Taming the Beast: ELLS and the Five-Paragraph Theme

P1040079The question came from an English teacher at the conclusion of an after-school workshop I’d conducted at one of the high schools I serve: Why do my ELL students have trouble writing essays in English (besides having a limited vocabulary)?

One of our students from Mexico, who had just spoken to my colleagues about the ways in which teachers can help English Language Learners navigate the culture of an American high school, unlock the English language, and facilitate learning the content of their classes, attempted to describe the difference between writing an essay in school in Mexico and writing an essay in English class here in America. “Well,” she said, “we have more like summary.” Considering her current limitations in English, she did pretty well, but had she known the term “five-paragraph theme,” she might have been more precise.

The question rang a bell with me, though, and I remembered a session I’d attended in 2004 at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference in San Francisco where the message from the speaker was this: The written discourse pattern in Mexican Spanish is different from English. We need to explicitly teach our ELLs the organizational pattern of written English.

A few days after my workshop was over, I went on an internet search to find the scholarly work behind that 2004 statement, and aided by our high school librarian, whose help was indispensable, uncovered the research that informed it. I’d tucked the information away 11 years ago because, unlike the states on the edges of our country, my district in rural Indiana had a tiny ELL population in 2004 and no program at all for these students. I myself had no ELL students at that time. I had attended the ELL  sessions at NCTE because I wanted to help my district establish such a program.

What I learned from reading the research was this: Patterns of language and the expectations for written discourse differ from country to country. That seems obvious, of course, and broadly speaking, we know it intuitively because of any cross-cultural experiences we may have had and academically because of the linguistics classes we took in college.

However, what I wanted to know were the practicalities: the precise differences between written discourse in English and written discourse as learned in school in Mexico—or, even deeper, in the pattern of social discourse generally in Mexico. The author of the article is explicit about those differences but cautions that the study is limited to Mexican Spanish and studies in secondary schools in Mexico. Puerto Rican Spanish, for example, shares some characteristics with Mexican Spanish language patterns but is not entirely the same. Furthermore, the characteristics of written Spanish demonstrated by Hispanic students born, raised, and schooled here in the States are not the same. The research article addresses the discourse patterns of secondary students in Mexico. But that’s entirely relevant to my colleagues: In my district, few of our ELL students are from anywhere else but Mexico, and many of them come to us as high-schoolers or middle schoolers. Thus, the findings reported by the researcher are pertinent to my district and my colleagues.

 So here’s what I learned. (If I spoke Spanish myself, perhaps I’d have known all this, but I don’t, so the specifics were revelatory.) In written Mexican Spanish, the vocabulary tends to be “fancy” and “flowery”; the tone, “formal.” Sentences are generally longer than English sentences, often characterized by what English teachers would mark as run-ons—that is, two sentences joined by a comma (i.e., comma splices). The long sentences these students produce in English may seem like a jumble of compound-complex constructions, the word order may seem unusual to an English teacher, and the ideas, repetitious. That’s because an acceptable sentence pattern in written Mexican Spanish is to state an idea, follow it with a comma, and then repeat the idea using synonyms. There may be frequent or lengthy deliberate digressions, following which, the writer brings the reader back to the main topic. English teachers would mark such a digression as “off-topic.” It doesn’t adhere to the organizational pattern we teach in most American schools—introduction, three supports, and a conclusion (in short, the five-paragraph theme), pictured here in my favorite, definitely irreverent, graphic by Boynton. I call it “The Beast.”

Boynton's Beast
Boynton’s Beast

Such an essay would be unusual in written Spanish in Mexico because the writer’s mission is more likely explanation than an evidence-based essay in which the writer enumerates his points. In essays in secondary schools in Mexico, according to the research, students rarely use enumeration (e.g., 1, 2, 3; first, second, third; at first, then, finally) as an organizational strategy. In short, what constitutes a logical essay is different in Mexican Spanish than it is in English.

