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

the vowels of education

Phonemes, morphemes, and graphemes. Oh my!

It is like a linguistic speech, sound, and readapalooza since the new Language curriculum dropped. To celebrate, I wanted to share something creative for everyone who has ever witnessed the incredible joys of learner language acquisition. 

vowels of education

a – attitude, acceptance, alacrity, artful, acknowledgement, allies, activists, reconciliation,
e – enthusiasm, enjoyment, encompassing, equity, empowerment, reconciliation,
i – independence, inspirational, identity, diversity, inclusion, reconciliation,
o – openness, observation, open-mindedness, opportunity, reconciliation,
u – understanding, unafraid, universal design, bullies, truth
y – rhythm, hybrid, psycho-educational assessments, 

vowel sounds of education

ae- vitae, zonae, nebulae, maestra(o)
ai – aim, wait, mosaic, chairs, prevail
ao – aortas, extraordinary, chaos
au – autism, laud, caution, laughter, plateau
ay – essays, always, relay, crayoned, dismays
ea – theatre, measurement, teamwork, tears
ee – greetings, meetings, burpees, redeemed
ei – reintegrate, eight, eighths, neighbours
eo – video, reorganization, geology, neotypes, people
eu – neuroplasticity, scaleup, takeup, euphoria
ey – obey, eyes, they, convey, beyond, surveys
ia – media, piano, social, biases, dialects, diarchy
ie – friendship, grief, tiers, fierce, defies, belief
io – actions, biology, curious, axions, vision
oa – approaches, broadens, coaxes, coaches
oe – heroes, tiptoe, echoes, poetic, oeuvres
oi – voices, doing, choices, noises, heroic
ou – announcements, curious, souls, yours, ours
oy – joyful, envoys, voyages, deployed, toys
ua – gradual, graduates, equally, nuanced
ue – cues, continue, guesses, valued, issues
ui – acuity, anguish, building, guidance, intuition, equity
uo – mellifluous, quotable, virtuous, virtuosos
uy – buys, wiseguys

eau – beautiful, bureaucracy
iou – audacious, anxious, gracious, curiosity,
uai – quaint, acquaintances, reacquaint,

So much goes on behind the scenes in schools whenever a new curriculum is introduced. With the new Language document fresh off the proverbial presses teachers across the province have been working to familiarize themselves with how to integrate fresh expectations into their instructional milieus. I hope the words shared here will encourage everyone who reads them. 

Coloured felt letters on a black felt background.

On Supporting English Language Acquisition in the Mainstream Classroom: A Blog in 2 Parts

This summer I will have the privilege of facilitating a workshop with new teachers in my board at a New Teacher’s Conference. The topic is one that I know has stymied many teachers for a long time, including myself: how do you support newcomer students in acquiring English in the mainstream classroom?

Answering this question is a challenge – even with all the policy documents and resources out there, the reality is always more nuanced and complex than it seems.

In my own conversations with teachers, I have noticed a trend where there is decreasing support for English Language Learners (ELLs) in schools, as ESL support staff are being utilized all too often to cover classes in schools where there is a supply teacher shortage. Support for ELLs is critical, especially for newcomer students who need accelerated instruction in English to build vocabulary, speaking, and listening skills.

Another element that makes teaching ELLs a challenge in Ontario is the fact that ESL programming in elementary school is based on accommodations and modifications to the curriculum. Yes, accommodations and modifications are essential to adapting the learning environment to ELLs. These adaptations create an entry point for ELLs and make equitable assessment and evaluation possible for teachers. But there is still a missing piece: how do we actually do the work of teaching the essential, oral foundations of English?

Additional or Foreign Language classes are typically focused on teaching students the basics of the target language: how to greet others, to interact in practical situations, build vocabulary, or how to use different verb tenses. While the secondary curriculum offers specific courses that address the usage and mechanics of English, there is no specific ministry resource that provides a scope of learning expectations that address the unique needs of elementary English language learners. Sure, we have the STEP continua – but this document is more of a list of look for we might see as ELLs acquire English, and not a comprehensive list of learning expectations.

What I often see in schools is the expectation that newcomer students will acquire the oral foundations of English from interacting with other students or being immersed in the English saturated world of Canada. And for the most part, this is largely what happens. For younger children in Kindergarten and the primary grades, English acquisition happens through structured play, the explicit teaching of foundational literacy skills, and texts and lessons that are highly visual and graphic. Teachers may incorporate practices like language experience approach and picture word inductive model that support academic vocabulary acquisition for English learners.

