A Tale of Two Idioms

A Tale of Two Idioms. Using ESL Benchmarks to Inform Instruction by: Lynne Bitterman
Posted on 09/15/2021
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An ordeal by fire?  Or a piece of cake?  How would you describe the task of using Alberta Education’s ESL benchmarks to inform and guide your teaching?  Reflecting on how this tool resembles an accurate, reliable navigation guide with critical journey markers might transform that ordeal into a slice of mocha torte topped with apricot preserves and Callebaut shavings.  Not possible?

Follow my journey supporting several NEE teachers who volunteered to collaborate in helping our young ESL students reach a challenging social-linguistic milestone along the speaking strand of language acquisition.  Soon, you’ll be dusting off your own virtual set of Alberta Education’s ESL Benchmarks!

First off, how are ESL benchmarks like a trusted navigation system or detailed map?  Well, imagine you’re new to the prairies.  Bound for Fort Mac, you’ve just touched down at Calgary International.  Armed with a well-worn map, you mentally check route milestones.  Head north.  First up: Airdrie.  Red Deer winks on the horizon, then slides into rear-view.  Next?  Edmonton.  Skirt east onto 216 to bypass the city.  Fourth marker? Lac La Biche – 213 kilometers.  Slow and steady for this stretch.  Esso.  Tim’s.  Cruise.  Another 290 kliks.  Could it be?  Fort Mac?  You’ve arrived!

It’s obvious that ESL benchmarks track the progress of student language acquisition, much as maps lay out milestones en route to a destination.  But are they also a tool to inform instruction?

Back to our analogy, recall that final curve on 663 east of Lac La Biche?  Running rough?  Not firing on all pistons?  Rather than settle for an extended stay at Jack’s Motel & Tack Shop, you checked the gas, detoured to Esso on fumes, and refueled.  Likewise, a good look at our first-time best teaching superimposed against ESL benchmark descriptors may reveal the need for analysis and top up to reach language targets.  What foundational concepts anchor these targets?  What focused, deliberate, educational interventions may be needed?  How could these be scaffolded?  Just as a skilled teacher anticipates a need, verifies, then creates bridges from where students are to where they need to be, ESL benchmarks help us analyze and fine-tune language instruction.

Too often, NEE ESL students stalled out at level 2 in socio-linguistic development on Alberta Education’s ESL benchmarks.  Over many years, my ‘map’ revealed this stall within the speaking strand as I benchmarked young students.  Sure, most used common expressions and slang with peers and adults.  Some even used simple phrasal verbs.  Yet they were missing a key marker in attaining level 3 - the use of simple idioms. (Figure 1) Classroom teachers had taught the concept, guiding students through several decodables peppered with rich, figurative language.  They had helped unpack tricky idioms.  Yet the teachers whom I supported agreed that despite this instruction, they’d rarely heard our ESL students use even the simplest of idioms.  Why not? What was missing? With more reflection, it became obvious.

We’d expected that figurative English language would be abstruse to culturally and linguistically diverse students.  After all, hidden social and cultural factors had created these odd expressions.  Though each culture has its own idioms, many of our ESL students have very limited first-language (L1) development.  The concept of figurative expression – in any language – was not only masked, it was missing.  Among others, they lacked a foundational understanding in L1 that language in their world could be figurative, meaning something quite different from the words themselves.   So our language target was loftier than memorizing a handful of idioms!  It was scaffolding the beginning of social-linguistic awareness – knowing when and where to appropriately use different kinds of language with different people*!

A Few Focused, Deliberate, Educational Interventions

Certainly, students needed to hear and understand simple idioms.  We’d been facilitating this.  However, our students lacked authentic, scaffolded practice to naturalize simple idioms into oral language in the context of their reality.  We had bridges to build!

Fresh grade-level texts with engaging idioms were chosen.  Students loved reading these stories, predicting which phrases were figurative.  They used the imbedded glossaries to ‘decode’ these strange sayings for themselves!

Simple anchor charts were designed and posted for visual review.  Substitution charts** (Figure 2) were constructed to scaffold oral practice.  By offering columned choices with correct English syntax (word order and sentence structure), language load was reduced to practice figurative expressions.  To guide students in selecting idioms reflective of their feelings, chart columns were colour matched to colour-coded zones of emotional states (Figure 3) masterfully pre-taught by our school counsellor.  Authentic, daily oral practice was encouraged through opportunities to share feelings ‘via idiom’ during morning meeting check-in.

Engaging class challenges were set up to ‘catch’ the teacher and students using idioms throughout the day.  Students bought in!  The entire class delighted in using and hearing others speak in idiomatic expressions.  Interwoven with humour, repetition, and shared understanding, idioms began to pop up throughout math lessons, science experiments, and student tales of family life!  Young artists illustrated idioms, showcasing their grasp of the literal versus figurative. (Figures 4) As I later reviewed student benchmarks in June, it was satisfying to record progress.  Many were now working at level 4 in socio-linguistic development.

Although my ESL Assistant role at FFCA has continually evolved over the last 14 years, collaborating with NEE’s classroom teachers in the support of our ESL students continues to be incredibly rewarding.  As we share challenges, strive for best practice, and support one another, respect, trust, and teamwork are enhanced.  Our students and school families sense a caring and cohesive learning environment.

This year, while benchmarking your ESL students, look for similar stalls or areas of common challenge.  How are your students progressing in use of academic language?  Questioning?  Discourse connectors?  Dust off those virtual benchmarks!  They are more than an electronic record of progress.  In your skillful practice, they can be an incredible tool to inform instruction.  The process can become . . . a piece of cake!

*Why invest precious time and deliberate focus exploring this concept with elementary ESL students? Good question!

Idioms are not an end goal or destination.  They are a mid-point marker of growing proficiency toward the destination of social linguistic proficiency, one of seven language targets in the speaking strand.

**Substitution charts are a motivating scaffold, generating a sense of achievement.  They provide a range of choices from which learners select, using set language patterns.  This extends student speaking or writing skill, reinforcing newly acquired language structures within the context of a curricular concept.


For more student illustrated idioms, see the document container below. 

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