All posts by matthew yard

Let’s Learn Some Language

A student sidles up to me to show me how to write ‘hello’ in characters. Another student shows me how he has copied a word in Arabic from the original written by his mother. Since starting to introduce language activities in the classroom, I have noticed that students are much more forthcoming with their mother tongues, especially when they see that I am genuinely interested in hearing them. On several occasions, students have shared pieces of their culture or mother tongue without being prompted, much to my delight.

As this happens, I’ve found myself facing situations where monolingual students feel left out. Activities are always inclusive, where students are encouraged to learn from their peers, or an online translator, but I have felt that at times those who only speak English feel disadvantaged. Earlier in my inquiry, I had been focusing on bolstering confidence for ELLs. I find it interesting that the tables have been turned for me in this sense.

In the end, my objective is to lead by example as an avid language learner. As seen in “Adult Learners’ Perceptions of the Incorporation of their L1 in Foreign Language Teaching and Learning” by Kimberly Anne Brooks-Lewis, leading by example when it comes to learning languages can be a powerful tool. For those students who might feel insecure about the fact that they speak only one language, I hope that they might look to me as an example. If I am able to convey a sense of curiosity and positivity, then students might start to think that it is possible to learn another language if one has the right attitude.

Including the Mother Tongue

Wading into the depths of practicum, I am challenged to find ways to integrate my inquiry with my practice. This has taken shape in trying to integrate students’ mother tongues into the classroom, as mandated by the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program (IB-PYP). As my teaching load increases, my perspective on this issue is starting to change.

In a meeting of all the PYP teachers at the school, it came to light that in a recent accreditation evaluation by the International Baccalaureate Organization, the school had received several recommendations to improve the integration of mother tongue into classrooms. Interestingly, some of these recommendations were repeated from a similar evaluation done six years ago. My initial thought was: is it really so hard to bring students’ other languages into a school? I believe that one might argue both yes and no.

Although I knew that my class was both culturally and linguistically diverse, I wasn’t exactly sure to what extent before starting my long practicum. The results (see below) were impressive. More than half of the class reported that they speak at least one other language in a data-collecting exercise.

Encouraged by this, I triumphantly began to plan some class activities that would take advantage of this rich linguistic resource that the students brought to school. I had the support of my school advisor, who added that she wanted to see more integration of mother tongue in the school, with the specific example of the upcoming PYP Exhibition, in which she would like to see students be able to present their projects to their families in their mother tongues.

I then began to include a few simple language activities in the mornings. The first was a raffle where students were asked to write the name of a fruit in another language and enter it into a draw. I would then choose one word every week to be the ‘magic word’ that I would use when giving instructions. Those students who did not speak another language were encouraged to look one up, use a word from French class, or ask a classmate. The ensuing discussion and engagement in the activity was surprising; some students showed obvious pride and enthusiasm when talking about their language or dialect and were eager to share. Another morning, students were asked to do a math problem in another language, with similar results. In this small way, other languages are making their way into the classroom, and hopefully these small steps can lay the groundwork for more significant integration in the future.

As I move into taking on more of a lead role in the classroom, the reasons why mother tongue integration might be overlooked start to become obvious. A teacher has fifty other equally-important considerations to be conscious of on a daily basis, be it Social and Emotional Learning, making a classroom Gender-Inclusive, or integrating First Peoples’ Principles of Learning. It is completely understandable that the inclusion of mother tongues might be eclipsed by these. I hope to be able to make students’ other languages a daily part of the classroom, and accept that it may not be as easy as I had initially thought.

Post-Presentation Reflection

Last week I had the chance to share my findings with my classmates. It was an interesting experience, I presented my inquiry with my colleagues Michelle and Karla, whose blogs can be found here:

We presented our inquiries under the common theme of “Developing a holistic pedagogy that nurtures and creates opportunities for all learners in a diverse classroom.” Karla has been looking into how to integrate a Stó:lō way of knowing into her practice, while Michelle has been investigating how to involve diverse students in classrooms. Our original idea of a common thread was suggested by our teacher David – that in making a classroom more accessible for one group, a teacher is in fact helping other groups as well. His analogy was wheelchair ramps being designed for people in wheelchairs, but they also benefit the elderly, people with strollers, skateboarders, etc. As we presented our ideas, comments from the group suggested that perhaps our common theme is also one of teachers using their students as resources to build a pedagogy of diversity.

