Exploring the Language Experience Approach with Sentence Strips

Program adaptation for emergent speakers of English in the elementary grades has a lot of challenges. Educators have to adapt their classroom programming to make content comprehensible, set appropriate goals for language output, while also providing opportunities for the student to learn English.

This is where the Language Experience Approach, or LEA, comes in. LEA will not be a new strategy to many experienced teachers – it has been practiced for years in classrooms. It is a fantastic strategy for teaching literacy skills to English language learners (ELLs). Though you can find explanations all over the internet, Denise Nessel and Carol Dixon’s 2008 book “Using the Language Experience Approach with English Language Learners” remains a quintessential resource on the subject.

LEA combines experiential learning, oral communication, writing, and reading skills in fairly straightforward and textbook-free lessons. While many iterations of LEA exist, the central principle, as the Nessel and Dixon state, is to use the “student’s own vocabulary, language patterns, and background of experiences to create reading texts”.

At the core of LEA is building English vocabulary (or any target language you are teaching) through experiential learning. Through experiences, students naturally start connecting the words they hear with meaning. The experience can be something as simple as a classroom activity; as an educator, your role is to enrich that experience by explicitly teaching related words and their meaning.

For example, you might label items in the classroom, while also making a point of referencing those words during the day. When giving instructions to to students, explain the meaning of the action words as much as possible through movement and facial expression. The early learners of English in the classroom might receive flashcards with frequently used nouns, and be provided with opportunities to say those words in simple statements with common word patterns that have been modelled by the teacher.

There are a number of ways you can utilize LEA, but in this blog, I will focus on using LEA using sentence strips. This would be a great way to provide focused instruction to ELLs while other students are engaged in their own writing or drawing.

The Process

Start using LEA by taking students through an experience – it can be a day outdoors, an afternoon of playing games, or even exploring a picture or video if that is what you have done. The activity that follows is best used with ELLs that have acquired a basic oral foundation and can communicate using simple sentences (Ex. STEP 2).

When the experience is over, there are a number of different starting points you can work from. For early learners of English or primary students, you can start by having the class illustrate what they have experienced, whether it was playing a game or visiting a zoo. Students that are already writing sentences may choose to write about their drawing if they feel comfortable doing so.

While the class is drawing, start with one student and ask them to say a sentence about the experience or what they have drawn. Scribe the sentence exactly as the student says it. It’s important to use the student’s exact language so they will recognize their words when they reread their own writing, and they will also feel encouraged in creating dictated accounts.

If you want to gently encourage a revision, you might ask questions to help the student adapt their statement on their own. But you will want to make sure that the student has stated the words you scribe – avoid changing the text or they may not recognize the vocabulary or language pattern.

For example:

Teacher: What happened during the basketball game? Tell me one thing.

Student: I got a basket and scored a point.

Teacher: Oh, so you shot the ball in the basket and scored a point?

Student: Yeah, I shot the ball in the basket and scored a point.

Teacher: How should I write that down?

Student: I shot the ball in the basket and scored a point.

Teacher: (writes the sentence exactly as the student has said it).

Once you have scribed the student’s sentence in their notebook or journal, take a long strip of paper and write the sentence on that strip using a marker. Cut each word on the strip.

Example of student work using sentence strips with LEA.

Then, ask the student to put the words back in the correct order using the sentence that has been scribed for them. Ask the student to read the sentence back to you. Repeat twice. Once the student has mastered the sentence, you can ask them to read the sentence to a friend or partner.

Then, you can move onto the next student! You might use sentence strips again, or provide more advanced feedback to students who are already independently writing.

On Supporting English Language Acquisition in the Mainstream Classroom: Part 2

How do you support and program for newcomer students in acquiring English in the mainstream classroom?

This is a question many educators have when they receive newcomer English language learners (ELLs) in the classroom. In my last blog post, I wrote about why questions like these are so common. Elementary ESL programming documents detail the important role of accommodations and modifications to curriculum when planning for ELLs, but do not outline a scope and sequence of English language acquisition. Classroom teachers – particularly when they are teaching the older elementary grades – often wonder how they will teaching foundational English to the ELLs at the same time they teach non-English learners. While many younger elementary ELLs in the primary years thrive alongside their peers who are also learning letter sounds and vocabulary, older students sometimes struggle without opportunities to build their English oral foundations, as well as the right adjustments to make learning accessible.

Here are some strategies for teaching English to ELLs in the junior and intermediate classroom.

Start With STEP

The Steps to English Language Proficiency (STEP) continua/framework often gets overlooked as a tool for planning instruction and creating appropriate learning expectations for English language learners. Make sure you have regular access to the STEP placement of the ELLs in your classroom, so you can adapt instruction and modify learning expectations accordingly. For example, if a student is approaching STEP 1 or is at STEP 1, you will know that they are in the emergent phases of acquiring English. When you plan a lesson in Social Studies, for example, you will want to use that knowledge to develop learning activities that enable that student to engage in the learning: introducing vocabulary at the start of a lesson, or  using visuals to illustrate content (we will talk more about creating entry points into curriculum next).