Older students in the intermediate grades are in a much different position. Older ESL students may have completed the majority of their learning in another language, not to mention in another school system with a curriculum different from the Ontario’s. Entering a new classroom can be exciting for newcomer students, but also difficult if they perceive that their prior learning and language skills have no place in their new learning environment. Many students go through “silent phases”, or appear disconnected or disengaged from classroom activities. As a result, many classroom teachers often feel at a loss of what to do, especially if they are unused to working with newcomer students. In my discussions with many classroom teachers, they are often wondering:

  • How do I teach them to start speaking and understanding English?
  • Are they bored?
  • What more can I do for the student?

While I wish there was more specificity to ESL programming beyond modifications and accommodations, there are many strategies teachers can use to make the work of teaching ELLs feel more purposeful and intentional without adding additional weight to the current workload. In the next blog, I will focus on unpacking some ways educators can integrate English language instruction into their regular classroom teaching.

Cover Image Source: Magda Ehlers, Pexels

Podcast Recommendation: Teaching MLs with Tan Huynh

Do you want to keep up with the latest culturally responsive pedagogical strategies and thinking, but cannot squeeze yet another book into your shelf? Look no further than Tan Huynh’s “Teaching MLs” podcast, which focuses on sharing the perspectives of the most innovative educators in the field of multilingual learning. Best of all, it’s free, and perfect content for your commute, lunchtime walk, or whenever you find its best to listen to a podcast. Tan’s podcast has over 150 episodes, with new content added weekly.

I have personally found podcasts to be very “hit and miss” in terms of content and quality. Some podcasts seem to barely scratch the surface of their topics, focusing a little too long on conversation and not nearly enough time on the topic that drew me to listen in the first place. Tan does a great job of balancing the banter with substance, making every episode feel like something between a friendly conversation and a keynote address.

This podcast is excellent not only for the topics featured – translanguaging, multilingual assessment, dual language schools, science of reading, and Chat GPT, just to name a handful – but the incredible speakers that most educators will recognize from their professional libraries. John Hattie, Jim Cummins, Ayanna Cooper, Margot Gottlieb, John Seidlitz, and Gholdy Muhammad are just some of the “educelebrities” you will encounter on the podcast.

Tan manages to bring out useful insights and conversations from renowned speakers and experts that will make a lasting imprint on your thinking and pedagogy. Personally, I have found it an excellent resource for summarizing big topics like phonics based instruction, balanced literacy, aritificial intelligence, and and teacher collaboration. Tan connects the research and ideas of his interviewees to his own experiences as a multilingual educator, English learner, and language learner, layering his ideas and perspectives onto the work of renowned researchers and educators in the field. Even when speakers are not completely focused on the topic of multilingual learning, Tan does an excellent job of connecting the topic back to English language pedagogy.

Listening to an author or expert speak about their work also helps me to better understand things I have read, and sometimes even compels me to re-read, deepen and consolidate my learning.

I was fortunate to meet Tan in the fall of 2021 when he accepted an invitation to be a virtual guest speaker at our board’s annual conference for ESL/ELD teachers. He joined our planning meetings and conference from Thailand, where he was likely tuning in at what should have been his bedtime. He turned out not only to be a confident, knowledgeable, and talented presenter, but unbelievably kind, humble and easy to talk to. His presentation on Translanguaging continues to impact my work and the work of my fellow PETL colleagues: we still get comments on how informative and practical his presentation was.

Tan’s dedication to the work of multilingual educators is inspirational and exciting. In a moment where it can seem more challenging than ever to be an Ontario educator, we need professional learning that will affirm and enhance our practices. Check out the Teaching MLs podcast on your favourite streaming platforms. His website also contains great resources and a blog!

What is Translanguaging?

A few years ago I had the pleasure of welcoming Maryam (student’s actual name has been changed), a grade 8 newcomer student from Afghanistan. She had multiple years of interrupted schooling due to the political situation in her home country, and arrived in middle school speaking a very emergent level of English while being fluent and literate in Pashto and Urdu. At the time, I was working as an ESL/ELD teacher in the school, supporting all classes in the school with programming for English Language Learners. Her homeroom teacher raised the inevitable question: how do I program and assess a student with such unique needs?

One of the best ways to accommodate newcomer students with literacy and oral communication skills is to use translanguaging strategies. So what exactly is translanguaging?

Translanguaging, as academic and educator Ofelia Garcia states in EAL Journal, is “the act performed by bilinguals of accessing different linguistic features or various modes of what are described as autonomous languages, in order to maximize communicative potential.” Translanguaging is all about students using all of their linguistic resources to explore new learning, making connections with prior knowledge, and communicating their knowledge and lived experiences. It is asset-based and honours the rich linguistic resources multilingual learners bring to the classroom.

