TESOL Connections

6 Strategies to Support ELLs in Science

by Dana Frye

Science content can be daunting, but we can support our ELLs in acquiring the language and content of the science classroom with just a little bit of support. Here are six strategies you can use to take the lead and build a foundation for ELL success in science in the upper elementary grades. 

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) bring enhanced opportunities as well as inherent challenges for ELLs. Because all students are learning new patterns of discourse and terminology in the science classroom (Lee, Quinn, & Valdés, 2013), ESOL teachers are situated to take the lead in integrating language learning support strategies. However, it might not always feel that way. Science content can be daunting, and many of us shy away from working with ELLS in that area. However, because we know our students and have a wealth of experience in language teaching, we can support them in acquiring the language and content of the science classroom with just a little bit of support. Here are six strategies you can use to take that lead and build a foundation for ELL success in science in the upper elementary grades. 
1. Preteach Science Content in Reading

Many ESOL teachers already provide small-group reading instruction to their students. This can be the perfect place to integrate science content materials to build background knowledge, vocabulary, and language. Both nonfiction and fiction books lend themselves well to promoting discussions in reading groups and can reinforce discourse structures common to the science classroom (e.g., cause and effect, compare and contrast, problem and solution, making predictions, and communicating information). Any one of these structures can be the basis for a rich set of lessons.

For example, I’ve used Lynne Cherry’s The Great Kapok Tree as a foundation for, among other things, a comparison of tropical rainforests and temperate forests. For a simple discussion, students compare life in the rainforest with their local environment. Providing a language frame allows all learners to participate. For example, “_______ live in tropical forests, and ______ live in temperate forests” (monkeys/deer). Science-rich texts that tell a story are beneficial to ELLs as they integrate science learning with common English language structures. Again, Lynne Cherry’s The Great Kapok Tree serves as an example because it immerses students in rainforest ecology content through a repetitive pattern of dialogue, rich sensory description, and past tense verb use. Other examples of science-rich literature are:

  • The Umbrella by Jan Brett
  • A House for Hermit Crab by Eric Carl
  • Just a Dream by Chris Van Allsburg
  • A River Ran Wild by Lynne Cherry
  • The Water Hole by Graeme Base

An expansive list can be found at The Reading Nook.

2. Provide Appropriate Materials

As an ESOL teacher, you are the expert on your students’ English language proficiency and background knowledge. Let your knowledge of students’ language abilities be your guide as you select relevant materials to support content comprehension and language learning. In my experience, classroom teachers appreciate resources that go beyond grade-level textbooks to support learners at different levels. Some excellent picture-rich trade books with comprehensible text are:

In addition, many videos, online textbooks, and websites provide differentiated content. Some stellar examples include:

ELLs require additional exposure to content and language to reach mastery. Give ELLs more opportunities for independent discovery and exposure to content by sharing these links and others directly with students via Google Classroom or a similar interface when possible. Providing a question or prompt (e.g., How does a magnet work?) with an associated website (e.g., DK findout!) will open up opportunities for students to independently research, write, and share their ideas. These kinds of resources can also help science teachers manage multiple student levels of knowledge and language in the classroom, so ELLs are not left to manage on their own.
3. Explicitly Teach Vocabulary

Technical vocabulary is often taught along with content in the science classroom. However, ELLs will need double exposure to these words and additional opportunities to use them in context in order to retain their meaning. Interactive word walls and student science dictionaries organized around themes, with illustrations and a quick definition of terms, are great tools for assuring ELLs’ understanding of this Tier 3 vocabulary (technical language associated with science content). Today’s technology-rich classrooms also provide opportunities for group activities using interactive white board technology. For example, at the beginning of designing an experiment, I walked a group of fourth graders through an exploration of the word “variable,” a Tier 3 word.

While Tier 3 words are typically part of instruction in science, the understanding of Tier 2 vocabulary (high-frequency words used by mature language users across several content areas; e.g., create, analyze, develop, response) is often assumed. Explicit instruction of these words will help ELLs with comprehension. Look at the words independently, perhaps with a vocabulary web activity, such as the Frayer model, and then apply the correct meaning to the word in context. You can also teach your students how to use an online science dictionary or a translate function, such as ESL Reader, to look up new words they encounter.

