Q & A with Fay Shin

In this interview, Professor Shin discusses pedagogy of English Language Learners.    

On November 18, 2011, Dr. Shin presented the workshop Literacy Strategies for English Language Learners. Fay Shin is a Professor in the Department of Teacher Education at California State University, Long Beach. She received her Ph.D. in Education and a Master’s degree in Teaching E.S.L. from the University of Southern California. She completed her undergraduate work at UCLA where she received a B.A. in Psychology.

She is a former elementary and middle public school teacher, and is currently a consultant to school districts, conducting workshops domestically and abroad. Her research and publications have focused on English language development, literacy and bilingual education. Her most recent work includes co-authoring a book with Stephen Krashen, Summer Reading: Program and Evidence, and developing curriculum for teaching ESL called Journeys- ESL/ELA in the Content Area: Science (Rosen Classroom).

Over the course of your career, what changes have you seen in the pedagogy of teaching English language learners (ELLs) to read and write in English?

During the course of my career (over 25 years), I have seen more emphasis placed on addressingFay SHin issues related to teaching ELLs. Over the last two decades, the K-12 ELL population has grown dramatically (from 2 million in 1990 to 5 million today). The importance of understanding the language needs of ELLs is essential and I am glad to see that school districts and teacher educators across the nation are working to improve the education for ELLs.

As a former elementary and middle school ESL teacher in Los Angeles, I have personally experienced and observed how challenging it can be to provide and meet the needs of all English language learners. I have seen many types of programs and instructional practices being used in the classroom, and I understand the overwhelming task many teachers today face. ELLs are at risk not only because of language, but also because of socioeconomic factors. In addition, the pedagogy varies from district to district, and teachers and schools are still struggling with the most effective practices (i.e., primary language vs. English as the language of instruction? Pull-out ESL program? ). Fortunately, today many schools are paying more attention to the needs of ELLs because of their growing population, however, I strongly believe we can and should do more to support the teachers. The structure of the ESL program for many schools can be more effective in helping the teacher make his/her instruction more effective.

How important do you think age is in learning a second language?

ELLs that are younger have an easier time learning English because of the amount of English language skills they need to acquire becomes more difficult as they get older. A first grade ELL has much less English language to acquire, as opposed to a sixth grader who has much more complex and challenging language to learn. In addition, language is taught more “naturally” when children are young, as opposed to teaching an older language learner. For example, older language learners immediately start learning the target language grammar rules, etc. I still remember taking Spanish as a second language in high school. During the first week of class, I was conjugating verbs and learning the grammar rules. The focus of a beginning language learner should be on meaning, not the form or rules of the language. HOW we teach the language has a great deal of importance on the success of language acquisition. We tend to expect more from an older language learner because we are more critical.

What words of advice would you have for a teacher who is relatively new to working with ELLs?

Remember what it was like when you were learning a second language, and you wished you could understand what the teacher was saying? How did that teacher make the lesson comprehensible? If it wasn’t comprehensible, what strategies did you use to learn the language? Sometimes we need to put ourselves in the situation of the English learner and reflect upon on our own experiences. I remember how overwhelming it can be when you have many students in one class with different levels of English language proficiency. I always felt like I wasn’t doing enough for my ELLs. I would first recommend teachers to try to structure their curriculum to make teaching work for them AND the ELLs. Can teachers group the ELLs for part of the day to allow teachers to work specifically with them at their English proficiency levels? Also, often times ELLs are left out of the core curriculum because the work is too difficult for them or their academic language skills are not at grade level. Recent research shows we need to increase integrating content areas such as science with ESL instruction. This will develop both their English language skills and their content area knowledge.

What excites you about teaching children to read and write, especially those who are learning English?

I love trying to get the kids motivated to read because if I know they will become lifelong readers, I feel like they will be successful in school. Literacy carries across all content areas, and reading promotes vocabulary development, reading skills, writing and spelling. Once I know the kids are reading at home for pleasure (not just for homework), I know in my heart they have the tools to develop their academic skills. I love seeing the excitement and enthusiasm a student has about a particular book. It shows their interest for learning and reading, and their passion is just contagious. I have personally experienced watching sixth graders who were non-readers and reading below grade level turn into avid readers just because we teachers encouraged them to read “high interest” books and because we took an interest in what the students were reading. Teachers can support students with the skills and motivation to read, and if they can find the right type of reading materials, the students can easily become hooked on reading.

Most of all, I strongly believe this is the key for helping ELLs learn English and develop their language skills. They are learning new vocabulary, and if they are allowed to self-select their books/reading materials, they will read more. I always advocate an independent reading program for ELLs because unfortunately, too often we do not know what the “right” books are for their different levels of English language proficiency and their interests. Why not just let the students choose their books and read? It is okay if the book is too easy….eventually they will choose books that are at their reading proficiency level (research has shown this). There is nothing better than teaching children and watching children develop a passion for reading.

What is the most challenging part of teaching children to read and write?

I believe the lack of books in the classrooms and the schools is a big problem. When I refer to books, I do not mean textbooks. I believe every classroom should be full of high interest books and reading materials so children can have access to them every day. How can we teach the children the value of literacy and reading, when many classrooms do not have books for them to take home? I always taught at schools where the children did not have books in their homes and their parents did not take them to the library or local book stores. I realized then that the only books they would have access to were the books that I had in the classroom or our school library. I wish every classroom had shelves full of books like Captain Underpants, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Twilight, Legend of the Guardians, Goosebumps, etc. The popular books are what the children want to read when they are home. Unfortunately with the recent budget cuts, library services are being cut even more, and in some public school districts in California such as the Los Angeles Unified School District, they just cut ALL library staff throughout the district. This means all or most school libraries will be closed in L.A.

What are some of your favorite books, websites or blogs, for both professional and personal reading?

One of my favorite professional books is (and always has been) Stephen Krashen’s book, The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research (Heinemann, 2004), because it is not only for teachers and educators, but for everyone. It really provides the research that demonstrates the importance of why our goal should be to motivate kids to read for pleasure. This book is the foundation and the best argument for the key to academic success for students, especially English language learners. Reading for pleasure (high interest books, junk reading, comic books, novels, etc.) is one of the most important ways we can increase our literacy and academic skills. I always highly recommend it for everyone because it is easy to read and it is based in research.

For elementary teachers I recommend Carol Cox’s textbook, Teaching Language Arts: A Student Centered Classroom (Allyn & Bacon, 2008) and for secondary teachers I recommend Vacca & Vacca’s book, Literacy and Learning Across the Curriculum (Pearson, 2010), I love the literacy and comprehension strategies they have for teachers.

What interesting things are you reading now?

I read all kinds of books. I love to read what the kids are reading because I want to be familiar with what their interests are now. I grew up reading The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Beverly Clearly books, and I love reading what the current popular books are all about. I just finished reading all of the Twilight books and the Diary of a Wimpy Kid. My next book will be The Hunger Games series. I am also reading the classics again because my daughter has now just started to read them (I credit her middle school English teacher for this) and I love to discuss what she is reading. Of course, I love to read the newspaper and magazines, and the novel I am currently reading is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.

Additional Info

  • Resource Topic: English Language Learners, Literacy
  • Source: SERC
  • Year of Publication: 2011
  • Resource Type: Article (web page)