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New tool boosts student skills

Teachers at The Dalles High School are excited about encouraging early results from a new program that helps students express themselves better, both in classroom discussion and in writing.

Called ELAchieve, the program was designed to help English learners become proficient in “academic” English. But the small group of high school teachers who volunteered to take the training realized many students, including those in poverty, could benefit from the program.

Not only is poverty a factor in the area, but many students just don’t choose to read, so they aren’t familiar enough with the phrases used in expressing more complex ideas, say school personnel.

This program gives them the tools, English teacher Mary Snodgrass said, to produce the academic writing that colleges are looking for.

Snodgrass said it is often the case that students know what photosynthesis is, for example, but writing about it is a challenge. Students are much more comfortable talking about something than putting words to paper.

ELAchieve provides students with the academic phrases that will help them organize and string together thoughts.

As the ELAchieve website states, it provides “explicit instruction in advanced uses of English to help students express complex thinking.”

Snodgrass said the training was “excellent” and well received by the teachers. Hopes are to train more teachers each year until it is a uniform practice schoolwide. The fact that the first group of teachers are already seeing success will make it a selling point for other teachers to adopt the program.

Teachers at the middle school have also taken the training.

Kirsten Stevens, an English Language Learner teacher at the high school, said the program allows teachers to walk students “through the process of what goes on inside your head.”

It is still early days for the program – just four high school teachers have had five days of training — but science teacher Ajay Rundell said he’s already noticed an increase in confidence from students.

“They feel a little more in control, and expectations are much clearer. They have this language they’re not guessing at anymore,” Rundell said.

When struggling students see good writing from other students, Rundell said, they think that the other student just has “some kind of magic” that they don’t have.

But ELAchieve breaks it down by providing the specific phrases that help create the typical writing expected in high school, from the “compare and contrast” assignment to the “cause and effect” assignment. In all, five types of writing are covered, including argument and sequence.

The program has “bricks,” which are the content-specific words in each subject area, such as math, science and English. Then, there is the “mortar.” Those are the transition phrases that students just are not familiar with, Snodgrass said.

As an example, in a compare and contrast assignment, first, the words “compare” and “contrast” – academic words in themselves – are explained.

Then, basic comparing phrases are listed like, “both” and “are the same because.” Advanced comparing phrases would be “shared/common attributes.” Contrasting phrases include “unlike” at the beginning level and “as opposed to” at the advanced level.

The instructions help struggling students realize they also have the ability to write well.

English teacher Erich Dorzab said he’s also seeing confidence, and an inkling of “’Maybe I can tackle this.’”

He has spent considerable time creating worksheets, or writing prompts, that help students utilize the ELAchieve methods to create better essays.

Another tool is a set of five cards to facilitate classroom discussion. They cover how to: present an idea; build on an idea; pose a question; challenge an idea; and support one’s thinking.

Each card offers beginning, intermediate and advanced wording to achieve the card’s objective.

Snodgrass recounted how one student used the program’s tools and said, “’Wow, this really makes sense.’ And he even thanked me for it.”

She said students see “there is logic to this. It’s not magic.”


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