Willmar teachers undergo workshop on strategies for reaching the district's non-English speakers

WILLMAR -- A person new to English may learn to speak the language, maybe even read and write a little, but that's a far cry from being able to grasp the meaning of a math or science textbook.

WILLMAR -- A person new to English may learn to speak the language, maybe even read and write a little, but that's a far cry from being able to grasp the meaning of a math or science textbook.

Helping students make that leap -- from a casual knowledge of English to understanding academic language -- is the challenge teachers in Willmar face on a daily basis.

Consultant Elisa Fair spent two days with Willmar teachers this week to talk about strategies for working with students in the English Language Learner program.

The School Board approved an improvement plan for the district, because some ELL students did not meet goals on standardized math tests last spring.

Students in grades 3-8 and grade 11 were tested in reading and math statewide. In Willmar, 198 ELL students did not pass the test for their grade level. That's about 10 percent of the nearly 2,000 Willmar students who took the math tests, according to Danith Clausen, the district's director of curriculum and instruction.


Clausen told the School Board this week that the problem for non-English speaking students on the math test was not computation but word problems and the requirement that they explain how they arrived at their answers. Some students lacked the vocabulary they needed to do that, she said.

In Willmar, ELL students are primarily Hispanic and Somali, but the district also has some students from other backgrounds.

In small workshops with faculty members at the Junior High and Senior High this week, Fair taught them about the theory of how people learn a language and how to use the theory in their classrooms.

Teachers at the workshops included teachers from a variety of subject areas and from the ELL program.

Fair said she was pleased with the enthusiasm teachers showed in the workshops.

Along with a deeper study of instructional theory, Fair said she offers some basic strategies that teachers can implement. That can include frequently summarizing information, paraphrasing, using synonyms and providing visual cues.

In her workshops, she said, she also talks about honoring students' native cultures and languages.

Fair will visit the district throughout the coming year to work with staff members. She'll demonstrate teaching methods and will coach teachers on how to use them.


Janice Vazquez, the district's ELL coordinator, said many of the strategies Fair teaches could cross over to help all students in the district. She met Fair last spring and was interested in having her come to Willmar, she said. Administrators liked her idea.

Having the training from Fair is a great opportunity for the district's teachers, Vazquez said.

Some classes are challenging even for English-speaking kids, and Junior High Principal Mark Miley said he hopes the new strategies will help everyone.

He praised Vazquez for bringing Fair to Willmar. "We're excited to learn strategies to help our kids learn and be better students," he said.

Fair worked with a total of about 30 teachers in small workshops over two days.

Fair is the founder of Vision for Learning in Bend, Ore., an education consulting firm. One of her specialties is working with students who are learning English.

The district's federal Title I funding -- money aimed at helping struggling students -- will be used to pay for the long-term workshop.

About $78,000 of the Title I funding is available for improving instruction for ELL students under the district's improvement plan.

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