ELL Teacher Diary #4: Meet Danny

By Ámbar de Mejía, ELL Outlook™ Staff Writer

All names have been changed to protect the identity of the students.

Throughout my years as an ESL teacher, one of the recurring concerns expressed to me by mainstream teachers is that the difficulties experienced by students who take longer to acquire a functional knowledge of English might be due to a learning disability. We, as ESL teachers, must explain the levels of language acquisition to our mainstream teachers, even if briefly, and also provide them with a handout or a summary of the different level descriptors and expected outcomes or teaching strategies for each student, in order to minimize their misidentification as learning disabled when in fact the problem is learning new information in a new language. There are similarities between students who are going through the stages of English language learning and those who are actually experiencing language difficulties due to processing deficiencies, which brings me to my story.

The first inkling I got that something was wrong was all those questions. Questions and questions. And then more questions. Danny asks questions about everything. He even asks questions about questions. Every teacher, at least, I hope every teacher loves to hear and answer questions, but his were beginning to bother me.

Danny started coming to my fifth-grade reading class with Nagib. Danny had just moved to our area and was just getting into the routine of things: new teachers, new companions, new procedures, new everything. New ESL teacher. C’est moi! And he asked questions. Well, now, Nagib asked questions; in fact, Nagib was a walking question mark. But Danny asked more.

I began our reading class. “Turn to page ninety-four.”

“What page?” asked Danny.



“Yes, ninety-four,” I repeated and went on with the lesson, discussing the plot, the characters, the usual things.

“Let’s review. What is the title of the story?” I asked.

“The title?” asked Danny.

“Yes, the title,” I replied. Although this was beginning to irritate me, something just didn’t add up. I was beginning to think that Danny wasn’t paying attention, but that didn’t make sense, either. In the rush of testing new students, scheduling, and conferencing with parents and teachers, it took a few weeks before I went to the cumulative file room to examine his record from his previous school. I went through every single paper, slowly, until I found what I was looking for. There it was, in my hands. Suddenly, it all made sense—the questions, the blank looks, the uncertainty. The fear in his eyes. I couldn’t help but remember his hurt look when I snapped at him about studying and reviewing, about coming prepared to class.

I went to his classroom.

“Danny, you’ve been having trouble with your classes, haven’t you?”

“Yes,” he answered, with a confused look on his face.

“Danny, you have trouble remembering things. I know that now. I want you to forgive me because I was hard on you. Do you forgive me?”

He did.

Did I say that I also teach math?

As a teacher of English language learners, I quickly learned that teaching the conversational English of general subjects in context was just not enough to satisfy my students’ academic needs. That is, I thought that I only had to teach my students the language of math, the vocabulary. I thought that their skills from their native language would transfer to their new language. I thought that once they understood the concepts, they would be able to continue working in their mainstream classrooms. It didn’t happen. I began to realize, too, that during their transition to English or transition to a new school, a lot of the new learning didn’t get learned. My students had been missing not only the basic concepts but also the little details they needed to absorb. In college, one of my professors called these “the nice to know” things. I find that I am actually teaching a mini math class, when I had actually planned with their teachers to brush up the students’ skills in reading and math in preparation for final exams.

That’s not the only thing that I noticed. My group does their homework whenever they dounderstand it, but they don’t know how to study.

We were going through a study skills booklet and came to rounding problems. They couldn’t do them. They didn’t know place value.

“Didn’t you memorize it?” They didn’t know that they had to memorize it.

Back to the basics. We drilled the chart I made for teaching place value, practiced reading and writing numbers that they dictated, and began learning the rule for rounding. I gave them a handout for place value, number words, and clue words for word problems.

“Round 46 to the nearest ten. Let’s read the place value: ones, tens. What’s the rule?”

They didn’t know.

“Underline the number in the tens place. Draw an arrow to its neighbor. Forty-six is in betweenforty and what number?”


“Good. Here’s the rule: Five or more, round up. Is it five or more? Yes? Round up or down?”


They got it.

They have a lot of catching up to do, learning the language and new material in an unfamiliar language.

A few days later I asked my students if they knew how to carry out conversions from one measurement to another.

“No!” Plus a few groans, grimaces, and worried faces across the room.

Part of the problem is that my students do not ask questions in class during their regular lessons. I normally visit my fourth-graders’ classes during math and reading time to help and observe them. They usually sit, take notes, and write down what the teacher tells them to do, but they don’t participate voluntarily most of the time.

I had already prepared a handout with a basic lesson on conversions. I began with easy problems that could very well be solved by using mental math.

I began to ask questions and do a think-aloud to develop their reasoning skills when solving problems.

“Problem: Convert 2 feet to inches.”

Most could do it mentally, but could not tell how they did it. Some of my students added 12 + 12.

“Adding in your head is good, but what if the problem had been 212 feet to inches? Would you still like to add 12 + 12 + 12… 212 times?” No, they wouldn’t.

