Book Review: Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners

Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners, Johanna Stirling, Lulu: Raleigh, 2011, 279 pgs.

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Johanna Stirling’s Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners advocates for explicit spelling instruction as a tenet of writing instruction for students learning English as a Second Language. Stirling views poor spelling as an obstacle to language development, but also sees it  as a hindrance to future educational and career opportunities.

Stirling sets out to present a new look at an old and infamous problem – the spelling conventions of the English Language. She examines the complex orthography of the language, and she offers educators with instructional strategies that address English spelling.

Additionally, Stirling indicates the importance of spelling skills to producing quality writing plainly stating: “…if you are too busy concentrating on spelling letter by letter, your brain is unlikely to be at its creative or intellectual best.”

Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners is divided into three main sections. Part A provides an overview of the challenges of teaching and understanding spelling. Part B presents an approach for instruction in spelling. Part C offers more than 50 instructional strategies for teaching spelling, most of which are interactive, engaging, and multi-sensory. The intended audience for this book is teachers of adolescent and adult English Language Learners as well as teachers of struggling readers and writers who are native speakers of the language.

I chose this book because it appears to be the only comprehensive text on the subject of spelling for English Language Learners. There are only a limited number of scholarly articles that address this topic specifically, so it did not surprise me that there were only two books available through amazon.com on the subject.

Analysis

Personally, Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners provided me with a deeper perspective on the emotionality that poor spellers experience with writing. Chapter 15,  titled “Tackling Psychological Barriers to Writing”, provided me with a better insight and empathy towards the frustrated learner of English spelling. I myself have always been a good speller and reader, but I know that in my practice it is important to be able to view literacy tasks through the eyes of my students.

Indeed, this year especially, working with a group of middle school students whose struggles with literacy have previously been ignored, I have personally witnessed their reactions to their low self-esteem around language learning. My students absolutely employ all of the “face-saving strategies” detailed in the chapter: “avoiding writing altogether (so they can’t fail), blaming others for their weaknesses, denying that there’s a problem, or just making out that they don’t care”.

This descriptor helped me contextualize my students’ behaviors and I have been deliberate and strategic about addressing the emotionality by using the strategies Stirling lays out in my lesson planning and instruction: assessing students’ spelling abilities, conveying enthusiasm and providing positive encouragement, connecting spelling to authentic texts, and explicit teaching about English spelling patterns.

I very much enjoyed Chapter 3, “A Brief History of English Spelling”. Although I have read bits and pieces about this subject, Stirling provides a very clear and concise overview of English’s evolution from Old English to Modern English, which includes information on how pronunciation and handwriting over time has affected our spelling system. Stirling clearly demonstrates that there are “historical explanations for many of the apparently irrational and complex forms of English spelling”, and, indeed, it is empowering to know how English evolved and came to its complex orthography.

A very clear pie chart at the end of the chapter shows the origins of current English words: 26% Germanic, 29% French, 29% Latin, 6% Greek, and 10% Other. Reading this chapter and viewing this data prompted me to not only check out Wheelock’s Latin from the local library but also to revisit the Duolingo app’s French language program in an effort to increase my understanding of English.

Language is a tool that we use so much, we do not often analyze it or think of it as simply another, albeit highly complex, technology. In a historical context, however, one realizes that language is indeed a human invention, and is therefore ever-evolving and subject to political and sociological influences. This is a powerful realization as a language teacher because it makes it clear that what we should truly focus on are the mechanisms of the language system and engaging our students in analyzing and manipulating them. Regarding language as a tool with a history and sense of flexibility makes it far less daunting than simply accepting and memorizing abstract rules and facts without understanding their origins.

Professionally, I appreciated Stirling’s “polysystemic” framework of English Orthography. She organizes her discussions of language and spelling around 5 separate systems: phonological, graphemic, etymological, lexical, and morphological. Stirling dedicates one chapter to each system, and she provides concrete examples of spelling patterns based in each.

Stirling also provides clear insights about the interconnections of these systems, and she is definitive about how these systems interact with one another. For example, she states: “Etymological factors often take precedence over all the other systems of English orthography”. She then goes on to detail orthographic patterns from Old English (wh-, kn-, -gh, aw, ow), Latin, and French. Stirling also challenges the ever-popular yet non-sensical “sound it out” strategy by evidencing that only about 50% of English words are phonetically spelled.

