Growing Language & Literacy: An Interview with Author Dr. Andrea Honigsfeld

by Valentina Gonzalez

unnamed-6Dr. Andrea Honigsfeld is a leader in the field of English as a Second Language. She has authored over 20 books and offers professional development primarily focusing on effective differentiated strategies and collaborative practices. Dr. Honigsfeld is also associate dean and director of the Educational Leadership for Diverse Learning Communities Doctoral program at Molloy College.

I recently had the honor of interviewing this kind-hearted and passionate educator about her latest book, Growing Language & Literacy: Strategies for English Learners (GLL). The book is tailored for educators in grades K-8 and is published by Heinemann.

Valentina: Growing Language & Literacy: Strategies for English Learners is organized by TESOL’s five levels of language proficiency. Can you tell us about why you choose to present your information this way? 

Andrea: This book has an interesting story! I have previously published two books with Heinemann and had a wonderful experience with my editor Holly Kim Price. About a year and a half ago, Holly reached out to me and invited me to write a book that tells the story of how children develop their language and literacy skills through the stages of language acquisition. She explained that Heinemann conducted focus group discussions around the United States with classroom teachers and this was one topic that kept coming up: teachers wanted to know more about how to work with ELs at the various language proficiency levels. I chose the five levels of TESOL because they seem to be closely aligned to the WIDA levels, yet maybe more universally used around the United States and beyond.


Valentina: One thing that struck me right away was that throughout GLL, there are pictures, graphics, and visuals. Can you share a little about your decision to include such rich graphics? 

unnamed-5Andrea: When Holly Kim from Heinemann invited me to write the book, one amazing part of the invitation was her vision of having up to 100 full-color illustrations! I was very excited to hear such a proposition since we rarely see such richly illustrated professional books. (I ended up going over that number a bit, just because there were so many incredible examples of student and teacher work shared with me that it was really hard to select representative examples of what ELs and their very creative teachers can do!) I see the main purpose of including so many graphics and illustrations is to show not just tell about language and literacy development among K-8 ELs representing many different cultural backgrounds and lived experiences. And let me take one more opportunity to thank the many teachers who shared their work and their students’ work for the text to come alive through the illustrations!


Valentina: I think our beliefs and about language and English learners drive what we do and what we don’t do. Can you share with us what your core beliefs are about language and ELs? 

Andrea: Your mother tongue or home language is a huge part of your identity. Knowing more than one language, which is the norm in much of the world, must be valued and considered as an asset that educators can build on. As a multilingual person myself, a life-long English learner as well as language educator, I have always believed that languages have some magical powers. My mother often encouraged me to work hard studying languages with a Hungarian proverb that roughly translates to, “The more languages you know, the more persons you are! My core beliefs about working with ELs are translated into the five premises underlying the entire book: 


  • Embrace an asset-based philosophy 
  • Accept individual variations
  • Integrate content, language and literacy development
  • Apply culturally and linguistically sustaining instructional and assessment practices
  • Engage in ongoing, purposeful collaboration



Valentina: In the introduction, you write about language acquisition. What’s one thing you think educators need to know about language acquisition?

Andrea: Language acquisition and language learning are sometimes strictly separated. In my work, I suggest that the process of language acquisition and intentional learning in the academic context should not be artificially separated, thus I tend to refer to them by a common term of “language” development. I would like all educators to recognize the variations that may occur among students and across language domains (listening, speaking, reading and writing). Effective instruction for ELs must incorporate each student’s strengths while using strategies that respond to fluid and dynamic language development. In the book I state, “Students come with vast individual differences in their backgrounds and experiences, so at any given moment, some students may exhibit some abilities at a higher proficiency level and other students at a lower one. Language proficiency levels cannot define who a student is; instead, each level simply offers a frame of reference what the student is able to do” (Shafer Willner 2013).


Valentina: One of my favorite quotes is on page 29. “Fluency in English is not a prerequisite to writing. In fact, you cannot wait until ELs develop full language proficiency to begin to write.” Please expand on that for our readers. 

Andrea: From the day of their arrival, ELs need opportunities to express themselves through multiple modalities. At the same time, they also need explicit instruction in writing that combines the mechanics of writing with writing for an authentic purpose, using both the product and process approaches to instruction. ELs at the beginning stages of their language development may be able to express themselves in writing using their native languages or respond in developmentally appropriate ways using multiple modalities and languages and media. Among many others, Sunday Cummins (2017) also suggests integrating writing and sketching for all students when nonfiction topics are explored. Next time you work with ELs, why not give them the opportunity to respond to tasks by drawing; combining speaking and drawing using technological tools; integrating drawing and writing; listing words and phrases; adding annotations in the language of their choice to drawings they prepared or illustrations you offered; and creating graphic representations of what they have learned or understood in their native language and English.


Valentina: Is there any one chapter or section in your book that you feel most passionate about? That was easiest for you to write? Tell us why. 

Andrea: I am very passionate about multimodal, multi-sensory instruction for ELs (or for all students, really!) I truly enjoyed working on the “Visual Supports” and “Learning by Doing” sections of each chapter. Why? I firmly believe that focusing on what students can do, as opposed to what they cannot do, is more likely to make them feel empowered and able to learn to English. Sharing powerful examples and featuring many teachers from around the country who are doing this kind of teachers was an amazing process! 


Valentina: And on the other hand, was there a chapter or section that proved more difficult? Share with us why you think that is. 

Andrea: The chapter-opening vignettes! I labored over them to convey authentic yet concise stories of children’s lives without revealing their identities. They are composite vignettes of many, many students that I have worked with and modified stories teachers I know shared with me. To protect the children’s identities, names, ethnicities, and specific details about their lives had to be changed so no one is remotely recognizable. 


Valentina: A lot of emphasis is placed on reading and writing in classrooms. Why do you think that is, and how does GLL respond? 

Andrea: Literacy is key to academic success. Learning to read and write well are also necessary to have a rich literacy life—one in which our students can express themselves fully. Reading and writing are important tools for becoming critical and creative thinkers. You can fill a mini-library with books about teaching reading and writing, yet there are very few resources designed to help teachers understand what is different about teaching literacy to ELs. GLL takes a broad-brush approach to help teachers consider what their students may be expected to do in terms of reading and writing, and what essential strategies they can use to help advance ELs’ reading and writing skills. 


Valentina: I enjoyed hearing your voice in the podcast interview with Heinemann. I heard you say that you’d love for all K-8 mainstream teachers to have this resource. Why is that important to you? What type of impact would you like to see?

Andrea: That was a very ambitious statement, right? Yet most of us agree that ELD/ESL teachers cannot be solely responsible for English learners. The job is too big and too complex, even though it’s also truly rewarding! And most importantly, our kids deserve and need teachers who understand their needs, respect and appreciate their backgrounds, and know what to do. Have you ever heard anyone say, “These kids don’t speak English. I don’t know what to do with them?” I would like that to be an echo from the past! My hope with this book is to help all teachers in the K-8 context better understand what ELs at each language proficiency level can do, and offer examples for just about every strategy I describe. 


Valentina: Andrea, if you had to give an elevator speech about your book, what would it be? 

Andrea: This book invites the reader to follow K-8 English learners on a journey to proficiency though case study vignettes, numerous photos of student and teacher work samples, and ready-to go strategies. It celebrates what students can do and invites K-8 classroom teachers and ELD/ESL specialists to respond to the ever-changing, complex needs of their students as they develop their language and literacy skills.
Valentina: Thank you, Andrea, for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. We value the work you do. Growing Language & Literacy is sure to be a resource teachers can count on for years to come.

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