How to tell I’m back abroad….


I am back abroad. I’m in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia at yet another female technical college.

So I am still so very much interested and hopeful to publish SOMETHING regarding ESL. But here’s what happens:

I start at 6am have a long day at work and I come home at 4pm. That’s 10 hours of me not doing anything for me, of putting out fires, of drama that has nothing to do with anything and then…suddenly I’m home. That’s 4 or 5 days a week, depending. So when I get home, I do some serious escapism and vegetating. I’m lucky if I make it to down to our dinky little gym to lift our dinky little weights. I’m busy eating all the food I didn’t get to eat during the day and catching up on shows I didn’t even know I’d like. So that’s my weekday. When the weekend comes…. Let’s just say I haven’t slept in my bed for many weekends. I haven’t slept in my bed on a Thursday or Friday since I first arrived! I’m having a good time…but to what end?

It’s bad.

So of course no research or reading or writing is getting done. I’m too busy escaping reality and feeling sorry for myself for having to outsource myself to take care of adult responsibilities in the States.

Ironically, one of the ways I could potentially not feel so bleh is to do something professional and adult-like, such as researching and writing. So I’m resolving to make it so.

A colleague of mine wants to do a more creative ESL endeavor than a study, which is good. I feel like I could put together a guide on my current city for new teachers… There is much that could be done. I just need to stop procrastinating and wasting my time and talents.

Part 2: Review of “A Cognitive Strategies Approach…” by Olson & Land (2007)

Like in the previous article, Fitzgerald (1995) “states that there is ‘virtually no evidence that ESL learners need notably divergent forms of instruction to guide or develop their cognitive reading process’ (p. 184)”. So another words, good teaching for one is good teaching for the other.

Re: The Pathway Project: Land begins this section explaining that this Project taught teachers how to use the cognitive strategies approach to “reinforce the reading/writing connection”. “The vision underlying the project was that if ELLs are treated from the early grades as if they are college-bound, if they receive exemplary curriculum and explicit strategies instruction, and if there are consistent, coherent, and progressively rigorous expectations among the teachers from grades 6 through 12, students will attain the necessary literacy skills to succeed in college, and their college-acceptance rates will be substantially improved.”

Re: Curricular Approaches: Oh, yes, this is where things get real. I love the illustration teachers used to get students to understand the three types of knowledge or thinking tools. As I’m reading what and how a teacher might begin a reading, I realize that this is definitely what I already do, or at least did, in that DRE course. It had been a while since I taught reading at the college, but these “decoding every single word, using prior knowledge, predicting, revising, clarifying, exploring, etc., are all strategies I taught in the DRE course. In looking at Figure 3, I really appreciate these sentence starters! These guide students through a variety of CSs. They only have 3 starters per CS, but I think that is plenty. It is not so much about language, but application. As long as the starter gets the student started, you’re covered! The next step is introducing metacognitive reflections, which are so critical to getting at the heart of CS. “As Paris et al. (1983) note, ‘Thinking about one’s thinking is the core of strategic behavior’ (p. 295).” An example of this involved the teacher thinking out loud as she did something and the students writing down what she said.

The next part, “Scaffolding Strategy Instruction”, sounds more complicated than it actually is (as most things are), and seems to simply be the novice, encountering difficult texts, learning new skills with the help of an expert. The example activity here is brilliant, though. Because students had trouble finding the symbolism and interpreting the meaning of objects, the teacher brought items from home that represent very specific aspects of her, and then asked the Ss to speculate what aspects she thought these things represented about her. She had the kids do the same. After this activity succeeded, they went back to a text, but even then, she continued to scaffold by moving from very concrete texts to abstract texts.

Re: Color-coding in Analytical Essays: I’m an auditory-visual learner, so I love using color-coding to teach. I actually did this recently for a class I asked my supervisor to observe. My lesson was on the coherence within a paragraph. I color-coded various themes or ideas in the paragraph, to first demonstrate how many there were, and to hopefully show how disorganized and unfocused it was. Then I rearranged those ideas in the paragraph so that they were more, well, coherent. Then I did it again, omitting some things, and made it even more thematically manageable. Anyway, let’s see how these teachers used color-coding… Okay, so they color-coded “three different types of assertions that make up an analytical essay” in the hopes of encouraging students to see that Commentary with Supporting Details is more effective than Summary. Students annotated a strong and weak paper so that this difference was clear. “They could visually see how the writer skillfully builds to an insightful and powerful conclusion.” This is a great idea, and one I may implement in this current composition course. Actually, I will attempt to do this during their group writing essays. Perhaps I’ll teach this technique, and then after groups write their essays, have other groups color-code the various parts of the essay.

