Teaching English language learners at Corbett Elementary – anything but easy

By Joe McCarthy

image Nevada Capital News, Joe McCarthy

Corbett Elementary School in Reno has the highest concentration of Latino students in the Washoe County School District. Latino students make up close to ninety percent of the student body, 451 out of a total of 518 students. 

Every school day, Corbett’s teachers arrive early to go about their business teaching these students language-rich, grade-level content to ensure that every student has an equal chance to acquire proficiency in English.

Ana Uquilla”s daughter Chelsea is a student at Corbett. In a crowded office, Uquilla tells translator Norma Gomez, “Chelsea is in second grade. She wants to read anything that she can get her eyes on.”

Chelsea began school with limited English language skills. She has now figured out how to sound out her vocabulary words, discover what each word means and use each word in proper context in her reading assignments. She is now reading at grade level.

Sarah Vollenhals, ELL teacher getting ready to go back to work, image Nevada Capital News, Joe McCarthy

What’s a typical day like in Corbett’s classrooms?

Sarah Vollenhals has been a teacher at Corbett for seven years. She has been there for the difficult journey from a one-star rating to the recent four-star rating. She started out teaching second and third grades. This is her third year teaching English language learning (ELL) since earning her ELL certification.

“Our job is to make sure that students are developing academic language in English, reading, speaking, and writing. I particularly watch over first and second grade, but really I’m involved with all of our students.

“My label is ELL teacher, but I help all students develop language skills, even for our students that English is their first language. We give each student opportunities to speak, listen and talk effectively to each other, strengthening their academic vocabulary and communication skills.”

To start the day, her students began working in small groups doing guided reading. She had books out and on her tables. The emergent readers worked on word recognition, talked about the words and what they think they mean. They talked about what Volenhals calls “opposites” and made those connections. 

Vollenhal says, “This is second grade. They’re seven years old.”

Hard at work, image Nevada Capital News, Joe McCarthy

Vollenhals described her strategies. “Our students already have some English language skills. We look at it through the lens of what they already know. They bring excitement and curiosity to class each day.  We go from where they are at, then build on that knowledge throughout the day.”

During her class, the students talked about the desert ecosystem, decoded difficult environment-related words, tried to figure out the meanings, drew pictures, looked at photographs, watched videos and then talked about what they discovered. As with all students, instruction must have meaning. 

Vocabulary development has always been one of the biggest challenges for reading comprehension. The word scorpion came up.  A student shouted out that she had seen a scorpion, “I was stung by a scorpion.” They all talked about scorpions and the incident in English. Children learn vocabulary through conversation, listening and reading on their own. Vollenhals’ teaching strategies that day succeeded in all three of these ways.  

Spanish is the first language for most of the students. Most likely, their parents and other adults in their lives are not fluent in reading and writing in English. To help these students, EL teachers need to have a solid grasp of the linguistic characteristics of their students’ native language. 

“Often, when we’re talking about words, I’ll ask them, ‘who knows the meaning of that word in Spanish?’ Some students may not know. Once they find out, it becomes this nice connection, finding out its meaning in Spanish,” Vollenhals says. 

Education policy nationwide defines a dual language learner (DLL) as a child between the ages of zero and eight years old who is in the process of learning English for the first time in addition to a native language.  Vollenhals explains, “We encourage our Spanish speakers to hold on to both languages and become fluent in both. Students new to our country, it’s absolutely encouraged. I tell them to please write in your first language, as much as you can. Then we can build your English language skills from there. I encourage their families to help with that. But in school, we focus on English.”

The science of learning how to read has changed significantly in recent years. Studies now show that the most effective way to teach these young students is by helping them crack the language code.  For ELLs, language acquisition strategies differ slightly in complexity from those of English speakers.

Comprehensive ELL instruction focuses on the mastering of the sounds of spoken language, the letter combinations that represent these sounds (phonics), vocabulary, oral reading skills, and content comprehension. 

Some experienced teachers in Amerca’s classroom remain resistant to the recent evidence on how classroom teachers are able to better develop their ELLs English language skills. Helping children decode words in order to be able to acquire content knowledge was viewed as both boring and ineffective. It was not the way they were taught to teach children. A recent study in Education Week confirmed that more than 75 percent of today’s elementary school teachers still encourage their students to guess the name of words they don’t know.  

On the contrary, Corbett’s Principal, Denise Dufrene, believes in the efficacy of the latest research. She instituted a formal instructional model called Guided Language Acquisition Design (GLAD) to teach academic content to students with varying levels of English language proficiency.  

Corbett’s teachers use the GLAD model in the daily lesson planning to teach academic content in subject areas, science, mathematics, and social studies. More than 500,000 teachers in 21 states have received training in GLAD including all of Corbett’s teachers. 

Guided Language Acquisition Design promotes 35 strategies grouped into four categories: motivation, new knowledge, guided oral practice, and reading, writing development. The strategies help foster students’ skills to listen, speak, read and write in English and sufficiently acquire content area knowledge that will ready them for mainstream classroom instruction in the later grades.   

image Nevada Capital News, Joe McCarthy

Corbett’s increased achievement scores have catalyzed successes in reading comprehension, vocabulary, writing and the content areas of math, science, and social studies. 

