When students are away from school, it’s essential that they keep learning. However, limited access to technology or parental assistance can make it difficult to achieve the same goals we hold in the classroom. So, before leaving my classroom on our last day in March 2020, I put together activities that my K-8 ELL students could work on independently, with little to no supervision, and that would cover the four domains of reading, writing, listening, and speaking. All they needed was some paper and a writing utensil. Little did I know that this document would become a resource shared tens of thousands of times and used by educators all over the US, Canada, and Australia. Thanks to the kindness of educators around the country, the initial activity calendar has been translated into 26* languages. *as of April 9, 2020. Click the pictures below to visit the website, which includes free printable activity calendars grades K-12.
Please feel free to use and share these tech-free ideas!
However, as an ELL teacher, I know that the text complexity may not match your learners’ proficiency levels. Consider your own students’ language needs and abilities before you send this out. If it’s not the right fit, I’ve got some tips to help you write your own!
I knew I needed something that my students could do on their own, possibly with minimal adult supervision. Many of the parents of my students work in sectors that are still considered essential, such as health care, shipping and receiving, and food services. I also knew the kids would most likely be reading these independently, as most of their parents do not speak or read English. I wrote each activity carefully, selecting vocabulary I was confident my students could comprehend. I added examples where I thought they might be needed, but not for each task; it’s important to not overwhelm them at first glance.
Many of my ELL’s are siblings or cousins who live in close proximity. Some of my older kids are required to watch over the little ones. Therefore, I designed the calendar so that on occasion, the tasks would overlap. For example, if the task for the day asks kids to take a walk outside, it is often the same for each grade band.
Provide practice in all four language domains
Designing tasks for all four domains that are tech free is not easy! This is where using their interests comes into play. For example, my younger kids are very interested in superheroes and princesses, so some of their tasks ask them to write or speak about those interests. My students also love food, so there are plenty of opportunities for them to read, write, and speak about food. The hardest domain for me to include was listening; I couldn’t figure out how to keep it independent and tech free. If you’ve got an idea for me, I’m open to suggestions!
Integrate cross-curricular activities
My ESL curriculum is primarily content-based. We read non-fiction and fiction mentor texts on various social studies and science topics, and use those as the basis for our academic language development. To ensure students would use all that vocabulary they worked so hard to achieve, I made sure to include tasks that would touch on all the content areas. Each week, there is at least one social studies, science, or math-based task. Offering STEM type activities is an easy way to hit all the content areas in one fell swoop! My favorite task asks kids to build a tower with boxes and cans, then knock it down. It doesn’t ask them to read or write, but I know they’ll be thinking in academic language and speaking it when they talk about the task with their families.
Consider background knowledge
Here’s an example of a personal teacher-fail that will explain my point: One of my students was finished with an assignment early, and asked if she could do reading comprehension practice. I gleefully pulled up Readworks.org, and asked her what topic she was interested in. She replied, “Birthdays.” So, I searched birthdays, and up popped a whole slew of articles. I narrowed it by lexile and grade level, settled on two or three that looked appropriate, then let her choose. She chose, and began working. When she completed the assignment, I checked it over. It was all wrong. Every single answer. So, I sat with her to see what the trouble was. Ready? Although the passage was at her reading level, and the comprehension questions were appropriate in text complexity, the topic was a Leap Year Birthday. She had never heard of Leap Year before. Moral of the story: kids may be able to decode the task, they may be able to comprehend the task. But if they are missing background knowledge of the content embedded in the task, the task was futile. I’ll let you consider the implications, therefore, of assigning tasks your learners may not have background knowledge in. Thank you for coming to my Ted talk.
Put yourself in their shoes
This is where the relationships you’ve made and your own background knowledge of your students really comes into play. It’s important to be realistic with the things you’re asking students to find or use around their homes. What is a reasonable expectation that you can make about their home situations, based on the information you already know? For example, I KNOW that one of my families does not have crayons, glue, or markers. I can hypothesize that at least one child in the family has a pencil in his backpack, and probably notebook paper as well. Therefore, the tasks only require paper and pencil. Some tasks ask students to use crackers or candy as manipulatives. If students don’t have crackers, perhaps they could use dried beans. Keep your students’ home lives at the forefront of your planning.
In this strange time of distance learning, remote learning, crisis learning, whatever you call it, it’s easy to choose an activity that looks great on the outside. It’s the inside that matters. My best advice is to keep your students’ needs and abilities at the forefront of your planning as we navigate these uncharted waters. Kids deserve it.
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Maria has been teaching since 2009. She started as a French teacher and went through the NJ Alternate Route Program, but soon switched to teaching ESL. She received her M.Ed. in Teaching ESL from The College of New Jersey, and has been teaching in her current district since 2011. She received her certification as a Supervisor and Principal through the NJ Excel program, and looks forward to a career in administration, specifically instructional leadership and curriculum development.