Re: Results: The results are impressive. Quantitatively… The “Pathway students averaged over 32% greater success in gain scores on writing assessments over seven years. In the best year, Pathway students had an 86% greater success rate than control group students….the control group students’ average post-test score was 5.51, as compared with the treatment students’ average post-test score of 6.7…Regarding the variables of GPA, absences, SAT-9 Reading and Total Language scores, and fluency (word gain), in 2000-2001, the most recent year for which we have a complete data set, Pathway students out-performed control group students on all variables. The difference favoring Pathway was statistically significant…” Qualitatively… Students “recognized and appreciated that they were being exposed to a rigorous curriculum by trained teachers and were being held to high expectations…recognized their growing command of the specific strategies they were introduced to” and this growth “buil[t] their confidence, spark[ing] their ambition to succeed”. Overall, it was the students’ own growth mindset, their beliefs that they could do it, that enabled them to actually grow and do it.

As for the teachers, although many were skeptical at first, after they began to see the improvements, they fully backed the program, and now see the value in a CS approach to teaching. As a teacher, and a semi-decent human being, I would probably also feel like I’ve been short-changing the control group. Just think… Those untested students COULD HAVE had their confidence increased, competence increased, scores increased, prospects increased! I wonder if I could willfully withhold preventative or curative medicine from vulnerable kids like that. Of course, I understand the scientific method and how it had to be done this way to know, without a doubt, that the CS approach is as good as we need it to be.

To conclude this review, I would suggest that good teachers — teachers who are invested, curious, observant, visionary, reflective — probably already use effective CS approaches, whether or not they call it CS or remember or recognize it from their studies to become teachers. I echo Olson and Land in their appreciation of “the teachers-teaching-teachers model” that fosters teachers’ growth and success. Even though I am an adjunct, I think CPCC could invest more in this type of inter-departmental PD. This will likely never happen, but I hope my department at CPCC does more inter-departmental PD and sharing of responsibilities (burdens). With funding, of course. 😀

what’s the difference…

…between having the post options panel on the left or the right? Silly, WordPress!

It’s been 3 weeks and 2 days since mom’s passing. She was ill for a year and 4 months. In many ways, our relationship was nothing like it used to be — obscured by the pangs of strokes, seizures and cancerous fogs — but she was here. Now there’s a make-shift shrine of cards and potted plants in the house. The sun-room is still overflowing with her personal items — dresses, skirts, pants, tops, hats, belts, shoes — most lightly worn, some barely worn, a few never worn. I really want it all gone. Besides, she’d have a fit not being able to enjoy the sun-room when the weather is turning.

I’m working on finishing up Olson and Land. It’s really interesting learning about how they executed the cognitive strategies (CS) approach to reading and writing through middle and high school in this cadre of students. I have a feeling that this will be a huge part of what my partner and I write about. Maybe we can document students’ impressions of the cognitive strategy in their learning. Bridging the affective and cognitive is always available in terms of research. No two students are alike. And they may provide valuable feedback on the affective implications of the CS.

I just noticed that WordPress shows the word count. My students like to ask how many words their essays should be. “Teacher, 200?!” HAHA! This post is, as of now, two-hundred and forty-five. This length would likely be a poor example of an academic five-paragraph essay.

Review of “A Cognitive Strategies Approach to Reading and Writing Instruction for English Language Learners in Secondary School” by Olson, C. & Land, R. (2007)

Abstract: “This study was conducted by members of a site of the California Writing Project in partnership with a large, urban, low-SES school district where 93% of the students speak English as a second language and 69% are designated Limited English Proficient. Over an eight-year period, a relatively stable group of 55 secondary teachers engaged in ongoing professional development implemented a cognitive strategies approach to reading and writing instruction, making visible for approximately 2000 students per year the thinking tools experienced readers and writers access in the process of meaning construction. The purpose of the study was to assess the impact of this approach on the reading and writing abilities of English language learners (ELLs) in all 13 secondary schools in the district. Students receiving cognitive strategies instruction significantly out-gained peers on holistically scored assessments of academic writing for seven consecutive years. Treatment-group students also performed significantly better than control-group students on GPA, standardized tests, and high-stakes writing assessments. Findings reinforce the importance of having high expectations for ELLs; exposing them to a rigorous language arts curriculum; explicitly teaching, modeling and providing guided practice in a variety of strategies to help students read and write about challenging texts; and involving students as partners in a community of learners. What distinguishes the project is its integrity with respect to its fidelity to three core dimensions: Teachers and students were exposed to an extensive set of cognitive strategies and a wide array of curricular approaches to strategy use (comprehensiveness) in a manner designed to cultivate deep knowledge and application of those strategies in reading and writing (density) over an extended period of time (duration). The consistency of positive outcomes on multiple measures strongly points to the efficacy of using this approach with ELLs.”

I already liked the sound of the methodology of this study. I look forward to finding out how teachers “holistically” assessed their writing and what the authors deemed as “high expectations” for ELLs.

Re: Inside Charlie’s Classroom: I love how this is presented! No dry, metalanguage here! The authors immediately introduce us to the cognitive strategies employed in the study in a comprehensive and straight-forward fashion. Then the authors explain that “Many teachers of struggling students and English language learners (ELLs) avoid teaching strategic reading and analytical writing to their secondary students because they feel the skills required (analyzing text and forming interpretations, development of a meaningful thesis, control of organization, effective use of evidence and supporting details, sentence variety, and control of the conventions of written English) are too sophisticated for the population they serve. Yet these are the very abilities assessed on new high-stakes high school exit exams.” On its face, it seems like the age-old question of should we teach to the test, or try to do more? But in this case, teaching and having “high expectations” is “to the test”. It would be nice if assessment and LOs weren’t always at odds, or seemingly so.

