I'm just going to be honest here because it's what's best for students. This may hurt some feelings or sting a little for some who read this, but it comes from personal experience and I feel like if we don't confront problems, we can't solve them.
I have co-taught in classrooms where the general education teacher has had little experience with ELLs. They have had little training in how to serve ELLs. Teachers with little experience or knowledge about how to serve ELLs tend to be intimidated by students who are newcomers or beginners at the entering phase of proficiency. Often teachers steer away from the student because of their own insufficiency. Inadvertently, the student feels that the teacher doesn't like them or doesn't care for them. Then the class notices as well. Suddenly, there is an underlying culture in the classroom that the ELL is not celebrated, rather they are cast away.
As teachers, we took this job because we love children and want to help them learn. ALL children. Never would we intentionally want a child to feel that we don't care for them. But this is how some ELLs feel when teachers avoid ELLs, give them coloring sheets (while the rest of the class does meaningful work), or put them on a computer to practice easy English skills.
I know you don't want any of your students to feel unwanted. You want them to THRIVE and LOVE learning. Here's how to ensure that your ELLs are getting what they need:
1. WELCOME Them
As soon as you know you are receiving an ELL, learn as much as you can about their background and get your class involved. Build their excitement for the student! Learn a few words in the child's native language. Teach the class some simple words such as "hello" and "my name is.". Learn how the child would like to be called and pronounce their name correctly. Names are important and carry more than the identity of a child. They can carry culture and traditions, history and a family story. Value a child's name by learning to pronounce it even if it means trying over and over again. Get a desk ready for the new student and designate a buddy to help the new student get acclimated to the new school. If you have a student in your class who speaks the same native language, that would be a great buddy. Once your new ELL arrives, be sensitive to their needs. Some ELLs are shy while others are outgoing (just like all students). Either way, introduce them to the class and their buddy. I have had many an ELL walk through my doors and each was unique. Some were eager and happy to be here, while others were sad and visibly shaken. I have even had a few that were overtly angry. Being empathetic and trying to understand their situation is important to their success. Overall, when students feel welcome, their affective filter is lowered and the ability to learn is greater.
2. Build Relationships
Getting to know your ELL is key to their success. This step will unlock the door to their growth as learners of English. So many times, we think that looking in the permanent record folder will tell us what we need to know abut our students. Yes, this gives us information, but it doesn't build a relationship. A student could be a new immigrant ELL who has never spoken English before arriving on your campus. On the other hand, a student could be born in the US and only attended American schools. ELLs come with their own extremely varied backgrounds and without knowing them, we cannot serve them well. Asking the student or the parents questions, being sincere about wanting to know, and using the information to make connections and build language is the goal. For example, I had a student once whose family came to America to seek refuge from war. This student had not attended school regularly in her home country before coming to America. The gaps were evident in her native language. Working with her parents and building on her strengths is what helped to assure progress and success for this student. When kids know that we care and love them, they want to do well for us. It's important for ELLs especially to feel valued as unique individuals, loved, and part of the class community.
3. Keep a Pulse on Language Proficiency
As your ELL begins to listen, speak, read and write in English, you have to continue to raise the bar. If we keep givng our students the same type of instructional strategies and accommodations, then they don't have the chance to grow. That's why it's important to use language proficiency descriptors to help keep you data informed and drive your instructional steps that will lead to progress and growth. In the beginning, for example, I may expect my newcocmer student to listen and repeat what I say. I may expect the student to label and copy simple words and short sentences. Once they have mastered that, I will want the student to stretch further and talk using short phrases, write short sentences on their own with sentence starters.. Each state uses some type of rubric to address language proficiency. It's important to know it and use it as a way to formatively assess students throughout the year.
4. Adjust Delivery
The delivery of your instruction is super important. There are many things you can do to make your language comprehensible to someone who is learning it. For example, speaking slowly. Think about a language that you may know a little...for me it's Spanish. I can understand Spanish a little. But if my husbands family speaks at their normal rate, I lose all understanding. A friend of mine tells me that when she was a young ELL, a teacher once spoke loudly to her...that didn't work and embarrassed her greatly. Speaking clearly also helps. When students can hear each word individually, they are more likely to comprehend what is being said. Repeating and rephrasing when students look confused. Gauge the class by looking around. You can usually tell if students are not getting it. Try saying it a different way. Using gestures or pointing and talking works wonders! I have actually demonstrated the use of gestures and point and talk with adult audiences using my native language (which is Serbian). When I speak without them, the audience has no idea what I'm talking about. But when I use gestures and point and talk, they get most of the main points. For instance, if you are asking students to open your writing journals to page 7, grab the journal and demonstrate what you are asking them to do. So simple, yet so effective! Providing students with ample wait time is another way to support ELLs as they acquire English. When we ask questions,
ELLs need an abundant amount of time to practice the new language. Output is important but can take on various forms. Output, also called expression, can be in writing or speaking. Either way it must be scaffolded to meet the needs of the student's language level. Beginners will need more support than students who are more advanced. ELLs should practice writing and speaking in all content areas each day. Speaking socially is not enough to help an ELL advance in become successful in school or post secondary. The best way to assure that ELLs get the practice they need in a low stress environment, is to plan structured speaking and writing activities such at Q Triple S A, Talking Heads, Think-Pair-Defend, etc. The opportunity to work in cooperative groups and partners is best for ELLs. Learning from classmates and discussing in a small setting allows ELLs and all students to negotiate for meaning and process information.
Keeping a routine in the classroom helps ELLs to focus on learning content and language. When students know the structure of their day and the lesson, they can focus their energy on learning content and language rather than wondering and/or worrying about what will happen next. Routines provide a structure and support for students such as ELLs who have a lot on their daily learning plates. The more we can be explicit and structured, the better.
These tips are GREAT for English Language Learners, but really ANY child would benefit from feeling welcome, having a relationship with their teacher, and having a teacher who knows their language level and uses that to adjust instruction. Any child would thrive if their teacher adjusted the delivery of lessons to meet their needs and gave them ample opportunities to express themselves through talk and writing. These are practices that are good for all students. The difference is that ELLs NEED them.
This is just the beginning. To learn more about serving ELLs, seek professional development opportunities through your district office, or regional service center. Join organizations such as TESOL and participate in ELL or ESL Twitter Chats. Read books about ESL/ELL (see my suggestions here).
Ferlazzo, L., & Sypnieski, K. H. (2012). The ESL/ELL teacher's survival guide. ready-to-use strategies, tools, and activities for teaching English language learners of all levels. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Seidlitz, J., Base, M., & Lara, M. (2015). ELLs in Texas: what teachers need to know. San Clemente, CA: Canter Press.