Posts Tagged ‘ELLs’

Why We Filter Out: Understanding the Affective Filter

Friday, September 25th, 2015

AUTHOR: Seth Herrington, Bilingual/ESL Education Specialist

Educators spend countless hours developing engaging and interactive lessons for students. They pour over curriculum, participate in PLC’s, refine lesson plans through peer-review, and scour the internet for resources that will make the content delivery comprehensible for their students. Despite the deep level of care taken to plan a lesson, there are external factors that can hijack the learning process, rendering the countless hours of preparation useless. This is a phenomenon experienced by all learners and isn’t confined to education. It’s the basketball player that performs well during practice but freezes on the free-throw line under pressure. The business executive who fits the job description for an exciting new position perfectly, but doesn’t interview well due to social anxiety. The English Language Learner who sees themselves as intellectually inferior as a result of repeated failures in mastering academic content in English.

This imaginary barrier is called the Affective Filter. It’s a term developed by Stephen Krashen as part of his “Affective Filter Hypothesis” (Krashen, 1982). According to Krashen, there are three main sources of a raised affective filter.

  • Motivation: Learners who are highly motivated tend to acquire new content more quickly. When it comes to English Language Learners (ELLs), fostering motivation to acquire English is at times a difficult task, especially when a lack of motivation stems from an incongruence in the cause/effect relationship between content mastery and personal success.
  • Self-Confidence: Damaged self-confidence comes almost exclusively from repeated failures in mastering the English language for ELLs or from damaging experiences in attempting to master English. 
  • Anxiety: Stemming from circumstances inside the classroom or out, anxiety has an adverse effect on the acquisition of content. Students suffering from anxiety in the classroom experience triggers that render them emotionally hijacked and unable to truly process information presented, let alone demonstrate their comprehension of previously mastered material.

Students can suffer from an affective filter coming from more than one of the above sources. For example, an ELL with damaged self-confidence can also suffer from high levels of performance anxiety. Regardless of the source, a raised affective filter can diminish comprehensible input to the extent of eliminating it altogether.

Minimizing the Affective Filter

Maintaining a friendly, comfortable environment is ultimately the single most effective way to minimize the prevalence of a raised affective filter in ELLs. However, there are a number of additional practices that can help educators ensure that the lessons, units, and/or activities they plan for students result in content and language acquisition. Here are a few:

  • Elicit student performance only at the appropriate level.
  • Avoid public error correction and focus on the message being communicated rather than correct grammar.
  • Increase wait time and include “think time” for ELLs who are devoting an extraordinary amount of cognitive capacity to translating material delivered from English to their native language.
  • Allow for ample rehearsal time before student performance.

By implementing these and other strategies, educators can foster an environment where their students can easily acquire language and content — making the countless hours spent in planning instruction worth the effort.

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Pergamon Press.

Best Practices for Teaching Beginner English Language Learners (ELLs) at the Secondary Level

Friday, March 29th, 2013

Author:   Oryan Landa, ESL Instructional Coach



Walk into just about any secondary campus today and you are bound to find a teacher wondering what to do with a student who doesn’t speak English. And for a teacher who might have a class of 30 students, knowing how to meet the needs of that one non-English speaker can be a seemingly impossible challenge. What often transpires is a climate of avoidance or the idea that someone else on campus is (or should be) serving that student’s needs. But the reality on many campuses is that there isn’t that “someone else.” The education of these students falls onto the shoulders of all of their teachers – often through the form of Sheltered Instruction.

Sheltered Instruction is a program model designed to help ELLs access grade-level subject matter. Many of the strategies are geared towards students with an Intermediate proficiency level or above; however there are a lot of strategies that content area teachers can use to assist beginners as well. Those are the strategies addressed in this article.

In an ideal world, Beginner ELLs would also have direct, targeted instruction in English, in the same manner that our students here study French or Spanish; something that some schools offer through local elective courses. Simply being here in this country isn’t enough to “pick up” the language, especially if they are Spanish speakers and can easily go most of the day speaking their native language. We also place a lot of focus on developing academic language, but knowing academic language isn’t enough to pass a test if they can’t read all that English in between the academic words. The reality, however, is that most schools are not offering direct English instruction, while at the same time wondering why these students are not passing their classes and statewide assessments.

There are few appropriate interventions for beginners because the students’ lexile score is typically not high enough to participate meaningfully in the program. Meanwhile, ESOL classes are geared towards mastery of the English Language Arts TEKS which is not the same as learning the English language. The two classes would have different curricula and different methodologies.


Here at Education Service Center Region 13, our focus is on finding solutions. And regardless of whether schools are providing direct, targeted instruction in English, the education of these students is the responsibility of an entire campus; not just the ESL teacher.  With that in mind, there are many things content area teachers can do to assist the language acquisition and development for Beginner ELLs.

In order for content area teachers to appropriately meet the needs of their ELLs, teachers need to know their students’ proficiency levels. These scores can be found in the TELPAS results located in any student’s permanent record, where they will be marked as having Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, or Advanced High proficiency in listening, speaking, reading, and writing.


