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Peek Inside ELNC18 with National ELL Expert Dr. Rebecca Blum Martinez

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    Rebecca Blum Martinez

As a former English Language Learner (ELL) and current national bilingual and ESL expert, Dr. Rebecca Blum Martinez knows the importance of language dives and content-based literacy practices. Hear her story below: 

This November, we’re honored that national bilingual and ESL expert, Dr. Rebecca Blum Martinez, will join us for EL Education’s 2018 National Conference. Dr. Blum Martinez will co-facilitate “I Like Wondering about Language: Using Language Dives and Conversation Cues to Support English Language Learners in EL Education’s Language Arts Curriculum,” a pre-conference day session for educators supporting the success of English Language Learners. 

For Dr. Martinez, this session--and her work as a professor of bilingual and ESL studies at the University of New Mexico--is deeply personal: Her family moved from Mexico to the Boston area when she was five years old and Dr. Martinez didn’t speak English when she started school. “I didn’t have the kind of supports that EL Education offers English Language Learners. I couldn’t participate in class,” she said. 

Today, Dr. Martinez works with EL Education as a key advisor for the development of the EL Education K-8 Language Arts curriculum, empowering educators who serve ELLs (English Language Learners). We spoke with her about her experience using a content-based literacy approach to supporting students learning English in the classroom -- and what she hopes participants will take away from the master class, co-facilitated with EL Education’s Kevin Jepson and Carrie Cobb and Lead Academy teacher Stephanie Clayton.

What is a content-based literacy approach to language development and how does it support ELLs in the classroom?

English language learners have dual tasks before them. They have to learn the language and they have to learn the content of the curriculum, which is complex and difficult. In some places, people believe that English should be learned first, then content should be layered on top, but what we know about second language development from the research is that it is best learned when students are studying something real. 

This content-based literacy approach allows ELLs to understand how English is used in different subjects and content areas. But that doesn’t mean we throw ELLs into learning the curriculum with no support. I’ve assisted EL Education in developing content-based practices for the EL Education K-5 Language Arts curriculum that help ELLs. 

Tell us more about these content-based literacy practices. What does this look like in action? Do you have an example of how they’ve helped ELLs succeed?

When I was an ESL teacher for fourth and fifth graders, we were in the middle of a unit on American history and did different types of activities to help students practice written and spoken English. For one of these activities, we asked them to choose a historical character from the period we were studying and enact a full press conference about the person: They drafted and posed questions based on the historical context, and then the student playing the historical figure would have to respond as that character -- while their peers wrote down their answers. This was an engaging opportunity for students to practice their writing and speaking skills in English -- while learning history content at the same time. 

Another practice that’s useful is “Language Dives.” I’ve visited classrooms at Lead Academy in Greenville, South Carolina, an EL Education network school, where we’ve implemented some of these strategies. The students there say they have found Language dives--where students deconstruct, reconstruct, and practice sentences carefully to look for meaning--to be especially useful. ELLs at Lead Academy say it’s so helpful to take a moment to slow down as they read and really look deeply at the texts EL Education provides, which are rich, complex, and challenging.  

What do you hope participants will take away from your “Supporting ELLs” pre-conference day session at ELNC18?

I hope the participants will take away practices they can start applying in their classrooms immediately. This would include a basic understanding of why Conversation Cues and Language Dives work, and how they utilize them in the classroom, even if they are developing their own curriculum outside of EL Education. 

I think it will be particularly useful for them to hear from not just Kevin Jepson, Carrie Cobb and myself, but also Stephanie Clayton, a teacher from Lead Academy who actually implements these practices in her own classroom. I’m looking forward to the session!

Dr. Rebecca Blum Martinez is a professor of Bilingual/ESL studies at the University of New Mexico, as well as the director of the university’s Latin American Programs in Education (LAPE) department. She earned a Ph.D in education from the University of California, Berkeley, where she specialized in bilingualism and second language acquisition.