On top of all that, English speakers tend to be blunt and to the point. We are linear in our presentation of information.  Spanish-speakers, not so much. In fact, following a straight-line way of organizing information can be interpreted by Spanish speakers as rude. So, a Spanish-speaking student writing in English could be struggling not to offend—especially difficult if you have a limited vocabulary and little understanding that the five-paragraph theme approach is the preferable style in English. Furthermore, the researcher pointed out, direct and unelaborated prose in Spanish can be dull; such a writer can even sound childish. Having internalized that, Spanish-speaking students from Mexico could be struggling not to be boring or sound juvenile. They might not realize that their English teachers would applaud brevity and welcome direct statements.

For English teachers, the message is straightforward: It is extremely important to explicitly teach the structure of English composition to our ELL students: i.e, the five-paragraph theme format–or, if they are younger, the five-sentence paragraph. Scaffolds for this format abound, and providing a simple worksheet for organizing information might be more powerful than one might think in terms of supporting ELL students.

Of course, English teachers have been offering graphic organizers and outlines for this kind of writing for as long as I’ve been in the classroom and probably for years before that. It’s nothing new. What we may not know, especially if we don’t speak Spanish, have never been to Mexico, or haven’t thought about it, is how important it is to be explicit. To compare and contrast the written discourse conventions of English and Mexican Spanish for our ELLs, to be clear about our expectations, and to analyze their written work, looking (if they are from Mexico) for these particular differences and pointing them out. Not because the five paragraph theme is better or that it is always the best way to express ideas, but because the ability of ELLs to communicate in the format that is widely taught and widely expected in this country is paramount for their success.

Our ELLs may not be from Mexico. We may not know the precise variations from English that their language conventions dictate. Nevertheless, just as we know that there are cultural differences from country to country, we need to recognize that differences exist in discourse patterns, too. We need to remember that it takes a long time to unlearn a pattern you’ve been taught from an early age. If a student doesn’t “get it,” even after several tries, the problem is not a deficiency. The problem is unlearning what’s been second nature. Writing reveals patterns of thought; those don’t change overnight.

So, no matter how you feel about the five-paragraph theme (and English teachers either love it or hate it–in both cases, for good reasons), it’s a scaffold for writing that will help non-native English speakers understand the way written discourse is structured in English. Like all scaffolds, it can gradually be removed, but for beginners and for ELLs with low English proficiency, it can be the support that enables success.

Help your students tame the “Beast.” Here are some links to useful graphics and outlines that you can use to scaffold the five-paragraph theme:

https://goo.gl/mNiYK3  (Many graphics)

https://goo.gl/2MQN47 (Many worksheets and outlines)

Read the original research:

Montano-Harmon, M. 1991. Discourse Features of Written Mexican Spanish: Current Research in Contrastive Rhetoric and Its Implications. Fullerton, CA: California State University.


Without Words

P1040079The first student I remember coming into my class with no knowledge of English arrived in the early 1980s. I’ll call her Laila. She had recently arrived in this country, the first of her siblings to follow their father to America. He had fled Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded, coming to this country as a refugee. He was able to get protected status, a green card, and then later sign for visas for all the rest of his family. They came one-by-one or in twos, secretly, across the Khyber Pass to Pakistan and then to India where they waited until they could get passage to America.

Laila was the first of the siblings to attend school in the USA, and when I reunited with her many years later, she described for me the embarrassments, trials, and anguish of attending middle school not speaking the language. Boys snickered when she said she wanted to be a doctor, others asked her how to say dirty words in Farsi. Math class was a refuge because she could do it, and so, she said, was my room. I didn’t—and still don’t—even remember doing most of what she told me I had done. It must all have come as common sense to me, gathering material for her and making special word books. But many of the things she said I had done had made her feel included.

As I said, it must have been common sense, for I certainly knew nothing at the time about how to help English Language Learner (ELL) students. She remembered that in the spring of that 8th grade year she had to make a speech in my class. I suggested the topic “My First Month in America,” and she did speak–and the other students were enthralled–and I gave her an A and that made her day/week/month. Such a little thing. It reminds me what an impact–for good or for bad—the little things we do can have.