Most importantly, you can use STEP to modify learning expectations that you can use for assessment and reporting purposes. Record the specific learning expectations you establish for English language learners in a doc or a template so you are ready when assessment time comes. An example of an ESL modified learning expectation might be:

Grade 7 History Expectation:

(Student will) “analyse some of the main challenges facing various individuals, groups, and/or communities, including First Nations, Métis, and Inuit individuals and/or communities, in Canada between 1713 and 1800 and ways in which people responded to those challenges.”

Modified for a student in STEP 1:

Student will describe a series of images, using picture word induction model and translanguaging, to describe some of the main challenges facing different communities, including First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, in Canada between 1713 and 1800.

Create Entry Points for ELLs into Curriculum Content

Teaching content based subjects, especially to older ELLs can be a challenge when much of the content the class is developed for students with higher levels of language proficiency. This is particularly true in subject areas like science, history or geography. Provide your ELLs an access point into whole class instruction by offering text sets, or sets of texts that  offer the same information through a variety of formats (articles, leveled texts, charts, visuals, or media). Students can explore text sets and gather information from them for research or to complete learning tasks. Multimodal content offerings are also effective: “something to read, something to watch, and something to listen to” is a good mantra to keep in mind. Finally, encouraging students to translanguage or access multilingual texts is an excellent way to support them in using their primary language while also meeting the content goals of a subject.

Set Social Learning Goals for Your Class

I have many opportunities to collaborate with experienced ESL teachers, and one fantastic tip one teacher told me was to introduce social learning goals with the entire class. Setting social goals for the entire class not only gives English learners an opportunity to use essential questions like “how are you?” or “how was your day?” regularly, but creates an opportunity for them to engage in basic conversation with their peers on a regular basis. Social goals may also include making a point of helping others, including a student who may feel left out, practicing cooperation skills, or using positive body language. Social goals also help students to build healthy relationships with one another, while learning important social skills as well.

Incorporate Language Scaffolds into the Learning Environment

All students, especially ELLs, benefit from language scaffolds and reference charts. Hang charts and posters of sentence starters/models, transition words, vocabulary lists, verb charts, pronouns, and labels on classroom items wherever possible for easy, at a glance support for students. Change your word walls or charts to reflect content learning, and make a point of frequently using the words and phrases you want to emphasize. Having opportunities to hear and apply new words and phrases are essential for language learning, so make a point of using words and phrases you have featured on a regular basis.

Use English Learning Apps and Games (With Caution!)

English apps and games are a tricky topic. On one hand, we want to focus on building English communication skills through live conversation, listening activities, and social interactions; on the other hand, apps can do the powerful job of introducing key vocabulary and phrases in a fun and engaging way.

If you do use language learning apps like Duolingo or Mondly in the classroom, make sure that the time students spend on them is limited (ex. 15 minutes a day). School can be a critical time for interacting and practicing spontaneous communication skills, so apps are usually best used in limited timeframes or at home.

Understand how to Use English Learning Resources Effectively

There is no shortage of ESL resources out there, as millions of people around the world are learning English all the time. However, you will find that many of these resources are not designed for a single student in a mainstream English medium classroom, but for classes entirely composed of English language learners. If you do use an ESL focused workbook or resource, use it flexibly and in the context of the broader programming all students are learning. Such resources may be used if the ELL has the opportunity to receive higher tier instruction and support in an alternative space, or at home with their families.

Keep the Big Picture in Mind

Finally, it is important to practice big picture thinking and remember that the learning and instruction newcomer ELLs experience in your class is just the start of a much bigger journey for them in Ontario schools. Furthermore, the journey of every language learner will be different. Acquiring proficiency and fluency in any language takes years of learning, immersion and practice. Set high but realistic learning expectations for  English learners, keeping in mind that the time they spend in your classroom is a critical step in a much longer pathway toward mastering the language.

Read Part 1: Supporting English Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom

Understanding the Student Behaviour and the Power of Play with Hannah Beach

As an ESL/ELD resource teacher in my board, some of the best professional learning I get to do involves collaborating with educators in similar roles across the province through the ESL/ELD Resource Group of Ontario (ERGO). Recently, one of our members generously organized a two after school sessions with Canadian educator and consultant, Hannah Beach. She provided two sessions titled “The Power of Play” and “What’s Behind the Behaviour?”, each with a focus on multilingual learners.

Being an educator with a primary focus on ESL/ELD programming, I was immediately intrigued. It is no secret that schools in Ontario schools today face unique mental health challenges that have developed from a confluence of factors: pandemic lockdowns, rapidly changing technology, social media, and a seemingly constant barrage of world events with significant impacts on local communities. A recent article from People for Education shared that an astounding 91% of schools across Ontario report needing student mental health supports for COVID-19 recovery. A 2023 survey from ETFO indicated that violence in schools has become pervasive, with 77% of teachers sharing they had personally experienced violence or had witnessed violence against another staff member.