Frequent monitoring for student understanding is equally important to vocabulary acquisition. ESOL teachers can play a key role in making sure that ELLs are keeping up with the content in the science classroom through quick formative assessments, often known as “dipsticks.” These quick comprehension checks (see some examples here) will show which students need further clarification and teaching of vocabulary and content. As an ESOL teacher, you can use these assessments to provide tailored instructions for your students in small group settings as well.

4. Coteach in the Science Classroom

All of the strategies discussed in this article can be used to support ESOL teachers and students in a coteach model. When you have the opportunity, modeling ELL-friendly teaching strategies will be more effective than simply recommending them to the classroom teacher. Showing is much more effective than telling, and your experience will allow you to integrate many ESOL best practices such as

  • keeping lecture time short; 
  • providing lots of comprehensible input;
  • varying instructional strategies and materials;
  • using fictional and factual accounts of scientific content; and
  • sharing videos (with closed captioning), authentic materials, and photographs.

In addition to modeling effective teaching practices, your presence in the classroom will support the differentiation of instruction. Teachers often shy away from student-centered activities because of classroom management challenges. With your help in pairing students for learning, creating flexible grouping, and providing the inputs needed for comprehension, more hands-on and student-centered activities can be planned. In addition, tiered instruction can help to meet the needs of all students at different stages of science and language learning. This might include incorporating word banks and sentence frames. Explicit modeling of what students are expected to do is an often overlooked, but timesaving strategy.

When students can observe a process and match that to written instructions, they will be much more successful in achieving the desired outcome. Finally, now is your time to demonstrate those frequent checks for student comprehension and tiered questioning strategies that will allow all students to participate.

5. Support Student Discourse

ELLs are sometimes left out of rich classroom discussions because of lack of language ability. Using science content as a nexus for discourse may be a challenge, but it is essential to helping all students meet the Next Generation Science Standards and other rigorous science standards. We can ensure that ELLs are included in classroom conversations by modeling discourse strategies using sentence frames to structure language, as already mentioned. One tool that brings all of these supports together is a “dialogue mat.” Including pictures, illustrations, sentence frames, and word banks on one graphic can ground students in content and provide language for them to participate in higher order thinking and discussion tasks.

These mats should include word banks that are specific to the discussion and reinforce Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary. Again, modeling and practice will be key to student success. Providing numerous opportunities for small-group interaction before students participate in larger classroom discussions builds confidence and competence for students.  

6. Help Students Get the Most Out of Science Notebooks

Many science classrooms use student notebooks as part of daily instruction. These interactive science notebooks help learners make sense of content and develop language, but can be a challenge for ELLs. One way to make journaling activities more engaging is to differentiate journal prompts and/or questions. Asking questions with different levels of complexity and allowing for a variety of responses while providing some of the language necessary to respond is an excellent practice for including ELLs. In all cases, providing some level of scaffolding to support student responses is ideal. For purposes of illustration, consider a science lab in which students are raising monarch caterpillars. The following differentiated prompts might be used:

  • Prompt: Draw and label the caterpillar.
    Teacher input: Provide the word bank: legs, body, head, antennae.
  • Prompt: Describe the caterpillar.
    Teacher input: Generate a word bank with students before writing.
  • Prompt: How has your caterpillar changed since the last observation?
    Teacher input: model language for comparisons (e.g., bigger than, longer than, changed, the same.)
  • Prompt: Why does it look like your caterpillar has two heads?
    Teacher input: guide students in discussion and write down relevant language for student reference.

Again, you should explicitly model the journaling task. Provide sentence frames and content-specific word banks to support responses. If you’re able to, create a print-rich classroom environment with anchor charts, word lists, diagrams, and illustrations for easy referencing. Other journal activities to build comprehension and allow for participation of all ELLs include creating models, diagrams, and illustrations with drawing and labeling activities. As ESOL teachers, we understand that our students know more than they can express in words. Providing them both verbal and nonverbal opportunities for expression will allow them to demonstrate understanding. This, in turn, will give the teacher a fuller picture of who these students are and what they are capable of achieving.