I especially appreciated Stirling’s attention to the lexical or “purely visual” system of English, which emphasizes “similar spellings of words with related meanings”. This system is frequently and shamefully overlooked, even in post-graduate courses for reading specialists and speech language therapists.  Yet, the lexical system provides a bounty of connections among words in our language. For example, the word “sign”, which comes from the Latin signum (mark, token, indication, signal), forms lexical connections to at least twenty words, including signature, design, signify, resign, and assign.

One weakness I found in the text was Stirling’s lack of knowledge around assessment of existing developmental spelling tools. Although Stirling offers some self-created assessments, I was disappointed and surprised that she failed to mention the widely-used Words Their Way Spelling Inventories as an assessment of developmental spelling (note: For FREE access, simply register with the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project).

Additionally, while Stirling does indicate short vowels, vowel digraphs, and silent-e syllables as common trouble spots for ELLs, she makes no mention of the six syllable types: closed, open, silent-e, r-controlled, vowel team, consonant-le. Since Stirling advocates that we maximize awareness of the language systems of English, not mentioning the six syllable types feels like a glaring omission.

Conclusions and Evaluation

Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners is an essential read for anyone who teaches writing to struggling learners in grades 3 and up. It is clear, concise, and well-organized, and the strategies in the book can be easily implemented without any special materials or programmatic structures. I think that this book is impressive because it provides such a wide-ranging overview as well as very practical, multi-sensory, and engaging strategies that can be used right away in the classroom.

This book makes a wonderful pairing with the scope and sequence laid out in Marcia Henry’s Words. In my own classroom, I have been using Words as a resource for generating word lists from a class novel. I then use the instructional techniques from Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners to create my lesson plans. The pairing of these two books makes for a dynamic duo that allows my students to make progress with their spelling in an enjoyable way that is connected to the texts we are reading in class. Since the beginning of January, my students have demonstrated mastery of consonant blends and consonant digraphs and trigraphs, and I can see their confidence growing as they discuss and apply their metalinguistic knowledge.

I highly recommend this book to educators seeking to enhance word-level writing instruction in their classrooms. It is a quick read, and it will become a go-to reference for engaging spelling instruction. Stirling’s http://thespellingblog.blogspot.com/ offers supplemental resources for the book, and her website English Language Garden provides additional articles and materials for ELL teachers.

 

Analysis of ELL Writing Calls for Spelling Intervention

The inquiry work described below is an Analytic Memo assignment that I completed for the Boston Teachers Union’s Inquiry Project course.  I am a member of the 2015/2016 cohort of this teacher-facilitated inquiry program. This memo provides an analysis of two student writing samples: sympathy cards to President Hollande following the November terrorist attack on Paris and essays that describe Sarah Hale, the  “Grandmother of Thanksgiving”.

My goal for this school year is to improve the written expression of my middle school ESL students. I aim for my students to develop writing skills that allow them to not only fully express their ideas but also to deepen their thinking through writing. As a 9th year teacher who has always worked with ELL students, in both ESL classes and content classes, I have noticed that writing is complex for these students at the word, sentence, and discourse levels.

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In the past, I have had success in developing students’ writing skills through reading response pieces with a variety of texts as well as process writing tasks with authentic audiences (i.e. a class book of personal essays titled “How I Make Boston Strong” for the Boston Police following the Boston Marathon Bombings; argument essays on the benefits of tap water over bottled water for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority Writing Contest). My teaching strategies included setting a clear purpose and audience for writing with students, modeling using transparencies and an overhead projector, using a combination of handwriting and word process technologies for draft writing, teaching techniques for writing hooks and adding details to sentences, facilitating peer editing, using student-teacher writing conferences, and, most importantly, providing lots of time for writing in class.

Although these techniques have been effective, I am always searching to learn more about how to work with students on their writing because I view writing as an essential life skill. I know that my students will be judged on their ability to write in the future, whether in academic settings or in workplaces. From collaborating with the middle school English Language Arts teachers at my school, I know that my current ESL class is composed of students who have struggled significantly with written expression. Their ELA teachers report that these students produce poor writing during their English Language Arts classes, and many of the students are long-term ELLs, having attended monolingual “English-only” education programs since kindergarten.