When it came to addressing the issue of increasingly challenging student behaviour in school, Beach’s sessions did not disappoint. She spoke about the detrimental impact of technology on the students build relationships with peers and teachers. She addressed the increasing disconnection kids have with the adults in their lives. She pointed out how the lack of spontaneous play have taken away opportunities for children to “digest” and process the world around them. In such a world, it is not uncommon for students to “bottle up” their emotions, and may be disrespectful, disruptive, or act aggressively as a means of coping. Multilingual students may experience an additional layer of frustration, especially as they grapple to express themselves to their peers and teachers.

Beach’s presentations resonated with me so strongly I purchased her book, “Reclaiming Our Students”, immediately. Published in 2020 and co-authored with Tamara Neufeld Strijack, Hannah Beach’s book is incredibly insightful and relevant for educators and families. Focusing on emotional health, safety, and inclusion from an educator perspective, providing strategies and scenarios that many teachers will likely find familiar.

Book cover of “Reclaiming Our Students” (2020).

Though I probably cannot come even close to summarizing the learning that emerged from those sessions and her book, I think Beach’s writing and insights are so valuable and critical right now. In many of the experiences I have had supporting schools over the last year, I have been perplexed by so many troubling incidents involving students: aggression toward teachers, peers, and even administrators; preoccupation with social media apps on smartphones; groups of students frequently leaving their classrooms to wander hallways.

While there is likely no panacea for all the issues that educators face every day, thinking critically about modern culture and the mental health of students is an excellent place to start. I am grateful I had the opportunity to listen to Hannah Beach’s presentations, and explore her writing as a starting point for myself.

If you have an opportunity to hear her speak in your board, or can get her book into your school’s professional library, I highly recommend it.

New Year, New Perspective: Discoveries in the Desert

One thing I have always loved about being an educator is that we have two “new year’s”: one in September when the year starts, and one in January when the year changes. Travel is a luxury that I feel so fortunate to enjoy during those moments: it is the perfect time to reset my thinking and refocus on the time ahead.

In the last year, the desert has been a special place for me to reconnect with nature and think critically about how we learn about the world. Learning about the environment from two very different cultural approaches has helped me to build a greater appreciation for different ways of knowing and seeing the world.

Learning the Sonoran Desert

I had the privilege of spending time in Arizona last January, and came a cross a place called the White Tank library. This place had an entire wall of back windows that faced a sprawling nature reserve. In the same building beside the library was a nature centre and bookstore. The bookstore had dozens of books for kids and adults themed on desert flora and fauna, particularly the notorious javelina (totally worth Googling if you have never heard of this animal!). There were desert spiders, snakes, and other creatures on display for people to look at, and guides on site to give information about them.

a library
Panoramic windows make the White Tank library feel integrated into nature. Source: author.

The trails at the back of the building were well manicured, with information signs throughout the walk explaining the different variety of cacti. Even if you didn’t feel like reading, the site was absolutely spectacular to look at. The trails looked well cared for, and loved by the locals we saw in technical fitness gear running and hiking through the grounds.

The library and all of its resources resonated with me because it aligned with my personal experience of learning – books, guides, and clearly defined trails that I could navigate easily. Immediately I imagined how great it would be to take students here, and how easy it was to connect science and literacy learning.

An incredible place to read about and explore the desert. Source: author.

A Jaunt in the Sahara

On another desert trip last summer, I went on a short tour of a small section of the Sahara in Egypt. Desolate, mountainous, and nearly unbearably hot, this desert contrasted starkly with Arizona’s Sonoran landscape. A wild and bumpy jeep ride took us about 30 minutes into the desert.

Rustic tourist centre for tourists near Hurghada, Egypt. Source: author.

The excursion took us to a desert village largely set up for tourists. According to the guide, the locals quite understandably did not like tourists peering into their homes, so they separated their homes from the area that foreigners could explore. Constructed of simple, open air buildings and a space where tourists could ride camels led by local residents, the whole experience of the place beautifully showcased the arid, mountainous landscape.

Rocky, unmarked trails gave led to vistas that showed how locals interact with the land. Source: author.

We looked into a small mosque, watched a young girl demonstrate bread making, and drank hot tea. A small hut featured local animals such as lizards and bugs. A rocky climb up a hill gave a view of the actual village homes in the distance. Completely unmarked, it was a struggle to climb until we became accustomed to climbing the steep and rather unstable ground.

And while the rustic tourist site bore zero resemblance to the modern, well-funded Arizona library and trails, it struck me how two completely different cultures had created similar  experiences for people to learn about the desert environment.

The Takeaway

There are so many ways to experience and learn from the outdoors. Why should we limit ourselves, and the students we teach, to a single perspective?