As you move forward in integrating science and language learning, you’ll find many engaging projects that will link you and your students to the global arena in science learning.  A few that we have participated in are Journey North’s Symbolic Butterfly Migration, International Migratory Bird Day, and Shad in the classroom. These are long-term projects that provide countless options for integrating language and science learning, as well as connecting students from different cultures and countries. Building, or adding to, your repertoire of teaching strategies by incorporating some of the strategies provided here will make you an asset in the science classroom and empower you to support ELLs in science content in multiple instructional models. (Get started with Larry Ferlazzo’s Science webpage for an abundance of science-related links for ELLs.)

Hopefully, you’ve gotten an idea of how science and language learning are both facilitated in practice-oriented science classrooms. ESOL teachers possess a wealth of knowledge and practical experience that can bring immediate support to ELLs in the science classroom. The science classroom really is the perfect place in which to support our students. Their natural curiosity provides the drive to learn and can lower their affective filter. When ESOL teachers join in on instruction, our students will take more risks in the classroom and move toward a deeper understanding of science content and a more effective use of language.


Lee, O., Quinn, H., & Valdés, G. (2013). Science and language for English language learners in relation to Next Generation Science Standards and with implications for Common Core State Standards for English language arts and mathematics. Educational Researcher, 0013189X13480524.

Download this article (PDF)

Dana Frye is a certified ESOL and science teacher (MEd TESOL, 1997; MAT Biology, 2016). She has taught ESOL for 18 years, integrating science and language learning.


TESOL 2017: Convention Preview

This month, "The World Comes Together at TESOL" in Seattle, Washington, USA, 21–24 March. With more than 900 sessions to choose from—that’s over 30,000 hours of learning—it’s like getting an entire year’s worth of professional development in just 4 days. You can learn about the latest research in the field and current best practices, pick-up a lesson plan or two, and network with colleagues. Here is a preview of what you can look forward to in Seattle. 

The 2017 TESOL Annual Convention is just around the corner, 21–24 March, in Seattle, Washington, USA.

Here are a few sessions to get you excited about the offerings! Check out the online program for full session descriptions and date, time, and location details. These are just a handful of the 900+ sessions you’ll find in Seattle. Which titles interest you? Look them up with the Convention Planner or mobile app, and leave a comment about them below.

Invited Speaker Sessions

Fear Not the Virtual Classroom: Student Engagement in Online Learning
Gena Bennett, Meredith Bricker, Maggie Sokolik, David Wiese

Multicultural Capital: Connecting People, Families, and Work in the 21st Century
Sylvia Acevedo

Shifts in ESL Teacher Professional Expertise for the 21st Century
Aida Walqui

Teaching and Assessing Vocabulary: What the Research Shows
Sam Barclay, Averil Coxhead, Keith Folse, Dee Gardner, Diane Schmitt, Norbert Schmitt

See the keynotes here.

TESOL in Focus

Beyond Repeat After Me: Teaching Pronunciation With Imagination
Marla Yoshida

Building Assessment Into Everyday Activities
Diane Schmitt, Deborah Crusan

How to Get Published in TESOL and Applied Linguistics Journals
Brian Paltridge, Ahmar Mahboob

Teaching With Mobile Devices: Some Practical Ideas and Considerations
María Kamijo

Classroom of the Future Sessions

Accessible Technology for Informed and Enriched Instruction
Robbie Lee Sabnani

Digital Citizenship for ELLs: Teaching Digital Empowerment in a 2.0 World
Jennifer Meyer, Joseph Whinery, Harriet Strahlman

iPads and Engagement Come Together in the Classroom of the Future
Presenter: Justin Shewell

Learning Transformed: Teacher Education in a Student-Adaptive World
Geeta Aneja

Sessions on Refugees and Immigrants

Actions and Advocacy in a 2.0 World
Dudley Reynolds (moderator), Ahmar Maboob, Eric Dwyer, Ester de Jong, Misty Adoniou, Brenda Custodio, Giselle Lundy Ponce

Educating Refugee-Background Students: Adjustment, Literacy, and Equity
Raichle Farrelly, Amanda Hiorth, Amadu Khan, Paul Molyneux, Kristina Montero, Delila Omerbasi, Shawna Shapiro