Sure – there are moments during instruction where accuracy, concision and proficiency in English will be the focus. But translanguaging practices should be encouraged in areas where the work is content-based. Language acquisition is a journey, and learning should always be accessible no matter what part of that journey a student is on.

How Can I use Translanguaging in the Classroom?

Start by creating a translanguaging-friendly learning space by encouraging students’ use of home languages at the start of the year. Take a language survey to find out what students are speaking at home and with friends and relatives, who has literacy skills in a different language, or who is taking heritage language classes. Once you know the linguistic and cultural assets students are bringing to the classroom, you will also be better equipped to be more culturally responsive. Keep multilingual dictionaries in students’ languages in the classroom, or teach a lesson on how to use digital translation tools like Microsoft Translate, Google Translate, or SayHi. Show students how to set multilingual captions on sites like Youtube. While students may find that digital translations are not always accurate, they can help students who are in the earlier steps of English language acquisition to understand new content.

Use multilingual word walls, media, signs, and posters in your school’s or class’s top languages. If you are multilingual, model translanguaging by communicating with students that also speak the same language. Pair same language speaking students strategically in seating plans or group work. Once multilingualism is seen as an asset and a norm in the learning environment, you can start to see translanguaging occur organically in academic and social contexts.

Translanguaging from Instruction to Assessment

Embed translanguaging throughout your teaching cycle, from instruction to assessment. Encourage multilingual language learners (MLs) to take notes in their home language and/or English during class: it is common for newcomer students think that they are only allowed to use English in class, which should never be the case. Offer multilingual content whenever possible, encouraging the use of subtitles when video content is being shared. When labeling diagrams or visuals, MLs can have the option of using multiple languages, which helps to build critical academic vocabulary for content based subjects.

Text sets are another great way to scaffold and differentiate learning in content-based areas like Science, History, or Geography. To create a text set, gather a set of materials related to one area of learning that enable students to engage with the content in different ways. For example, text set might include similarly themed articles at different reading levels, content in languages used by students in the classroom, related diagrams and photos, photos, and links to different sites and videos. Creating text sets can take time – team up with other teachers to create different sets you can use throughout the year or a teaching cycle.

Finally, offer students opportunities to complete summative learning tasks or assignments in the language or languages they feel most confident using in addition to English. When students with more confident in their first language have the opportunity to use it in school, it can be empowering and create an opportunity for families to engage with their child’s learning. If you do not speak the same language as the student, you can ask a colleague who does to help with assessment, or ask the student to complete a secondary task to translate their work using dictionaries and translators. Make sure your rubric and success criteria are adapted to reflect the curriculum expectations and the student’s STEP: keep in mind that their learning goals may be different from that of their non-ELL peers.

Interested in taking a more detailed look at using multiple languages in your teaching? Check out Classroom Assessment in Multiple Languages (2021, Corwin Press)  by Margo Gottlieb for a comprehensive guide. There are so many ways for multilingual students to share their knowledge beyond writing and speaking in English. Once you identify the best strategies for enabling MLs to express their ideas and learning, you will see their growth and confidence flourish.

Mentoring Moments: Importance of Our Names

I always wanted to write why the name each of us are given is important to consider. Each year we have the privilege as an educator to touch and impact families as we teach their children. I emphasize as a teacher we teach children that belong to many cultures and backgrounds…As a teacher we have so many opportunities to reflect on pronunciation of names, spelling of names and the chance to talk about each individual story behind the name that we are given. As we celebrate World Teacher Day this month reflect on the privilege we hold as teachers to embrace diversity, be inclusive and bring about change in the education system that we work for towards a better future for all.

This blog starts with you getting to know me a bit better as an Educator in Ontario. Nilmini is my middle name- it was given to me by my parents because “Nil” in Sinhala means the colour Blue. “Mini” in Sinhala translates into “Gem”…Nilmini means a Blue Gem a precious stone, and important name that I was given. I love it…I never really thought about how when I was born the white part of my eyes had grey and blue tones….Moreover, now as an educator I reflect on why my name holds a special place in my heart since it is also apart of my heritage the beautiful country I was born in Sri Lanka before I immigrated to Canada with my family as a child.

“Each year we have the privilege as an educator to touch and impact families as we teach their children.” @NRatwatte

Ask your students about their Name Stories

As an educator there is no better way to build a trusting relationship than to ask students about who they are so you can connect it to the curriculum that is being taught each year.