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My First Inquiry Question

Before getting to know my current batch of students, my question for inquiry relied on my past experience of having shorter-term ELL students who constructed mostly simple sentences in their writing:

Through what metacognitive and multisensory means might students enhance the variety of grammatical structures they employ in their writing?

My students in previous years had been coded as ELLs for 3 to 5 years, and they often simply needed daily writing practice and more exposure to English in order to produce more complex sentences.

However, upon analysis of my current students’ work habits and abilities, I realize that my current students are quite different. They have more writing stamina; even when given permission to check in with a friend during writing practice, they do not even whisper to one another. They remain, for the most part, completely focused on the task at hand. Consequently, they are able to produce a sufficient volume of writing. So, what exactly is holding them back from meeting the successes I have seen with students in previous years?

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The WIDA MODEL Framework

Using the introductory materials from the WIDA MODEL writing assessment has helped to clarify and categorize the specific concerns most relevant to written expression for ELLs.The MODEL recognizes that it is acceptable for ELLs at the beginning and intermediate level to use copied sections of text as well as adapted (paraphrased) text in written expression as they are learning how to use the English language. However, the MODEL also maintains that the end goal is for students to produce written language that is original in both content and form, just as is expected of native English speakers.  The MODEL evaluates student writing based on three major components: linguistic complexity, vocabulary usage, and language control.

Linguistic complexity refers to the quantity of language produced. At the sentence level, are sentences simple subject+verb+object constructions, or are they expanded from this basic kernel? At the discourse level, are paragraphs organized with topic, body, and conclusion sentences? Is the presented sequence of information or order of events logical? How much does the student write in a given time frame?

Vocabulary usage refers to the variety and sophistication of words the writer uses. Are the words general high-frequency words or more specific “Tier 2” vocabulary? Are students capable of using content-specific technical vocabulary in their writing? Are the same vocabulary words repeated, or are there synonyms that add variety to the writing?

Language control includes not only grammar (morphology and syntax) and mechanics (spelling, punctuation, and capitalization), but also precision with word choice. Is the student using precisely the right word in precisely the right place in the language sequence?

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Close Reading of Student Writing

With the lens of the MODEL in mind, I took a close look at two writing assignments from my current students. The first writing assignment was a short essay on the life and accomplishments of a historical figure. Students had about half of a class period (30 minutes) to complete this assignment. The second assignment was a sympathy letter to French President Francois Hollande following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. This assignment was completed over two class periods, and it required students to write a rough draft as well as a final draft.

Link to Google Doc with Analysis Notes

On a positive note, I was impressed by the expanded sentences that many students employed in their writing. However, I was struck by the lack of conventions in spelling, particularly those related to morphology in areas such as pluralization (i.e. countrys – This student did not automatically know to “change the y to an i and add “es” or makeing – This student did not know to “drop the e and add -ing”.) I wonder how much their writing would improve with greater use of conventional spelling.
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It must be exhausting for the students to constantly have to guess at the spellings of words. Imagine how much this slows them down and interferes with their abilities to get their thoughts down on paper. For example, S. is working so hard to spell so many words through application of sound-symbol correspondence; however, this is typical of a 1st grade monolingual emergent writer, and S.is a 6th grade student who has been in the Boston Public Schools for 7 years. A., due to either spelling or vocabulary, gives up on producing original ideas and relies on copying chunks of text. I wonder if the students are even aware how much their spelling interferes with the meaning in their writing. Do they know that their spelling is irregular and would not make sense to a non-teacher reader?

Other points that struck me were lack of attention to capitalization and use of periods, as well as the erratic placement of commas. Can the students internally sense the phrasing of their writing – do they “hear their writing breathe”? When they read independently, are they able to sort of the rhythm and structures of phrases as they read? Do my students read aloud fluently? Can they mark or scoop a sentence for its breath?

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My conclusion is that my students need support with writing conventions in order to improve the decisions they make about the marks they are putting on the page. It is tempting to ignore their errors and move forward with the “fun” of teaching the content of reading and writing. However, I would be ashamed had my students gone through this year with me, a professional and experienced educator, recognizing this problem and doing nothing about it, especially since my training as a reading specialist did give me some background in multi-sensory strategies for teaching encoding. So, I must plan a course of action that supports my students in developing as writers.