Political, Social, and Integration Implications for Refugees and Asylum Seekers
Kinana Qaddour, Earlene Gentry, Jenna Altherr Flores, Stacy Brown, Pindie Stephen, Deborah Norland

Preparing TESOL Educators to Address the Needs of Refugee Students
Laura Baecher, AndreaHellman, Allene Grognet, Lois Scott-Conley, Josephine Kennedy, Jennifer Ballard-Kang, Julie Kasper, Stachy Brown, Judie Haynes, Debbie Zacarian, Brenda Custodio

See more sessions on refugees and immigrants and read the full details of these sessions here.

Other Sessions to Check Out

Here is a random sampling of sessions covering various topics. There’s something for everyone:

10 Timesaving Strategies for Enriching Writing Instruction
Zuzana Tomaš, Jennifer Mott-Smith

Conversation Champions: Integration of Vocabulary Into Oral Production
Nonie Bell, Amanda Strickland

Empower the Flipped Grammar Classroom With Engaging Videos and Activities
Gregory Abrahams, John Jordan

Enhancing, Enriching, Empowering Excellence in Online Course Design
Sandy Wagner, Debra Josephson Abrams

Flipping With Apps, Active Learning, and Higher Order Thinking Skills
Elizabeth Rabello, Regina Meireles

Getting the Most From Your Teacher Evaluation
Alexandra Guilamo

Helping ELLs Develop Content Vocabulary and Academic Language Proficiency
Donna Knoell

Helping ELLs in Grades 6–12 Meet Standards for Literacy
Diane August, Lisa Tabaku, Ashley Simpson Baird

Homework and Assignments in the Speaking, Listening, and Pronunciation Classroom
William Acton, J.J. Wilson, Harisimran Sandhu

I Forgot the Words: Classroom Factors Influencing English Speaking
Simon Humphries

Mind/Brain/Education in ESL/EFL
Marc Helgesen, Curtis Kelly, Robert Murphy

Selecting and Adapting Tasks for Adult Multilevel ESL Classes
Marilyn Abbott

Also check out these other convention highlights:

Pre- and Postconvention Institutes

Coffee Talks With Distinguished TESOLers

PreK–12 Day

Masters and Doctoral Forums

Electronic Village and Technology Showcase

and much, much more!

We hope to see you in Seattle!

Collaborative Writing: An Alternative Vocabulary Assessment

by Jessica Sadler and Yulinda Kusumawati
This alternative vocabulary assessment prompts your ELLs to creatively use vocabulary in their writing and allows for collaborative learning.

Giving students choices in their learning is a motivating factor (Renandya, 2014), and tapping into students’ creative side, thereby providing choices, doesn’t have to end with classroom activities—it can be extended to formal assessment as well. One way of doing this is by using alternative assessments which, according to Brown and Hudson (1998), are performances or creations of something that blend real-world simulation and the essence of familiar classroom activities; their focus is on processes and products.

Because alternative assessments can reveal strengths and weaknesses of students’ language ability just like (or arguably better than) traditional tests (Renandya, 2014), this article outlines the rationale and procedure for designing an alternative vocabulary assessment that prompts students to use vocabulary creatively in writing while also incorporating collaborative learning.

The tricky part about assessment is figuring out exactly which aspects of the language to evaluate and how to isolate those specific aspects, but teachers know that language skills generally cannot be isolated and that when assessing writing, for instance, the student also employs reading or listening skills if, respectively, a written or verbal prompt is given. To determine how to assess vocabulary, it is helpful to answer this essential question: “What does it mean to know a word?” Folse (2004) outlined the following as features of word knowledge:

  • Connotation
  • Spelling and pronunciation
  • Part of speech and word family
  • Knowing the frequency of occurrence
  • Syntactic information
  • Pragmatic (situational) information
  • Common collocations   

We would add to that list receptive and productive ability of the target vocabulary—being able to recognize the word within a listening and reading context and being able to apply the word within a speaking and writing context. 

