11 Experts Share Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners
Classrooms across America are more diverse than ever: the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics found that 14% of students in U.S. cities and over 4.3 million students across the country are English Language Learners.
Teachers work incredibly hard to differentiate material so that ELL students can access lessons and take advantage of their education. But most classroom teachers are not trained to teach the English language, and differentiating effectively to support English Language Learners is no easy task.
We asked experts from across the English language teaching community:
"What are the key strategies that teachers of all subjects can use to help English Language Learners access the material in their lessons?"
Read on for some great advice from highly experienced professionals on how to help English Language Learners thrive in your classroom.
Use the same set phrases and language cues during instruction, so students can understand them quickly and focus on classroom language related to content
Teachers can do a lot to help their students understand the spoken English they use in the class. Here are 10 strategies you can immediately use in your classroom teaching to support student understanding.
- Wait Time. Students need time to process a second language. Pause after asking a question or issuing a statement or instructions. Even count to 5 so students have time to think and comprehend.
- Comprehensible Input. Filter and adjust your language to the level of your students to help them understand and acquire the language.
- Speaking Speed. Slow down your classroom speech by pausing at length between thoughts and sentences. Don't speak slower and use "unnatural" English and what is often referred to as "teacher talk."
- Non-Verbal Communication. Teachers help provide context and support the understanding of spoken English with body language, especially facial expression.
- Writing. Support your instructions and speech with written text, either on the board or on paper. Students can refer to this during or after and it will help them to understand.
- Student Strategies. Teach students strategies for requesting clarification or getting help when they struggle to understand classroom English, for example having them take notes for review, reference a dictionary or supplemental aide, or get help from a classmate.
- Visual Support. Whenever possible provide images and diagrams that will support the English spoken in the class.
- Comprehension Checks. Check students often for their understanding. Don't just ask, "Do you understand?" or "Are you with me?" Rather, get students to repeat the language they heard or summarize what was said.
- Repetition. Use the same set phrases and language cues during instruction, so students can understand them quickly and focus on classroom language related to content.
- Affective Factors. Keep the classroom atmosphere "light." Laugh at mistakes, encourage risk taking and the spontaneous use of language.
The best thing that classroom teachers can do is make the material practical and relevant
One of the biggest obstacles English Language Learners face in their journey to acquire and remember English is that quite often the material they are given is not related directly to their lives. Thus, the best thing that classroom teachers can do is make the material practical and relevant.
If a social studies lesson is focused on holidays, have ELLs talk or write about an important or favorite holiday in their country or culture. In a science class learning about weather or climate, have them talk or write about the usual climate in their country, or their favorite kind of weather.
In addition, vocabulary is a key issue for many ELLs, so providing a handout with key vocabulary will also facilitate the learning process. It’s important to remember that ELLs may not know basic English terms related to your lesson. For example, in a math class, a worksheet that shows how to write the digits and symbols in English (6 + 2 = 8. Six plus two equals eight) would be helpful.
Prediction tasks are also a useful way to help learners build context when it comes to a reading text
ELLs may find that lack of vocabulary is a barrier to comprehension; providing ELLs with a glossary can help them to access the text. This glossary could form part of a homework task prior to reading. It might be worthwhile building study sets of target vocabulary using a digital flashcard tool such as Quizlet. This would make self-study easier for the learners, and also lends itself to long-term practice and spaced repetition.
Prediction tasks are also a useful way to help learners build context when it comes to a reading text. Providing learners with the general topic of a text and encouraging them to guess what information might appear can make a text less daunting. Pairing learners with non-ELL students for such tasks is recommended, as it acts as a support for learners to generate ideas.
Include more collaborative learning. Small group work allows ELLs to be involved, yet gives less pressure than individual work
Helping English Language Learners can be time-consuming — although we need to support their learning, we often don't have time to plan two versions of each lesson. Here are some strategies that can both support ELLs and reduce the planning load.
- Create a glossary for key concepts to attach to materials. Over time, you'll build up a library that you can re-use.
- Assign pre-reading and learning for students. Give students tricky terms and concepts to read ahead of the lesson, so ELLs can "catch up" at their own pace before class.
- Include more collaborative learning. Small group work allows ELLs to be involved, yet gives less pressure than individual work. Once they're confident, you can move to individual work.