My Second Inquiry Question and My Plan

First, I have revised my inquiry question:

Through what metacognitive and multisensory means might students enhance their use of conventional spelling and punctuation in their writing?

Second, I have a few resources I would like to use with my students, including the spelling and word study curriculas Words by Marcia Henry and Language! by Sopris Voyager, as well as the secondary grammar text Grammar Explorer by Cengage.  I also want to explore expanding the 1:1 encoding techniques I learned as a student at the MGH Communication Sciences & Disorders Clinic for use in whole class classroom context.

Screen Shot 2015-12-06 at 12.40.50 PMI plan to conduct a better analysis of which syllable types they struggle to encode by assessing my students using the Moats Primary Spelling Inventory. Finally, for my research articles as well as my book review, I want to seek out resources on spelling and conventions instruction for ELLs.

Right now, the goal of teaching spelling and conventions to middle school ELLs seems tedious and daunting, but I know the students really need it. I am making a promise to myself to ensure that the work ahead is engaging, connected, and relevant to my students, as I know how much they need these spelling and conventions skills for their future. Readers of their job applications and college admissions letters will be extremely distracted by the form of their writing as it is now, and most will infer that incorrect conventions are a sign of weak ideas and arguments. If this problem is not fixed, it will have future consequences for the 15 children in my classroom.

 

What Teachers Really Need: More Collaborative Planning Time

While participating in the Literacy Design Collaborative jurying process at the Southern Regional Education Board Conference this past July, I was blown away by all of the thoughtful, creative, standards-based Science & Social Studies learning modules created by fellow teachers from all over the country. These modules were both content-rich and heavily focused on critical literacy. For example, an 11th grade Chemistry module titled “Nuclear Sustainability” asks students students research the chemistry of nuclear power, evaluate its sustainability,  and write either an editorial or public service announcement persuading their audience of their views.  I was elated to read through the overarching goal and daily tasks because it was exactly the sort of student work production the Writing is Thinking team is advocating for.  

After being awe-stricken by the rigor and quality of the modules, I immediately began trying to estimate how much time the modules would take to plan. It was clear that they took hours upon hours upon hours. I know that when I create a unit plan or lesson plans that are intended to be shared with others, it takes me FAR longer than when I simply plan in isolation for just me and my students.  As a teacher, I view planning time as my most precious commodity – and the bottom line is that there is not enough time for me to plan during my work day. I must take time in the early morning, during the evenings, and on weekends to plan. This is unsustainable, and often leads me feeling burned out by around November of the school year. Also, I’m always planning alone. Work products are always better when more than one brain is thinking about it. In order for our public education system to improve, teachers need adequate time embedded in our work day to be able to collaborate and create top-tier, standards-based lesson plans that can be shared with educators all over the country.

It’s been my experience that a school system’s response to meeting the needs for planning is creating central-office positions around curricular design. What I’ve seen come out of these positions is a massive scope & sequence that provides a checklist of the content that must be “covered” throughout the year. I haven’t found these to be very helpful because at its core, teaching is a creative profession. Creating plans and adjusting them based on student needs is the crux of our work. What we need is time. Time to be thoughtful about how to modify and make curriculum accessible for ELLs and Students with Special Needs. Time to work with our colleagues to make our  plans better. Time during our work day to write, edit, and revise our plans collaboratively. Time to ensure that we are incorporating writing across the curriculum (even in math and elective class!). Time to collectively analyze student work and develop hypotheses around why students may or may not have been successful. Time to adjust our practice when student work tells a particular story. We need more time together as adults to create a strong professional learning community.

It turns out there is a wealth of resources to support teacher meetings so that they are fruitful and productive. I had the pleasure of learning about these great tools this summer during a week-long seminar with education consultant Gene Thompson-Grove and the School Reform Initiative, where we were given the tools of protocols to help structure meetings so that they ensure real work gets done. Whether it’s getting feedback on curriculum, analyzing student work, or digging deeper into a dilemma a teacher is facing, there are protocols designed to structure these important conversations.  From this, I learned that authentic teacher-driven professional learning communities are a means for us to really improve adult learning and thus directly improve student learning.