Creating the Assessment

For our particular low-intermediate level English students, our vocabulary goals focused primarily on core meaning, part of speech, and receptive and productive ability rather than grammar or form of the target vocabulary. In order to assess exactly these aspects of vocabulary knowledge, we designed an alternative assessment that directs students to work collaboratively to write a brief, one-paragraph descriptive response to a prompt using target vocabulary. The writing prompt is related to the content of the current course unit and creates a meaningful context for the words instead of providing isolated instances in irrelevant contexts.

Students speak English in groups of two or three in order to produce one written response, and group members are chosen by the teacher, by the students, or based on proximity in the classroom, and this choice rotates throughout the semester. Anecdotally speaking, we have found that students prefer teacher-selected groups because it reduces feelings of exclusion or embarrassment. The writing prompts are usually printed on large paper, and multiple copies are given to each group in order to reduce visibility barriers. The prompt itself is peppered with related images to stimulate thinking and to “bring the outside world into the classroom in a vividly concrete way” (Raimes, 1983, p. 27).

Because this assessment is challenging and requires collaboration, groups usually finish within 50 minutes of a 60-minute class. Students are allowed to use dictionaries to define words other than the target vocabulary—of course, this requires a certain degree of trust between student and teacher.

We have found five key parameters to integrate in the writing prompt:

  1. Specify the number of target vocabulary students should apply in their writing and provide the list of all possible target vocabulary in the written prompt;
  2. specify the expected length of the written response (e.g., one paragraph);
  3. use relevant images, for reasons mentioned above;
  4. create a context related to the content being covered in class; and
  5. give students an imaginary role or purpose for writing.

Providing students with an imaginary role or purpose for the assessment employs the communicative approach and encourages students to “behave like writers in real life and to ask themselves…crucial questions about purpose and audience” (Raimes, 1983, p. 8).

Sample Prompt and Student Responses

The following is a sample writing prompt incorporating the above five parameters followed by two real group responses:

“Take a look at the map of the town. Your job is to write one paragraph advertising this town to tourists. Use at least seven words from the list of Unit 4 vocabulary words. Also, don't forget to give the town a name!”

Student responses (with target vocabulary underlined); all errors are that of the students:

  1. “Happy town! This town is lively because there are many people and shops. These are trendy shops. This town is not silence, so it is very lively. We scaned about this town. This town has ancient history. The people usually commute by car. This town has not mayor but people can solution their problem. Please come this town!”
  2. Kota! This town is lively. There are enough public transportation and a lot of trendy stores. The town of night is quiet in silence. So you can sleep well. Noon is noisy. If you live in here you can enjoy urban life. Mayor of the town is kind, he is loved by people. It is easy when you commute to work or school. There are many ancient cultures. Mayor’s name is Kota. Please enjoy this town.”

In the first sample response, it is easy to determine that students have understood the meaning of the word lively in the sentence “This town is lively because there are many people and shops” while it is unclear from the sentence “This town is lively” in the second sample response. For this type of assessment, it is important to teach students how to write sentences that include context clues about the target vocabulary.

Other Sample Prompts

  1. Sirichai is very nervous. He’s waiting in the business lobby for his first job interview. Help calm him before his interview by writing one paragraph of interview tips and suggestions using five of the unit’s vocabulary words. (Suggested images: a student being interviewed, people in business attire sitting in a waiting room)
  2. You and your team work at a national park where visitors can camp overnight. Write a warning sign that is one paragraph long for the campers. Your sign should explain some of the dangers of staying in the wooded area using five words from the unit’s vocabulary list. (Suggested images: camp site, a person/people around a campfire)
  3. Taylor is leaving in 2 days for a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia. Because she must pack light, she needs your help deciding what to bring and what to leave at home. With a partner, give her packing suggestions in one paragraph using six of the unit’s vocabulary words. (Suggested images: a woman traveling with backpack, items in a backpack)
  4. You and your partner write about restaurants for a local newspaper. You were asked to visit Sunshine Breakfast, a new restaurant in your town. Write a one-paragraph newspaper article about your breakfast using four words from the unit’s vocabulary list. (Suggested images: breakfast meal, restaurant)
  5. Diego will take an English vocabulary quiz 1 week from now. He wants to do well on the quiz. Give him tips and suggestions about studying for a vocabulary quiz in one paragraph. Use eight of your unit’s vocabulary words. (Suggested images: study tools/flash cards, student studying at desk)


Why use collaborative writing to assess vocabulary knowledge? The answer, argued Swain (1985), is that output is a source of vocabulary learning because it requires attention to vocabulary aspects not needed during listening and reading (as cited in Nation, 2003). Further, learners negotiate meaning, thereby providing comprehensible input on a more individual basis. This assessment activity continues the learning process and accentuates positive assessment washback.