  • Build in lessons through out the year to get to know your students names
  • Their heritage
  • Their traditions
  • Call students by their names – real names
  • Don’t change them since they are long
  • Do give them pride and ownership in using their own name

Some Books that can help you start the conversation about Names

Name Jar

I love using this book to discuss the importance of keeping our language cultural name and customs. The book helps us talk about inclusion practises in a school setting and importance of feeling belonging.


No better book for me as a teacher since my name is very long and I go by my middle name Nilmini that is a family tradition.

They call me Number One

A book I start the conversation with about the importance of making students feel welcome when learning about the First Nations Peoples of Canada and the Residential School System.

Growth Mindset to Teaching

I encourage you as an educator to embrace the differences and not shorten names but call students by their real names to give them respect for their identity. Names are apart of each individual identity since they are interconnected to who we are, our cultural heritage or our customs.

  • Ask Questions
  • Encourage sharing
  • Embrace the Learning

In my culture we have a “letter sound” that is given to us when we are born according to our horoscope and that is the sound that we use to name each child according to be prosperous in our lives. These traditions carry with us over the generations because they are meaningful and they encourage customs that hold our heritage over the centuries close to our hearts.

Reflection Question: Think about why your name is important; write down your name story that you can share with your student during a lesson and courageous conversation.

Yours in Education,


Welcoming Refugees … by any other name

St Louis Jewish in Germany Refugee Ship 1939

Turned Away: Tale of St. Louis and the fate of its 907 German Jews.

Welcoming Refugees by any other name

While reading the Toronto Star, I came across an article by Martin Regg Cohn writing about his experience meeting refugees making their way through the Vermont forest into Canada. This made me think about black slaves coming to Canada through the Underground Railroad beginning in the late 1700s. This further got me thinking about all the people who have come to Canada seeking refuge after being forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, natural disaster or just to find a secure place to live and raise their family.

Canada (and its previous names of British North America, Upper and Lower Canada, and New France), has always been a destination for refuge. Today and before confederation in 1967, our nation would not have grown in population or diversity without the seekers of refuge. There’s been significant waves of refugee seekers over Canada’s last 250 years. I was surprised at the extend of the list!

This is a partial list from the Government of Canada’s Canada: A History of Refuge

1776: 3,000 Black Loyalists, among them freemen and slaves, fled the oppression of the American Revolution.

1783: Sir Guy Carleton, Governor of the British Province of Quebec, and later to become Lord Dorchester, safely transported 35,000 Loyalist refugees.

1789: Lord Dorchester, Governor-in-Chief of British North America, gave official recognition to the “First Loyalists” – those loyal to the Crown who fled the oppression of the American Revolution to settle in Nova Scotia and Quebec.

1793: Upper Canada became the first province in the British Empire to abolish slavery. In turn, over the course of the 19th century, thousands of black slaves escaped from the United States and came to Canada with the aid of the Underground Railroad, a Christian anti-slavery network.

Late 1700s: Scots Highlanders, refugees of the Highland Clearances during the modernization of Scotland, settled in Canada.

1830: Polish refugees fled to Canada to escape Russian oppression.

1845-1851: Irish refugees escaping the Great Potato Famine.

1880-1914: Italians escaped the ravages of Italy’s unification as farmers were driven off their land as a result of the new Italian state reforms.

1880-1914: Thousands of persecuted Jews, fleeing pogroms in the Pale of Settlement, sought refuge in Canada.

1891: The migration of 170,000 Ukrainians began, mainly to flee oppression from areas under Austro-Hungarian rule, marking the first wave of Ukrainians seeking refuge in Canada. 1920-1939: The second wave of Ukrainians fled from Communism, civil war and Soviet occupation. 1945-1952: The third wave of Ukrainians fled Communist rule.

1947-1952: 250,000 displaced persons (DPs) from Central and Eastern Europe came to Canada, victims of both National Socialism (Nazism) and Communism, and Soviet occupation.

1950s: Canada admitted Palestinian Arabs, driven from their homeland by the Israeli-Arab war of 1948.

1950s-1970s: A significant influx of Middle Eastern and North African Jews fled to Canada.

1956: 37,000 Hungarians escaped Soviet tyranny and found refuge in Canada.

1960s: Chinese refugees fled the Communist violence of the Cultural Revolution.

1968-1969: 11,000 Czech refugees fled the Soviet and Warsaw Pact Communist invasion.

1970s: 7,000 Chilean and other Latin American refugees were allowed to stay in Canada after the violent overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government in 1973.

1970-1990: Deprived of political and religious freedom, 20,000 Soviet Jews settled in Canada.

1971: After decades of being denied adequate political representation in the central Pakistani government, thousands of Bengali Muslims came to Canada at the outbreak of the Bangladesh Liberation War.

