By Elena Murphy  |Â

This year, teachers at Bridge and Fiske elementary schools have a small but powerful tool in their classrooms to help the growing numbers of students who attend but have little or no experience speaking English.

The tools are ELL (English Language Learner) kits and include a picture book with labels, as well as audiocassettes and headphones so students can click on pictures and hear the pronunciation of each word. ELL teachers Dierdre Schadler at Bridge, and Catherine Murphy at Fiske, were awarded a grant from the Lexington Education Foundation to put these kits in teachers’ hands to supplement the direct English language instruction these students receive.

“We saw a need in our community,” says Schadler. “The ELL population at Bridge alone is over 10%” of the total enrollment, she notes, and, “There are a lot of kids from all over the world who don’t have the English language to participate in the classroom.” She also points out that the year-to-year changes are so great that the teachers needed something in the classroom that was flexible to support this ever-changing student population.

Schadler says, teachers want to help but they are also covering the standard curriculum. Non-English speaking elementary school students get a half-hour to forty minutes of English instruction in small groups at their grade level, these ELL teachers say, and Schadler says, “They need more than that.”

“Our vision was that kids can use this where teachers are working with the rest of the class” and these students would not know what is being discussed at all. Using these “picture dictionaries” enables the “child to be engaged…rather than have the student feel like they can’t participate,” says Schadler. “It takes seven to ten years to learn a language completely,” so these children need all the opportunities they can get, she notes.


There are several themes to choose from, including home, school, food, and helping people. There are also four levels, so the kits can be adjusted as the student advances. There are a number of kits so they can be spread throughout the classrooms that need them, and books are changed biweekly, Schadler says.

Originally, these tools were going to be made available to kindergarteners through second-graders, but Schadler says that they’re being used through fifth grade. After all, she says, any non-English speaker is a “blank slate” and can benefit from the kits, and move up to more challenging levels as they develop their language skills.

The response from teachers and students has been great, says Schadler. “Teachers have welcomed it,” she says. “Each teacher integrates it in their own way.”  Typical use is while a teacher is explaining a lesson in science or social studies the student can take the kit out and work on it independently. The headphones allow the students to work quietly without changing the noise level in the classroom.

It’s important, says Schadler, that kids can move forward as “they feel successful.” For instance, students need to learn concrete words such as “dog” before they can understand abstract words such as “Constitution.” She says “it’s remarkable how well students have learned the basics” using the ELL kits.

ELL (English Language Learner) kits and include a picture book with labels, as well as audiocassettes and headphones so students can click on pictures and hear the pronunciation of each word.

Schadler says when she and Fiske’s Catherine Murphy considered what to include in these kits, Schadler thought of these materials since she had had success in her own family with this type of picture dictionary. Murphy notes if there were more time, she’d like to “write my own texts for these students, aligning them with what the teachers are teaching in the classroom,” but for now, the main goal of building English vocabulary is being achieved. She says, “I can see from my pre-tests and post-tests that students are most definitely acquiring the basic academic vocabulary that they will need going forward.”

“The beauty of this particular tool is that the student regulates his or her own pace,” says Murphy. Schadler agrees that the success of these kits “has everything to do with the child.” She says that while students acquire common expressions from their peers, these kits fulfill a broader need for vocabulary. She recalls a recent conversation with a kindergartner from Israel who began the year with essentially no English. “She was frustrated with communication at the beginning of the year. In March, we had a real conversation. To go from zero to conversant in that amount of time, that’s what makes this job amazing,” she says.

Murphy and Schadler would like to see this program expand throughout the Lexington elementary schools.

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