Lately I have been thinking about the ELL students of today; in my district, they’re mostly Spanish-speaking kids.

Other teachers think about them, too. In fact, teachers at both of the high schools where I serve as an instructional coach have approached me this year, asking what they can do to help the ELL students in their classes—especially, but not only, the ones who have little or no English at their command.

Of course they know that learning a language takes time. They know that gaining academic proficiency can take years. Of course they know there’s no magic bullet. But because they are teachers, they want to help and are frustrated when they can’t. Teachers care about their students—all of them. Still, it’s hard to imagine how you can help when you’ve got five or six classes and anywhere between 120 and 160 students and you have to prep three separate lessons every day and parents are emailing and extra-curricular responsibilities are looming and papers are piling up faster than snow melts in summer.

Yes, the students have an ELL teacher—and she works wonders. But you can only process so much a day. I remember that when I—a non-Spanish speaker—visited Peru a few years ago, I spent most of my time on the bus that carried us from place to place looking at signs and billboards, trying to memorize words.  I was learning about the culture at the same time I was learning the language, and that’s sometimes even harder—and certainly more fraught with danger—than building a word bank. By the end of the trip, 10 days later, I was thrilled when I could negotiate the purchase of a toothbrush. And that only took a few words: toothbrush and how much. What followed was some fumbling with money and help, please.

I decided to shadow some beginning ELL students for a few days and, to attempt to simulate their experience, attend their Heritage Spanish class. By the way, it’s an error to think that because these kids speak Spanish easily, they also read and write it comfortably. That’s why they take Spanish in school and get world language credit for doing so. They may have grown up speaking Spanish, but their parents may not read and write Spanish themselves and they may have passed on speaking errors, just as English-speaking parents sometimes do. (Think of kids who say “I seen it.”)

One day in December, I was able to interview several of these students. I asked the questions, a Cuban-American substitute teacher (who just happened to be in the building that day) interpreted for all of us, and my colleague (the ELL teacher) took notes so I didn’t have to.

Here’s what I learned from our Spanish-speaking ELL students, and here are the suggestions I will be passing on to content-area teachers about what they can do to help ELL students learn English and learn their content.  (And by the way, these ideas will help everyone in the room. There’s nothing strictly ELL about them.)

Greet the students at the door: Say their names, and if you know “Hello” in Spanish, say it. Pronounce their names right, though. In fact, that might be your first conversation. I remember practicing once with a girl from China. She tried to excuse me—say it didn’t matter that I kept stumbling—but I knew it did. Eventually, my tongue ceased twisting around the syllables and saying her name became as easy as saying Jack’s and Emily’s. I realized from being in classrooms all day long that a student could go through a whole school day without anyone using his name or talking to him directly. Imagine how that would feel.

To a person, every ELL student I spoke with said that the teachers who “cared” about them were the teachers they would work the hardest for. Teachers who “cared” were the ones who took the time to treat them as individuals by doing things as simple as greeting them at the door or once in a while using a Spanish word. Really.

Seating arrangements: Put them in the front. Seating an ELL student at the back makes it harder for them to see and hear. Besides, consistently seating ELL students at the back communicates to everyone else that they’re not really part of the class. Yes, they may choose to sit there—but you can un-choose that spot for them.

Let them sit together if you have more than one ELL student—if they choose to. You can’t assume they’ll be friends any more than you can assume any two other students will get along. ELL students come from all over. They’ve got class and country biases, too. They told me so. But most of the time, they’re relieved to be together because they can help each other figure out what’s going on.

When you work in groups, spread the ELL students out among the groups as soon as you sense they’re comfortable with that. If you need to keep two together, you can do that with a group of four. You might consider “Study Buddies” for those times when you give over class time for homework. Pair the ELL student with a willing English speaker who can check that something is copied down right from the board, verify pronunciation, practice vocabulary.

