Whether you have one or two English Language Learners or a whole classroom full of ESL students, you're probably wondering how you can best support English Language Learners in your classroom. At first, it might seem daunting to have students who don't understand everything (or anything!) you're saying, but with these easy-to-implement strategies, your ELLs will be communicating and completing work in no time!
Before we get started, it's important to know who qualifies as an ELL! A quick definition of English Language Learners you might have heard is students who are new to the country and are not yet speaking any English. However, it's so much more than that! Did you know that a recent Stanford study found it can take up to seven years for an ELL student to become proficient in English? So often we hear students playing and joking with friends, or even using slang on their lunch break, and we forget they are still learning the language! Full English proficiency includes proficiency using academic language, so that's what we'll focus on here. I promise, they'll pick up the conversational aspect from their friends!
Are you ready to dive in? Let's get started!
1. Keep Things Consistent
Keeping things consistent is one of the most beneficial ways to help your students! Imagine being in a classroom where you don't speak the language at all. Every day when you walk in, there is a different set of activities, a different set of expectations, and things have moved around. How comfortable would you feel jumping in? Would you even know what's going on?
As you are working to support your English Language Learners, think about how you can make your classroom as consistent as possible. Try to have the same order of activities each day (i.e. Bell-work, Class Meeting, Introduction of New Material, Centers, Exit Ticket). I know what you're thinking: having the same order of activities will make my class so boring! I promise it won't. It will make it safe. Once I started having the same routine every day, my students started thriving. We mixed up the content, of course, but the same routines and procedures stayed exactly the same, down to the words I used to introduce them. If I said "We're doing centers next!" one day, I wouldn't suddenly say "Time for stations!" the next. If we were going to play a game in centers, we played that same game for a month. Expectations were discussed in the same way at the same time each day.
This consistency hack made a huge, huge, huge, incredible difference for my students! They weren't wasting their brainpower trying to keep up with what was expected! Instead, they could focus on what really mattered....learning! And the best-kept secret of consistency? My life as a teacher became SO much easier! My classroom is run by a formula, and I just need to change out the content. Easy peasy for planning and managing!
2. Utilize Small Groups
Small groups are my FAVORITE part of teaching English Language Learners! Our centers time is the best part of our day, every day, and my kids LOVE it. I of course used centers when I taught the little guys, but when I moved to middle schoolers, I worried if they would feel it was too "young" for their liking. Let me tell you, I had no reason to worry! My students begged for centers so much, I eventually started doing my entire ELA block as centers only. The small group attention was huge for my English Language Learners, not just because they were getting more precise feedback, but also because they felt more comfortable speaking, reading aloud, and sharing their ideas in a small group! I generally group my students by level, so differentiation is a breeze! Groups also help me to understand what level my students were truly at, so students were able to move to groups and assignments that met them where they were that week! Small groups also help so much with relationship building. They guaranteed that I was having conversations with every one of my students, every single day. I could just go on and on about how wonderful small groups are! Seriously. One last thing though, small groups allowed my students to have more independent learning time when they weren't with me, which leads me to our next strategy...
3. Encourage Independence
Have you ever heard another teacher say something like, "Well they don't speak English, there's no way they'd be able to do this on their own," or "They'll need their hand held through all of this!"? Well I know I have, and I'm here to tell you, that's just not true! Our English Language Learners are incredible students who have generally gone through so much more in their short lives than our general education students. They're navigating their whole world in a foreign language and have developed incredible problem-solving skills because of it! Our students learn best when we give them the chance to engage in productive struggle and figure things out for themselves! Help your students out when they really need it, but make sure they have the chance to do it on their own, too! They just might surprise you (and themselves)!
4. Use Visuals
You probably know that visuals are an important strategy for English Language Learners. Pictures and clipart can help our students understand the text, directions, and more, and should definitely be incorporated whenever possible. That being said, finding pictures for everything is time consuming! I don't know about you, but I can spend hours looking for the right images to help get my point across. And let me tell you, that time is not well spent, especially if we end up having to change up a topic or engage in another conversation and I don't have pictures ready to go! So here's three hacks for using visuals that can help you help your students without wasting your entire weekend.
1) Just...google it during class. If you come across something that is really difficult for students to understand, and you realize they really need a picture, take a minute, and Google it! Now, learn from my mistakes and don't google it on a screen the kids can see. Google on your own screen, stick it up on the board, and move on! Does it look pretty? Nope. But does it teach students problem-solving and research skills while simultaneously saving you time? Absolutely.
