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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Reading & Literacy Opinion

Author Interview: ‘Reading & Writing With English Learners'

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 29, 2020 7 min read
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Valentina Gonzalez and Melinda Miller agreed to answer a few questions about their book Reading & Writing with English Learners: A Framework for K-5.

LF: What made you decide to write this book, and what did you learn from writing it?

Valentina Gonzalez & Melinda Miller:

Our love of literacy is rooted in our personal experiences as students, and we both have lengthy histories in education, specifically with language arts. Though our lenses were different, we both saw the need for a book that served both mainstream classroom teachers and ESL teachers. Our goal with this book is to provide educators with the essential knowledge they need to help English-learners thrive in reading and writing classrooms.

LF: If you had to pick your three favorite instructional strategies from all the ones you’ve written about, which would they be and why?

Valentina Gonzalez & Melinda Miller:

We share so many instructional strategies to help ELs become confident and strong readers and writers that it’s difficult to narrow down to just three favorites! But we’ll give it a go.

We love using QSSSA (question, signal, stem, share, assess) with English-learners, because this is a strategy that gets everyone talking (Page 114). It is very important for every child to have many opportunities to use their language throughout the day, and QSSSA ensures total participation. Students in small groups number off, then the teacher asks a question for students to think about. When they have their answers in their head, they give a certain signal, such as a thumbs-up, to indicate they’re ready. The teacher then gives students a sentence stem for answering the question, and students take turns using the stem to share their responses with their groups. Groups may create a group response based on the answers given. Finally, the teacher assesses understanding by having one student share out from each group (all twos, for example). Group members support the student who is chosen to share out to the whole group. QSSSA supports English-learners as they work with peers in a group, listen to each other’s responses, and give their own responses.

We also love Elkonin boxes (Page 119). In this strategy, the teacher has a student say a word slowly, listening to all the sounds. Next, the teacher makes a box on a piece of paper for each sound in the word. As the teacher and student say the word together slowly, the teacher demonstrates how to push a plastic disc into each box as they hear each sound. The student takes over the pushing as the teacher asks, “What did you hear?” “How do you write that?” and “Where will you put it?” The student then writes each letter in the boxes, then reads the entire word as it is completed. Elkonin boxes are exciting for students, as they allow them to hear and record sounds to make words they can read.

A third favorite is the sentence-patterning chart, which we like to pair with the picture-word inductive model (Pages 124-125). The teacher presents a visual that is interesting and relevant to students (a picture of a dog, for example). Students and teacher think of words related to the concept and label the picture. Next, the teacher makes a chart with two or three columns, titled, for instance “have,” “are,” and “can.” Together, teacher and students brainstorm words for each column, using the labels on the picture as a word bank. Everyone reads the words in each column chorally, and the teacher models how to build sentences using the chart. An example sentence might be “Dogs have four legs.” Finally, students work in pairs to practice creating sentences.


LF: You explain in the book that it applies a balanced literacy approach and that it uses a workshop model for reading and for writing. Of course, this perspective is attacked by some in the so-called “Reading Wars” as not being particularly effective or rigorous. What would your response be to those who might take that perspective?

Valentina Gonzalez & Melinda Miller:

Those who know us know we don’t like war—of any kind. We are not in this business for conflict or battle. We are here to support the readers and writers in front of us, no matter who they are and how they enter our room. As Penny Kittle says, “Follow the child.” We know the research, we understand the passion, and it’s no secret that we are passionate, too—about our work and service, literacy, and English-learners.

There are many different interpretations of balanced literacy and the workshop model. Rather than attacking one another and our instructional practices, we believe it’s best to come together and ask questions and to try to understand one another. We believe that, as educators, we are all invested in students’ growth and progress. Despite different approaches to literacy, we believe we have more in common with one another than not.

Our suggested approach to balanced literacy provides direct instruction (which may include phonics), plus time to practice reading and writing using all of the strategies learned through direct instruction. The workshop-based balanced literacy approach is rigorous. Students read and write at their own level, and teachers support all students through differentiated instruction. Using the balanced literacy approach, teachers can try many different instructional strategies until they find what works for each individual child, and that, after all, is what we are all here for!


Image by Valentina Gonzalez

LF: Mini-lessons are a key part of your teaching approach. Can you explain what those are, why you think they are important, and share some examples?

Valentina Gonzalez & Melinda Miller:

We all know how valuable our class time is. Every minute is important. So it’s also important that we analyze how we spend that time. Whole-group instruction implies that all learners will learn the same information at the same pace. That’s just not practical for all learners. We know that the learners in front of us are not all starting from the same place, and they don’t all have the same needs.

However, direct instruction is important because it provides a way to give explicit instruction to a group, large or small. The best part of mini-lessons is that they don’t take up too much valuable class time, yet they allow us to deliver necessary instruction to learners.

The mini-lesson is one example of the direct instruction we are talking about. Teachers address one specific skill that specific children need to practice through a mini-lesson. It is a short, concise lesson that focuses on that specific skill and provides modeling, student practice, and connections to students’ worlds. Teachers can determine what to teach through mini-lessons by examining student writing and observing students as they read and write. Typically, mini-lessons incorporate authentic literature to provide context for the skill. Mini-lessons can be taught to the whole class or small groups.

An example of a skill covered in a mini-lesson for primary grades is using capital letters at the beginning of a sentence. The teacher can activate students’ prior knowledge by reading a familiar book to them. It is a good idea to use a big book so all students can see the text. The teacher can show students many examples of how sentences start with capital letters and then write sentences on sentence strips to model using capital letters at the beginning of sentences. Next, students can work in pairs to write their own sentences on sentence strips, using capitals at the beginning. Finally, the teacher can ask students to go to their book bags and look through books with a partner to identify capitals at the beginning of different sentences.

LF: You use Gradual Release of Responsibility as one of the frameworks for your book. What do you think makes that strategy particularly effective with ELLs?

Valentina Gonzalez & Melinda Miller:

English-learners benefit from teacher support, but it is important to gradually reduce support and let students take on more of their reading and writing independently. Pearson and Gallagher (1983) suggested Gradual Release of Responsibility through “I Do, We Do, You Do.” First, the teacher models the skill (for instance, read-aloud and write-aloud) and invites students to talk about what they are seeing and hearing. Next, the teacher leads students in shared reading, guided reading, or shared writing, during which students read and write themselves with support from the teacher. Finally, students practice applying all they have learned by reading and writing independently. Even though this is an independent time, teachers are still there to offer support as needed.


Image by Valentina Gonzalez

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you would like to share?

Valentina Gonzalez & Melinda Miller:

We think our book will benefit all reading and writing teachers as they work with both English-learners and native-English speakers. Teachers can use the book as a resource by reading it cover to cover or by homing in on specific strategies they want to try on a certain day.

Whether or not you subscribe to the balanced literacy approach and reading and writing workshops, you will be able to find many strategies throughout the text that will be useful in supporting your English-learners. We believe there is something for everyone in this book!

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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