Getting to Know your English Language Learners

Author:   Janet O’Keeffe  Project Coordinator, ESL/Bilingual Programs

Another school year is beginning and there are so many things teachers are responsible for as they prepare for a new group of students.  Teachers are anxious to get their class rosters to find out which students they will be working with during the new school year.  As you review your rosters, you may subconsciously group them into two categories:  students that are easy to work with and students who are difficult.  It is important, regardless of the category in which you place them, to get to know all of your students so that you can meet their needs and help them be academically successful.  This article is going to focus on getting to know your English language learners (ELLs) and provide some tips for welcoming these students, promoting English language development and promoting academic achievement.

One of the most important things to know about your ELLs is their level of English proficiency as this is the key to meeting their needs.  ELLs can be classified into four categories of English proficiency:  beginning, intermediate, advanced, or advanced high.  Students who have previously attended Texas schools have taken the Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment (TELPAS) and will have results of this assessment in their permanent record file.  Students who are new to the United States are given language proficiency assessments that are also located in the student’s permanent record.  These assessments are scored a little differently from TELPAS but can still provide you with information regarding the student’s English language proficiency.

There is some basic information about the different levels of proficiency that is important for you to know as you begin to plan instruction.  Let’s take a closer look.

Beginning Intermediate Advanced Advanced High
Beginning ELLs have little or no ability to understand English used in academic and social settings. Intermediate ELLs have the ability to understand simple, high frequency English used in routine academic and social settings. Advanced ELLs have the ability to understand, with support, grade-appropriate English used in academic and social settings. Advanced high ELLs have the ability to understand, with minimum support, grade appropriate English used in academic and social settings.

 

As you can see, there is tremendous difference between the beginning student and the student at the advanced high level of English proficiency.  So let’s explore some ideas that will help you get off to a great start.

Welcoming ELLs

First impressions are lasting and so it’s critical that you ensure students feel welcome and that they are in a safe, friendly and supporting environment.  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Be aware of your body language.  Greeting students with a friendly face will remove some of the student’s anxiety about being in a new environment.  Negative body language can instantly create a barrier between you and the student that may take a long time to remove.
  • Be prepared for students who may not come equipped.  Having a welcome kit available that has pencils, pens, crayons, paper, etc., will ensure students are prepared to participate in activities you have planned.  Also, including a map of the school or taking the class on a school tour can be helpful.
  • Find out about the students’ families, home life, and personal interests.  This may provide information that will help you know how to address future situations.  For example, a student may not complete homework assignments which can lead to frustration from both you and the student.  But if you are aware that there are many people living in the house and there is no quiet place for the student to complete assignments, you can problem solve beforehand to find alternatives that make a win-win situation.  Learning what interests your students can also be a connection you can make when teaching academic content.
  • Provide multi-cultural literature at different reading levels and display artifacts from your students’ cultures.  When your class sees you are inclusive of all cultures, they view the class as one community that embraces cultural similarities and differences.

Developing Language

The English Language Proficiency Standards, ELPS, require all content and special area teachers to take steps necessary to develop English for ELLs.  As you know, developing a second language takes time, energy, and practice.  Helping ELLs develop English can be done without a great deal work by following some of the suggestions below.

  • Provide opportunities for students to engage with one another.  Group activities can always get students talking.  Students at the beginning or intermediate levels of English proficiency may not be able to engage in conversations like students at higher levels of proficiency, but don’t think they are not benefiting from these types of activities.  It provides opportunities for them to hear the language and acquire language naturally when they interact with English speaking peers.
  • Develop key vocabulary using Total Physical Response (TPR).  Total Physical Response uses commands that require a physical response from the students.  For example, think of some key terms that you use routinely in the classroom (line up, open your book, sharpen your pencil, etc.).  You can demonstrate these terms or phrases and have the students practice the responses with you.  Eventually, the students will be able to respond on their own and over time will acquire such phrases.  The same method can be used to teach academic vocabulary, too.
  • Implement alternative responses.  Students at lower levels of English proficiency will only be able to respond with one or two words, short phrases, or sentences that are made up of broken English.  Using colored cards to indicate their response to a question is one way you can support ELLs.  Green could represent “yes,” red could represent “no,” and yellow could represent “I don’t know.”  Thumbs up, thumbs down or sideways might be another alternative.  This is also helpful because some newcomer ELLs may go through a silent period where they don’t respond because they are taking in the new language, so the more comfortable you can make them feel the faster they will get out of the silent period.
  • Allow more response time.  Students who are learning a new language need time to process questions and their responses.  Using a think-pair-share strategy gets the entire class engaged and ensures ELLs have time to process.  With this strategy, pose your question, allow time for students to think on their own, have them share their response with a partner, then solicit responses from the class.  This strategy will help you avoid those awkward silent moments.

Content Area Learning

One of the greatest concerns you’ll probably have about ELLs in your class is how you are going to teach them the required content.  This is when you want to walk a mile in their shoes.  Asking yourself what you would like for the teacher to do for you if you were learning a second language is where you’ll find the answers.   To foster content learning, try some of these ideas.

  • Implement the use of journals.  Allow students to draw or write in their native language to make connections to new content.
  • Utilize structured note-taking.  Provide notes for students that have key words or phrases missing.  Students listen for those missing parts and fill them in as they go.  For some students, you may need to provide a word bank to assist them.
  • Develop word walls for content vocabulary.  Including images or the native language term can also make content more accessible.
  • Use visuals and gestures during instruction.  Showing an image, video clip, or a real object makes understanding new terms clear to students.  Gesturing by pointing or acting out a new concept can also help clarify new or difficult content.
  • Engage students using hands-on activities.  Many students learn by doing and will retain the information for a longer period of time.
  • Provide bilingual dictionaries.  Having bilingual dictionaries in the classroom is one way to provide a tool for students that can be accessed independently; however, for this to be effective, students must know how to use them.

Celebrate Success

Celebrating our students’ successes is often a process we overlook because we get so caught up in moving to what’s next.  Learning a new language is very challenging and by getting to know where your students are and frequently monitoring their progress to find something new they have learned, no matter how small it may seem, is critical when it comes to keeping students motivated to continue this difficult process.  Students frequently are criticized for their inadequacies both at school and home so celebrating in your classroom may be the only place students hear words of encouragement.  Here are some ideas for recognizing students’ accomplishments.

  • Provide meaningful praise.  Be specific about the student’s accomplishment rather than “good job” or “great work.”
  • Send a letter or card to parents.  Students want their parents to be proud of their accomplishments, too.  Parents are not always use to receiving notification about something positive their child has done and will appreciate your effort.
  • Ring the bell.  Have a bell that you can ring to capture students’ attention then share the news with the entire class.

As you begin to plan, consider by getting to know your students. You’ll improve communication, establish trust, have a better understanding of how each student learns, and help students grow intellectually and socially.

 


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