Total Immersion: Teaching English With English

By Andrea Smardon

June 15, 2011

Massachusetts voters decided in 2002 that public school teachers should speak mostly English in their classrooms. This week, WGBH’s Andrea Smardon is investigating the impact of the ballot measure known as Question 2. Today, she visits Woodrow Wilson Elementary in Framingham, where the entire school is focused on the needs of English Language Learners.

Teacher Fabiana Vasconcelos asks students to pass their work to their neighbors in 4th-grade sheltered English class. (Andrea Smardon/WGBH)

FRAMINGHAM, Mass. — Woodrow Wilson Elementary in Framingham seems like your average all-American school;, complete with the strains of Yankee Doodle coming from a first grade class. But stick around, and you’ll notice an unusual emphasis on the English language. In between songs, the teacher is inserting vocabulary lessons.
 “Yankee Doodle went to town riding on a pony. I noticed these girls are showing me,” she says. “Oh I know that word ‘noticed’ it came up again.”
There are words on the wall like “noticed”, and any time someone says one of the special words, they add a tally to it.
Down the hall in 4th grade math class, the teacher seems to be unusually focused on the words in the math problem.
“So this is about Nancy. So how tall is she?” asked Nancy.
“8 inches,” ventures a student.
“She can’t be 8 inches. Tall-er,” says the teacher. “Okay, that is an ‘e-r’ over here. All the English in this headline story is about comparing. Look at my English words. Than -- than, and the e-r, those are the English parts we have to pay attention to understand the math problem.”
This method of teaching is called Sheltered English Immersion. The idea is to teach English to children even while they’re learning other subjects like math. And to present the subject in a way that an English Language Learners can understand. Most of these students are Portuguese speakers from Brazil, so the teacher tries to reference what they may already know.

4th graders from a sheltered English class evaluate each other’s science projects using numbers and the English language. (Andrea Smardon/WGBH)

“And how hot is in it our classes?”
“64,” answers the class.
“64 what?” asks the teacher.
“Degrees Fahrenheit,” answer the students.
 “Okay it’s Fahrenheit, cause in Brazil we actually would measure in Celsius, but we are in the United States and New England, so we use Fahrenheit,” she says.
This method of teaching became the prevailing model after the passage of Question 2, and the schools have refined it. Michelle Da Costa is an ELL specialist for elementary programs in Framingham. She says teaching English has become a school-wide project.
“One of the activities we worked with second language learners is to increase vocabulary. The school has chosen some words about character development, words like confidence and perseverance, and we do that as a full school. So you’ll see displays around the building, and you’ll see them done bilingually and with drawings,” Da Costa explained.
Da Costa says just about every one is involved with English-Language Learners in some way. In a recent training she led for teachers on sheltered immersion, two gym teachers showed up. Da Costa said they wanted to learn more about how they could support their students.
 “They came up with vocabulary activities to reinforce the learning of a lot of those skills,” Da Costa said.
But this has not always been Da Costa’s experience teaching new immigrants in Framingam. When she started as a teacher 18 years ago, she was all alone.
 “My job was to tend to the needs of students that were coming, literally recent arrivals every was a time of a lot of Brazilians arriving. My job was to greet these recent arrivals, teach them everything I could about beginning English, teach them curriculum in Portuguese so they wouldn’t get behind. I was really trying to do a one-man band,” Da Costa said.
Da Costa says she has to give Question 2 some credit for the change, as well as strong leadership from the district level. After the law, the district revised its programs and retrained its bilingual teachers.  
“We spent the whole summer in course and workshops, really thinking about our instruction. We spent the whole month of July – wrapping our heads around doing integrated English language teaching within the content areas,” Da Costa said.
The state Education Department has looked to Framingham as a model for the way it’s dealt with English Language Learners and the transition to English Immersion. State Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester says there is a huge range of challenges when comparing districts, but he does see one critical factor for success.
 “We need to integrate our general ed programs with our services for English Language Learners. Where English Language Learners are making the most progress is where that integration is happening most robustly,” Chester said.
Back in 1st grade, students are practicing for their end-of-year presentation. To the uninitiated, it may seem like a simple song and dance, but for the English Immersion team at Wilson, it’s considered oral language development.
“And all around me, a voice was shouting, this land was made for you and me,” they sing.
 “Lovely” says their teacher.

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