- Grade your instructions and teacher language. Be aware of the language you're using, simplify and slow down if necessary.
- Allow more time for thinking. ELLs often need more time to process the input and mentally formulate a response. So if you ask them a question, be a little more patient.
- Use visual materials where possible. If you have the choice, choose materials that are "student-friendly" and explain concepts visually, with larger fonts and a good use of colour.
Use engaging activities, such as playing games, role playing, singing, making books, etc. It is fun, it is motivating, and it helps our ELLs feel connected to the learning
- Use many visual supports. The old saying, "A picture is worth a thousand words" holds so true with your ELLs. Make vocabulary word walls with pictures. Grouping words into themes helps to make connections with ELLs. (For example, classroom words, verbs, fruit, body parts, etc.)
- Use sentence stems with your ELLs. This can be helpful in all four domains: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
- Use graphic organizers, such as Venn diagrams, T-charts, circle maps, timelines, mind maps, etc. English Language Learners will need support in writing.
- Use engaging activities, such as playing games, role playing, singing, making books, etc. It is fun, it is motivating, and it helps our ELLs feel connected to the learning.
- Give plenty of wait time when asking your student for an answer. When you ask a question, intentionally pause before calling on a student to answer so that they can process.
- Use peer support. If possible, pair your new student with a student in your classroom who speaks his/her native language.
- Plan lessons around a theme. Teaching units, which are several lessons revolving around the same topic, can allow the students to connect content and communicate without having to worry so much about the language structure.
- Give your students plenty of opportunities to speak. Engage your students in academic conversations. Instead of asking children to raise their hand to answer a question, you may want to have them turn and talk with a partner. Give specific feedback as you are monitoring.
One thing that I've seen in classrooms is a tendency to overthink, vacillate, and be a prisoner to 'being correct'.
We want to build a culture of exploration and adventure. A culture where the student is not crippled by self doubt and perfectionism.
Here are some things that have worked for me:
- Watch their language. Watch for "should", "must", "need to", "can't". Show them by their successes that these ideas are unfounded.
- Show your fallibility. Tell them you don't know the answer and ask them to help you. Get them to teach you. Whether it's their first language, a dance move, or a recipe. There's always something they know more about than you.
- Encourage them not to slouch, mutter and look down. Take the lead and get them to mirror your gestures and actions. Do it in a spirit of fun. Get them to not take themselves too seriously.
- Partner more confident students with the less confident ones. Take the leaders aside and ask them to help you help the other students. It has myriad benefits for all concerned.
- Challenge them. Don't let their fears dictate their lives. From the beginning of the year, make it clear they'll be speaking in front of others. Encourage them to take their English outside the classroom, by helping a tourist with directions, for example. One success story can inspire others.
- Allow time for one-to-one interaction. Some students are more comfortable that way. Get the students to trust you and be approachable.
- Reframe their answers. If the student makes "a mistake" reframe it to show how it could be correct. If they say that New York is the capital of the USA, you could say "that's correct, it used to be, and it's certainly the biggest city."
- Progression not perfection. There is no end point in language learning. Focus them on the small wins, be patient and let them realise that what might seem like small gains are actually big successes.
We want repetitions that lead to creative automaticity, the ability to formulate new and meaningful sentences in a flash
The central insight from Applied Linguistics that can guide teachers is this: languages are best learned by maximizing the repeated exchange of meaningful messages.
Learners need repetition because repetition helps us remember. Teachers should, therefore, do their very best to maximize opportunities to repeat. But the repetitions must be meaningful. Getting students to drill sentences like "the bread is on the table, the bread is on the chair, the bread is on the floor" is not very helpful. The words soon become hypnotic and meaningless.
Instead, we want repetitions that lead to creative automaticity, the ability to formulate new and meaningful sentences in a flash. We can do that by repeatedly getting students to engage in spoken or written exchanges with as many people on as many topics in as many situations as possible.
All students should have an opportunity to collaborate, innovate, imagine, design and think creatively about real-world problems
Some low-prep, yet high-yield strategies for all content area teachers to help their students access material is:
- Oral Language: Too often in class, teachers talk too much, our mini-lessons turn into maxi-lessons, and we rob students of time to practice and reinforce the skills and strategies we are teaching them. A former principal once told me, "the person doing the talking is the person doing the learning."
