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Cultivating ELL Students' Comfort with Language

Alfonso Mendoza, a 5th grade Science and Social Studies teacher at Harry Shimotsu Elementary School—a public school, three miles away from the Mexican border, in Mission, TX—gives us a look inside his classroom.

When Alfonso discovered Scratch, he was excited by all the potential for meaningful integration. In his words, “In my eleven years in the classroom, I’ve always been really passionate about technology. Hour of Code was really a gateway for me to discover Scratch and empower kids to just be creative. So often in schools it’s ‘here’s the handout,’ but students can’t bring that to life. They can’t make it their own. With Scratch, they can bring anything to life!”

Comfort with Communication

In addition to bringing the curriculum to life, Scratch has helped some of Alfonso’s students come out of their shells. This is especially true of ELL (English Language Learners) students, who comprise 76% of the school population. “A lot of the students I get in 5th grade are feeling shy about communicating in English. Scratch allows them to create in one common language—to write and to speak without worrying about vocalizing. It helps them to feel integrated into our community.”

And over time, Scratch is one of many supports that help students with language acquisition. “I have a couple recordings of students when they first arrived. Comparing them to what students sound like now, man, there’s such tremendous growth,” says Alfonso. This growth also translates to subject-area understanding and confidence. “When we have a test, I’m amazed by how well they grasp the subject-area vocabulary.” That comprehension is also visible in watching students communicate with each other as they conduct science experiments. For example, Alfonso describes, “During our conductor and insulator unit, students collaboratively wrote the scripts for a program that would allow us to use Makey Makey to identify Conductors and Insulators.”

Multi-modal Mastery

Alfonso is always looking for different ways of presenting a lesson to engage all learners. “I know that not everybody learns the same way. Part of that is getting out of my comfort zone. As a teacher, I don’t want to keep doing the same lesson again and again. I always want to be the teacher I wish I had when I was younger—giving me different ways of learning the subject.”
For example, to invite all learning styles for a unit on the Water Cycle, Alfonso started with direct instruction, to review the basics. Then he invited students to collaboratively narrate the processes of the water cycle, to check for understanding. Finally, Alfonso challenged students to create models in Scratch, to show their understanding. Before students jumped in, they reviewed a rubric together. Then, throughout the week, Alfonso did mini-lessons on programming concepts that might come in handy in students’ projects. Finally, students shared their own version of the water cycle. One student, Santiago, even came up with an Interactive Water Cycle program that uses motion interaction.
Beyond this project, Alfonso reminded students, “You can always come back and work on these projects—they’re part of your digital portfolio. When you tell a college or future employer that you’ve been programming since 5th grade and you show them what you’ve created, it’s going to open up so many doors for you.”
To sum up the role of Scratch in his classroom, Alfonso says, “Scratch helps my students to be eager about their learning and to create projects they’ll never forget.”