Language arts

Columbia teachers incorporate songs, games and art activities into lessons to teach international students English as a second language
Thursday, October 2, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:15 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008


It’s 7:30 a.m., and the halls of Rock Bridge High School are filling up with students who are talking, finishing breakfast and running to their lockers. Teachers prepare for classes.

But, in room 230, learning has begun.

Susan McFarland, who teaches English as a second language, or ESL, arrives at school at 7 a.m., and even then at least two students wait for her at the classroom door.

McFarland comes in early to help her ESL students with homework from other classes that they have tried to complete at home but couldn’t because they didn’t understand it. She teaches 26 students who, among them, speak 11 languages.

In her classroom, the ceiling boards are lined with sheets of paper, each colored to represent flags from around the world. Masks from Korea hang on the wall. Next to the three-hole punch is a small piece of paper with words “three-hole punch.” Next to the chalk is the word “chalk. “ Next to a skein of multicolored yarn, the word “yarn.”

At 7:55 a.m. a bell rings and class starts for the beginning ESL class. “Almost everyone here has recently arrived (in the United States),” McFarland says.

With these students, McFarland concentrates on reading, writing, speaking and listening. Her goal is to make them proficient in English so they can survive in a regular English classroom.

“I have some kids who don’t understand a word the teacher says, from the beginning of class to the end,” she says. “The best ESL students still miss about 40 to 50 percent of what is being said (in other classes).”

Jason Lin, a junior and an intermediate ESL student from Taiwan, remembers when he first came to school in the United States. “I couldn’t listen clearly,” Jason says. “Someone helped me at it.”

Jason — who, like other intermediate students, has experience in English classrooms — reads assignments twice, once at home and then again during class, to make sure he understands them. But he doesn’t think his study habits are much different than an American student who studies at home and at school.

McFarland tries to create a comfortable atmosphere for her ESL students so they will practice speaking English. “I talk more in ESL because people in ESL can’t speak English,” says Young-Sin Cho, a beginning ESL student from South Korea. “I am not ashamed when I talk in here in English.”

One activity for the day is to have the students get into groups of three and discuss books they’ve read. Each student takes on the role of a character to explain the story. “This helps them to listen to each other,” McFarland says. “They learn by writing and also by listening.”

The books read by beginning ESL students range from preschool to fourth-grade level. “Even in an easy book, they can learn new vocabulary,” McFarland says.

To end class, she walks to a cabinet and pulls out two fly swatters, one red and one blue. The class divides into two teams and lines up at the board. It’s time for a round of “fly swatter.”

Two oversized pieces of construction paper stuck to the chalkboard with magnets show vocabulary words such as “overhead,” “Kleenex,” “outlet,” and “pencil sharpener.” The object of “fly swatter” is to hit the vocabulary word on the construction paper with the flyswatter before the other team does.

“This shines on a screen,” she says.

“I’m focused more on (them) surviving academically rather than socially.”

Nevil Patel of India thinks that the ESL class has improved his vocabulary. “(In biology class) they can’t teach us that this means this,” he says. “They just teach biology. In here, we learn the meanings of the words.”

At 9:25 a.m. a bell rings and the beginning ESL students file out into the hallway — on their way to the rest of the day’s classes and a sea of foreign words and their meanings.


It’s 9 a.m. and in room 108, which is decorated with world maps and a flag poster, Peg Hurley, the ESL teacher at Grant Elementary School, gets ready for her kindergarten ESL students before going to pick them up from class.

She has 29 students, from 10 countries, ranging from kindergarten to fifth grade.

Hurley says it’s easier for younger children to learn English than older ones because the younger ones have more opportunities during the school day to listen and speak English, through talking to classmates and playing.

“They are more of a risk-taker with language because their oral language is responded to and their language skills grow naturally,” she says. “Older students, on the other hand, work more independently as they learn new content and skills.”

Hurley says most of her students are excited to learn English. “They keep journals at home,” she says, “and they bring them in for me to read.”

The clock reads 9:15 a.m., and four children walk into the classroom, smiling. Eventually, each settles into a circle on the floor to review vocabulary.

“Does anyone know what this word says?” Hurley says, pointing at a piece of construction paper.

Yin Rim Lee, a kindergartener from Korea, correctly shouts out, “Seeds!”

To incorporate the vocabulary words, Hurley has the students color pictures of them. Today, they cut them out and glue them into a book made out of construction paper.

Along with recognizing the pictures of each word, the exercise helps them learn numbers. This is because Hurley wrote the numbers one through four on the bottom of each page.

“One, two, three, four,” Lisa Wang of China yells excitedly as she glues her pictures into her book.

After reviewing the previous week’s vocabulary words, the class moves on to writing. As the students talk and read about apples, they learn to write the letter “A.” Hurley gets out dry-erase boards and hands one to each student. She wants them to remember to “go to the sky and come down” when making the letter “A.” This means to start at the top and draw each leg down.

Jerry Xue of China gets it right on his first try. “To the sky and come down,” the dark-haired boy says, frowning over his board.

After each child practices writing “A,” it’s reading time. In a lilting voice, Hurley reads “Apples and Pumpkins” to the children, while passing around a pumpkin and a red apple. She does this to show that each is different even though they both have seeds. This also reinforces their vocabulary words.

While the students listen, they are curious about the pumpkin. “Look at me!” Federico Lee of South Korea, says, laughing and holding the pumpkin by its stem over his head. “I’m a pumpkin head.”

The book ends, and so does ESL class for the kindergarten students. Hurley walks them to their next class.


It’s 9:45 a.m., and Paxton Keeley Elementary School first- and second-grade ESL students enter room 114, which is decorated with world maps, a Chinese calendar and pictures of children from different countries.

Judy Lewis, the ESL teacher, has 30 students from seven countries.

The first task is reviewing the days of the week. “What day is today?” Lewis asks. Immediately, six eager faces light up, and six small hands hit the air.

“Friday,” Jane Lim, a first-grader from South Korea, says softly.

Next, Lewis leads the students in reciting the days of the week and the months of the year. She has them speak and repeat words so they can build their vocabulary.

Another activity for the day is to review parts of the body. To get the energy going and to facilitate learning, Lewis starts a game of “Simon Says.” She explains later that it helps the students learn “the names of body parts that you don’t hear very often. It’s a fun way to learn about the body.”

“Simon says touch your elbows,” she says during the game. “Simon says touch your thighs.”

Her students like the game, too. “I like it when someone gets out, but not when I get out,” first-grader Omer Caldarevic of Bosnia says. “But I always win.”

No student is ever dropped from the game, and no one ever loses. Every student participates in every round.

After Simon Says is done, the students sit back down at their desks. It’s time to learn rhyming words. “Look, book, shook, took,” the class says in unison. Lewis reminds them what the word “book” is by drawing a picture of a book next to the word on the dry-erase board.

Later, she says she is surprised at how much her students remember from day to day. “They are like little sponges.”

After reading rhyming words, the musical aspect of ESL begins.

“Take a deep breath; get oxygen to your brains,” Lewis says before the class sings a song about autumn leaves falling.

Later, Lewis hands out a small book for the children to color, which contains the words to the song they just sang. They have been practicing this song for several days. The students are able to “read” their books now that they know the words.

“I like coloring,” Jorge Romero, a first-grader from Mexico, says. “It’s fun.”

Now it’s 10:25 a.m. and time for these students to return to their other classrooms. Jorge lingers in the doorway for a few more seconds, just to say good-bye.

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