It is wonderful and enriching to have books, exhibits, panoramic windows, and guides to help us navigate nature. It is also equally great without all of these things, and learn from observing the way that people sustainably maximize the resources they have access to.

Outdoor education has come a long way in Canada. More and more, schools are embracing Indigenous ways of knowing, particularly when it comes to stewardship and wildlife protection. Books like Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass have offered powerful, Indigenous perspectives on the natural world and scientific learning.

It is an exciting time to embrace the different ways we can understand nature. In a time when stories of forest fires and climate change have become part of the daily news cycle, alternative ways of learning are more critical than ever.

Why Are Initial Assessments for Newcomer Students so Important?

Initial assessment is an area of public education that doesn’t get a lot of attention, and yet it is a critical step in the journey of newcomer students in Ontario. In this post, I hope to help educators become more familiar with his important process.

What is Initial Assessment?

Initial assessment is the intake process that occurs when students enter Ontario schools from outside of the province. The process of initial assessment has been established by the Ministry of Education in several documents, and Ontario educators can find these resources in the EDU resources area of Brightspace.

During the initial assessment process, newcomer families are interviewed by school or board staff to gather information about the child, and any background information relevant to their schooling. For example, if a child has a diagnosis or assessment related to special education, the family could share these documents so the appropriate supports may be put in place.

Educators then work with students to complete an initial oral communication, literacy, and mathematics assessment. The information gathered at this assessment is used to place students on the Initial Assessment STEP Continua, which offers the educator team at the student’s school a snapshot of their English language proficiency. A summary of core numeracy skills are also documented as an assessment for teaching resource.

Why is the Initial Assessment Process so Important?

The initial assessment process is important for a variety of reasons. Let’s take a closer look at these reasons next.

Initial Assessment Supports Student Transitions

Starting a new school in a new country or province can be one of the most life changing experiences for children and their families. The initial assessment process provides schools and boards with an opportunity to welcome families, share valuable information about the Ontario education system, and help them to feel more at ease in a new environment.

Through the initial assessment process, families also have a space to share their child’s interests, strengths, areas of need, and any cultural or background information that can inform placement and programming. We will explore the value of receiving student background information next.

Background Information Helps Educators and Families Plan Programming and Student Pathways

Newcomer students arrive in schools with a variety of background experiences that can have significant impacts on their learning and overall well-being. They may have been through traumatic experiences, family separation, or long periods of interrupted schooling. They may be coming from under resourced schools and regions, private schools, international schools, or home schooling.

Having information about the previous schooling experiences of newcomer students and the journey they have been on prior to arriving in Ontario helps educators and families to collaborate and plan educational pathways for students. For example, the teaching team at the receiving school may offer ELD (English Literacy Development) program adaptations to help build the student’s foundational numeracy and literacy. Referrals to community services may also be made, which helps families to settle into a new environment.

Initial Assessment Helps to Put Appropriate Program Supports in Place

A fulsome initial assessment process helps to ensure that students receive the right program accommodations or modifications. You might think of initial assessment as a quick snapshot of a new student, which gives you a sense of what to expect when they enter the classroom. Beyond placing students on the Steps to English Proficiency (STEP) continua, the assessment can help educators to broadly understand where they might need more support or additional scaffolding.

For example, many multilingual students arrive in Ontario schools with different levels of literacy in their home languages. Having an understanding of what they can do in terms of written or spoken output indicate which skills the student will transfer into English over time. If the  assessment shows the student is an emergent speaker of English, then the educator can modify learning expectations accordingly.

Who Administers the Initial Assessment in Elementary Schools?

In Ontario, the initial assessment process can be administered by any teacher. Some boards have educators in an assessor role, others have an itinerant that visit schools, and in other boards a school support teacher may administer it.

Classroom teachers may also do an initial assessment, or place the student after they have had time to gather sufficient observations of the student’s language and literacy behaviours.

Where Can I Learn More About Initial Assessment in My School Board?

Every school board has developed their own processes for initial assessment, and may have their own resources for completing the task. To learn more about the initial assessment process in your board, reach out to the ESL/ELD support staff in your board or school.

Rethinking Reading: a Journey into the Foundational Literacy

The majority of my career has been in a middle school environment, where teaching letter combinations and sounds was not common. And so as a longtime elementary educator, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that for much of my career, I knew very little about teaching reading. My entire teacher’s college experience focused on the junior and intermediate grades, where reading instruction was not emphasized. My own son learned reading with very little work on my part, other than reading him stories or bringing him to the library.

With the publication of the Right to Read report (2022), it became clear that I could no longer avoid learning about the critical work so many primary and early years educators do every day. Getting started, however, was nothing short of intimidating. Foundational literacy concepts like phonemic awareness, graphemes, phonics, and digraphs were pretty much a foreign language to me. I had no idea where to begin – there seemed to be hundreds of books, resources, podcasts, and websites on the topic.