2)Remember up above, where we said consistency was key? And that bit about small groups? Here's where it all comes together to make YOUR life easier! I make a Google Slides presentation with our center rotations and a clipart for each rotation, and I keep it the same, the entire year! I just change out the clipart in the corners for the season (pumpkins, penguins, hearts, shamrocks, etc.). Kids names go under the group number so they can see where they need to go. Clipart shows what to do at the station, even if they don't know what the name of the station says. Timers in the corners (2 minutes for transition, 15 minutes for the center) provide an easy visual reminder for students as they navigate their work. Students can look at the slides and know exactly what to do, and for how long, without being able to read anything but their name.
2) Visuals don't have to be pictures! My students watch my every move, so I try to make every move intentional. We act out directions before we start anything. We role-play conversations, expectations, and so much more! I use hand signals for almost every procedure in my classroom. We have movements for new vocabulary words, sound out words using fingers on our arms, and so much more. You might feel silly at first, but it makes such a big difference! After a few weeks, it becomes second-nature, and you won't even realize that you're doing it anymore. I'm usually pretty good about turning it off at the end of the day, but sometimes my husband will have to remind me that I'm "speaking ELD" at home. It just becomes second nature! Acting out what you're saying is probably the most useful visual you can use in your classroom. Students will be able to understand what you're saying, and I bet you'll all have a lot more fun, too! Plus, you can stop searching for pictures and take back your weekends, knowing you have the ability to communicate visually with your students!
5. Show Them You Believe in Their Abilities
Alright. THIS. This is the most important strategy for helping English Language Learners succeed. If you take only one thing from this post, please make it this! Believe in your students' abilities, and then constantly and consistently show them you believe.
Story time: I spent middle school through college studying Mandarin Chinese. By the end of it, I was fairly fluent, and definitely able to communicate just about anything I needed to in Mandarin. My second year out of college, I moved to rural Yunnan, China with Teach for China to teach English for a year. The thing was, my town spoke a completely different dialect of Chinese, and I was so lost. I knew how to teach, I knew how to speak Mandarin, and I knew that I had the skills to teach my students English. I also knew how to cook a few simple things, buy things at a store, and buy a bus ticket. I just didn't know how to do any of that in the local dialect. Now, some of my coworkers knew that, and took the time to teach me the language I needed to navigate things successfully on my own. However, a few thought that I didn't know how to do ANY of it. They spent time teaching me how to pull out the right amount of money to make a purchase on market day. They spent time teaching me that buses can travel places and how to get on a bus. They spent time teaching me how to use chalk to write on the board. The thing was, those were all things I knew how to do. Teaching me to do use chalk wasted both of our time, and wasn't useful. All I needed to know what how to say "chalk" and where to find more if I ran out.
So often, this is how we treat our English Language Learners, without even realizing it. We see a student in front of us who is struggling to communicate or complete work, and we assume that they aren't able to do the work. We forget, so often, that language might be the barrier, not ability.
A few years ago, I was watching Modern Family and heard this quote. I thought to myself "YES! This is exactly what I feel when I speak Chinese!" I know it's what our students feel when they're learning English, too.
Isn't that the best?!? Our students are incredibly intelligent. Often times, my English Language Learners are farther along academically than my general education students. They just don't know how to express their intelligence in English. That's it! At times, knowing the answer or wanting to share, and not knowing how to say it, can be the most frustrating thing in the world. Constantly telling your students that you believe in them, and you see that they are smart, can do wonders. It gives students the self-esteem and confidence they need to keep trying, and builds relationships and trust faster than anything else you could possibly do or say.
Not sure where to start? Here's a few phrases to get you started:
"If this was in (insert language here), you would know what to do! Let's figure it out in English."
"Can you teach me (how to say this in your language, how to do this, another strategy you've learned, etc.)?"
"Can you share with the class? I bet if you use a lot of visuals and/or acting, we would all understand what you've learned!"
"You're doing a great job! I'm so proud of you for expressing yourself in English."
"Learning a language is frustrating, isn't it?"
"Bilingual brains actually work better! It's science! Imagine how incredible you'll be once you learn English."
And, my personal favorite...
"YOU are incredibly smart. You have so much to teach me, and I can't wait to learn from you. My job is just to teach you English so you're able to prove to even more people how intelligent you are!"
What other strategies for teaching English Language Learners do you use? Comment below!
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