1971-1972: Canada admitted some 228 Tibetans. These refugees, along with their fellow countrymen, were fleeing their homeland after China occupied it in 1959.

1972-1973: Following Idi Amin’s expulsion of Ugandan Asians, 7,000 Ismaili Muslims fled and were brought to Canada.

1979 -1980: More than 60,000 Boat People found refuge in Canada after the Communist victory in the Vietnam War.

1980s: Khmer Cambodians, victims of the Communist regime and the aftershocks of Communist victory in the Vietnam War, fled to Canada.

1990s: By the 1990s, asylum seekers came to Canada from all over the world, particularly Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa.

1992: 5,000 Bosnian Muslims were admitted to Canada to escape the ethnic cleansing in the Yugoslav Civil War.

1999: Canada airlifted more than 5,000 Kosovars, most of whom were Muslim, to safety.

2006: Canada resettled over 3,900 Karen refugees from refugee camps in Thailand.

2008: Canada began the process of resettling more than 5,000 Bhutanese refugees over five years.

2015: Close to 6,600 Bhutanese refugees arrived in Canada. Canada completes a seven-year commitment and welcomes more than 23,000 Iraqi refugees. Canada commits to and begins resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees.

2017: Canada announces historical increases in multiyear resettled refugee admissions targets, as well as new commitments for resettling refugees from Africa and the Middle-East.

2018: Canada resettled more than 1,300 survivors of Daesh in 2017 and 2018.

If it were not for Canada’s generosity to refugees and immigrants, my mother’s family would not have made it to Canada. Her family consists of Scots Highlanders escaping the Highland Clearance in 1830, British Loyalists and Quakers refusing to participate in the War of 1812, and Irish refugee escaping the starvation of the Potato Famine between 1845-1851. My Northern Irish immigrant father, on the other hand, was escaping bad business deals.

Canada, as a place, has not always been generous to refugees. In 1939, the William Lyon Mackenzie King government turned away 900 Jews escaping Nazis rule in order “to keep this part of the continent free from unrest and from too great an intermixture of foreign strains of blood” (Prime Minister King, 1939). Note that a third of these Jewish refugees died in concentration camps. During World War 2, Canada allowed less than 5,000 Jews into the country – a small quantity considering the numbers for the United States (200,000), Great Britain (195,000), Argentina (50,000), and Brazil (27,000) welcoming Jews into their countries.

In what we now call Canada, British governments created their own refugees through the expulsion of the thriving community of Acadians in 1755 and the ongoing expulsion of indigenous peoples from their traditional lands.

Be aware, that once settled in Canada, people were not safe from human rights violations. In 1941, 22,000 Japanese Canadians were interned in camps along with 660 Germans and 480 Italians. My very intelligent mother-in-law lost her opportunity to complete her high school education after being interned in Lemon Creek, B.C. Many of the internees were born in Canada but were treated as foreigners. The Chinese, who’s hands build Canada’s first national railroad, paid a Chinese only Head Tax for every person entering Canada between 1885 and 1923.

Given its history of welcoming refugees, why is there such a great debate about the current refugee crisis in Canada? If I look at the past refugees and immigrants, a great deal of immigrants could be classified as WASP – White Anglo Saxon Protestants who spoke English. Canada has opened its doors for non British, non English or French speaking refugees and immigrants. In the early 1950s, Canada welcomed my children’s grandparents from Yugoslavia. All the families and relatives lived in one house until each family could afford to buy their own house (this is not unlike what some families do today). The Yugoslavians did not speak English, but they were White.

As classroom teachers, we know who is coming into our country as it is evident from our classroom compositions. I often share that if it were not for refugees and immigrants, I would not have a job as a teacher. I have taught many refugees from all over the world including Africa, Bosnia, Kosovo, Thailand, Syria, Iraq and the Middle East. I have been honoured to teach them and to hear their stories.

I believe that the current refugees are receiving pushback from some Canadians (i.e. who’s families were also immigrants and refugees) because many of the refugees coming to Canada are not White. I believe that this pushback is solely due to racism.

Refugees and immigrants, regardless of place, time, or label, sacrifice everything for a chance at a better life when they set foot in Canada. When talking about human rights in my classroom, I always remind my students that if we do not stand up for the human rights of others, ours could be at risk.

If Canadians allow for the discrimination against our current refugees, we are setting ourselves up for a future of more discrimination, regardless of status in Canada. Do Canadians really want to repeat the tale of the St. Louis and the fate of its 907 German Jews? More recently, do Canadians want to see more children like 3 year old Syrian-Kurdish Alan Kurdi lose their lives while their families seek more secure places to live?