Thankfully, I have the knowledge and expertise of colleagues who are not only experienced in teaching reading, but teaching it in an engaging and culturally responsive way. Devon Clarke, a very talented PETL educator who is on our board’s Central Literacy Team, graciously invited me to attend the sessions he had developed with the literacy team for elementary educators.

Here are a few key takeaways I have gathered so far – I hope they resonate with anyone on a similar journey of learning this year!

We Can’t Forget The “Four Roles of the Literate Learner”

When I started learning about the Right to Read report, my impression was that educators would be teaching a lot of decoding skills in the classroom. The “Four Roles of the Literate Learner” – a concept introduced by Freebody and Luke back in the 1990s – still provides educators with a great model of literacy learning that particularly rings true in “science of reading” focused pedagogy. The idea that as readers, we are not only code-breakers, but meaning makers, text users, and text analyzers, is a good reminder that reading is a multifaceted process. This particularly important for English language learners, who not only need to decode English text but comprehend what they are learning to read as well.

Foundational Literacy Approaches are Not Just for Younger Elementary Students

Older elementary students also benefit from learning strong decoding skills: many may have gaps in their foundational reading skills that may have gone undetected. In one of the presentations, Devon shared a pilot project he worked on with middle school teachers. Together, they implemented the resource Catch Up Your Code with several grade 8 classes. Catch Up Your Code essentially focuses on helping older developing readers to recognize and connect the ways different letter combinations can make the same sounds, strengthening students’ reading and spelling skills.

The teachers gathered before and after data and other observations about the challenges and strengths of the resource. Overall, nearly every grade 8 student improved in an area of their decoding skills. Entering secondary school, these students will be much better prepared to succeed in their courses.

There is No Such thing as a “Be all, End all” Reading Resource

While resources like Catch Up to Code, or other reading programs can help students to make gains in their decoding skills, it is useful to keep in mind that no one resource is a “be all, end all” tool. In addition to resources that help students to decode words and sentences, students should also explore literature and texts that are culturally responsive and rich in meaning. This point was reinforced in the sessions I attended as the literacy team shared books that were identity-affirming and powerful in their approach to storytelling.

Ontario Educators are on a Learning Journey Together

Learning new and innovative approaches to teaching literacy takes time and teamwork. When it comes to learning about new resources and strategies, I find it most useful to hear the perspectives of educators that have actually used different literacy resources and can describe first hand what the successes and pitfalls are. Having colleagues to check my own understanding of the readings I am working on, and the expertise of experienced literacy teachers and speech language pathologists is also important on this journey of “reimagining” reading. This is why it is so important for boards to release teachers for professional learning: if literacy is a human right, then educators must have access to the time and resources it takes to make the vision of the “Right to Read” a reality.

Outdoor Education: Re-Thinking My Relationship with the Great Outdoors

Outdoor education is an area of pedagogy I have evaded for much of my career. I always found the concept of outdoor learning to be way outside of my comfort zone: ropes courses, orienteering, food cycle games, and getting close and personal with flora and fauna are things I preferred to leave to the experts. In my mind, I had done my due diligence by organizing trips to the board nature centre once a year or welcoming a science and nature expert to speak to the classes I taught. On nice days, I might take students outside to read or work on a dance project, pick up trash as part of an environmental initiative, or take a neighbourhood walk down the local bike paths.

My reluctance to taking outdoor education learning really seriously largely stemmed from the idea that I didn’t consider myself to be, well, “outdoorsy.” When I thought about outdoor educators, or outdoorsy people in general, I had always pictured someone who went camping, cottaging, white water rafting, canoeing, or doing big hiking trips in places like Algonquin Park.

The idea I had of an “outdoor” person was quite mistakenly based on things I had seen in the media: adventurers clad in flannel and boots that could pitch a camp in minutes or walk for miles with a canoe on their head. Funny enough, I had probably acquired lots of these ideas working in a hiking store as a teenager, endlessly looking at product catalogues and selling customers on the promise of very expensive hiking boots. All of these ideas, I realize now, were based on Western norms focused on upholding specific stereotypes about who belongs in the outdoors: typically white, male, and able-bodied.

It took me many years to realize that I am, indeed, an outdoorsy person. But to get there, I really needed to challenge my own assumptions of what it means to enjoy and engage with nature. And as an educator, I needed to get a better perspective on what it actually means to learn outdoors.

Here are some of the lessons I needed to learn to unleash my inner outdoor educator.

You Don’t Need to Love Camping to Be “Outdoorsy”

I truly believe that camping is one of the most wonderful ways to enjoy nature. Sleeping under the stars, setting up tents and fires, practicing self sufficiency, and braving the elements are exciting and rich experiences.

My personal preference, however, is to avoid camping. I don’t like setting up tents, the smell of fire on my hair and clothes, or cooking creative meals. I went camping with friends once, and ended up staying awake all night in my car wanting to go home.

I am perfectly happy enjoying the forest without sleeping in it. If I never learn how to pitch a tent, I’m OK with that too! I’ll stick with my provincial park day pass and go home at night.