Brown, J. D., & Hudson, T. (1998). The alternatives in language assessment. TESOL Quarterly, 32, 653–675.

Folse, K. (2004). Vocabulary myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Nation, P. (2003). Vocabulary. In D. Nunan (Ed.), Practical English language teaching (pp. 129–152). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Raimes, A. (1983). Techniques in teaching writing. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Renandya, W. (2014). Motivation in the language classroom. Alexandria, VA: TESOL Press.

Download this article (PDF)

Jessica Sadler earned her MA in TESOL from University of Maryland Baltimore County. She has taught English literature, EAP, and ESL/EFL in the United States, Thailand, and Japan, and she is a former recipient of the English Teaching Assistantship Fulbright Grant. She has presented education and English literature research at international and regional conferences.

Yulinda Kusumawati is a research assistant at Tokyo International University where she is currently completing an undergraduate degree in international relations. She also provides assistance to students in the English Plaza at Tokyo International University’s Global Teaching Institute.

Grammatically Speaking

by Michelle Jackson
A dummy pronoun doesn't replace a noun, but functions as a placeholder to maintain sentence structure. Learn how to teach the dummy pronoun "it" to your grammar students using this group activity. Worksheet included. 

How to Teach the Dummy Pronoun “It”

Sometimes the most interesting aspects of a language come in the smallest form. The English word it presents one of these fascinations. It can function as a typical pronoun. (E.g., I bought a new bike. It is blue.) In the example sentence, we use it to replace the noun bike. However, it can also function as an expletive or dummy pronoun. A dummy pronoun, unlike the pronoun in the example sentence above, does not replace a noun. It functions as a place holder to maintain the required subject, verb, object (SVO) structure. Some examples of it as a dummy pronoun occur when we describe weather (It is going to snow), distance (It is 2 miles to the metro station), time (It is 4 o’clock), or value judgments (It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved as all).

English has a robust use of the dummy pronoun because it is a nonpronoun dropping (non-pro-drop) language. We do not drop the pronoun in favor of maintaining the SVO structure. However, other pro-drop languages, such as Chinese, Turkish, Spanish, and Portuguese do not consistently require pronouns that can be inferred from contextual cues. Other null-subject languages that do not require a subject, such as Modern Greek and Arabic, do not require pronouns at all. Because the dummy pronoun does not necessarily occur in their mother tongues, students often fail to use it. Additionally, because the dummy pronoun carries no semantic information, it can pose a challenge to the instructor charged with its explanation.

Materials Required

  • The attached exercise (one copy per student)
  • Paper and writing utensils for all students
  • Chalkboard, whiteboard and appropriate utensils

Timing: 25 minutes

Step 1

Explain to students that English requires SVO structure. To maintain that structure there are dummy pronouns that fill the subject space in a sentence. (3 minutes)

Step 2

Provide students with examples from above regarding how dummy pronouns are used to describe weather, distance, time, and value judgments. (5 minutes)

Step 3

Provide students with the sample sentences on the Dummy Pronouns Worksheet (.docx). Note they are missing dummy pronouns. In pairs, students must add in the dummy pronouns and classify whether the sentence describes weather, distance, time, or a value judgment. (7 minutes)

Step 4

Have pairs of students form groups of four to compare and confirm answers. (5 minutes)

Step 5

Review the exercise as a whole class. (5 minutes)

Optional Extension

Once students have practiced adding dummy pronouns to premade sentences, you could require them to write their own either individually or in groups.

Happy teaching,

Download this article (PDF)
and the worksheet (.docx)


Dr. Michelle Jackson is the associate director of teaching at New Mexico State University’s Teaching Academy. She designs, develops, and delivers workshops on a variety of teaching and learning topics. Prior to NMSU, she was the manager of the English Language Institute at UT El Paso. She has taught English as a second language at UT El Paso and Harvard University as well as Spanish at UT Austin.

