7 Ways To Support English Language Learners

When working with English Learners, educators often hear such phrases as:

Model. Watch your rate of speech and offer wait time. Use non-linguistic cues. Provide opportunities to build background knowledge. Have clear expectations and instructions. Check for understanding. Encourage development of home language.

All valuable instructional strategies and key phrases that are often thrown about in the educational world as “good teaching”.  But, what does it really look like in a classroom of 25 plus students to teach to the varying levels of English Learners and students in general? Let’s examine what each of these key phrases can actually look like in the classroom.

  1. Model

Modeling is more than simply doing an example problem in front of the students. When done properly, it is the “we do” component of explicit direct instruction.

  • Use the academic vocabulary
    • Teach multiple vocabulary strategies such as the use of context clues and paraphrasing within the lesson
    • Repeat the word/phrase multiple times in a variety of scenarios over the course of the lesson
    • Relate the vocabulary word(s) to the student’s life
    • Highlight any multiple meanings of the word(s)
    • Discuss the root word/origin; often there is meaning within the student’s primary language
  • Demonstrate your thinking/rationale by thinking aloud
  • Don’t cover up your mistakes; use them as teaching opportunities

2. Watch Your Rate of Speech and Offer Wait Time

As simple as it sounds, momentum and urgency often gets the best of us and we forget to slow our rate of speech.  Remember, the content is new to all students not just your ELs. Controlling your rate of speech takes time and practice – go too fast and you lose students due to frustration; go too slow and you lose students to boredom.

The same can be said about wait time.  We know it’s important, but the awkward silence it can create often leads to “moving on”. Wait time also takes time and practice to properly craft and the awkward silence is ok. The more it is perfected, the more the students, all students, will be pleading for more process time.

3. Use Non-linguistic Cues

  • Act out/demonstrate vocabulary words and concepts
  • Display pictures that demonstrate vocabulary/concepts
  • Graphic organizers/Mind Maps
  • Color-coding
  • Sorting and categorizing
  • Allow students to create visuals
    • Some of the best, and most fun, lessons I had in the classroom occurred when the students were the leaders of the lesson. Our favorite was an activity we called Words Alive. Words Alive gave the students an opportunity to collaboratively illustrate our unit’s vocabulary words. For example, if the word was inferno they actually illustrate the word as if it were on fire.
  • Provide pictures as writing prompts
    • Place postcards, photos or printed Google Images in front of students (make sure there isn’t text attached to the images) and allow the students to gather the vocabulary from the visuals. They can make list of vocabulary words; chart nouns, verbs, adjectives related to the visual; use the visual as a writing prompt – creating a story to accompany the visual.

4. Provide an Opportunity to Build Background Knowledge

Early in my teaching career, I had found an adorable snowman graphic organizer. The three circles of the snowman represented the introduction (the head), the body (the middle circle) and the conclusion (the bottom circle). The writing prompt had something to winter, I don’t recall it word-for-word. My intention was to use this graphic organizer as a tool for this amazing writing lesson I was going to deliver and be observed on by my administrator. As adorable as the graphic organizer was and as well-planned as my lesson was it was an epic fail!  Why? Because in my naive state as a young teacher, I didn’t stop to think that the inner city students I was teaching would’ve have had a different background story than myself regarding snowmen. In a class of 24 third graders, only one student had actually experience snow.  All the others built their background knowledge based on limited media exposure. So, as they are were engrossed in asking questions about snow and snowmen my writing lesson with the adorable graphic organizer derailed. (And, yes, that was reflected in my evaluation.)

So, we spent the remainder of the lesson fielding questions and creating background knowledge. I went home that night and restructured my lessons so that the students could experience winter and build a necessary vocabulary.  We did art projects, read books, explored the internet, jumped to the weather unit in science, etc. Then, later that week, we turned the original writing assignment into a class writing assignment with me modeling think-alouds and soliciting student input. In the end, the intent behind the original lesson was salvaged, but if I had taken into account student background knowledge and spent the time front-loading then the observed disaster could have been avoided altogether.

5. Have Clear Expectations and Instructions

Having clear expectations and instructions is another simply stated strategy. However, posting a learning objective or verbally telling the class your instructions one time before releasing them to explore the activity isn’t sufficient…for any student. Expectations and feedback should be stated/given repeatedly throughout a lesson. If the lesson has multiple steps or activities built into it, then the expectations and instructions should be given step-by-step; at all at once.

6. Check for Understanding

There is danger in simply asking if there are any questions and/or relying on the head nod as a sole means of checking for understanding. Remember, students need process time, so just asking if there are any questions and then briskly moving on doesn’t allow for that process time nor does it create an environment where students feel like they can be risk-takers; they don’t want to single themselves out by publicly acknowledging they didn’t get the information the first time around. Instead of asking if there are any questions or relying on the head nod try the following:

  • Exit tickets
  • 3-2-1
    • Describe three new things you learned today; define two new vocabulary words; ask a question you still have
  • Polling the class
    • Digitally or with a physical rating system (showing 5,4,3,2,1,0 with your fingers/fist; thumbs up, middle, down; etc.)
  • Turn and tell your neighbor about
    • The key to making this successful is that the partner has to report out their partner’s learnings
  • Create collaborative posters
  • Do a whip around of one thing you learned today
  • Create an elevator speech based on the learnings of the day/period

7. Encourage Development of Home Language

Don’t ban students from using their native language in the classroom – the fact that they speak another another language is a gift. It is important to honor the differences and the cultures of all the students in order to promote student success. The more parallels that a student can draw between their home language and academic English, the faster the acquisition will happen. It is also important to be able to identify the difference between a language acquisition issue and a learning challenge.

It is true that good teaching is truly good teaching and that it benefits all students regardless of what they bring to the table. The strategies above will benefit all students as they are effective strategies; your English Learners however will show greater progress as they will be more comfortable in a rich learning environment, more confident to take risks and feel more supported in their academic endeavors.

Kelly Wylie, Region 4 System of District and School Support Program Director, is a veteran educator with over 20 years of experience. She has been an administrator, an instructional coach and a classroom teacher. She has presented at the national, state and local levels.

Published by David Franklin

Dr. David Franklin is an experienced school administrator, education professor, curriculum designer, and presenter. Dr. Franklin has presented at national and international education conferences as is available for school and district professional development sessions.

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