Guest post by Robbi Holdreith, a middle school ELL teacher and coordinator at Sojourner Truth Academy in Minneapolis, Minnesota

Focusing on Authentic Academic Language

As I began to plan lessons for the new school year, I knew that Listenwise would be a part of my coursework for grades 5-8. For me, one of the top benefits of the Listenwise platform is the access it provides my students to academic language, which is authentic and in line with Krashen’s theory of comprehensible input. Students need to hear spoken academic English, and they need to hear a lot of it. They need to hear it from multiple voices and about a wide range of topics. My students, who are primarily Spanish speakers, have great social language skills, but do not have the vocabulary, background knowledge, or exposure to academic English that their peers have. Many of them have learned much of their language from YouTube videos, movies, music, and other media sources, which, although useful and rich, do not necessarily provide the exposure to the academic vocabulary, grammar, and syntax they need to be successful students.

Most of my middle school students are in the mid-range of English language proficiency by WIDA Standards, labeled Developing or Expanding. When I think about what my students need to learn, I look to the WIDA Can-Do Descriptors, which explain what my students should be able to do at their current level of proficiency and what they need to be able to do in order to move forward to the next level. One of the goals I have for my students is to be able to process recounts by identifying key ideas expressed orally. I know that the Listenwise library of podcast lessons offers myriad opportunities for students to work on this skill.

Selecting a Lesson

In September and October, we celebrate Hispanic Heritage month, and I chose to teach Themes of Belonging: Sandra Cisneros. Our 8th graders did some research on LatinX writers, and Sandra Cisneros was on the list of choices. Our 6th graders read several excerpted chapters from The House on Mango Street last year when we discussed identity and belonging.  When I chose this interview, I hoped that it would resonate with my students. My plan was to present it to 6th, 7th, and 8th grade over the course of two weeks.  

Preparing Students to Listen

I began the lesson with a discussion to find out who knew or remembered something about Ms. Cisneros and her writings. Because we were not currently in school physically, I could not loan out my copies of The House on Mango Street, so I made a PDF file of the first chapter from the book, which I shared with my students in a Google slide presentation introducing the lesson. The 6th graders read a selection of chapters from the book last year, but I was not certain if any of my 7th and 8th graders had read the book. I wanted to work through the interview before reading the first chapter. After our discussion to build our background knowledge, I shared the slide presentation, which included the vocabulary I chose from the tiered vocabulary resources. I chose only the tier 3 vocabulary to teach explicitly, knowing that they would have the expanded list of vocabulary on the left side of the screen as they listened to the interview.   

In addition to building background knowledge and vocabulary, students needed to think about how to listen attentively and build metacognitive skills to become better listeners. I wanted them to think about what they hoped to gain from the listening experience, and for what purpose they were listening. What were the  questions they would be thinking about as they listened? After we talked about focusing our listening skills, I explained that on our first listen, we would be listening for basic content

Discussing the First Listen

We listened together as a group. When the interview was over, I asked my students to tell me what they heard.  Did they hear any of the vocabulary we just learned?  Was there other new vocabulary they had not encountered before?  Did they find out any information that was new, or maybe unexpected? They were all unfamiliar with the word “upholstery.”  They had heard some of the key details about Ms. Cisneros’ father and mother. One of my 8th grade students commented on how he liked it that she “didn’t like the way things are now” when she talks about being in an age of “susto” or “fear,” particularly for people with brown skin. We talked a little about advocacy and creating bridges as a theme Ms. Cisneros often visits in her writing. As an immigrant and mixed race person or “mestizo,” she often writes about belonging to two different places and yet not belonging fully to any one place. Their homework was to listen once again on their own before our next meeting.

Listening to the Story Again

When we met next, I asked them if they learned anything new from their second listen on their own. Only a few had listened to it, so we prepared to listen again as a group. This time I asked them to follow the language identification organizer to see how well they were catching the language. Their comprehension was deeper after our preparations. We talked about why her father might cry when he saw her business card. We also talked about what it means to rescue someone or someone’s story. I followed with a question about how it felt to be an attentive listener. What was different the third time listening? They all agreed that by the third listen, they were hearing more details and that they were more comfortable than when they listened the first time. At the first listen, my students were a little nervous about catching all of the vocabulary and meaning. This opened a discussion of why it is important to engage with texts multiple times.  

Reflections on the Lesson

All in all, I felt that I had chosen well for our first Listenwise experience.  The students were engaged and interested. The assignment was extremely easy to share to my Google classroom, and I was able to supplement it with additional materials for my students, such as the Google slides I had made to introduce the lesson, a link to the author’s website, and a PDF of the first chapter of The House on Mango Street. I also created a writing assignment asking my students to write a paragraph describing their ideal home. My students encountered new vocabulary and were able to think about the themes of belonging, borders, and home in a deeper context. We had great conversations in all three grade levels, and I know I will be loaning out several of my copies of The House on Mango Street when we get back into our building.

To explore how other educators teach remotely using Listenwise read this blog post or explore our YouTube playlist for supporting English Language Learners using Listenwise.