Meet Rawia Hayik: 2017 TESOL Teacher of the Year

Interviewed by Nancy Flores
Rawia Hayik, lecturer at Sakhnin College in Israel, taught English at Israeli-Arab public schools for 20 years. Learn about what makes her TESOL's Teacher of the Year. 

Rawia Hayik is the 2017 TESOL Teacher of the Year. She is a lecturer at Sakhnin College, Israel and a PhD graduate from Indiana University, USA. Prior to that, she taught English at Israeli-Arab public schools for 20 years. Her teaching experience also includes 10 years of instructing EFL professional development courses, 4 years of teacher education at Sakhnin College, and 3 years of teaching at the graduate level (Multicultural Literature) at Indiana University. Her teacher-research focuses on children’s literature on social justice issues, critical literacy, participatory documentary photography, and the linguistic landscape.

TESOL’s Nancy Flores asked Rawia a few questions about her teaching experiences and philosophies:

1. What made you want to become an English language teacher?

When I was in the fifth grade, I was slapped by my English teacher for mispronouncing a word. He hurt me tremendously and instilled enormous hatred towards the English language in my little heart. Ever since, I was determined to become an English teacher when growing up, but a different kind of teacher whose students would not suffer. The dream came true, and after graduating from college, I became an elementary school English teacher. During my 20 years of teaching, I worked laboriously to be the exact opposite of my cruel fifth-grade teacher. I treated my students with great respect and care, and tried to cater to their needs, interests, intelligences, and abilities.

2. You currently teach in Israel. How is teaching there different from teaching in other contexts?

Teaching Arab minority students living in a male-dominated Middle-Eastern society with conflicting religious groups, I have aspired to address these issues within my teaching context, using the English language as a springboard for challenging the culture of silence and promoting students’ active participation in the learning process. My main goal, in addition to teaching English as a foreign language, is to provide my normally silenced minority students with productive ways to speak up, thus educating socially aware citizens who can act to transform their reality into a better one (Friere, 1970).

3. How important do you think your role as an English teacher is in your community?

As an English teacher and teacher educator, I view my role as essential in contributing to the community in various domains. I attempt to extend my teaching to issues relevant to students’ lives and encourage them to take action for social change. For example, I used emancipatory stories to challenge our male-dominated society and invited students to question traditional gender-positioning (see Hayik, 2015a, 2016, for further details). I tried to empower minority students through reading books like those by Rosa Parks and engaging them in critical dialogues over discrimination (see Hayik, 2011, 2012, 2015b). I tried to promote tolerance to different faiths by introducing religious-diversity books and raising students’ awareness to differing beliefs/cultures (see Hayik, 2015c).

As students became conscious of these problems, they decided to take action through, for instance, designing slogans and using them to protest against violence in the village streets, or writing letters-of-critique to politicians or authors of sexist stories. I also collaborated with different local schools on a project which encouraged students to document problems in their community and share their critique with an audience of influential figures at the end of the process. The audience listened to young students powerfully critiquing drawbacks in their communities and promised to help solve these problems.

4. Please talk about your upcoming convention session, “Engaging EFL Writing Through Participatory Documentary Photography (PhotoVoice) Projects”

PhotoVoice (Wang & Burris, 1997) is a tool that invites students to capture photos of deficiencies in their reality, describe the problems in writing, and later share the photos and written accounts with the community, hoping for change. Inspired by critical literacy pedagogy (Friere, 1970; Lewison, Leland, & Harste, 2015), this approach challenges teaching EFL as a set of linguistic skills and standards detached through offering students an empowering technique for relevant language use (Freeman & Freeman, 1998).