The feedback that I received from the research that I presented was also valuable. My colleagues were interested in several of the ideas. The Takeuchi study on student groups was met with great interest, and the discussion extended to student-teacher relationships, and how these are culturally-specific. We also discussed the idea of incorporating students’ first language in the classroom. Many of my colleagues are using English as an additional language, and were able to comment on this idea from personal experience. We talked about our various experiences with teachers and students in regards to language use. It was interesting to see how universal many of these themes were, and how others were able to make connections to their own inquiries.

Why Monolingualism?

The article “Adult Learners’ Perceptions of the Incorporation of their L1 in Foreign Language Teaching and Learning” by Kimberly Anne Brooks-Lewis calls into question why it is that students’ first languages (L1s) are excluded when learning a second language. Brooks-Lewis argues that it has only been in recent times that language learning has adopted a mono linguistic philosophy, and this pedagogy lacks supporting research. In describing second language acquisition, the author refers to her personal experience of learning Spanish as a second language as being stressful, and ineffective when taught exclusively in regards to English. The article resonated with me when Brooks-Lewis continues, recalling the ‘English Only’ policies that she encountered when teaching EFL in Mexico, where she had moved to learn Spanish. This is something that I experienced firsthand working for EFL schools, where both I as a teacher and my students were prohibited from using Spanish in class.

The article moves to an analysis of research conducted in two university EFL courses, where personal essays written by students discussing the use of L1 when learning English were examined. Overwhelmingly, the students were very much in favour of using L1 when learning L2, for a variety of reasons. Repeatedly, the students spoke of the advantages that using their L1 in the class brought to their understanding of the new language. The incorporation of their L1 was the incorporation of prior knowledge upon which it was easy to build new knowledge. Also, students appreciated the fact that the teacher herself had learned a second language, which they respected and felt made her a more qualified teacher.

It is important to note that the study in this article involved adult EFL learners, whose processes are not the same as those of children. Indeed, much of the focus in the article is on how language skills translate, and adults certainly have much more complete understandings of their L1s than younger students do. However, I believe that many of the ideas that using students’ L1 in a classroom brings up are valid for elementary school students. Acknowledging students’ L1 and allowing them to incorporate it shows respect for students. Also, as mentioned, learning new things, (languages included) should be seeded on prior knowledge.

Incorporating students’ L1 is another way of making learning student centered, and Brooks-Lewis states that it “implicitly includes the learner” (Brooks-Lewis, 2009, page 227). In addition, it also helps students maintain a certain self-image which is difficult to separate from a first language and transfer to a second.

There are practical limitations to allowing students to use their first language in class if English is limiting them. Obviously, in terms of assessment and participation, students need to understand and be understood. What I suggest after reading this article is that ‘English Only’ policies seem to be unfounded and extreme, and allowing some use of students’ L1 in class may bring many benefits with it. It is an opportunity for educators to model to their students what it means to be internationally-minded, respectful, and inclusive. Isn’t this something worth exposing young students to?

Making Groups Work

Integrating ELLs in a classroom requires careful planning when it comes to setting up supportive learning engagements. As seen in Steve Daniel Przymus’s article, pairing ELLs with non-ELLs based on their interests and having ELLs learn beside their non-ELL peers can be extremely successful. It would then follow that an effective teacher needs to group students with this in mind, placing ELLs in groups where they are supported and validated. In the article, “Friendships and Group Work in Linguistically Diverse Mathematics Classrooms: Opportunities to Learn for English Language Learners”, ethnographer Miwa Aoki Takeuchi shares interesting research that challenges teachers’ common sense when it comes to creating effective groups in a class.

Takeuchi conducts a study in a Grade 4 mathematics classroom in an Ontario school. The study focuses on ELLs’ participation in group work during a school year. What the research clearly shows is that when English Language Learners were placed in groups strategically chosen by the teacher, the interactions these students had were strikingly different from when they were working in groups of friends (groups formed by student choice). Takeuchi shows that although in both circumstances ELLs were considered “novices” in the groups in terms of language, they interacted in more complex ways when working with friends. In the teacher-assigned groups, the stronger non-ELL students took on dominant roles, acting as teachers, and eliciting very little interaction from ELL students. The conclusion given by the study is that ELL students could participate and have their input validated more when working with their recess friends.

