12 Things a Teacher of ELs Should Never Forget

indian-elephant-264749_640An elephant never forgets, and neither should we. Scholastic brings us back to basics with these tips for unlocking language.

1. Wait time. Do you ask questions while you teach? How long do you pause for students to answer? Chances are, it’s not long enough for your ELs. When learning a language, it takes a lot of effort to process oral language at first, and even more to formulate a cohesive response. But teachers are trained, Pavlov-style, to swoop in when students don’t find solutions right away, so ELs don’t always have the opportunity process or produce language. Allow up to 10 seconds after asking a question before inviting responses. This will have the added effect of indicating that you’re not about to answer your own questions, and students better pay attention!

2. Language learning phases. Remember that learning English follows fairly predictable patterns across age levels, and that developmental phases also apply. WIDA (World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment) has developed Can Do Descriptors for use in the 35 consortium states, and they are a handy tool for anyone who works with ELs. Keep them handy to informally identify your students who are beginning, developing, expanding, bridging, or reaching English fluency.

3. Safe environment. Mistakes are part of language learning. They need to be made, and corrected, to grow in proficiency. But if students feel berated or embarrassed or receive any other negative signals, their affective filters are going to be insurmountable. Keep your instruction light-hearted and compassionate, and your students will soon chat your ear off.

4. Buddy system. The newest ELs can benefit from having a “big brother” or “big sister” that speaks the same language. This mentor can step in to translate as needed and show your students the ropes, and develop his or her own leadership skills in the process. Still, set firm guidelines on the extent of translating that goes on during content lessons, since buddies may not have the academic vocabulary in their native language to do so accurately.

5. Speak slowly. That doesn’t mean to speak unnaturally – just at the rate of a 5- or 6-year-old. This is especially for new ELs of course, but also when delivering new content to more adept ELs (See #1).

6. Language frames. We at Lingual Learning are pros at this one. You know that, right? Language frames lower the cognitive burden on students, helping them parse key vocabulary. By giving them explicit chunks of high-frequency language (“I have ___, Do you have ___?”) they internalize grammatical structures, thanks to repetition, and academic language, thanks to highlighting. Completing a thought, rather than generating a new idea is also a strategy for getting students to maximize use of their vocabulary.

7. Background knowledge. ELs may not have the background knowledge for some lessons, especially in US history and social studies. Background knowledge can be presented in brief and engaging ways, but has incredible importance for contextualizing the lesson.

8. Network. Talk to ELD teachers if you’re a content teacher. Invite content teachers to your classroom, if you’re an ELD teacher. Co-teach with or invite as a guest a teacher who has worked with your specific students. Invite colleagues to observe your classroom and give you feedback. Teachers all share the same goal, so why not share strategies and insights in a practical way?

9. Engage parents. Ask parents about their students’ past school experiences. Ask about home reading practices. Do home visits. When you send messages to parents about students, keep it constructive. Immigrant and refugee parents can’t always tell if their students are getting the most out of their schooling. Communicating with parents, even via interpreter or telegraphic speech, does wonders for uniting adults around the nurturing of one student.

10. Multiple modalities. Learning a language makes use of so many processes in an immersive context, and the classroom can mirror that. Utilize gestures (charades, anyone?), photos, graphics, drawing, matching, sorting, making concept maps… virtually any learning tool can, and should, be used to maximize language learning.

11. Don’t forget me. It’s hard to forget newcomers and emergent English learners because they need survival language skills. But higher-level students that seem articulate and adapted are often glossed over, and the slowest to exit ELD programs. These students benefit , not only from explicit vocabulary lessons, but from explicit strategy instruction. Teach them how to learn, and they’ll get more out of language instruction.

12. Native language and culture. Critical to their sense of self-worth, students must maintain ties to their home culture and language. By seeing that their teachers value this aspect of their identity, they will, too. Ask your students to share their culture and language with the class, even if it’s as simple as asking what a cow says in their native language during a science lesson, or about personal space preferences during social studies. These aspects of culture and language are interesting to everyone, and don’t require vast amounts of time or forethought, yet have lifelong impacts on attitudes toward school, learning, and society.

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