Before we can move towards a target, we have to be clear about what that target is. The first thing a teacher should do is have patience and know that learning a language doesn’t happen overnight. According to research, developing social language alone can take 2-3 years and academic language can take 5-7 years. Our goal with Beginner ELLs is to move them from “little or no ability in reading, writing, listening and speaking” to an Intermediate proficiency level defined broadly as the ability to understand, read, and write simple, high-frequency English used in routine settings. From a solid foundation, we can move them to more advanced proficiency. But without a solid foundation, the students’ language development will suffer.  For teachers, this means creating opportunities for students to feel successful, rather than situation like failures. We need to praise students’ achievements and encourage them, focusing on their progress rather than focusing on what they cannot do.


As we move towards a specific target, there are things we have control over and things we don’t, and it’s important to know where we do have influence. For one, teachers have influence over a student’s motivation through encouragement and positive reinforcement. Controlling the affective environment – making these students feel welcomed and safe to take risks – is a major factor in their language development. This can be achieved through such things as greeting students with a smile, having a consistent classroom routine, seating them in the front or middle of the classroom, simplifying your speech (by speaking more slowly, using fewer words to explain concepts, avoiding idioms, paraphrasing ideas, and keeping directions short and simple), praising student attempts to use English, never ridiculing, pairing students up with a buddy who speaks their language and who is willing to befriend them and help them settle in , giving them a tour of the school, and putting their native culture on display. A teacher could also use a tool such as Google Translate to communicate with these students socially.

In group work, students can either partner up with a more advanced ELL, or have the Beginner ELL “tag-along” with another student, who pairs up with someone else – forming a trio. The key is to make them feel included.

Secondly, teachers have influence over these students’ access to language. This includes having appropriate materials available such as native-language/English dictionaries, translators, low-level/high-interest reading materials, and/or primary language resources. A teacher can also create a language rich environment with content-related posters, labels of the classroom, magazines and books with lots of visuals, and student-generated Word Walls. The idea is to fill your classroom with print and interesting things to talk, read and write about, so that students feel immersed in English just by being in your classroom.

Another way teachers can influence Beginner ELLs’ access to language is by making the instruction understandable. In ESL jargon we call this “comprehensible input.” This simply means making your messages easily understood. This is something that is most easily achieved through the use of visual communication or gesturing, and avoiding lecture-only instruction. Visuals should always be used to reinforce/explain what a teacher is trying to communicate. Once students achieve Intermediate proficiency, we can place more focus on developing academic language. But for a Beginner ELL, our focus should be on making things understood, so as to develop their receptive language skills. Developing students’ ability to understand English will positively influence their ability to produce English.

When interacting with Beginner ELLs, it’s also important to keep in mind that a lot of translating is going on in their heads. This means allowing them plenty of think time to both absorb information as well as formulate what they want to say. It also means that sometimes our messages need to be restated exactly the same way, because sometimes these students need to hear something several times to process its meaning. If a student still doesn’t understand, then we can rephrase our explanation, but what we want to avoid is explaining something five different ways, thereby giving them five different messages to process and translate. Less is always more.


  • Pre-teach and re-teach material – ideally in a small group, using visuals – or provide informational text in the student’s native language (which may mean translating articles or other texts, using Google Translate or a similar website).
  • Avoid passing over information only once. Beginner ELLs need multiple exposures to the material.
  • Modify assessments by underlining or bolding key words, paraphrasing or simplifying directions/questions, or allowing dictionaries/translators.
  • Provide alternative assessments such as true/false or multiple-choice tests instead of short answer formats or exams that require lots of writing. Other options include oral administration, or allowing for non-linguistic representation. The idea in the beginning is to assess for content knowledge – and not language ability.
  • Provide students with academic glossaries that provide explanations in the student’s native language.
  • Have students write in their native language, and then use Google Translate (or other resource) to translate their writing to English. Then have them copy the English version by hand.
  • Provide plenty of resources and opportunities for reading, which will help develop their grammar and vocabulary, as well as their listening, speaking, and writing ability.
  • Provide opportunities to practice speaking and writing in English, to cement the learning of both the content and the language.
  • Use the “I DO, WE DO, YOU DO” model of instruction to provide Beginner ELLs with plenty of modeling, guided practice, and peer support.
  • When students are working independently, support Beginner ELLs with one-on-one support.
  • Allow for single word or yes/no responses, grammatical and spelling errors, listing and labeling, peer support and cooperative learning, and use of drawing.
  • Provide language scaffolds such as sentence stems, paragraph frames, and graphic organizers.

Having a Beginner ELL in class can be intimidating for any teacher. It’s even more intimidating for the student. There’s a lot we don’t have control over, such as a student’s home environment, their prior schooling, or their personality. The key is knowing what needs to be in place for successful learning to occur. We do have influence over the environment we create, the relationship we establish with them, and the language we give them access to.

Getting to Know your English Language Learners

Friday, August 24th, 2012

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.