Whether or not you graduated from college with an emphasis in teaching English language learners, chances are you will have ELLs in your classroom. According to the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition, from the decade ending with the 2008–9 school year, the population of English language learners attending public schools grew from 3.5 million to 5.3 million students, or by an incredible 51 percent. Yet many teachers have received little or no training in teaching ELL, and are not equipped to teach students in this changing demographic (Batt 41). Teachers need tools to help ELLs to be successful in the classroom. “Teachers are the most important school-based influence in improving student achievement, especially for immigrant students and English language learners“ (Teacher Voices 3). What can be done from day one to help ELL students be successful in the classroom? All teachers need to be equipped to help all of their students succeed. Here’s my list of top ten tips for new teachers of English language learners.
1. Value Community: Get To Know Students
ELL students in classrooms come in with a variety of needs, abilities, and levels of English proficiency. Some will have the support of brothers, sisters, and parents learning English. One may be the sole English language learner in her household. Another may be attempting to make sense of a culture very different from his native culture, reeling from trauma of his past, and mourning the loss of loved ones, while trying to understand a new language. Some may sound proficient with oral language but be struggling with reading and writing comprehension. Each student will be unique. The important key is that the teacher knows each student (Kozleski, Mulligan, and Hernandez-Seda 3). See students as unique individuals. Make a point of getting to know their personal stories, likes, and dislikes. Effective teachers see their students as assets in the classroom. It is important to establish routines in the classroom to give a sense of security and belonging. Keeping seating charts the same for longer periods of time help ELL students get to know their classmates. Be watchful for the social and emotional needs of ELL students. Value each student every day (Peregoy and Boyle).
2. Understand and Respect Other Cultures
Each student brings culture into the classroom. By learning about a student’s religion, customs, traditions, family life, celebrations, clothing, and food (Flynn and Hill), teachers are better equipped to teach effectively, better able to understand behaviors and struggles, and share in joys and special celebrations. Teachers have the opportunity to help students appreciate each other’s diversity. Encouraging students to share about their past or to celebrate things that are important to them gives students a sense of belonging. It allows them to be thankful for who they are. It empowers them.
It is also important for teachers to realize that a child’s culture can influence the effectiveness of certain strategies or instruction formats. It is important to use a variety of strategies and instructional methods to ensure that teaching is effective (Peregoy and Boyle).
3. Meet Students at Their Level
It is important that teachers understand a student’s zone of proximal development (Vygotsky). Students learning a second language move through predictable stages of language acquisition, and when teachers are able to identify the stage students are in, they are able to scaffold instruction more accurately, giving appropriate assistance and adjusting goals when necessary (Flynn and Hill 16). In early stages, students are learning through listening and responding to teacher prompts; they may be unable to produce the language themselves. As they have more exposure, their understanding of English increases, and their ability to produce words and express themselves continues to develop. Teachers promote this growth by adjusting questions they ask from simple (during the early stages) to higher-level questions (as students become more fluent in English). Students in the early stages of second-language acquisition may benefit from answering questions orally. Those in the intermediate and advanced stages may benefit from being required to write their responses.
4. Make Vocabulary Learning Real, Relevant, and Meaningful
English language learners need to develop a large English vocabulary. A good place to start is using the high-frequency vocabulary list. Other meaningful instruction includes using words from content-area instruction and words connected to daily routines.
One highly important strategy to use with ELLs is total physical response (TPR). This strategy pairs words with actions to help students understand their meaning. The teacher begins by saying a word and demonstrating its meaning: “Stand up!” After this, the teacher uses it in a command: “Stand up!” and the students stand up. Other actions are introduced following this pattern and as students become more proficient, the lesson increases in difficulty, incorporating more directions and mixing up the order in which they are given. Students may also take the lead as they become more proficient. This strategy allows students to connect actions and words, pushes them to comprehend, and does not require speaking on their part, which may make them feel safe (Peregoy and Boyle).
The use of short read-alouds is also an important tool to use with ELLs of all ages. Students will gain exposure to different genres and hear the rhythm and sounds of fluent English reading. Remember to choose selections that are meaningful and short, with pictures and text working together. Teachers should be aware of the difficulty of listening to oral language with limited understanding (Peregoy and Boyle)
Word walls and word cards can make leaning vocabulary a more active experience. Students can pair vocabulary that they need to know with pictures they make themselves (or find). Students can use these cards to aid writing, to do word sorts, and to play games. As they work with the cards in meaningful activities, students’ English vocabulary will increase. Students may want to make more than one set of cards, leaving one at school, and taking the other set home to use with parents (Peregoy and Boyle).
5. Encourage Students to Work Together