The changing face of rural schools

Although you’d never know it from the national media, the number of students in rural schools in America is growing, becoming more diverse, and a significant number of those students are poor.

Writing in Education Week, Marty Strange reported:

Between 2004 and 2009, rural schools grew 11 percent, from 10.5 million students to 11.7 million, and the rural share of the nation’s students increased from 22 percent to 24 percent, according to data from the Department of Education.

The stereotype of rural America as overwhelmingly white is also changing. Blacks, Strange reports, now make up almost a third of students in rural schools.

And  a significant number of the non-white rural school population is as poor as any from the inner cities, Strange says:

Fifty-nine percent of students in rural districts ranking in the top 10 percent of poverty are students of color—28 percent African-American, 23 percent Hispanic, and 8 percent Native.

It’s hard to see the changing demographics of rural schools because immigrants to rural districts are scattered all over the country, a few here, a few there. The changes and their impact on rural schools go almost unnoticed. It’s easy to see the need for such things as English as a second language training for teachers when a district is 30% Hispanic, for example, but far more difficult to see teachers need that training when only a handful of students in a district are non-English speakers.

645 meanings of the verb run

Let me run this by you.

Simon Winchester says in an op-od piece in today’s New York Times  that, according to Oxford English Dictionary lexicographer Peter Gilliver, the word run has 645 meanings in the verb-form alone.

If you teach literacy, reading comprehension, or English (including all its initialized formats: ELA, ELL, EFL, ESL), that fact should make you blink. Run is, after all, one of the most common words in our language. It is among the words students learn in their first encounters with reading and writing.

If there are 645 meanings of the verb to run, what does that say about the difficulty of learning vocabulary in context? And what are the implications of a 645-definition word for writing teachers?

Those are not trivial questions.

According to US census data a fifth of the population over age 5 speaks a language other than English at home. Of those, only 56.2 percent say they speak English “very well.” When you look at the ages of the people who do not speak English in their homes, you’ll see in every language group the largest segment of non-English speakers is school age.

Census data assumes that speaking only English at home means proficiency in oral English. I think most teachers would question that assumption.

However, even if it were true, the number of people who are fluent in oral English is higher than the number who are skilled at reading and writing English, even among people whose primary language is English.

For me as a teacher, these data mean I do not have the luxury of spending time on topics just because they are fun or just because students are interested in them. I have to choose teaching topics because they help me accomplish my learning objectives. Then I have to find ways to make the topics fun or relate them to something that already interests the students.

What significance do you find in the 645 meanings of the verb run?

Best writing test is writing

British Universities are wrestling with a problem of poor writing skills among international students pursuing doctoral degrees. It seems too many students of English as a Second Language who are accepted based on their scores on tests of English turn out to have inadequate skills to complete the writing required for a doctorate.

I don’t know why people are surprised that standardized tests don’t measure writing skill.  Writing involves a broad range of content knowledge and a wide range of skills. However, the elements of writing that are most easy to test are typically the most superficial.

The only reliable test of writing skill is a series of writing samples done under conditions that mimic those in which the individual will need to perform on a regular basis.

In my writing classes, I like to use a three-in-a-row measure to assess writing competence. When students meets my criteria for competence on three consecutive formal assessments in a stipulated time frame, I guarantee they will not earn less than a certain grade even if they do no other work for the rest of the course.  I feel safe in using that policy because skills don’t evaporate.

Once students are competent writers they don’t object to doing more writing. The step from being just a competent writer to being a good writer is a short step. Most students can make that step simply by practicing their writing process a few more times.

[edited 2/26/2014 to remove broken links]

Click for definitions on any webpage

Lingro is a great free resource for teaching vocabulary in context and for encouraging students to check the meanings of words they don’t recognize.  It is useful for teaching native English speakers, ESL students, and for teaching foreign languages to English speakers.

Simply copy and paste the URL of a web page into the form and choose the dictionary you want to use. Presto! You have the web page with every word clickable and linked to a dictionary.

Here’s the super cool part. Lingro supports 11 languages. Your student can look up a page written in English and read the definitions in

  • Spanish,
  • French,
  • German,
  • Italian,
  • Portuguese,
  • Polish,
  • Swedish,
  • Russian,
  • Dutch,
  • Chinese, or
  • English.

That translation feature makes Lingro very useful for English language learners.

English-speaking students of foreign languages can read websites in the language they are studying and get definitions in English.

This website can be a very useful for students with reading comprehension problems who avoid dictionaries as being too hard or too time-consuming to use.  Lingro also remembers the words a reader looks up so the reader can go back and study that vocabulary.

Lingro is an open source project devoted to compiling dictionaries that will always be free to use.  The project is always looking for people fluent in two languages to help improve existing dictionaries and prepare dictionaries in other languages.

Russell Stannard’s short training video will introduce you to the main features of Lingro. Russ is on Twitter @russell1955.

[2016-02-03 removed reference to content that is no longer accessible.]

Mentoring for new ESL teachers

A mentoring program from RLI Language Services for anyone diving into a first experience teaching English as a Second Language looks very promising.

The mentoring program is the brainchild of English language teacher Berni Wall,  who is also the brains behind the online language learning tool Gapfillers

Berni was approached by several new teachers asking for support and language input. She put together a program that will help teachers develop their language and teaching skills and have some fun doing it.

Here is some of what’s on tap:

  • Monthly teleseminars/webinars on teaching topics, including skills teaching, using technology, motivation, use of L1 etc.
  • Dedicated sessions for building a professional learning network online using Twitter, Facebook, online conferences, etc.
  • Access to a forum to share ideas and successes, ask for information, discuss ELT topics
  • Email/Skype access for any problems or help
  • Monthly videos on ELT topics
  • Access to the Gapfillers e-learning site
  • 4 half-day online workshops

Teachers can enter the program any time during the year.

Some events  in the UK combine professional development and socializing. If you are teaching in Mobile, Alabama, you might not be able to take advantage of live events on the ground at Fleetham Lodge in Yorkshire, but at the price RLI is charging, the mentoring still looks to me like a bargain. If you live in a major American city, you probably pay as much for a decent cup of coffee as the mentoring will cost a week: the fee is £10 a month ($16 USD) or £100 a year ($164 USD).

The left hand column on the RLI Language Services site has a contact form you can use to get more information. The last update I saw said a half dozen people had already signed up for the mentoring program.

If you are a Twitter user, you can follow Berni @rliberni and pick up regular tips for ESL teaching.