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A student writing in class.

Through a pen pal-like program, U students are helping English as a Second Language speakers better their writing.

Making friends and influencing learners

By Peggy Rader

From eNews, March 2005

All students who are pursuing teacher licensure in the U's College of Education and Human Development are required to spend extensive amounts of time in school classrooms. Would they choose to spend more time working with K-12 students toward that licensure, even if those extra hours carried no extra class credits.

Turns out, some would willingly spend more time, if given the chance.

Susan Ranney, a lecturer in the second languages and cultures program in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, discovered this when she gave the students in her class--Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL)--an opportunity to help students in a local school.

Ranney approached two teachers in the Robbinsdale school district to develop a plan for U students to become pen pals with Robbinsdale students to help the middle and high school students improve their writing. In no time, Ranney's students were responding to letters of introduction from Robbinsdale students.

"The students at the school were so excited," says Ranney. "It makes the learning authentic when you are writing [to] a real person and you know something about that person. Our licensure students really went all out, drawing pictures for the kids and really connecting. It made their own learning about how to teach these kids a more authentic experience as well."

Why do we need English as a second language or bilingual education?

"My grandfather came to the United States speaking no English and he did just fine without any special help. Why can't students just learn English on their own, the way my ancestors did?"

* Many, if not most, immigrants in the past were literate in their native language; that is not the case today.

*Past immigrants may not have done "just fine." Limited language skills clearly limited life chances in the past.

* Many immigrants did have special help. Bilingual education has likely existed since the very beginnings of formal education--it is not a new or recent phenomenon.

To read more about second language learning and teaching, see "Conversations with Mainstream Teachers: What can we tell them about second language learning and teaching," the keynote address at the MinneTESOL 2000 Conference.

Source: University of Minnesota Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition.

Ranney came up with the idea last year. "I was preparing for my class on how to teach writing," she explains. "In the past I would have sample ESL student essays for them to work with, [but] it occurred to me that it would be so much more engaging for my students to write feedback to real students who could actually use it. Then it isn't just an exercise."

Learning to write is complicated even in your first language, Ranney adds.

In addition to the letter writing that goes on between the Robbinsdale and University students, Ranney visits the Robbinsdale classrooms to pick up draft essays for her students to work on.

"I conferred with the teachers as to what they were looking for their students to accomplish in that particular assignment," she says. "My students then had the opportunity to evaluate the essays of their pen pals based on the teacher's guidelines and goals. It helped [my students] learn how to structure assignments and how to judge [these essays] appropriately."

"It's important for our students to have as many connections as possible to real classrooms," says Ranney. "They have so many placements during their training, but every opportunity adds something to their preparation. And it allows them to have an impact beyond their own college classroom. [For the Robbinsdale students, they] now have a connection to the U, and I hope many of them will come here when they graduate to become teachers themselves."

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