As an ESL teacher and coach, I have often been asked by classroom teachers what immediate changes they could make to assist the English Language Learners (ELLs) in their classrooms. Classroom teachers are some of the hardest working and most dedicated people I have ever met. I have been lucky enough to coach, co-teach, and work along side of some extraordinary educators. Some of the pieces that most teachers miss when they first start working with ELLs are listed below. These errors are easily corrected and I have seen them make a difference in how ELLs progress in the classroom. So correct the following errors before they happen.
1. Not learning to say the student’s name correctly
This is common and very understandable as it often can be a challenge to say a name in another language. It does, however, put an unnecessary distance between you and the student.
2. Assuming the student is just not trying
Unfortunately, I have had numerous teachers tell me think their student is just not trying and needs to study harder. Typically, It corresponds to students with a WIDA Level 3 more often than any other time. This happens because students at this level are competent users of social English and often present as capable of understanding much more than they do. Academic English, multi-step directions, higher level vocabulary and expectations of immediate comprehension can puzzle the student. Classroom teachers often get frustrated with student’s they perceive as inattentive or under-performing at this stage.
3. Not learning the student’s English proficiency level and what that truly means in a classroom environment
There are various assessments used to determine a student’s English proficiency level in the United States. In 2016, 32 states use the WIDA ACCESS Test as their assessment to monitor student English levels. WIDA defines 6 levels of English proficiency. WIDA’s Levels are 1) Entering, 2) Beginning, 3) Developing, (4) Expanding, (5) Bridging and (6) Reaching. California uses the CELDT.
4. Expecting the students’ parents to be able and willing to participate in their student’s schooling
Parents of students new to the country often struggle to understand school-based expectations for them. Most refugee parents have little experience being expected to monitor homework and to respond to school correspondence. Frequently, they do not speak or read English and do not have access to e-mail or the internet. Immigrant parents do better in this area but there is still a learning curve for them to understand parent-teacher-school communications. Reaching out to these parents can also be difficult due to possible language barriers. If possible, work with a bilingual staff member to connect with parents.
5. Being reluctant to work with ESL teachers
Some teachers are uncomfortable with ESL teachers in their classroom. This is understandable yet, may hinder the classroom teacher from getting the full support they need to meet the needs of the ELL. In my experience, three different classroom teachers, at three different schools, in three different grades, informed me they did not want to work collaboratively with me because they thought it was an ineffective teaching strategy. These situations were very uncomfortable for me. I compromises with each of these teachers and did successfully worked with the push-in and pull-out strategies throughout the year.
6. Expecting ELL’s to learn English at a similar pace
Teachers are used to discussions of low expectations of students and the negative impact that can have on learning outcomes. It is less common to discuss or think about setting expectations too high. In my experience, classroom teachers who work regularly with ELL’s can come to expect all ELL’s to learn English at about the same rate. That is just not how language acquisition works. There are many factors that impact second language acquisition; age, cognitive ability, first language, skill level within the first language, understanding of a written language prior to English writing acquisition, etc. According to second language acquisition research, social language acquisition is commonly thought to happen within 3 – 5 years although some recent literature says this might even be more accurately extended to 7 years. Academic English takes from 7 – 9 years to acquire and often longer.
7. Teaching primarily through talk
This happens primarily at the Middle School and High School levels. Many teachers are getting to be experts at differentiation and including hands-on or discovery-based learning strategies, however, there are still many who talk more than anything else. ELL’s learn better working in small groups or with partners. Visual learning is critical to them so any kind of visual presentations will increase the ELL’s ability to comprehend. SMART Board technology can assist a teacher in reaching this visual population.
8. Utilizing only written assessments
Written assessments are common to in education. They can, however, be unnecessary barriers for ELL’s to overcome. Offering a project-based assessment or a rubric that equally evaluates a student’s knowledge of the subject matter can help ELL’s participate fully in classroom assessments. Verbal assessments are initially difficult to schedule but can be very effective.
9. Ignoring Cultural Taboos that Impact Your Student
Every culture has certain things that are considered taboo. It is important to find out what those are for the student population of ELL’s you serve. For example, I was teaching a fourth-grade Hmong boy. One day, in a gesture of affection, I rubbed his head. It was a quick, light touch. I was surprised to see his response. I had not known that in the Hmong culture to touch a person’s head is taboo. Many Hmong people believe that you can hurt their spirit or even steal their spirit by touching their heads.
My lesson that day was probably ineffective as I had unknowingly distracted the student by breaking a cultural taboo.
10. Not Allowing Enough Wait Time
This is one of the most common errors classroom teachers make in their classes. I have witnessed many teachers ask a question and then answer the question or move to another student without giving the ELL an opportunity to formulate a reply. It takes more time to listen to English, translate it, formulate a reply and then translate it back to English than it takes a native English speaker to think up a response. There are strategies teachers can use to ask all of their students’ questions that allow the ELLs to formulate responses as well as their peers. I, personally, have seen popsicle sticks with students’ names on them used very successfully. A teacher picks a stick with a student’s name on it. When an ELL’s name is picked the teacher gives a the wait time needed for the student to respond.
Changing just a few classroom routines and increasing your awareness of English learners needs can make a big difference in the life of your ELLs. I have developed a free Self-Monitoring tool for you to use. This tool will give you an idea of how you are doing in using strategies with ELLs and allow you to see where you could make a few changes.
“ACCESS for ELLs 2.0 Summative Assessment.” WIDA: ACCESS for ELLs 2.0. THE BOARD OF REGENTS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN SYSTEM, 2014. Web. 12 Aug. 2016.
“English Language Proficiency Assessments for California (ELPAC).” English Language Proficiency Assessments for California. California Department of Education, 29 June 2016. Web. 12 Aug. 2016.