How Can You Ignite English Language Learners’ Passion to Read & Learn?

Hanh Bui, 5th grade teacher at Aeolian Elementary School

Instilling a passion for learning is one of the greatest gifts we can give our students. I strongly believe that this goes hand in hand with developing a strong passion for reading. This is by far one of my most rewarding, and difficult, tasks we face as teachers – especially if the majority of your class is comprised of English Language Learners (ELL) students.

I teach fifth grade in a Title I school in Whittier, CA. Forty percent of my students are EL, 97% of which are Hispanic. In addition to school work and the normal stressors children this age face, the majority of my students need to navigate rigorous Common Core standards in a language that isn’t their first.

Educating ELLs in English-based upon Common Core standards is one of the greatest challenges faced by American schools. According to the National Education Association, there are nearly five million ELLs, which is approximately 10% of the student population. Sadly, significant achievement gaps continue to exist between ELL and non-ELL students.

So what’s the solution? Research demonstrates that ELL student achieve higher scores when educators use personalized instruction and collaborative grouping with native English-speaking peers. Teaching is all about making connections, but oftentimes the material we are given does not innately connect with our students, as their real world exposure is limited.

The discovery of  Epic!, a digital library, has been a game changer for my classroom and my students. Since it’s a free app for elementary school teachers and librarians, it is both cost and time effective. By providing my students and I with an entire universe of high quality content, including over 25,000 books, educational videos, teacher created quizzes and collections, the app has allowed me to take seemingly mundane subjects, and make them come alive for my students.

For example, I recently found myself struggling with one particular unit titled, “Cultivating Natural Resources.” Most of the unit focused on the subject of corn and I struggled to create interest for my students. I felt like I was grasping at straws. A large majority of my students live in apartment buildings. The idea of corn fields or even having a backyard to grow their own food and see plants grow is not their reality. Without real world exposure to this, how could I get them to connect?

I turned up an Epic! collection of books and was able to create a robust lesson about irrigation, organic farming, farm-to-table dining, and opened the students up to a wide variety of topics related to corn. My students were instantly exposed to things they weren’t used to, but got excited about. Once my students’ curiosity was sparked they began to think about other grains like wheat and rice, becoming inquisitive and engaged in reading and learning.

Epic! has also provided me with personalized learning opportunities that allow my students to discover and explore content that is based on their passions and interests. The audio “Read to Me” books are excellent for struggling readers and the catalogue has a wide variety of levels based on student ability and reading level.

Here are my three tips on how to implement Epic! into your classroom:

  1. Personalize Learning. Epic! works best with a 1:1 device. The iPads touch screen is a very powerful tool for students to make turning a page feel real. Plus, allowing your students to discover and explore Epic! to find content that they are passionate about, will ignite even the most reluctant readers to love to read.
  2. Set Guidelines. Don’t be surprised if all the students want to do is customize their profile avatar and customize it. Set guidelines about how many times your students can change it. I allow my students to change their profile at the beginning of every month.
  3. Accountability. Create comprehensive quizzes to coincide with the assigned books or collections. You can also have groups of students read a book together. Give responsibility to the students so they own their reading experience.

I’ve actually found that if I give more responsibility to my students they take more pride in their own reading experience. For example, I make my students come up with their own quizzes so they become the test creator not the test taker. It may take a little prompting and modeling to help lead students through the exercise and teachers may want to scaffold the students’ reading level down, in order to empower them to come up with good questions.  This type of exercise also promotes a growth mindset.  It helps develop non-cognitive skills like creativity, critical thinking, communication and ownership of their learning which will lead to a successful life.

My students live about twenty miles away from the beach, yet most have never been.  Many teachers have English Learners in their classroom, there’s no reason to be overwhelmed or frustrated about how to expose them to the ocean or any other location or topic. With Epic! your students can now have premium, curated media content at their fingertips that can open them up to a whole new world and ignite their passion for learning, right from your classroom too!



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