This blog is dedicated to the refugees I had the honour to support as a Red Cross volunteer this summer. I wish you all success in your new country, Canada.

Collaboratively Yours,

Deb Weston








Report Cards Are Coming: Professional Reporting

Growing Success K-12
Growing Success K-12

Elementary Report Cards … the mere mention of report cards can send some teachers into anxious ridden days and sleepless nights. Even after 17 years of writing elementary report cards, I anticipated that my levels of anxiety would be non-existent but, no, for me, the thought of report card writing still stresses me out. I know of some colleagues who are so anxious about report card writing, that they had to seek medical support.

The source of this anxiety is embedded in inconsistencies in how report card policy is implemented. And the source of the inconsistencies is rooted in the process of educational policy implementation. With each level of educational policy implementation gatekeepers, such as boards of education, superintendents, schools, administrators, and classroom teachers, all interpret and change the policy based on their own context and their own perspectives (Ball, Maguire, & Braun, 2012).

As report card policy initiatives are translated into real life, the policy stakeholders, like administrators and teachers, adapt and reinvent their interpretation of the policy into school contexts. Since the education policy guidelines tend to be abstract and non specific, confusion and disjointedness results (Ball, 1993), and teachers end up decoding and recoding the policy text such as the reporting policy, Growing Success (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010). Even with the well written Growing Success document (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010), the process of understanding and translating report card policy can result in various degrees of intentional and unintentional interpretations (Fuhrman, Clune, & Elmore, 1991). Or, in other words, there are inconsistencies in report card policy implementation. Competing theories between policy authors (i.e., governments and school boards) and report card implementers (i.e., principals and teachers) can cause conflicts between the vision of policy and the practice of policy (Timperley & Parr, 2005). This can result in gatekeepers’ experiencing “most carefully planned” initiatives unfolding in a “non-linear manner” (Timperley & Robinson, 2000, p. 47).

This policy implementation process results in the practice of report card writing that look different from the vision of the report card policy writers. Therefore, because of this flux,  report card formats and content can change from school board to school board, school to school, year to year, administrator to administrator, and sometimes even term to term (Note: this is strictly based on my own experience over 17 years). As noted earlier, at every level of implementation, each person put their own spin on the policy. The result is that teachers have to deal with changing report card writing expectations. Inconsistencies directly result in teachers having to spend a great deal of time trying to meet the expectations of different stakeholders. Teachers then have to use their professional judgement to interpret these expectations.

The document Growing Success (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010, p. 152) states “ Judgement that is informed by professional knowledge of curriculum expectations, context, evidence of learning, methods of instruction and assessment, and the criteria and standards that indicate success in student learning. In professional practice, judgement involves a purposeful and systematic thinking process that evolves in terms of accuracy and insight with ongoing reflection and self-correction.”

Further, Growing Success states that “successful implementation of policy depends on the professional judgement of educators at all levels, as well as on educators’ ability to work together” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010, p. 2). It is through educators’ collaboration that educational change becomes reality; it is how policy becomes practice. “Teachers’ professional judgements are at the heart of effective assessment, evaluation, and reporting of student achievement.” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010, p. 8). So teachers, working with other stakeholders, using their professional judgement need “to clarify and share their understanding of policy and to develop and share effective implementation practices” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010, p. 2).

Below is a breakdown of the Growing Success policy based on areas I have needed information on while writing report cards. This is not an exhaustive list. Please refer to the documents noted below for further information.

Growing Success Reporting Chart

Ontario Report Card Policy Breakdown with reference to report card writing

The Growing Success document notes the following “It is important that teachers have the opportunity to compose and use personalized comments on report cards as an alternative to selecting from a prepared set of standard comments. School boards should not enact policies that prevent teachers from providing personalized comments on report cards. It is expected that principals will support best practice and encourage teachers to generate their own comments.” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010, p. 64)

Given the focus of encouraging “teachers to generate their own comments”, having a bank of pre-approved board-wide report card comments available to elementary teachers may or may not be forthcoming.

After the above analysis and reflection regarding report card writing and professional judgement, I ask myself “What has helped me the most in report card writing?”

My answer is collaborating with other teachers. It is in the discussion, co-creating, and sharing of report card comments that I have been supported the most in my writing of the Progress, Term 1, and Term 2 report cards. For me, sharing report card comments does not mean that I simply “cut and paste” my colleagues’ work. This does not happen because I write comments through the lens of my own teaching practice. My colleagues’ shared learning skill comments often inspire me to write comments especially for challenging students.