The Outdoors Aren’t Only in Wilderness and Rural Areas

For the longest time, I believed that to be outdoors I needed to be somewhere rural, or in a large park of some sort. It came to me that such an understanding was limited and narrow. Indeed, organizations like Nature Canada have pointed out that urban outdoor spaces are often perceived to be inferior to wilderness landscapes – and nothing could be further from the truth!

The outdoors are everywhere, in city streets and alleys and even strip malls. Buildings, sidewalks, storefronts, school tarmacs, fields, and playgrounds are all part of outdoor life. Greenery grows through concrete cracks, wind blows through buildings, and ecosystems thrive in drain ponds and even soccer fields. Flocks of geese halt traffic and vegetable gardens can thrive on sunny balconies.

Key takeaway: we can connect with the outdoors from wherever we are!

People that Live in Cities Are not Nature Deficient

I’ve noticed that when the topic of outdoor conversations comes up around work, there tends to be an assumption that many students “lack access” or are “deprived” of outdoor time. Nature centres are positioned as a unique opportunity for kids, particularly in urban centres, to finally engage with outdoor living.

While I agree that there are wilderness or rural areas in Ontario that many urban residents do not access regularly due to economic, linguistic and cultural barriers, it doesn’t mean that there is something deficient or “missing” from their lives.

Everyone Has a Connection with Nature, But Connection Can Happen in Different Ways

Everyone has a connection with nature, but how we connect can vary along lines of preference, culture, or personal history. I recall being tasked to organize a “Canadian” fall activity for my visiting mother in law from Eastern Europe. Immediately, I suggested apple picking: what could be more Canadian and fall-festive than picking fresh fruit outside at a local farm?

Aghast, my partner dismissed my apple-picking plan immediately. “My mom is not going to enjoy doing manual labour on her vacation.” Apple picking, it turns out, is not a recreational activity in all places.

Nature and the way we experience it is deeply entwined with our cultural beliefs and assumptions. We don’t often see diversity in Canadian outdoor narratives, but visit a place like Algonquin Park or Point Pelee and it’s not hard to see that there are so many groups and individuals of different cultural backgrounds and ages enjoying the outdoors in their own way. Some prefer to enjoy the outdoors gathering with family through a big, elaborate picnic on the beach; others spend days camping in the backcountry. Whether it is running, walking, sitting, socializing, creating art, hiking, or simply visiting a lookout point, we all have different ways of appreciating nature and the outdoors.

Embracing Your Outdoor Self

If you have ever felt like me – that being an outdoor educator is a role best left for others – remember that, as teachers, we are all in a position to teach outside. Being outdoors helps us to live in the moment a bit more, and enjoy the feeling of fresh air and sunshine. By embracing the many ways people, including students and their families, can experience the outdoors in Canada, we can develop a more inclusive approach to outdoor learning.

Interested in reading more about inclusion in the outdoors in Ontario? Take a look at the report “Race and Nature in the City,” by Jacqueline L. Scott and Ambika Tenneti.

Book Reviews: Outdoor Learning

In my last post, I wrote about rethinking my own relationship with the outdoors. Here are two amazing books that have truly inspired me to take teaching outside. I think they are worth a read for any aspiring or experienced outdoor educator!

Literacy Moves Outdoors, by Valerie Bang-Jensen

In a moment when mental health and wellness are top of mind, there are fewer things more powerful than spending time outdoors. There are days when I spend more time on a screen than I want to admit, and I am always amazed at how much better I feel after disconnecting and walking in fresh air for an hour. With kids using tools like Brightspace or Google classroom to access resources routinely, it is important to bring learning outdoors as much as possible to counterbalance the screen time.

The question that remains is how: how do we take outdoor learning beyond exploring, being in an outdoor classroom, or focusing solely on science-related subjects? Valerie Bang-Jensen shares her solutions in her 2023 book, Literacy Moves Outdoors.

For me, Literacy Moves Outdoors was a refreshing read after a year of professional learning about reading instruction and phonemic awareness. Bang-Jensen’s resource is all about how educators can take literacy learning: vocabulary building, decoding, storytelling, and more into outdoor spaces like school yards and gardens. And you don’t need to be in a nature reserve or field centre!

For example, she explains how hopscotch can be used as Elkonin boxes, the ins and outs of creating a story walk using picture books and student created texts, and how signs might be used to help students to develop questions. As a teacher of English learners, I could visualize how all of these activities might be used to build vocabulary and literacy skills, even for emergent learners.

Literacy Moves Outdoors is extremely practical for teachers and a pleasure to read or listen to on audiobook. Unlike a lot of of other educator books, there is less focus on the theoretical underpinnings of the pedagogy, and more on actual activities educators can do with relative ease. In a school context where the mental health and well-being of students is an increasing priority, Bang-Jensen delivers a book that will get educators excited about taking students outdoors.