Aiming to connect the classroom to students’ community, I, a teacher-educator and pedagogical advisor of 18 third-year EFL student-teachers, partnered with three Israeli-Arab elementary schools to implement PhotoVoice in the EFL classroom. After familiarizing the student-teachers with the PhotoVoice tool through reading and discussing several academic articles on the topic, they experimented with it through capturing photos of concerning issues and writing about them. The writing workshop principles (Atwell, 1998; Calkins, 1994) were introduced to scaffold student-teachers’ writing (and later teaching of writing). The second phase was applying PhotoVoice, alongside process writing elements, in students’ practice-teaching contexts. Each student-teacher worked with a group of fifth- and sixth-grade EFL students, guiding them in photography, technology, and the writing process, and preparing them for the final presentations.

Children’s powerful presentations to political representatives, journalists, and parents at the end of the process (featured in the local news, e.g., Mjdna and Elhmra) demonstrate how creative and proficient EFL students can be when provided the chance to discuss issues pertinent to their lives and offered sufficient support. Sample student projects, examples showing their writing development at each stage, videotaped oral presentations, and student-teachers’ final reflections will be shared with the session audience.

This innovative way for improving literacy skills while promoting change has significant implications for practitioners and policymakers through fostering a more engaging approach to language education that connects literacy teaching with social action. It is especially important for minority students who are often offered limited opportunities to experience empowering pedagogies.

5. What advice would you give other TESOL professionals wanting to follow your footsteps?

One of the stories in my sixth-grade textbook was Gibran’s “The Ambitious Violet,” a story about a short violet who wished she could grow taller than her fellow violets in order to see the wider horizon, just like the neighboring tall roses. Mother Nature fulfilled her wish, but such desire became fatal as the angry wind broke the violet’s neck. Rejecting reality led to her deadly fate. I still remember my disappointment of the story ending at that time. Why would the violet perish for the mere fact that she aspired for a richer life? Throughout my life, I, a Middle-Eastern female, was inundated with similar educational messages promoting adhering to social prescriptions. Alongside restricting gender-related messages, my reality involved additional challenges of living in a country rife with conflicts between diverse cultural groups and faiths, especially for me as a minority (Christian-Arab among a Muslim-Arab majority) within a minority (Arab minority in a mostly-Jewish country). However, I have always felt empowered by the courageous violet and never deterred by the fatal punishment she received. After all, she died after quenching her thirst for change. She inspired me to challenge injustices and fight for a better life for myself and my students. Even though such alternative ways of teaching may be paved with hardships, it is worthwhile to try. I advise other teachers following my footsteps to base their teaching on empowering pedagogies, deviating from following the prescribed textbooks, and rather providing their students with inspiring and challenging teaching experiences that nurture their and their students’ inner ambitious violets.


Atwell, N. (1998). In the middle: New understandings about writing, reading, and learning. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers.

Calkins, L. M. (1994). The art of teaching writing (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Freeman, Y. S., & Freeman, D. E. (1998). ESL/EFL teaching. Principles for success.
Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Friere, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum. 

Hayik, R. (2011). Critical visual analysis of multicultural sketches. English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 10(1), 95–118.

Hayik, R. (2012). Identity representations in visual texts. The International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 35(3), 293–309.

Hayik, R. (2015a). Diverging from traditional paths: Reconstructing fairy tales in the EFL classroom. Diaspora, Indigenous, and Minority Education, 9(4), 221–236.

Hayik, R. (2015b). My critical literacy journey in a Middle-Eastern EFL classroom: Insights and challenges. In B. Yoon & R. Sharif (Eds.), Critical literacy practice – applications of critical theory in diverse settings (pp. 95–109). New York, NY: Springer.

Hayik, R. (2015c). Addressing religious diversity through children’s literature: An “English as a foreign language” classroom in Israel. International Journal of Multicultural Education, 17(2), 92–106.

Hayik, R. (2016). What does this story say about females: Challenging gender-biased texts in the English language classroom. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 59(4), 409–419.

Lewison, M., Leland, C., & Harste, J. C. (2014). Creating critical classrooms: Reading and writing with an edge. New York, NY: Routledge.

Wang, C., & Burris, M. (1997). PhotoVoice: Concept, methodology, and use for participatory needs assessment. Health Education and Behavior, 24, 369–387.


Nancy Flores is the membership coordinator at TESOL International Association. She has been with the association for 8 years and helps to assist members and manage membership-related projects. Originally from Honduras, Flores is a fluent Spanish speaker and has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from George Mason University.