I had to write up this description of the ELD unit from memory since not only did my school computer crash, but my laptop was stolen and I could only piece together fragments from backups. Ah well, then that means this is the main stuff that stuck in my mind. And I’m already thinking how I will revise my practice was the Forwarding the ISI 14 groups meets to work with Joe Harris’ book, Revision. Not just revising our writing, but using the moves of revision to revise our teaching of units.
Stamina and Sentence Fluency for ELD Students at LEP 3 Level
This was my first draft teaching a fall 2013 unit intended to improve the writing of 22 English language learners in grades 4 and 5 who were at the intermediate, or LEP 3 level. The intent was to boost their writing to match their speaking and listening proficiency, so that, when taking the CELDT in one month, the students would move up one LEP level, at least.
I used the Summer Invitational community building when the students first came to me — name tags, alliterative introductions and we drew self-portraits.
Writing stamina and sentence fluency are interrelated, but I began the unit with a stamina study. The shape of the 4 week unit was modeled after Peter Elbow’s work in Freewriting with the first half focused on creating and the second half aimed a bit more at criticizing, or at least self-monitoring the use of sentence conventions.
The ELD group met three times a week for an hour first thing in the morning, giving us 12 sessions. We always began with getting out journal notebooks and doing a timed free write, followed by a word count.
The set up for the stamina study was to use cat and dog photos, the sort that friends sent me or posted on FB that I mostly wondered what to do with. I projected a toy Pomperianian (among other cutesy photos) on the big screen with the instructions, “You will write nonstop for 5 minutes. When the timer goes off, you will put down your pencil and count the number of words you wrote.” The rules for free-writing were posted on a lime green chart: Write fast. Don’t stop. No erasing.
I bumped up the time alloted for writing to 8 minutes after 4 quick writes and then to 10-minute writes after 8 sessions, however, we no longer counted words. I had the students read aloud their draft to a partner. In the later sessions I also added some discussion about the free write photo that prompted students to use dialogue and to push into the character rather than write “about” the picture. We discussed verbs and what may have happened right before or right after the camera snapped. We thought about what the viewer, or photographer, may have had in mind, as a simple exercise in visual literacy.
The purpose of doing ungraded, unedited free writing was to help students learn to write whether they felt like it or not, to learn not to waste writing energy worrying, crossing out and to learn to think straighter. There would be time for criticizing writing later.
After the opening free writing, the next part of class was read aloud time. I had a number of cat and dog themed picture books and Sharon Creech’s free verse diaries, Love That Dog and Hate That Cat. I seated the students up close on the rug for read alouds, with pauses to partner talk oand I gave scenic turn-outs into the writing style.
I began the final part of the class period with pictorial inputs on cat/dog sentences, and brainstorming lists of actions. I taught a series of mini-lessons on writing compound and compound/complex sentences, which was also on the cat/dog theme using the analogy of cats’ independence and dogs’ dependence for the two kinds of clauses. The “leash words” on “dog clauses [dependent] were the subordinating conjunctions. I scaffolded this sentence level instruction with clauses collected from other student writing on the topic of what evidence do we have for the claim that cats are independent and dogs are dependent. What do they do?
My ELD group had two sessions of taking those “cat” and “dog” clauses combining them into complex sentences. Some students were still unclear about what was a verb and what the subject so I did some reteaching on that issue, using a few of their journals for examples.
On the third week into the unit I added in a half-page student checklist to tally up the number of times they wrote a complete sentence, a complex sentence, used onset capitalization, end marks and punctuated dialogue. Students had by then chosen at least one canine or feline creature to write about. When the CELDT testing started I would have the group create origami books which flipped so they could write about the good side and the down side of one pet, or contrast a dog and a cat in their books. Some students used some of the free writes as a basis for building a short narrative. So the three parts of each session were, loosely, free-writing, sentence level instruction and drafting with sharing or conferences.
Students wrote and read their drafts to each other in the final section of the class period. I emphasized listening to each other, not peer editing. I took home the student journals midway in the unit and culled out the main grammar and conventionn errors I deemed important to address. Still avoiding the error-correction model however, I persisted in having students tally the number of times they wrote sentences completely and correctly. I conferenced and coached them on spelling during the drafting time.
I gave students two different colored pencils to do the tally charts two more times after doing them in pencil. I wanted them to see the growth, not only in using conventions, using conjunctions and dialogue, but also to see that they were writing more. In the final week, I used the read aloud time to confer with writers and allowed students more time to develop their drafts.
The focus on stamina and sentence fluency turned into writing narratives for the origami book project after the CELDT testing began so the focus of this unit ended here.
Of the 22 students who were not only LEP 3 but also Below Basic on the ELA California Standards Test (STAR) 15 of them, or 68%, moved up to LEP 4 on the CELDT which was administered at the end of September. By January a third of those students had raised their STAR reading percentile ranking (PR) significantly, moving from intervention to on watch or even benchmark level.
The tally sheet looked like this:
I wrote x number of sentences: ______________
I capitalized x number of sentences: _______________
I used conjunctions [leash words] if I joined two clauses: ___________________
I used an end mark for sentences (period, question mark or !) _______________
I wrote an interesting opening sentence: Yes ______ No _____
My goal for my next free write is: