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Using A Star Chart to Teach English Language Learners

By Larry Ferlazzo

The leader of a caravan in the desert, where sandstorms constantly change the landscape, looks to the patterns of the stars in the sky to stay on course. The stars are not the destination, but they do provide dependable guides for the journey to the next oasis, no matter which direction the caravan comes from, how well it is equipped for the trip, or how rough the terrain may be.
~ Hinterhuber, Hans H., and Popp, Wolfgang. Are You a Strategist or Just a Manager?" Harvard Business Review Jan./Feb. 1992

About the Author

Larry Ferlazzo teaches at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. He is the author of English Language Learners: Teaching Strategies That Work and the co-author (with Lorie Hammond) of Building Parent Engagement in Schools (Linworth Publishing). He also writes a popular resource-sharing blog for teachers.

Im not a fan of endless checklists and long lists of techniques that are given to teachers with the expectation that they will be used to improve their professional practice. Instead, I tend to think that helping teachers develop a vision, a way of thinking, a cultural orientation, may be more effective. With that kind of star chart," many teachers can apply their own thinking and experience to stay on course.

I was a community organizer for twenty years prior to becoming a high-school teacher and, though I received a lot of direct training and mentorship during that period, most successful organizers operate primarily out of their sense of vision. My new book, English Language Learners: Teaching Strategies That Work, reflects how I have applied those principles in the classroom by focusing on five stars" to guide me. (Though my examples often are related to ELLs, Ive used these same strategies effectively with mainstream students.):


Community organizers often say that organizing" is just another word for relationship building." On the surface, you quickly can identify peoples self-interests -- such as the desire to get a better job or buy ones own home. But in order to develop power to create significant personal and social change, it is necessary to go deeper and find out what personal experiences might inspire people to seek improvements. Those insights only can be uncovered in the context of a genuine relationship.

We can use those self-interests to be more of an agitator (challenging students to reflect on their own knowledge, lives, and experiences and then using those reflections to frame a vision for the future) than an irritator (telling them what they should want to know and how they should learn it). Doing that successfully can help English-language learners fight past the frequent frustrations most people experience in learning a second language.


Stories can help immigrant students make connections based on their similar experiences, and help them consider alternative perspectives. Those classroom conversations involve an exchange of information, not an interview or a one-way presentation, and can result in the creation of a community of learners. By developing that type of class culture, students can find that they have both more personal self-confidence and more in common with one another than they originally thought. That combination of increased self-assurance and the feeling of being more connected to their peers results in students becoming more comfortable taking risks, which is one of the keys, if not the key, to second-language learning success.


Helping students develop leadership skills helps them become co-creators of their learning journey. Everyone in the class, including the official educator, can be a learner and a teacher.

Patiently helping students develop the capacity to lead helps them create their own sense of power, which dictionaries define as the ability to act" -- both individually and collectively. Developing that capacity is particularly important to English-language learners -- many of whom have been uprooted from their native countries through no choice of their own, face challenges in understanding and communicating in our cultures primary language, and can be living in lower-income communities where examples of powerlessness are obvious each day.


Its difficult for students to feel powerful if the leadership and energy only flows from the teacher. Using Saul Alinskys Iron Rule" of never doing for someone what they can do for themselves" as a guide, we can show students how to become much more than empty vessels waiting to be filled by the educators input.

Community organizers describe action as the oxygen of an organization. Action is equally important to the healthy life of a classroom. We need to help students learn that people without power react to rules and experiences that others create, while people with power act to create those rules and experiences.

Having English language learners describe and interpret classroom experiences has long been considered an effective instructional strategy. Helping students discover knowledge on their own through those experiences, instead of telling them information, creates even richer language (and life) learning opportunities. To paraphrase Dave Kees, a talented English teacher in China: What makes for more engaging stories and conversation --going on a prepackaged tour or going on an adventure?


Many of us define ourselves by our activities instead of by the outcomes of those activities. Educators, too, can fall into the trap of substituting busyness" for real progress. As T. S. Eliot once said, We had the experience, but missed the meaning."

When we take time to critically review our work and search for evidence of our accomplishments (both through data and personal observation), we learn how to improve, and well often uncover key lessons we might have missed. Its important for educators and students alike to develop the discipline of reflection. Many do not take the time to digest what they are doing and learning. English-language learners have to learn double the amount of other students -- language and content -- and, therefore, are even less likely to naturally incorporate that element. Theres always so much to learn!

These guidelines are not magic fairy dust" that will immediately transform every classroom into the ones we see in such hero teacher" movies as Stand and Deliver and Freedom Writers. But they might make our classrooms a bit more fulfilling and energizing for our students and for ourselves.


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