In writing report cards, I use my professional experience and knowledge that has resulted in the development of my professional judgement. So my advice to any teacher who is being challenge in report card writing is to reach out to your colleague … for advice, support, or debate.

I believe that when working collaboratively, teachers are better together … especially when writing report cards.

Collaboratively Yours,

Deb Weston


Ball, S. (1993). What is policy? Texts, trajectories, and toolboxes. Discourse, 13(2), 10-17.

Ball, S. J., Maguire, M., & Braun, A. (2012). How schools do policy: Policy enactments in secondary schools. New York, NY: Routledge.

Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario. (ETFO). (2016). The elementary provincial report card continued implementation update – Grades 1 to 8, Professional Relations Services, PRS, Volume #66, January 2016. Retrieved from http://www.etfo.ca/SupportingMembers/Employees/PDF%20Versions/The%20Elementary%20Provincial%20Report%20Card%20Continued%20Implementation%20Update%20-%20Grades%201%20to%208.pdf

Fuhrman, S., Clune, W., & Elmore, R. (1991). Research on education reform: Lessons on the implementation of policy (pp. 197-218). AR Odden, Education Policy Implementation. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2000). The Ontario Student Record (OSR) Guideline, Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/curricul/osr/osr.pdf

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2010). Growing success: Assessment, evaluation, and reporting in Ontario schools, First Edition, Covering Grades 1 to 12 Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/policyfunding/growSuccess.pdf

Timperley, H. S., & Parr, J. M. (2005). Theory competition and the process of change. Journal of Educational Change, 6(3), 227-251.

Timperley, H., & Robinson, V. (2000). Workload and the professional culture of teachers. Educational Management & Administration, 28(1), p. 47-62.

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Solution Tree Press.

Celebrating Our Student’s First Language Through Music

Do you recognize the lyrics to this song?

Lyrics better!

I didn’t until one month ago, when my students began a project I created about celebrating songs in other languages. This project came out of a desire to change one part of my music program. The most important part of any arts program is student creations. In my class students create songs, ostinatos, percussion compositions, raps etc… You name it, my students have probably created it. However, I felt that the part of the music curriculum that focuses on exploring forms and cultural contexts could be improved. I felt like the music that I was bringing in was authentic and reflective of my student population but the problem was, it was always initiated by ME. So I decided to try something new and it has been the most amazing project.

I am very fortunate to work in a very diverse school where many of my students are bilingual or multilingual. In previous years, as many songs as we learned from different communities and cultures, I didn’t feel as if I was really helping my students increase their multilinguistic skills or supporting them through their cultural identity journey. In the past, I felt that my students learned a lot about cultural music through units I created, but I wanted something deeper this time.

The idea for this project was inspired by a project called “Dual Language Identity Project” http://www.multiliteracies.ca/index.php/folio/viewProject/8. In this project, students were encouraged to write stories in their first language to support their acquisition of English Language Skills. I really liked how the students had ownership and pride in their linguistic skills in their first language. The inability to write proficiently in English was not placed as an obstacle for their expression.

My students differed from the students in the “Dual Language Identity Project” because they have a lot of proficiency in English. Most of my students were born in Canada and spoke another language at home until they came to school, but are now fairly fluent in English. However, I recognized the pride that came from the “Dual Language Project” and I wanted to emulate that. Being a music teacher, I decided that we would complete a project with songs. Students chose a children’s song from their first language and created a lyrics book so that our younger students could learn the songs. For many of our younger students who do not read or write in their first language, it also gave them exposure to text in Punjabi, Singhalese, Urdu, Guajarati, etc.

In addition to completing the project to increase student’s engagement with their own personal cultural music, I had some other goals with the project:

a)     To increase the exposure to languages that were unfamiliar to them. The project helped students become accustomed to hearing and interacting with people who speak different languages and have different cultural backgrounds. At the beginning of the project, with 6 or 7 different songs being played at the same time in the classroom, students would look up and sometimes react to the sounds of other languages. However, a couple of weeks into the project, students started asking questions about the songs instead of reacting negatively.

b)    To increase students’ pride in their cultural identity. At first, students were very shy to share their cultural heritage. Four weeks in, however, I have heard about students’ family trees and the multitude of different languages that are spoken in my students homes every day, and many, many other stories. I believe that holding onto first languages and culture has positive impacts on the social and emotional well-being of students.

c)     Studying the linguistic structures of one language really helps the growth of language acquisition skills in all languages.

d)    I have been looking for ways to include my incredible multicultural families into our music program and this was a perfect way.

To complete the project, students were primarily placed in groups based on their first language. If they were multilingual, they were allowed to pick which language they wanted to join. If they spoke no other language, they were allowed to choose which language they were interested in learning.  Today, my student who does not speak another language performed quite a lengthy song in Guajarati!

