I’ve been doing an “extra” project with my English Language Learner students the past few weeks that has been going very well, and I thought readers might find it useful/interesting.

As regular readers know, one of the classes I teach is a two hour combination English class for Beginning and Intermediate ELLs (actually, one of those two periods is a Geography class for the Intermediates — I teach two separate classes simultaneously in practically all of my periods).

At the beginning of each of those two periods, students do independent reading for ten-to-fifteen minutes. A few weeks ago, I invited three Intermediate students to participate in a special group that would meet with me daily during that time during the second period to work on their reading and writing. I would assign extra homework that wouldn’t take them more than fifteen minutes to do each night, and we would review it during our time together. My invitation to each of them came in the context of an individual meeting discussing their longer-term and shorter-term goals, and if this kind of group might help them achieve to achieve those goals. I told them that it seemed to me that they were very motivated, and it was clear they felt somewhat honored by the invitation.

After first having them do simple writing assignments (write a paragraph with a topic sentence about themselves; write an introductory paragraph to it; etc.), I decided that it was worth investing a book for each of them. I chose Cloze The Gap: Exercises In Integrating and Developing Language Skills. Unlike most pre-made clozes (also known as gap-fills), the authors created clozes with strategically-placed blanks that had “clue” words somewhere in the text. They were doable for my students and, most importantly, they provided writing opportunities. I use it as a base for many mini-lessons.

It’s working quite while. The three students got to do their independent reading during one period, and then worked with me during the other one.

But having these three students better develop their English skills was and is not the goal of this new project.

The goal was and is to have my other students who might not be as motivated see what is happening, view the activity as something “cool,” and want to be a part of it.

And that’s exactly what has been happening.

First, several Beginner students saw what I was doing and asked me if they could be part of it. We discussed that what we were doing was probably too advanced for them, but that we could do a separate group at the beginning of the other period. So, we started using the book English In Action 2 following the same routine — their doing an “extra” fifteen minutes of homework each night and then our reviewing it in one corner of the classroom at the beginning of the first period. They get their independent reading time during the other period.

Both groups are slowly growing — now over half of the class participates in either one group or the other (including some who I thought would be the last to join — if ever), and I expect that most of the remaining will ask to join within the next couple of weeks. It’s very clear to everyone that it is entirely voluntary, but it’s also clear that students are viewing it as an “in” group — they want to be included.

And, best of all, the energy that the less-motivated students are getting from the small groups seems to be sustained during the rest of the class period.

In my upcoming book on student engagement, I review a lot of the research around its key elements. One is relatedness (doing the activity helps them feel more connected to others, and that they feel cared about by people whom they respect). I think the success of this “extra” activity is due in large part to the connections that students feel they gain through it.

The activity creates a little more work for me, but the pay-off is definitely worth it….