A new study of what works for English learners highlights Ceres third-graders and Delhi High juniors on best-in-state lists.
The Education Trust-West report released Tuesday cites Ceres Unified and Delhi Unified for high achievement levels among poor districts with lots of Spanish speakers. Delhi and Riverbank Unified also got a mention for high numbers of high schoolers achieving English fluency.
Nearly half, 48 percent, of Delhi’s 11th-graders met proficiency standards, putting it sixth in the state among high poverty, predominantly Spanish-speaking districts. Some 39 percent of Ceres third-graders who speak a different language at home scored at grade level on state reading and writing tests, 10th among districts statewide with roughly similar students.
Wednesday, third-graders at Hidahl Elementary in south Ceres tackled standard English grammar lessons with gusto, unaware their daily routines could become a model for classrooms far away. At Hidahl, 76 percent of students are low-income and 40 percent are learning English.
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“Right, if it a-a-already happened” – palms up shrug – “it a-a-already happened” – palms up shrug – “in the pa-a-a-st,” teacher Lori Barnum led the class in repeating the key point. Grouped desks of 7- and 8-year-olds copied Barnum’s gestures, punctuating that last word with an exaggerated thumb swing to the back.
“When we use the past tense we often add E-D. What do we add?” Barnum asked. “E-D” came the response.
“Turn to your partner and tell them what we add,” Barnum continued in a practiced rhythm: Explain a point; repeat it together; share it with a partner; call on students at random.
She strode through the class as she taught, using a computer tablet to change and write on an overhead with typed sentences. Barnum marched in place as she asked students for the past tense of “walk” and ha-ha-ha came with a request for the past tense of “laugh,” helping English learners catch the meaning.
The motions help students remember. The constant back and forth makes even shy English learners speak up, giving them ongoing practice of vocabulary and standard sentence structure. Random selection means calling on everybody, said Principal Vaughn Williams, watching the exchange at the back of the room.
“All students are expected to answer – stand and give an answer, in a complete sentence,” Williams said. The steady practice pays off, he said. “We’re seeing some really good gains from that.”
The district switched three years ago to a structured lesson design that introduced many of Common Core’s methods. But Williams said that wasn’t the point. “It’s just good teaching,” he said. “There’s a focus on keeping students engaged throughout the lesson, so it’s not a lecture.”
With more than half its students speaking another language at home, the district researched what worked best with English learners to improve outcomes. “Examples include the use of physical gestures tied to the concept being taught, time to think and then to share thinking with strategic partners before being called upon randomly to respond, and a focus on high levels of academic vocabulary,” said Assistant Superintendent Debi Bukko.
Around the corner in Room 6, Jessica Garcia circled her third-grade class reviewing concrete and abstract nouns.
“Read with me – go,” she said as the class recited a sentence. “Which one is an abstract noun and how do you know? We’re going to do some partner talk – go,” she said. Murmurs rolled across every table.
David Valencia, sitting with partner Emaly Fernandez, said he liked pair-share time. “I get to have a chance to talk in class,” he said. For her part, Emaly said, “I get to share ideas with him.”
Garcia, in her 14th year of teaching, said she believes the system works. “I like it. I’m not the one talking all the time,” she said. “It keeps them on track, too.”
In Zina Torba’s class, proper and common nouns were getting a workout as she walked between straight rows of desks.
Natalia Perez prompted her quiet partner through his sentence, then explained the lesson her way. “I like them to know what I’m thinking in my mind,” she said afterward.
“I like that I get to learn more,” said Jannet Valencia.
Having to answer aloud so much can be hard, quiet student Camden Veovongphet said. Asked if that was a bad thing or a good thing, Camden smiled. “It’s a good,” he said.
Education Trust-West researchers agree. Talking in English throughout the day, especially with native English speakers, is something the study found across top performing groups, said Jeannette LaFors, director of equity initiatives for the nonprofit.
Using good grammar and grade-level vocabulary is important, but make sure words are explained well, she said, “so when they encounter the word they don’t have a big blank look.”
Many of the Ceres practices were on her list of what the study found works, but this diverse state still has work to do, the study shows. “It’s a heavy lift; there’s a lot to learn,” LaFors said.
The good news is lots of districts are developing ideas that work. “Our report did not yield that one type of program is the best program. We see a number of programs that are succeeding,” LaFors said.