This article was extremely interesting to me because I think that it very much flies in the face of what I consider teachers’ common sense. I venture that the consensus among educators is that if students are allowed to choose who they work with, this will lead to socialization that takes groups off topic. This is only one study, but it is surprising to me to see that when given the opportunity to work with friends, ELLs stayed on task and interacted with the subject matter. Despite the teacher’s well-thought out organization of groups based on leadership, language level, and mathematical ability, the teacher-created groups were unsupportive for ELLs. Student choice in grouping versus deliberate placement of ELLs is certainly something that I will want to experiment with in future classes.

Welcoming ELLs in the Classroom

When looking at how to make a classroom a conducive to the learning of ELLs and non-ELLs alike, it would seem that positivity is the key. Mi-Hwa Park discusses reducing the achievement gap between ELLs and English-proficient students. Park focuses on the importance of positive emotional experiences or “emotional scaffolding” as a crucial element in helping ELLs succeed in the classroom in her article ¨Increasing English Language Learners’ Engagement in Instruction through Emotional Scaffolding¨. Much like Vygotsky’s idea of the co-creation of knowledge between student and teacher, the article engages with the idea of the “relational zone”, which is a shared emotional space between child and adult. She argues that cognitive development has been proven to be inseparable from emotional development in a number of studies, and emphasizes the need for teachers to make emotional scaffolding a conscious part of their pedagogy. Considering that emotional scaffolding can benefit all students, this to me seems to be a wonderful way to conceive of creating a classroom culture that can support ELLs in a covert way.

In this TEDx talk, Sid Efromovich talks about five techniques that make for effective language learning.

His first technique, relaxation, is key to me. I appreciate how he talks about the idea of feeling uncomfortable when learning a new language, and how students must be able operate in this discomfort, to make mistakes and learn. If a student is in this uncomfortable zone of language learning, the need to support them emotionally is of prime importance. A happy student is a relaxed student.

Another interesting strategy came up in an article titled “Imagining and Moving Beyond the ESL Bubble: Facilitating Communities of Practice Through the ELL Ambassadors Program” by Steve Daniel Przymus. The article describes a program that was implemented where ELL students were paired with non-ELL students in extra-curricular activities. Although the program occurred in a secondary school and the objective was to improve socialization, the results were interesting and I believe are relevant to any grade level. Przymus discusses the “intrinsically motivated language socialization” (Przymus, 278) that occurred when students were situated with buddies in areas of interest. He also stressed the importance of ELL “identity formation” as being inseparable from socialization and academic performance. This is something I would like to play with in the future. I can imagine that non-ELL students given the ambassador role would benefit, particularly if they are having confidence issues.

The take away for me from all of this seems over-simplistic. ELLs should be surrounded by a positive environment where they feel validated, and they will succeed. However, consciously scaffolding emotional and social contexts for ELLs is a new idea for me, and is another consideration to add to my (ever-growing it seems) list of things to consider when making lesson and unit plans.

Language Learning as Concept-Based Learning

To understand how to support English Language Learners in a diverse classroom setting, we must first have an idea of how it is that second or additional languages are learned. Obviously, immersion as a means to becoming fluent in a language is a well-understood and widely-employed method in language teaching, but how students learn language is still largely unaddressed. As in the traditional teaching of mathematics, where students are often not doing the math but instead watch the teacher do it for them, English teachers often put too much emphasis on memorizing grammar rules outside of any practical context.

In an article titled “Approaching the Grammatical Count/Mass Distinction From a Multimodal Perspective”, Derek J. Brown introduces a case study on teaching countable and uncountable nouns. Brown argues that language learners need to make their own meanings, and need mutl-modal interactions to help achieve this. In the case study, when ELLs were given the opportunity to rank and discuss criteria that make a noun countable versus uncountable, they exhibited a deeper understanding of the grammatical concepts. Students essentially created their own conceptual understandings of what makes some nouns countable and others not, and were able to engage with the language at a much deeper level than just memorizing word lists.