Those objectives of the day: We are obliged to post these every day, so I suggest using them to advantage to teach vocabulary and focus the students’ thoughts.  Print the objective in big, black letters at the front of the room. Make it visible and legible from everywhere in the room. Write it in kid-friendly language. At the beginning of the class, point to the objective and say that this is the goal for the day. At the end of the hour, return to the objective and say it was the goal of the day. This will help ELL kids catch on to the purpose of the activities you do. And it will help every other student, too.

Why black? Because red and green and other colors don’t show up on the board as well. Why print? Because cursive is harder to read—and more kids than the ELL students don’t read cursive. Really.

Make it pop: Put key words on the board or create a word wall. This was a huge aha moment for me. When I attended the Spanish Heritage class, I listened to what the teacher was saying—but I didn’t have a clue. I don’t speak Spanish. When she wrote a key word on the board, I could see that often it was a lot like English—and I caught on. I still flunked the quiz at the end of the hour, but I got the main idea.

So, point out key words or put them on a word wall and then point to them, say them out loud, tap them, throw a ball at them—anything to reinforce them for the student.

Slow down:  Everything you say, everything they hear has to pass through the translator in their heads. It takes a very long time for anyone to get past this stage. The more complex the topic, the longer the sentence, the more time it takes.

  • Slow down for directions, assignments, explanations.
  • Break lectures into segments.
  • If you can, create a PowerPoint to play behind you.
  • Create fill-in-the-blank note-taking guides.
  • Write directions out as well as giving them orally.
  • Use graphic organizers, color coding, other visual aids.
  • Call on someone in the class to paraphrase what you just said: Your words will come out in simpler language and reinforce the message for everyone.

Use checks for understanding and use them frequently: Don’t wait till the end of the lesson to ask if everyone understood, if anyone has a question. Knowing precisely where in the lesson an ENL student stopped processing will help you tailor your instruction—and it will also give you clues about how much English the student has.  Here are some easy ones to implement:

  • Thumbs up/thumbs down
  • Exit passes
  • Stop light method
  • White boards (for individuals and/or for group answers)
  • Post-it notes on the desk

Use these checks for understanding with everyone in the class—it isn’t only the ENL students who get lost.

Let them speak Spanish: They’ll switch to English as soon as they can.

  • If you have two ELL students, let them talk the lesson over in Spanish if they like.
  • If you have one who is proficient and one who is not, ask the more fluent student to translate for both of you when you talk to the beginning ELL student one-on-one. That’s going to help all three of you.
  • Don’t worry that they’re talking about you. You can tell from their tone whether they’re on task, gossiping, or being disrespectful. If they’re not on task, shut them down.
  • Use Google Translator to put your assignments, directions, worksheets, etc. into Spanish. No, the translator isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough that beginning students will get the idea. Plus, it’s another indication that you care. You might be aghast at how badly electronic translators can mangle a passage, but in the beginning, they can be a huge help. The kids told me so.

Demo, demo, demo: Make your delivery lively. Gestures, charades, pantomime, movement—all of this reinforces language. Vocal variety matters: Not being loud, but being expressive. Intonation carries meaning.

Use any Spanish you know: How about posters with words in Spanish and in English? If you speak the language, don’t be afraid to use it to help. The ELL students will begin using English as soon as they can because, like all kids, they want to fit in.

Communicate with their parents: Same as anyone. Try this website to create permission slips, thank you notes, invitations to parent conferences, pats-on-the-back notes home, etc. They print in Spanish and in English!  http://casanotes.4teachers.org

Call for help:  Spanish-speaking faculty, the ELL teacher, the ELL support staff, district level coordinators and instructional coaches will help. You just have to them know you need it.

 Above all:  Don’t give up on these kids—and encourage them not to give up on themselves. It takes time to learn a new language—but they will. Case in point:  When I found Laila again, years after she had left my classroom, she had a Ph.D. under her belt. Give the kids time. They’ll get there.