Dear Street, by Lindsay Zier-Vogel

The last few years have been tough on cities. In my social media scrolls, it is rare that I come across a post on Toronto without dozens of users either commenting negatively on the city or broadcasting how happy they are that they left. As a longtime resident of Toronto, I’m always surprised at the online vitriol: I think it’s a great place to live and yes, has problems just like anywhere else.

When I came across Zier-Vogel’s book on one of my Instagram scrolls, I was immediately drawn in. Here was a picture book that was both a story about writing, gratitude, and being in love with the city or place you live in. The story is about a child named Alice who hears the usual complaints about the city and community: “too crowded”, or “too warm!”

Alice responds by writing “love letters” to her city, leaving her notes on park benches, piles of leaves, and other places they can be found by her neighbours, future friends, and fellow community members. “Dear Park,” she writes, “You are the perfect place to picnic, especially in the summer.” Her notes put a smile on people’s faces, and remind us all to be thankful for the beauty in our everyday surroundings.

What I love about this book as an educator is how it centres the urban outdoors and the power of gratitude. The book is gorgeously illustrated with the colours of passing seasons. Diverse characters spring to life on every page. Perhaps most importantly, Zier-Vogel connects the acts of writing and reading to outdoor spaces, creating a wonderful prompt to get students of all ages penning a love letter to their environment. I could immediately see the book as part of a lesson for language arts and social studies.

Both Literacy Moves Outdoors and Dear Street are excellent additions to your school’s library. They will not fail to inspire you to take learning outdoors!

The Pitfalls of Rolling Out the Curriculum Too Quickly

And just like that, an entirely new and significantly changed Language curriculum was released near the end of June 2023, with the unrealistic expectation that teachers implement it in September of the same year. Similar to the roll-out of the Math curriculum in 2020, this sudden release of a critical curriculum document has left many educators anxious and wondering how they will implement an entirely new curriculum in such a short amount of time – with the same resources they have from the year before. As ETFO commented on June 20,  “ETFO members are not opposed to updates and improvements to the current Language curriculum; however, we need to call out a troubling pattern. This is the third major curricula that the government has rolled out since 2020 at the last minute, expecting educators to implement it in an unreasonably short timeframe and without adequate professional learning and supports.”

At the end of a school year where the impacts of underfunded schools were evident in the increasing incidents of violence in schools, the expectation of implementing new curriculum in the foundational area of literacy and language is mind-boggling.

The problems with having a rushed implementation of the Language curriculum go far beyond the investment of time educators will have to make to align their work with so many new changes. Language learning goals are usually embedded throughout the teaching day; in other words, how we teach subjects like social studies and science will be impacted as well. And as I mentioned before, there are few – if any –  new resources in classrooms to support implementation. 

As a parent of elementary aged children myself, I cannot help but share my disappointment that my kids will be part of the cohort of students that will be the recipients of such an underfunded and abrupt attempt to “enhance” their learning outcomes. While I am confident that their educators are going to put their best foot forward, I understand how challenging it will be to develop high quality lessons and learning plans over time, and confidence in what they are doing. ETFO states, “these changes are significant and educators need sufficient time, dedicated resources, and sustained professional learning opportunities to properly implement any new or revised curriculum. To support this, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) is calling for a minimum two-year implementation period.”

Anecdotally, I can say that many of my colleagues have mixed feelings about the new curriculum. The Right to Read Report gave us a taste of what kinds of changes we could expect, such as the explicit teaching of phonemic awareness and phonics and the emphasis on decoding skills. My more experienced teacher colleagues are familiar and embrace the shift in literacy instruction, while many of my colleagues who are newer to the profession are embarking on a learning curve that is steep and challenging.  This would be less of an issue, of course, if educators could take the time to receive appropriate mentorship and training and and do the learning it takes to master something before implementing it en masse to students. Would you feel comfortable receiving services from someone who had just read the manual?

As an instructional resource teacher, I had the privilege of having the time to learn this year about elements of the new language curriculum, and though I did not know exactly what the curricula would look like, I worked with my colleagues to provide resources and professional learning experiences on building the literacy foundations of students, specifically English language learners. However, much of our efforts were weakened by chronic understaffing and the reality of classroom teachers dealing with extraordinary pedagogical challenges that are likely related not only to underfunding, but the aftermath of a life-altering pandemic. Rather than piling on more new professional learning, I strongly believe that educators need time to consolidate their learning and integrate all the new learning expectations and content changes in a meaningful way.

What Might Sustained Professional Learning Opportunities Look Like?