Some people may be asking, but wait – don’t teachers get planning time? As a member of the Boston Teacher’s Union, I am currently allotted 48 minutes per day for planning. I feel lucky to even have it, as I know that many teachers across the nation do not. The reality is, I do not usually spend this time planning. On any given day, you will find me calling parents, making photocopies, catching up on emails, rearranging desks for student groupings for my next class, or attending IEP and other mandated meetings. This amount of time during the day is not enough to be the practitioners our students, families, and communities need us to be. We need more of it, and we need to collaborate during it.

This upcoming year, one of my professional goals is to create a community of adult learners amongst my teaching team. I want us  to spend time during the day, even if just 48 minutes, to have structured planning time so that we may co-create high-quality curriculum, reflect on our practice, and become better teachers together. Hopefully we will be able to collect enough evidence to prove that this time is valuable. I’m hoping to enlist  their help in creating some LDC modules targeted toward our ELL level 1 and 2 students.  I’ll be sure to keep blogging my progress…stay tuned!

Building Vocabulary: Using Project-Based Learning to Understand Organelles and Their Functions

Introducing students to the invisible world of microscopic life has always been one of my favorite scientific investigations. Students broaden their understanding of the surrounding world by examining tangible evidence of scientific concepts that cannot be proven with standard empirical observation. For example, students are taught that all plants are made up of multiple cells, but this concept is not made real until they see the layers of green bricks that construct a small portion of a leaf they found outside. The deeper they look, the broader the scope of science becomes, and with that depth comes an array of new terms and concepts that must be acquired. In this investigation, students had to stretch their understanding beyond the magnification of the microscope, and demonstrate knowledge of new invisible structures that made up cells: organelles.

As I began to develop my lesson plans, I found myself staring into the unknown as my curricula no longer served as a map to our final destination. According to the Massachusetts science standards, students must learn to identify the structure and function of organelles in a cell, but the district-provided curricula does not offer a way for students to meet this standard. In order to prepare my lessons, I needed to independently research the content and create instructional materials for this

This is a sketch I found on the classroom floor while cleaning after school. Polysemous words like
This is a sketch I found on the classroom floor while cleaning after school. Polysemous words like “cell” are challenging for many ELLs, and I was proud to see the spontaneous use of creativity and humor to display a complex concept.

portion of the unit. Students not only had to master novel scientific language, but they needed to use this language to describe how organelles interact to create the smallest unit of life. I knew that students needed a creative approach to mastering these novel terms, one that would help them demonstrate their mastery both using oral and written language. After conducting research and consulting colleagues, I decided that the best way to accomplish this task would be to have the students work on a project in which they either would build a cell model or create a poster that demonstrates how organelles are analogous to other systems.

This project-based learning approach proved to be an engaging strategy that allowed students to actively synthesize information, rather than just practice rote memorization of cell parts. At the center of this project was a two-fold writing process. As students constructed their project, I asked them to to write about the function of each organelle in order to learn about the cell. Later, I required that they demonstrate their knowledge by completing a writing assignment that asked high order thinking questions around organelles in plant and animal cells. This powerful process gave me insight into my students’ learning and helped me to better understand the ways in which I can support the English Language Learners and Students with Special Needs in the classroom.

The Project

I was nervous during the onset of this project, as I had never attempted an artistic, open ended assignment like this in my class. My supplies were limited, and it required a great deal of imagination and effort from each student to complete construction of cell model. Students needed to bring in materials from home to complete the task and had to rely on their own understanding of cell structure to complete the project.  I was afraid that, while students were able to construct a model or build a poster, they would get caught up in the creative process and not internalize the names and functions of the cell. These fears subsided soon after the project began.

Early in the lesson planning process, I realized that the key to a successful project would be in providing a clear objective. I developed a rubric that ensured all students were able to write about specific organelles and allowed students to either focus on a model of a cell, or create a poster that served as an analogy of the functions of the organelles. This level of choice provided an opportunity for students to select their own accommodations, and this freedom ultimately resulted in a higher level of engagement. In fact, some students decided to go beyond the assignment and merged the two projects by constructing cell analogies in a model form.