I am (pleasantly!) surprised by the demographic shifts happening in California, and likely most of urban America. This article was written 10 years ago, but says… “Of all SAUSD students, 98.5% are from ethnically diverse populations: 88.9% Hispanic, 5.6% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 1.3% Black….Although the general school-age population in the United States is only 12% greater than it was in 1991, the ELL population nationwide has skyrocketed, increasing by 105% (Kindler, 2002).” That last number is 15 years old. Imagine how it is now! The authors go on to adopt a definition of literacy: “As defined by Scarcella (2003), academic literacy not only involves the ability to use academic English, a variety or register of English used in professional books and characterized by the specific linguistic features associated with academic disciplines, but also higher-order thinking, including conceptualizing, inferring, inventing, and testing (pp. 18-19).” The authors end the section explaining that “skill and drill” techniques with little critical thinking has been a “disservice” to ELLs because students, at least in this study, have shown demonstrative and measurable improvement when given the chance.

Re: Conceptual Framework: The authors based their study on the observation that “Experienced readers and writers purposefully select and orchestrate cognitive strategies that are appropriate for the literacy task at hand (Flower & Hayes, 1981a).” As an educated native English speaker, I wish I could say that I were more aware of the strategies I regularly employ to read and comprehend text efficiently, but I am becoming more and more aware due to my current vocation! Indeed, teaching the DRE course refreshed much the metacognitive awareness I had as a student, and now as a teacher-researcher. “In order to help students develop confidence and competence, research suggests that teachers need to provide systematic and explicit instruction in strategies used by mature readers and writers and help students develop declarative, procedural, and conditional knowledge of these cognitive strategies, thereby building students’ metacognitive control of specific strategies (….Pressley, 2000).” Exactly! Students need to be trained to recognize various texts and then choose their approach. I feel like at this point, intimate knowledge and understanding of the L1 would greatly help shift those skills to the L2. Mmm… Maybe worth the look. “Furthermore, research also suggests that when reading and writing are taught together, they engage students in a greater use and variety of cognitive strategies than do reading and writing taught separately (Tierney & Shanahan, 1991).” *sucks teeth* Well, it’s not that I DON’T believe this, but again, it’s the smooth implementation that can trip up an instructor. I am adding to the model texts my composition students see, but I also feel a bit of pressure to just go with the curriculum as is. I know. There’s no one holding a knife to my throat. Anyway, you’ll all be glad to know that I have made a Newsela account for my class, so now we’re going to be doing a lot more reading and discussing and inferring and conceptualizing.


I should state that it has been a little over a week since I started reading this article. Since then, my students have been reading biographical articles on Newsela (the next writing prompt is to write about a person you know well) and reflecting on them. Also, I have assessed their first essays. Overall, not terrible, but we have a lot to work on in terms of grammar and punctuation. Organization and content are okay, and indeed, those are things that we MUST focus on in this course, and we will and do. However, the class average was lower than I expected. It needs to be a solid B, not a solid C.

I’m going to implement the group grammar tutorials I did last time. This is where students who have the same or similar grammatical problems research to become experts on that grammar issue and then instruct the class in correcting said issue. I will give them authentic ungrammatical sentences from their writings with which to demonstrate. After that, they’ll do some intensive grammar exercises and reflections on any other outstanding grammatical issues I’ve identified. A few of the students are taking grammar, but having placed into this level of writing, they need to up their game dramatically. As I expressed in the previous entry, I don’t want to be THAT teacher — the one who passes on students just so no boats are rocked.


So that I remain consistent, I’m going to go ahead and post this entry. Stay tuned for the next!

the next article

…May have to be much shorter than that one I picked for this second week.

I actually have 20 essays (and their accompanying pre-writings) to evaluate and a job interview for which I have volunteered to drive 8 hours round-trip, thus biting into grading and blogging time.

On the bright side, I will meet up with three old friends over the weekend! And that is so good for the soul.

Another thing….

I need to really learn how to not lament my lot in life.

It is so very easy to look around at my peers and feel like a total mess if not simply a loser. There is the professional lamentation. I regularly find myself envying the (professional!) life of an old friend of mine who posts on Instagram. Not Instagram’s fault, and I’m proud of her work in international relations! But then there’s the simple fiscal inequities. I hate that I haven’t escaped the niggling notion that money would solve all of my problems. I  do need money in that unromantic, unfulfilling, crass way that we all do. I certainly would be up the creek if anything were to happen to my health. Hand-to-mouth is definitely not a socially expeditious way to live.

But I really do resent this reality.

I’ll get up and go, but 2257 can’t come fast enough. Beam me up, Scotty.