an English as a New Language teacher at Giffen Elementary School and a member of Albany Public Schools Teachers Association. A teacher for 16 years, Domenico works with students who speak several different languages — everything from Turkish to Karen. Here are a few of her creative suggestions to encourage and engage English language learners (ELLs):
Research shows that singing songs improves fluency because there's no stopping. Domenico purchased a karaoke machine and an online subscription with 12,000 songs. Each week students select a song and Domenico prints out the lyrics. The students practice reading all week in preparation for their ‘Fluency Idol' performance in class. Domenico says she is often surprised by the student who does not usually speak in class, but is no longer shy when it's time to sing a Taylor Swift song. With lyrics streaming on a smartboard, the catchy tunes help students increase fluency and learn new words and phrases. Students love using a microphone, props (hats, sunglasses, necklaces) and imitating their idols.
Students learning English are often reluctant to participate. Destiny sticks give students opportunities to speak or answer questions. Domenico writes each student's name on a popsicle stick and stores them in a container in the front of the room. Anytime the class is working on an activity, she chooses a destiny stick to ensure equal student participation.
Using stick puppets, students are assigned a role and practice in small groups to improve their fluency, tone and inflection (their "voice"). "It's amazing how having a puppet to put in front of them instantly makes them feel they are no longer the one being judged," Domenico said. "It's the puppet, so students feel less inhibited to take risks and speak." Domenico records their monthly performances and uploads them to the computer for a viewing party complete with popcorn and juice. Students use a rubric to score their peers based on a scale of 1–4; they use the feedback to improve next month's performance.
Home-school and community connections
It's crucial to reach out to the students' families so they feel comfortable playing an active role in their child's education. At the school's ENL Night, students and parents enjoy food together and learn what's going on at school, such as report cards, school banking or sports team signups. Translators are provided.
Domenico often takes her students for fun weekend activities such as movies, plays or bowling. The events help her get to know her students, and give the students additional exposure to the culture and language.
Don't be afraid to reach out to the community for donations to help meet the students' needs, Domenico said. After a local farmer donated pumpkins, the students enjoyed cleaning out the insides, cooking pumpkin seeds and making jack-o'-lanterns to decorate their front porches for Halloween.
Another business donated an entire Thanksgiving meal, which created many teachable moments — table manners, making placemats and learning what Thanksgiving is all about.
"The students picked names out of a hat and wrote something they were grateful for about the student whose name they chose," Domenico said. "They read it out loud before we ate ... it was very powerful."
Thanks to donations from community philanthropists, Domenico is coordinating a field trip to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in May for three fourth-grade classes, including a dozen ELLs. "The immigrant story is a personal one for the ELLs and will be a truly meaningful field trip for them," she said. "People are willing to help. Just ask!"
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