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May 20, 2021

Did you know that intentional support doesn’t have to be active? Your English learners’ brains may be taxed throughout the school day by the mental effort of learning new content in a foreign language. Consult Y4Y’s new course, Supporting English Learners, for ideas on how you can let language learning “simmer” in your students’ minds by using fun and engaging activities.

Social vs. Academic Language

Let’s say you’re planning a trip to France. Are you more likely to be learning phrases like “May I please have butter with my bread?” or “Wouldn’t Kant be amused by the juxtaposition of this graffiti on a city beautification billboard?” The bread-and-butter sentence is an example of “conversational” language — words and phrases people might use in everyday life. It uses a simple sentence structure and concrete nouns. It places a low cognitive demand on listeners. Another name for it is “social language.” What about the second sentence, the one about Kant? While the musings of a legendary philosopher might come up in conversation, even some native speakers might pull out the dictionary to look up “juxtaposition.” That sentence is an example of “academic language,” which uses a more complex sentence structure and abstract nouns (things you can’t see, hear, touch, feel or smell). Unless you’re helping an English learner prepare for a vocabulary test, stick with “bread and butter” words when you’re giving instructions or having a casual conversation.  

Context-Embedded vs. Context-Reduced

Another consideration when supporting English learners is how much context you’re offering for English vocabulary building. Context-embedded language offers visual clues, gestures, facial expressions or specific locations to help learners use their prior knowledge and intuition. Providing context isn’t exclusive to social language exchanges. For example, a lesson in geography can be presented with a whole host of visual clues, yet a social conversation about an experience of being bullied could be challenging. So, be sure you’re offering plenty of context. Visuals, visuals, visuals!

Cultural Competence Is On You

You can offer English learners greater ease in communicating when you recognize that it’s the responsibility of your staff to understand the cultural norms your students bring to the program every bit as much as it is for students to learn the norms of your program. Here are some elements of cultural competence, with examples that show the importance of that cultural competence:

  • How they use symbols. The @ symbol can be used in Spanish to include male and female. Amig@s means friends of both gender.
  • How they problem-solve. Perfectionism in the Japanese culture could make it emotionally challenging for a student with this heritage to embrace the “freedom to failure” that we advocate in problem-based learning projects.
  • How they communicate nonverbally. Indian head-nodding can be agreement, but a student from this culture might nod along to give the impression of understanding or agreement out of an internal pressure to appear polite even when confused.
  • How they learn. Some African cultures have demonstrated their concern for children through strictly adhered-to rules, so these students may be uncomfortable questioning new authorities, even on noncontroversial topics.
  • How they resolve conflict. Girls from many parts of the world may not be as experienced as boys in advocating directly for themselves in uncomfortable situations.
  • Their ways of knowing. Verbally passing wisdom between generations is part of most cultures, especially tribal cultures, and your staff should honor this mode of knowledge building.

What “Passive Support” Looks Like

Your program probably isn’t teaching English to students who aren’t native speakers. Rather, you’re supporting their learning and engagement. So what does “passive support” look like in the context of your program? As we’ve covered here, you’ll focus on social exchanges with lots of context and visual cues, and be sure your knowledge of their cultures allows them the greatest space for growth. Within these parameters, consider activities like these:

  • Bilingual Mad Libs. A universal favorite that often leads to belly laughs, these side-by-side fill-ins can help students build vocabulary and exercise their understanding of parts of speech. Talk with your school-day partners and design them yourself based on current curriculum. Don’t forget to allow for a generous side of silliness!
  • Bilingual Board Games. Bingo is a favorite, but the sky’s the limit! No budget for game purchases? No problem! When students design the games themselves, they’ll have even more fun. This could mean adapting donated English-only games (partner with your local Goodwill store or ask your elementary school to hold a game drive), or a quick internet search for DIY board games could give you dozens of ideas for helping students build their own from scratch.
  • Icebreakers. What are icebreakers, after all, but communication devices! Try a guessing game like “I Spy”, or maybe a group drawing. Each student adds a new element to a drawing and explains in English what it is and why they added it.
  • Show and Tell. Another childhood favorite, your students have the opportunity to research and rehearse what they’ll tell their peers about a cherished object or photo.
  • Scavenger Hunt. Whether virtual and your students have to search out URLs, or in person and they’re looking for three dogs in a row in your program space, scavenger hunts are a lot of fun. If you’re worried about fierce competition, offer different kinds of winners besides “first” to finish. Most creative answers? Most collaborative? Most independent?

However passive this kind of support, you can still be intentional, being mindful of your needs and goals. Consult the Y4Y Supporting English Learners Intentional Activity Design Planner to organize that process.

Young Minds

Remind your students that we spend the first part of our lives learning so much because that’s when our brains are most ready for the learning! A new language is no exception. Help your ELs understand, too, that knowing multiple languages will give them a life-long advantage in understanding linguistic concepts. Finally, give yourself a big pat on the back every time you sneak in that passive support on their journey.



May 20, 2021

Through the pandemic, 21st CCLC programs across the country learned just how valuable cooking lessons can be. Many plan to carry them on indefinitely. Discover point by point all of the skills and knowledge that you can build in your students with a good old-fashioned afternoon in the kitchen.