In the end, four types of projects emerged:

The Cell Analogy Model

A small group of students had their heart set on building a model, but wanted to go beyond constructing a replica of a cell. This resulted in these students creating PhotoGrid_1432689212260their own “Hybrid Project” in which they took elements from the Cell Analogy poster, and combined it with the 3-D model aspects of the cell model project. Two groups built a Cell City, where different city structures represent parts of the cell, while another student worked independently to show how a cell is like a family inside their home. In all cases the students that took on this ambitious project were my top performing students, and they had no problem demonstrating they had mastered the material, orally and in written form.

Cell Analogy Poster

Not very many students chose to create a cell poster, but those who did gained and in-depth understanding of the cell functions. Students that had a better understanding of different organelles gravitated to this project, and the results were impressive. Students were able to personalize the project and allowed for a different type of creativity than building a 3D model. In one particular project, a group of English Language Learners was able to match the attributes of their favorite futbol players to organelles in the cell. I knew nothing about these different players, and they took pride in being able to teach me about the player’s strengths and relating all their knowledge back to how organelles function in a cell. My favorite analogy was their comparison of mitochondria to Eden Hazard who serves as the “power house” of the team.PhotoGrid_1432688608468

Poster AD

When asked what they meant by “power house” they said that he gave his teammates energy on the field, just like mitochondria in a cell. Overall these students did an excellent job of orally explaining the cell functions, and the formative written assignments were thorough. The summative assessment showed that 4 out of 5 of the students who completed this project demonstrated knowledge of organelle functions, while all of the students could write about the differences between plant and animal cell organelles.

Cell Model

A vast majority of students decided to build a 3D model of a cell out of household items and recycled trash. Working in pairs forced students to use the technical language as they discussed the materials they would use to build each part. One of the most inspiring moments was listening to a group of intermediate ELL students debate over what should be used to construct a vacuole in their plant cell. They ultimately decided on a water bottle as it was the right size and actually held water as it would in the cell. Overall, students scored very well on the oral assessment PhotoGrid_1432776640536(with the exception of the only homogenous ELL group), as well as the formative written assessment. In the oral assessment, I found that the majority of students were able to correctly identify and pronounce the names of various organelles, and explain their function in the cell. This process was done without the aid of any written content. The homogenous ELL group however, struggled with recalling the names of the different organelles hindering their ability to correctly identify the organelle functions. During the formative writing assignment, every student was able to create an explanation of each organelle function and match that function to the proper organelle.

Pre-made Cell Cut Out

The fourth type of project was one that had all the organelles of a plant cell and an animal cell already prepared with labels and explanations. The students had to cutPhotoGrid_1432776322030 out the organelles, place them in the correct cell, and explain their function to me in the oral assessment. This project was created to help two of my students with more intensive special needs overcome the executive functioning demand that is associated with managing a vast array of materials. This simple accommodation proved to be valuable, and allowed those students to work independently on accomplishing the same objective as the rest of the class.

Conclusion

Planning this assignment was not easy, but after the initial heavy lift, I found it to be worthwhile. The writing component that accompanied the project demonstrated student understanding of each organelle and their function, and the oral component offered deeper insight into aspects of the assignment that challenged students.

One week after the project was complete I gave a written assessment in which the students had to identify the function of different organelles and write about 3 differences between an animal and a plant cell. While grading this test, I immediately identify a crucial mistake in planning the project: I did not provide a pre-test by which I could accurately measure growth.

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This is a writing sample from one of my top performing general education students. This student decided to construct a 3-D cell model.
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This is a sample from a English Language Learner who is also on an Individual Education Plan. While he did not score high on the oral portion of the exam, he did very well with recalling vocabulary and key differences between plant and animal cells.

While I was pleased with how well the class did overall, I could still see a gap between my ELLs and other students. A pretest however would help put this gap into perspective, as I would be able assess the gains of each individual student after the project was completed. It would be naive of me to believe that one project-based learning assignment would erase the gap, but this experience has shown me the value of project-based learning.

These few days were filled with qualitative and quantitative data that amounted to tangle learning in my classroom. The hours of engagement, the rich level of content-based discussion, and the higher order thinking exhibited during this project serve as strong evidence that combination of writing techniques and project-based assignments will result in measurable learning for all students.

Below you can find the Rubrics used in this Project:

Cell Anology Poster Rubric

Cell Model Rubric