Some students worked alone by choice, others worked in groups of approximately 4 or 5. The students were given an IPad to use as a reference tool if they needed it.

In the first period, the students spent most of the time listening to different songs they might be interested in using. Some students found it difficult to find songs online so they asked their families that night at home for ideas.


Their next job was to work together to create the books. The students wrote one lyric per page and drew a picture that corresponded with them. They were also responsible for including an English translation at the back of the book and a title page at the front. All of the books were between 6-12 pages.

Title better!

The books turned out amazing and I can really see the desire each group had to create a polished product.

Teaching the younger students has been really fantastic as well. It is so special to see a grade four student connecting with a grade one student who both share the same language.


In addition to watching the most amazing interactions between students, I had one student who did not speak Japanese but was really interested in learning a Japanese song so I told her go right ahead. Wow! She learned that song in no time. She was even teaching a rather reluctant student in my class to sing it (and he HATES singing). I felt like this project was a miracle worker.

I watched students of Trinidadian background learn songs in Urdu and students who are sometimes rather shy in my class absolutely shine as they shared their deep knowledge of their language and culture. Artistic students helped consult on picture and colour choices

Everyone had something to bring.

Everyone was allowed to choose their direction and course.

Were there mistakes in their multilingual writing? Yes, there were. For those of you who are proficient in Punjabi, my students literally sounded out the word foot and wrote it in Punjabi instead of writing paair. However, I could hear students discussing and trying to figure out how to write certain words, helping them to grow in their first language. Some rarely get this opportunity. I also listened to a 10 minute conversation between two students who speak Tamil about the translation to English. They were working with the song “Nela Nela Odiva” and the direct translation was about the ‘moon running’. They talked it out for a quite a while and decided that the ‘Moon was moving quickly’ made more sense.

I learned a lot about my students, their interests and their cultures through this project. I learned that some of my students work hard on their Saturday morning to learn how to write in Hindi, Singhalese, Punjabi, Tamil and so many other languages. I learned that Guyanese kid songs are incredibly difficult to find on the internet (that might be my next project).

Music is about connecting with who we are as expressions of ourselves and I feel this project helped me to get to know my students more deeply. It was also a powerful way of learning and working with cultural music.

Learning Academic Vocabulary

It is the time of year to start reflecting on what went right and what you would like to improve on for next year. As teachers, it is important to say “I did a good job this year on helping Paramjot learn his timetables or Kayla adjust to a new school and make friends.” However, in more cases than not, we spend time looking at what we can improve on as that is what makes us good teachers.

If I had to choose one area that I would really like to improve in the next couple of years is helping my students acquire academic language in music. This has been an area of my program that has challenged me over the past five years as I feel that the vocabulary is not ‘sinking in’. I feel like we use it to describe the music we are listening to, but when we try to use it again a couple of weeks later, the students have forgotten it. I feel like I am constantly re-teaching the vocabulary.

I teach at a school where there are many English Language Learners, so vocabulary in general is a challenge for them. After doing some reading about vocabulary acquisition for ELLs (there is a great monograph from the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat called “World of Words”) I learned that many of my students come to school about 1000 words behind their peers. This means, as teachers, that we are constantly in a catch up game for our students.

After thinking about why the vocabulary acquisition part of my program is not working, I think one problem is that I do not place enough emphasis on it. We play, compose and rock out all day in music class, but we don’t spend as much time talking about the music. I feel the other problem that could be plaguing that part of my program is that I try to introduce too many words at once, which overwhelms the students.

The other issues are that most of the approaches that are suggested for direct vocabulary instruction don’t really happen in music class. We rarely, if ever, do shared reading, and making inferences from context can be more challenging when the new words are used orally instead of in a reading passage. I also see how word analysis can be really challenging, as a lot of the academic vocabulary that we use is in Italian. Students are therefore unable to look for clues in prefixes and suffixes that they might know from other subject areas.  

The one suggestion that I have read about that I am going to try for next year is called 30 on the wall. The goal is to target 30 subject specific words that students become “intimately familiar” with by the end of each year in every subject. 30 words seems really manageable and by the end of their five years with me they would know 150 words very well-related to music. It would take some forethought and planning to target a specific set of words, but that is going to be my goal for the coming year. I will spend some time this June looking at a natural progression of vocabulary words, which ones will work best with the curriculum expectations for each grade, and which words are most useful and transferable in my students’ academic career.

But at the end of the day, as we work towards our goal, I will still take time to raise a glass and proclaim….