Approximately 9-14% of students in a given classroom are ELLs (English Language Learners.) ELLs are defined as students whose first language is not English and they need some level of support to become fluent in listening, speaking, reading, and writing English.
Within a group of ELL students there is great diversity. You may have a student in class who is a fluent speaker and just needs some support in reading or writing or a student who doesn’t know a single word in English. There are some strategies that work well for all ELLs and others that work best for beginner, intermediate, or advanced students, depending on the specific student and their needs.
When I tell people I teach English as a second language they usually ask me if I speak Spanish or Chinese. Aside from a few basic words, I’m sadly not bilingual. While sometimes helpful, speaking another language isn’t vital when working with ELLs. Depending on where you live you could have several ELLs and they could all speak different languages. There is no way each teacher can learn all the languages that come into their classroom. Immersion is a very effective and fast way to get students fluent in a new language.
The following strategies can help students be successful in the regular education classroom as well as their ESL class:
Visuals (all levels): Visuals are vital when teaching ESL students. Realia, pictures, and videos are highly effective when teach students no matter their fluency. Nouns and verbs are easily learned through visuals. More challenging words, such as the differences between cold and frigid, can also be learned. Visuals are also highly engaging for students and they keeps tudents interested even when they can’t understand much else about what is going on.
Tailor your speech (Beginner to Intermediate): For students who are new to English avoid using slang such as ‘gonna’, or ‘cool.’ When speaking enunciate clearly and speak a bit slower than normal (but not so slow that you put everyone to sleep.) As students progress you can (and should) begin to incorporate slang and faster speech.
Total Physical Response (All levels): Total Physical Response (TPR) is a strategy that benefits not only ELLs but all learners. It is especially helpful for students with special needs and students just learning English. TPR means the teacher does actions which the students repeat as they speak. For example, a cutting motion to signal the direction of cutting, or pretending to take a bite when learning the new word apple. The combination of the action and speaking makes it easy for students to remember new vocabulary.
Lower the Affective Filter (All levels, especially a beginner): Learning, in general, takes place better when students are comfortable and not stressed. This is especially important with language learning. Learning a language takes a lot of risks. Students must try to speak all while worrying they’ll say the wrong word or pronounce something funny. When learning a language you are constantly open to correction which can be very difficult for some students. Create a learning environment in which it is safe for students to take risks where they won’t be teased but rather encouraged by their peers.
Teach Academic Vocabulary (Intermediate to Advanced): Sometimes a student will come into your class and you’ll be surprised that they need English language services. They speak very fluently, perhaps even just as fluently as other students. This is because conversational English takes only 3-5 years to master while academic English takes 5-7. Academic vocabulary isn’t found in everyday conversations so we must teach it explicitly. This includes test-taking vocabulary, instructions, difficult, subject-specific vocabulary, and jargon.
Be Realistic about Timeframes (Intermediate to Advanced): Language learning (or, more technically, acquisition) is just that, it is something we acquire. Of course, like other types of learning it can be taught, but it also doesn’t happen overnight. One of the most frustrating aspects of language learning for many teachers is the silent period when students don’t talk but only listen. This can be frustrating because you aren’t getting much output by which to assess the student to see if they are progressing, but the silent period is one of much growth and it’s a good time to make students feel safe by letting them choose when they are ready to take risks.
So, be patient with students, allow them to acquire language in a safe environment with lots of supports such as visual aids. You’ll be amazed by the progress your ELLs can make!
The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.