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  • Writer's pictureKyle Larson

From Stagnant to Growth: How an EL teacher ensures every student learns language using reading conferences

Updated: Mar 14

A teacher stands resolute in front of a classroom.

It all started in the suburbs of Seattle.

I began my high school ELL career after stints in Mexico, Asia, and in the US at the university level. I felt as if I had it all figured out. My students had progressed everywhere I had gone, but I wasn’t prepared for what I was walking into:


Rising housing costs in Seattle had pushed many families to nearby cities in a very short time, and we were one of them. The sudden influx of new students into the country was jarring for a small ELL program. On top of that,  the teacher before me had only lasted a year in the school before she quit — she cried every day in front of the students —and, let me tell you, this left an entrenched culture of disconnection, apathy, and zero progress.

Students would cuss me out, refuse to stop watching movies on their phones when I asked them to put them away, or do anything but work, whatsoever.

What was I to do?

I made up my mind to do the best thing I thought I could do: stand my ground. I decided that the only way for me to rid our classroom culture of whatever the opposite of education is, was to be firm.

This worked to some degree, and it was clearly a much better strategy than to stand in front of the class with tears in my eyes, but every few weeks there was a new struggle that began to interrupt the foundation of continuity that I was trying to build, that is, new students trickling in throughout the year, one by one.

It took the full first year to get students to believe that they could actually benefit from our time in the classroom, but to make that a reality, it was going to require a finer touch: a tool that allowed me to meet the needs of every student in the classroom--even the brand new ones.

I have always been a student of language learning. Ever since high school Spanish, I marveled at the idea that students could go through three or four years of language classes and come out with nothing to say. Clearly, there was something wrong.

Well, suffice it to say that the same thing was happening in my own language classes.

For a while there, I just chalked it up to a broken system that gave me too many things to do and not enough time or tools to do them.

But after about a year and a half I had finally gotten my feet underneath me. Things became more automatic. I made quicker decisions. Concepts and abbreviations weren’t so foreign to me anymore. I had finally arrived at a place where I could begin making systematic changes.

And this is where my breakthrough began.

We had a school-wide system of reading. All students read 20 to 30 minutes every other day, and have monthly reading conferences with their ELA teachers. Many of my English learners took a liking to the system. It was better than reading thick novels in English classes, as they had been accustomed to. But there was still something lacking. Books were never quite what my students wanted or needed.

Students wanted audio, there was no audio.

Students needed fundamental language, the books that were low enough were childish or not relatable.

Students needed a better tracking system. While the reading conferences I was having with my students were beneficial and tracked progress, there was no way of telling how much students were reading.

I continued using reading conferences and independent reading for a few years after that. I found that if I gave everyone something to read and time with me one on one to talk about it, I could help almost every student.

But there was always that student, you know the one, the student with spotty attendance and absolutely refuses to engage. Sometimes they are lower than the rest of the class. Sometimes they are higher than the rest of the class. But without fail, day after day, I would always have that one student who wouldn’t get what they needed or wanted.

I think it was a combination of my wife and a few of the books that I had read over the years that finally flipped the switch.

I suppose I had bought into the bitter teacher routine. It feels good to complain about something you have no power over. I suppose, besides death and taxes, one other guarantee in life is that teachers will always complain.

I had always complained about how one size fits all approach for education was not suitable for the EL classroom. There were too many variables to teach in such a way: diversity in educational background, motivation, language, level, interest, and culture only begin to describe the differences that span in EL classroom.

I finally decided to take the Problem into my own hands one day, when a student began complaining about the books he was reading. He didn’t like any of them, and he didn’t see the point in reading books with zero application to daily life for 20 minutes every day.

What if they did? I asked myself.

What if they did apply? What if every student could read books with language that they could use today?

* * *

And this was the beginning of AIR Language. Today every student in my language classes decides what they want to read. And every student progresses.

There is not one stagnant student in my classroom. And I owe that to 3 things:

  • Reading conferences

  • Our online library

  • A complaining student who told me the truth because he wasn’t getting the one thing we one thing we centered our class on: progress.

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