From an educator perspective, a new curriculum creates a significant change in our work flow since we must change – and in some cases transform – the way we work. In an ideal scenario, a new curriculum should be introduced through progressive phases that enable teachers to:

  • explore the curriculum thoroughly
  • acquire and develop resources and pedagogical strategies that support the new curriculum
  • collaborate to determine which strategies work most effectively
  • collaborate on instruction and assessment
  • identify the best practices for supporting diverse students with a new curriculum

When educators have the time to explore, collaborate, and share ideas and best practices, students benefit from having quality instruction that leads to more equitable outcomes. When we don’t have the time to engage in professional learning and planning, much of that quality is lost when we are developing new lessons and resources right before the instruction happens: “building the plane as we are flying it”, in other words. We are currently witnessing the impact that occurred with the similarly released math curriculum, with stories of parents protesting the destreamed math course. Indeed, many boards are starting to introduce “bridge courses” in math to support grade 8 students as they transition to grade 9, in an effort to ensure students have the mathematical readiness to be successful in destreamed, academic math and English courses. Would it have been better for students if such supports were available at the time of the initial implementation? Quite likely.

Students in Ontario deserve more than needlessly abrupt changes to their learning.

Source: https://www.etfo.ca/news-publications/media-releases/rushed-language-curriculum

Language Learning App Review

As an ESL/ELD resource teacher, I often get asked about what apps are beneficial for students who are learning English. This can be a tricky question! On one hand, I believe that spontaneous oral communication and interactions are the best way for students to acquire proficiency in an additional language. At the same time, I understand that teachers need resources to support their students, especially when they are in the early steps of acquiring English. While ESL accommodations and modifications may help to’level the playing field’ for newcomer students in the mainstream classroom, I think it is still important for English learners to receive explicit, targeted English language instruction, especially when they arrive in Canada during the intermediate grades. This is where language learning technology can play a huge role: many newer programs are designed to cater to the interests of learners, and follow a scope and sequence that aligns with international language acquisition continua.

Language learning technology has advanced significantly over recent years: there are a slew of fantastic options that make language learning fun and engaging. Let’s take a look at a few language learning apps that are fun for kids and adults alike to use. If any of these options sound intriguing, you can easily sign up for a week long trial to see if it will work for you or your students.

Drops by Kahoot

Drops is a fabulous language learning app that hails from the same company as Kahoot, a company whose app became ubiquitous in the virtual teaching world. Users of Kahoot will recognize the dark purple interface and illustration style, along with the same easy to use, immersive, and exciting virtual environment of their quiz games. I absolutely love this language learning app for the same reasons I love Kahoot: it is fun, intuitive, and has an element of urgency to keep you on your toes.

Drops is an app that is best used on a mobile device. The app works by feeding the user a steady flow of highly visual vocabulary learning activities. Once you have correctly identified the meaning and spelling of a word a certain amount of time, you have “mastered” the word or phrase and can move on to new ones. The app is great for supporting students who are getting regular oral practice in the classroom or through other immersive situations.

I could see this app being used by an older multilingual learner who enjoys games and is accustomed to using a mobile device. Drops does not have a dashboard teachers can see or monitor learning, so a teacher would have to check in with the learner regularly to see how they are progressing through the app.


Lingo Pie capitalizes on the access Netflix has to content from all over the world. You can watch multilingual shows and movies from all over the world, geared for different ages and levels of language acquisition. The subtitles are interactive, and the user can click on words they don’t know. After the content has been watched, Lingo Pie generates a set of digital flashcards the student can use to practice.

This is a fun app that enables learners to experience language through media and storytelling. I could see a teacher having a single subscription and sharing the media on a projector, pausing when a student or students identify an unfamiliar word. This app could have great potential with French or any international language app.


Mondly is Pearson’s contribution to the language app world, and it does not disappoint. Educators will feel comfortable using content from such a well known publisher, and the website does indeed offer purchasing options for schools and boards. Mondly presents basic vocabulary and phrases for multilingual students, and students can learn the target language using instructions and prompts from their home language (ex. there is an Arabic interface for those learning English as the target language; you could learn Romanian from Turkish, or French from Chinese). The app produces a daily lesson, and students can complete that lesson or move forward if they’d like. The app can be used on both mobile and desktop devices.

Another great aspect about Mondly is that there is a version for young kids with child friendly graphics. My daughter in grade 1 enjoyed playing it!

I could see this app being used widely by multilingual learners of different ages. It is a great way for students to practice at home, or in school during periods of independent work. In my dream classroom, my entire class would using it to learn the language of their choice!

Lexia for English Learners

Lexia, whose reading app has become widely used and praised, also has created a program for English learners. This app is designed for desktop use, and has culturally responsive characters that appeal to kids through storytelling and subject based learning. Students do not require literacy skills in the target language to start the app, as it is focuses on building oral foundations for students: much of the initial part of the app is based on listening and students speaking to the app.

To support its methodology, Lexia has published a series of rather informative and useful articles explaining the pedagogy of the program. As you might expect, the app is rather costly. However, the subscription package does offer some flexibility so educators can make the most out of it during the school year.

Which App is the Best?

As with all technology, it is more than worthwhile to give it a good test run before making the investment. Much of the effectiveness of the app will depend on how it is utilized and the extent to which it compliments the ongoing language instruction happening in the school.