  • Build literacy skills. Reading a recipe expands your students’ vocabularies. Depending on the difficulty level of your selection, students might learn to distinguish between chop, mince, dice and cube. Putting these terms, and their differences, on their brain’s back burner can be an introduction to nuance. We know that extensive vocabulary building actually broadens thinking, self-expression and ultimately success. Check out the Y4Y Literacy Everywhere tool for more tips.
  • Exercise math skills. Cooking is a "textbook" lesson for working with fractions (e.g., “mix 1/2 cup water and 1/4 teaspoon baking soda”).
  • Learn about real-world science. Again, depending on the age of your students, there are concepts in chemistry and physics to explore in cooking. We’ve all heard the story about how the first chocolate chip cookies were supposed to be chocolate cookies but their baker misjudged how the chocolate would behave in the oven.
  • Collaborate. Too many chefs in the kitchen? No such thing in your 21st CCLC program! But each student needs to understand her or his role in each task, take turns and play to their strengths. The STEAM tool for Selecting Student Roles for Group Work is easily adapted to the kitchen.
  • Develop healthy eating habits. Preparing a simple soup in the kitchen instead of popping open a can means using fresh ingredients. You can also help students develop the habits of reading labels on packaged foods and making healthy choices. Does the recipe give the option of substituting whole milk for cream? How does the fat content compare? Every ingredient is a potential research project in healthfulness. Be sure to partner with school-day professionals for consistent messaging and to see what gaps they may be seeking to fill. For tips, see the Y4Y Click & Go on Health and Wellness: Partnering With the School Day.
  • Plan, budget and shop. Cooking is a great opportunity to exercise the planning process. Instead of starting your cooking lesson with a pile of ingredients and the needed equipment, start it with a recipe and a conversation around what you have and what you’ll need. Now that you can shop online together, go back to that cream soup and ask: how does the cost of cream compare to milk?
  • Honor history and cultures. Just as each ingredient is a research opportunity in healthfulness and cost, each recipe is a research opportunity in history and culture.

As your students increase their comfort in the kitchen, you can make recipe selection a group activity, honoring student voice and choice. Every parent of a picky eater knows that a dash of voice and thick slice of kitchen help can increase a child’s interest in the resulting product! Or, rather than seeking agreement for each recipe selection, if your program is small enough, you might assign each student a week to bring in their own favorite recipe from home. Beef up your family engagement and invite a family member to come in to help.

Afterschool educators across the country warmly invited students into their home kitchens (virtually) throughout school closures in a resourceful effort to keep them engaged. Just imagine how well loved those in-person cooking activities will be when students can take in those savory aromas from a delicious pot of soup simmering on the back burner while all their learning simmers in their bright young minds.



November 16, 2020

The “Jolabokaflod” described in Creative Program Ideas is one culture’s clear celebration of literacy and the sheer enjoyment that reading books can bring young and old people alike. While settling in with a good book may seem an impossible time luxury for some 21st CCLC families, helping students make reading a habit for life can be achieved in small, manageable bits. Explore these ideas for sharing the gift of reading with students, and maybe even instilling a holiday association with books.

Be together in literacy — even if you’re completely virtual right now — by conducting a virtual literacy focus group. School-day staff, families and older students can and should give voice to the kinds of literacy activities that will be most engaging. Remember that you can customize this tool and offer different types of activities that are screen-friendly, such as reading aloud favorite stories, or perhaps presenting a virtual play. Don’t let those Halloween costumes collect dust! Students can rummage around at home for something unique to wear on-screen to “dress up” your activities. See Y4Y’s tools for Interactive Read Alouds and Reader’s Theater for more tips.

With or without regular access to a literacy expert, it’s good to arm staff with some basic tools to help students select reading material. Remember that age doesn’t necessarily define where a student is in his or her reading development. Check out Y4Y’s Developmental Stages of Reading tool, and be sure to share it with frontline staff. Does your program have a library of donated books? Consider partnering with a school in a privileged district or a local library to beef up your collection. Then, be sure to group books by reading level. These groupings should be a guide but not a fast rule for students when they are choosing a book. Some students will be motivated by a “reach read” and others might be discouraged, so offer selection support accordingly. Check out Y4Y’s More Literacy Activities tool for additional ideas, including the five finger model to finding a “just right” book.

Kick it old school with Literacy Book Clubs, whether virtual or in person. Right on down to your youngest students, it doesn’t get more together than reading the same book and sharing thoughts and views. Throw in some silly questions among the serious ones to really engage your club members, like, “What do you suppose that puzzle piece Curious George swallowed tasted like? Is THAT why he ate it?” If you have a full group of students who celebrate Christmas, by all means, capitalize on the season. You can surely reach every reader with titles like Construction Site on Christmas Night, The Christmasaurus, or Dear Santa, I Know it Looks Bad But It Wasn’t My Fault. Ask students from other faith backgrounds to share their traditional holiday books.