“Kids will do anything that the adults asked them to do. But we won’t succeed teaching them if we don’t apply what we now know about second language learning,” says Dufrene.  The majority of Corbett students come to school without a lot of background knowledge. “Our students haven’t had the opportunity to acquire crucial knowledge that enhances learning to read. They have not traveled or experienced things that students at other schools may have.”

“Knowledge exposes you to a lot,” says Dufrene. “When you know something already, you attach to what you’re being taught. Our job is to build that background knowledge. We understand that not every kid has been on a hike in a national park. That is most likely true of our students. As educators, we have to be aware that not all experiences are shared.” 

The power of collaborative teaching

“When we see each other in the morning, everyone is just so happy to be here. I can’t really explain the connections we all have,” says Vollenhals. “I feel it just goes beyond a job. It feels like this is our second home. And I feel like the people who stayed the course made Corbett what it is today. 

“Denise’s leadership, our instructional coach and our Dean of Students, our counselor, we all need each other. We ask, are you being awesome for the kids today?  Okay, then do better. I want to be better every day. I want to do whatever it takes for the kids and not let them down. We are here because we hold each other to very high standards.”

For Vollenhals, in regards to her interactions with her boss, one thing sticks out. “Denise saying we should present her with any kind of problem and we’d say ‘this isn’t working,’ and she says ‘we’re not going to admire the problem, we’re going to come up with a solution.’ 

“She doesn’t give you that moment to dwell on the problem. She says to just identify what it is, then we come up with a solution. I repeat that to my own children, let’s not admire the problem. Let’s come up with a way forward.”

Dufrene’s leadership has made a lasting impression on Vollenhals. Solid and abiding leadership is part of the reason Vollenhals has stayed at Corbett.

“I really think it’s such a great way to approach everything in life. Because we can get bogged down looking at problems all day long. She’s taught us to ‘Let’s be smart about this, and always put the focus on the children.’ Anytime when energy starts getting pulled away from them, she turns it right back to, ‘What can we do for the kids’?’  If that’s not the definition of leadership, what is? It’s what’s kept me here. I’m so glad that I’ve been here to see just how far we’ve come. Then once you know it, the community recognizes it. It feels wonderful.”

Teacher preparation time, image Nevada Capital News, Joe McCarthy

Dr. Myrna Campbell, Corbett’s other ELL teacher agrees. She believes that “team effort is the secret of our success. We analyze, reflect, implement, adjust to determine who else needs help, need support, needs enrichment, explore, engage in collective problem-solving.” 

The parents as part of the team 

For the Corbett’s instructional team, constant communication with the parents is essential. Family game night affords an opportunity to bring parents, students, teachers together in learning.

“We teach families how to play different math games, and then they go home and play it,” says Vollenhals. “We talk about how that went. We meet even on Saturdays. We go out into the community, meet the families. Then we invite them to classrooms for presentations. It is constant communication.”

Ana Urquilla, Chelsea and Marco’s mom, is an active parent. She says that is true of most of Corbett’s parents. 

“I talk to my children a lot at home, asking how school is going, what’s going on there. I come to the conferences and school events to stay informed of what’s going on in their schooling.”

Urquilla’s son Marco is in fifth grade. “He reads on his own, loves music and wants to learn to play the violin. Just this morning, Marco wanted to go to school early so he could go to the library, return books and get some new ones. He’s really into fiction right now.”

Dr. Myrna Campbell’s Book Clubs

Dr. Myrna Campbell has been an ELL teacher at Corbett for 20 years.  She is from the Philippines where she was an English teacher with a master’s degree in English as a Second Language and a Ph.D. is administration.

“An English language teacher’s job is to support our English language learners in the most creative ways,” Campbell says. “We work in small groups and sometimes with individuals. We tailor our instruction by considering the individual needs of our students.

“Most of our English language learners speak Spanish. We have had a few Filipinos, just like me.”

Campbell is an advocate for the use of the latest educational research and teaching strategies. “We give comprehensible input to help our English language learners acquire new vocabulary words, how to use English language structure to communicate, provide information, narrate, retell a story, even persuade.  The strategies are comprehensive. We provide background information about the subject matter, then we reinforce it. We emphasize listening, speaking, reading and writing, all the domains of communication skills so that students need to learn in the acquisition of effortless English.” 

Dr. Myrna Campbell, image Nevada Capital News, Joe McCarthy

Campbell set up Book Clubs for fifth and six graders to foster high order critical thinking skills. “A Book Club is a component of guided reading around a literature circle. This activity reinforcing conversations, academic conversations, literary conversations among the students. It allows students to use the language and to better listen to each other.” 

During their book club meetings, Dr. Campbell extends the conversation. They discuss “the components of the fiction pieces, discuss the plot, characters, settings, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement, resolution. They become experts in literature, literary pieces. The book clubs are interactive. I have nine book clubs going.” I wish I could never retire.”


This is the second in a series of reports about Corbett Elementary School. Upcoming pieces will discuss instructional coaching, school counseling, and equity in public education.

Joe McCarthy: I am NCN’s education reporter. I have an MS in curriculum development from SUNY Albany. In the 70s, I directed a community college-sponsored inner-city adult learning center in New York and in the 80s developed the first-offender education program for Northern Nevada Correctional Center. My oldest daughter is an instructional coach for the WCSD. She serves several schools in the district.