- Make a MakerSpace: MakerSpace is a great way for ELL students to discuss their ideas with other students because it’s hands-on and open-ended. All students should have an opportunity to collaborate, innovate, imagine, design and think creatively about real-world problems.
- Paraphrase to Summarize: Summarizing is an essential skill in school and life. Not every detail is important. A prerequisite skill for summarizing is paraphrasing, and a prerequisite skill for paraphrasing is knowing synonyms. For example, knowing that nurture, develop, nourish, and thrive are all ways to say "growth."
- A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: Pictures and wordless books are a great way to get students to comprehend the content without actually reading words. In science class, you can show and discuss a picture of a sunflower learning toward the sun to teach phototropism. In social studies class, you can show students a picture of a rally to teach them about a citizen’s rights to peacefully protest their political opinions, etc.
Rigging some tasks for success enables such students to realize that studying pays off
One significant problem that many ELLs face is limited vocabulary, which creates huge difficulties with reading comprehension tasks. Some students get discouraged and become overly stressed when presented with texts in English, opting to give up on the text altogether. Rigging some tasks for success enables such students to realize that studying pays off. One of the strategies I use to ensure that students feel empowered is disappearing texts.
I create very simple texts on the board from some "tale" a student in class shares. I write the tale in English, even if the student tells it almost completely in mother-tongue (eliciting words from the other students as much as possible). I focus on expressing a sincere interest in what happened to the student. Like this text, for example:
What Happened to Sara This Morning?
Sara got up at 06:15.
She left the house at 07:15.
Sara didn't take an umbrella.
When Sara arrived at school it was raining hard.
Sara got wet.
Sara wants to call her Dad.
By erasing word and having students fill in the relevant missing words on the board in response to basic "WH" questions, I get the students to focus on the text and the words. They know the answers because they were involved in the process of creating the text. I finally erase the entire text and ask "WH" questions about it.
Answering in complete sentences is not the point! If students can answer a "when" question with "07:15" and a "who" question with "Dad" then I have a good reason to praise them. The students are reading and answering questions!
There is no need to talk super slow, but if you want a student who has just begun to study English to understand you, simple is better
Key strategies for teachers to help English Language Learners access the material in their lessons are:
- Support content with visuals. When words are supported with pictures, maps, videos, and real-life objects, English Language Learners are able to better access content.
- Simplify your own language. There is no need to talk super slow, but if you want a student who has just begun to study English to understand you, simple is better.
- Use simple sentences with nouns and verbs and demonstrate when appropriate. (Take out pencil. Open notebook).
- Avoid idiomatic expressions. Phrases like "I've got your back, kiddo!" or "You crack me up!" are sure to leave your students more confused than reassured.
- Allow use of the student's first language.
- Make communication between school and home accessible by translating important documents.
- If possible, allow the student to read required books in their first language.
- With students who are complete beginners, using Google translate is okay, too - but stop once they acquire basic competency to avoid it becoming a "crutch" they rely on.
If a student does not seem to be comprehending key concepts, reach out to ELL professionals who can work with you
For teachers of all subjects, some specific strategies can be used before, during, and after a lesson.
Before teaching a new unit or chapter
- Conduct a needs analysis. Administer a short survey that asks students questions about their prior knowledge of the topic. Use this to guide your lesson planning.
- Provide background information on the topic. Give students URLs for videos to watch, both in English and their first language. Distribute lists of vocabulary words in advance so students can prepare for the lesson.
- Before class starts each day, write an agenda of the main topics to be covered. During class, return to the agenda and check off each topic as it is completed. This helps students to follow what is happening.
- Follow every step in the teaching process. Prepare students to learn by asking a warm-up question, for example. Provide a clear goal for the lesson/activity. Teach the information. Check for understanding; frequent checks are especially important with ELLs so that challenging points may be quickly clarified.
- Remember that idiomatic language (such as, "Let's get the ball rolling") and humor may confuse students. Explain the meaning and/or paraphrase in simple terms.
- Use graphic organizers and pictures to support your instruction.
- Have students reflect on their learning experience or complete a short survey.
- If a student does not seem to be comprehending key concepts, reach out to ELL professionals who can work with you in determining if factors other than language are affecting the student's ability to learn.
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