“What do we know about feet and inches?” They had no clue how to proceed.

“I know that there are 12 inches in one foot. Step one: Write down what you know. What does the problem ask us? Write that underneath. Do you expect more or less inches in your answer?”

I wasn’t too shocked when I heard some of the girls say, “Less.”

I drew a picture on the board to help them cope with their difficulties in visualizing. I used my yardstick to illustrate and also used a think-aloud strategy.

“When I don’t understand a problem, I draw a picture. That helps me to understand the problem better.”

Now, they are getting into the habit of writing out each step when answering a conversion problem and drawing for understanding.

Explicit instruction is the phrase that continues to go around and around in my mind whenever I am teaching my students. I hope that I am teaching them how to think, how to approach a problem to solve it.

Routines. Although it is important to establish routines, to get a sense of normalcy in the lives of the kids, this was too much of a good thing. My kids were getting bored, and I was too intent on what we were doing to notice.

We previewed the vocabulary. We previewed the story. We built our KWL map.1 We went through our picture walk. We answered the questions. We filled out another graphic organizer. I was concentrating on teaching my students higher-order thinking skills, intent on teaching them to think, to learn on their own. I was stifling their creativity and killing them with boredom, and I didn’t even know it. Sigh!

After class one day, I casually asked, “How did you like your class today?” I had been reading about cooperative group structures and about having a time of reflection with the group to adjust the lesson, to discuss and solve difficulties within the group, and I was really working on improving our lessons.

So, to the question at hand.

“OK,” said María.

“Alright,” added Johnny, but I wanted more info.

I tried again, “Did you like the class?”

“It was bored,” said María.

“It was boring?” modeled the ESL teacher. “Why?”

“We do the same thing.”

“What can I do to change that?” I wanted to know what they liked.

“I don’t know,” she said. But I did.

I went back to the drawing table, rather, the file of activities. “Nothing worse than being dragged to death,” my pastor used to say. … So I’ll kill them with speed!

The following day, we reviewed main concepts and they played Round Robin2 as they had done before, but this time, I timed them and stopped before they tired of it. They were excited. Me, too.

The next day, we played Round Robin, followed by Round Table; again, timing them caused more screams. They exchanged papers and scanned answers, asking and questioning, eyes popping with excitement.

They completed a web map to be used to design a poster to present to their classmates. Now the class was ending. It was time for reflecting.

“So,” I began, “how are we doing?” (which translates as, how am I doing?)

“It was fun!” from María.

“Yeah!” from Johnny.

“What was different?” I waited.

Johnny shrugged his shoulders.

“I don’t know,” María said.

But I did!

You can learn a lot from listening to student conversations. Listen to a kindergartener answer a question, for instance. Prepositions get lost in everyday talk.

“Where are the crayons?”

“Box,” is their usual answer, especially if they are novice students.

“In the box?” I ask in order to establish the structure of the answer I wanted.


“Where is my bear?” I asked after putting my red bear under the table.

“On a table”—at least, that is what I thought they said and what they thought they said. They were so happy that I understood what they were saying. I understood, all right. I realized that they could not differentiate between “on the table” and “under the table.” Their version was “on er table” for both “on” and “under” the table. Lazy speech makes both sound the same to inexperienced ears.

Out came the toys to the rescue: teddy bears and ducks, a flamingo and a lamb. The menagerie was on the table, under the table, beside the table, on our heads, on our arms, under our arms—arms, but not armpits—and all the while, the children were telling me where the toys were. It’s taking a few months, but they are getting the idea of answering using phrases and are now beginning to differentiate between “on” and “under.”

All the eloquence, the motivation, the persuasion, the encouragement—you name it, I did it, except stand on my head—but it was one little stamp with Don Quixote proudly holding his lance that accomplished what weeks of talk could not.

During early morning Accelerated Reader time, I teach an intensive phonics class. Tuesdays and Thursdays, third- through fifth-graders come, and sometimes non-ESL native speakers come by invitation. Their presence encourages my students, and their speech serves as a model as they answer questions and participate in some discussions. One of my newcomers brought his practice sheet, all complete. I glanced at it as I walked to my desk and, still explaining a phonics rule, took out my stamps. I chose one, Don Quixote de la Mancha, and stamped the stately knight on the paper, then walked back to the chart and continued our practice. Eyes large as dragonfly eyes popped out of heads.

The next week, I stamped more papers than I ever had in any two-month period. Incentives are quite useful. Let’s not call it a carrot. Please.

End Notes

1 A KWL graphic organizer (I Know/I Want to Learn/I Learned) visually represents students’ prior knowledge, helps to direct students’ reading, and gives them a personal purpose for reading.

2 Round Robin is a cooperative group activity in which a question or a topic is presented and each member of the group has to give an answer or say what they know about the topic; Round Table is the written version of the same activity.