Finally, as your district offers professional development days around this time of year, be sure to make the most of the time with colleagues. Y4Y’s literacy course offers nine different training tools, starting with the Four Components of Literacy Training to Go, up to the Engaging Families in Literacy Activities Training to Go. Remember, these PowerPoint presentations are downloadable, customizable, and lend themselves well to online platforms for virtual training.

Reading is one of those rare treasures in life that can be shaped however we’d like. While it is the perfect activity for a student who likes to escape into a private world of fantasy, it’s just as well suited to those of us who would rather be together in literacy.



October 1, 2020

A creative way to get students excited about literacy is to get them excited about words. A new word can be like a smooth rock you’ve found while walking along a stream: You turn it over in your hand, get to know its surface, and put it in your pocket where you keep coming back to it through the day, reminding yourself of its existence and thinking about what you might do with it. Bring literacy to light in your 21st CCLC program with these fun ideas to get students forming their own collection of words.

  • The “Hello Kitty” phenomenon drove home just how enchanted adults and children alike can be by small packages. Gift each student with a tiny notebook and pencil like you might find at any dollar store, and urge them to carry their “word treasury” in their pocket like they might that special stone.
  • Brainstorm together where and when students might hear a new word. You can make it a friendly contest to see if students can “find” a word that nobody in the program has heard before. No cheating! It has to be in the dictionary.
  • Speaking of the dictionary, Merriam-Webster has a new online feature called “Time Traveler” that allows users to enter a year and discover all the words that were first documented that year. Your students might not even realize that until 2007, “ginormous” wasn’t a word, but a combination of “gigantic” and “enormous” introduced in the beloved holiday film Elf. This feature alone could provide hours of fun!
  • Check out the Frayer chart in Y4Y’s literacy course to take your word mining to the next level. Students will get to know their new treasure word by learning its definition and characteristics and examples.
  • Remember that half the value is in the fun. So much about 21st CCLC programs is about forming new habits and perspectives that can last a lifetime. By instituting the practice of treating new words as gems, you’re building curious minds and lifelong readers. The more you concentrate on the game of it, the more buy-in you’ll get.

Be sure to check out Y4Y’s Literacy course for more tips on implementing literacy into your program, along with tools to help with activities and family events. Literacy is the key to so much in life. Bringing it to light opens endless opportunities for your students.



September 18, 2020

Students are more likely to become engaged and stick around for more when you build variety into your program. In traditional settings, students, especially teens, vote with their feet. When programming is online, disengaging can be as easy as clicking the “leave meeting” button. Why not take the guesswork out of knowing what will capture students’ attention and imagination? You can adapt Y4Y’s Student Survey for use with returning students to get their take on what’s working. Use the Elementary Student Interest Survey/Inventory or Secondary Student Interest Survey/Inventory to get a strong sense of what interests them.

As you’re customizing these surveys to make the most of program activities, keep a few tips in mind:

  • Offer many options. Think about those conversations at home around what’s for dinner. Vetoing is easy! But coming up with ideas isn’t always so easy. If you haven’t had hamburgers in a while, you might have forgotten how much you love them, or that they exist. When you offer your students a wide variety of interest areas, you’ll have greater success at homing in on something that really tickles their fancy, as grandma used to say.
  • Everyone is so over screen time. There’s a strong possibility that even your most avid gamers have had enough of screen time and are looking for other ways to engage in your program. Get creative with several flavors of project-based learning activities (use the Y4Y Questions for Inquiry-Based Learning in STEM or the Service-Learning Toolbox). As an alternative to search engines, use your survey to gauge how students might feel about doing real-world research (like calling partners in your community on the phone to brainstorm how they might combat poverty or improve a nearby green space) and collaborating outdoors with peers. (Don’t have tables outside? Partner with a nearby hotel looking to replace/donate their outdoor event tables, or use simple oilcloth upside down to sit on the grass.)
  • Sneak in literacy. You can offer a host of interest areas on your survey that embed literacy opportunities in ways that aren’t obvious (or painful) for your students. A treasure hunt for words can be done at home or in your program space. How might students design and theme their own word hunt? Your survey can package it as a “design-your-own-science-word treasure hunt” or “design-your-own-pet-word treasure hunt.” You can also sneak literacy into activity suggestions like board games, create-your-own cartoon, or create-a-new-language options on your customized survey.
  • Give plenty of physical options. There’s not a team sport on the planet that’s going to capture every student’s attention, but keeping active is important for your students’ health and wellness. Be sure your survey options range from shooting hoops to dancing to push-up contests and everything in between.
  • Be a social media stalker. If you’re still not confident you can develop a comprehensive list of what kids might be interested in, remember that even very young students have become involved on social media, for better or worse. Following hot musicians, sports figures and vloggers online can help you tune into popular culture and create a customized inventory that piques student interest.
  • Reach out to families. Don’t forget the benefit of talking to families in your efforts to sniff out those student interests. Use the customizable Y4Y Family Survey to help you discover what you’ve done well and areas you can grow to meet the needs of your students.

You know that “warm welcome” feeling of coming home to the smell of freshly baked cookies? You can create that much-needed feeling of comfort for your students this year. Start by discovering what matters to them. Then “follow your nose” to connect program offerings to student interests.