Teaching with the idea that students are not simply learning new words and memorizing them, but are in fact learning language concepts is crucial when integrating ELLs. Imagine a student from Indonesia who is learning English. “Good morning” is a common phrase that they will encounter daily, and is easy enough to memorize, but how does this student understand the phrase conceptually? The direct translation would mean “a blessed sunrise to 11:00am”, since selamat pagi in Indonesian is said only until 11:00am. From 11:00am to 3:00pm a different greeting is used; the day in Indonesia is divided differently than in the West. With all of the culture that comes embedded in languages, there are countless examples where meaning cannot be conveyed by simply translating. Sometimes the concepts simply do not exist in another language. The Portugese word saudade for example might be translated as “longing” or “yearning” in English, but is a much bigger concept, evidenced by the huge range of contextual uses it has in song lyrics.

In this TEDx talk titled “Teaching English without Teaching English”, educator and author Roberto Guzman describes how he engages his students in interactions where the focus is on students’ content (ideas) not form (perfect English). In line with David Perkin’s call to have students “play the game”, Guzman describes language learning as a painful process done most effectively by having students jumping in and trying to express their ideas. He stresses the importance of making mistakes or “developmental errors”. The language that students learn is important because of its relevance as they express their opinions. The “facts” of the language are memorized as vocabulary, but the concepts are learned when students have the chance to manipulate them. With this in mind, the challenge now is to create a classroom environment where ELLs have the opportunity to create their own meaning in English alongside their non-ELL classmates.

How Do You See Your Students?

I think that a good starting point for imagining how to plan for English Language Learner integration in a classroom is to consider how the educator sees their students. The philosophies that an educator brings to their teaching will inevitably underpin any planning or implementation of inclusive strategies. One must question then, how do you see your students? In the complex case of ELL students, how do you see them and what roles do you expect them to play in the class?

A cognizant educator should be extremely careful in what language they use to describe their students in terms of their language abilities, and how they challenge them is extremely important. In setting up activities which are ‘low floor, high ceiling’, an educator affords their class the opportunity to engage equitably. I think that educators often get sidetracked by so-called language limitations of ELL students and forget to challenge them. I am sure that most people have experienced this at some level. The tourist who asks for directions in halting English is sometimes treated as though their English abilities are an indication of their overall competence. How would students with lower levels of English feel if they were treated this way every day?

Part of an effective educator’s arsenal must include growth mindset, and their language must reflect this. I believe that the power of ‘not yet’ shouldn’t be underestimated. In the subtlest of ways, a teacher can give ELL students powerful messages of encouragement in a covert way simply by selecting positive language. This is a key theme in Mariana Souto-Manning’s “Honoring and Building on the Rich Literacy Practices of Young Bilingual and Multilingual Learners”. Souto-Manning argues that ELLs have traditionally been thought of in terms of their deficiencies, and not for the cultural and linguistic expertise they bring to a classroom. She stresses the importance of referring to these students as being “emergent bilinguals or multilinguals” instead of low-level English speakers (Souto-Manning, 263).

Another important point in the article is that teachers should try to teach in culturally relevant ways, and use students as cultural resources. I absolutely agree with the idea of making learning culturally relevant; I hope that what is taught in classrooms is as relevant to each group of students as possible. However, I am struggling with the idea of incorporating funds of knowledge into a class from students who may be lacking in confidence. If a student is still learning basic English, it might be a challenge to ask for their expertise on their mother tongue without making them feel singled out and put on the spot. I would like to learn more about how one might go about doing this.

My Sixth Week


Yes, you guessed right, it`s a Nature Mandala! This was another fast-paced week. We had a lot of fun in the Pacific Spirit Park with our PE group teach, and in classes as well. I had a great second day at my practicum placement, where I found my class super focused and eager in our Unit of Inquiry. I also got the chance to sit in with them in music class, which was a treat. I found the teacher very entertaining and saw how my students behaved differently in a new setting. Other highlights of the week were great discussions in the development class, and some positive feedback on my language learning assignment.

My Fifth Week


This week was the start of my integration into my practicum school! My first day in class was a lot of fun, my mentoring teacher and students were extremely welcoming and I had a lot of fun. We spent a lot of time introducing ourselves and my mentor teacher had all the students write down three interesting facts about them on sticky notes, so I have lots of material to study for next class. I`m still not entirely clear on how the teacher runs the classroom, and I`m unsure of a lot of the IB concepts as well, but I believe it will take some time. It has been a great start. In other news, we had a fantastic gym class this week, we had a wonderful session on Inventing Games. Also in our French class we started to think about using literacy strategies in FSL learning. After some Thanksgiving turkey, I`ll be back with a vengeance next week!