Fostering the ELL Growth Mindset: Tips for English Learner Resilience
Immigrating to the United States is a massive change for any child. They’ll face a new school, new classmates, and an entirely new language to learn and master. Their education won’t be easy, so they’ll need to develop the confidence that they can learn anything with time and practice. That’s where the ELL growth mindset comes in.
What Is a Growth Mindset?
People with growth mindsets believe that through hard work, determination, and resourcefulness, they can improve and grow their intelligence, talents, and abilities. On the other hand, those with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence and talent are innate and cannot be improved beyond pre-set limits that are individual to each person.
Students with a growth mindset:
- Have a strong desire to learn
- Tackle challenges head-on
- Are resilient and push through difficult tasks
- Learn from their mistakes
A growth mindset for ELL students can help them succeed beyond what others may perceive as their natural abilities.
Why is a Growth Mindset Important?
While it is crucial to all students’ success, ELLs in particular may benefit from adopting a growth mindset. In their first year in America, young students undergo rapid change. This change can be incredibly overwhelming, but a growth mindset can help them imagine a future where speaking English isn’t scary or stressful – it’s second nature.
A student with a fixed mindset may believe they will never be fluent in English in the future just because they are struggling with learning English in the present. On the other hand, a growth mindset will help them develop confidence and a positive attitude toward their learning.
5 Tips for Developing the ELL Growth Mindset
Helping your students develop a growth mindset will allow them to be more independent and self-assured in the classroom. Here are five tips to build the soft skills they’ll need.
1. Use Growth-Oriented Language
One of the simplest ways to help your students develop an ELL growth mindset is to practice what you preach. Using positive, progress-focused language will help set a good example for your students and model the kind of thought process you want them to use when struggling with a task. You may even consider creating a growth-mindset bulletin board to give your students visual reminders of what this looks like.
Making mistakes can be particularly upsetting and embarrassing for newcomer ELLs. Oftentimes this leads to them speaking up and volunteering less in class. By acknowledging your struggles and failures and showing your thought process as to how you move forward, you can model these key problem-solving behaviors for your students.
2. Talk About Mental Health in the Classroom
ELLs face a number of challenges when coming to America. Many of them have left their friends and parts of their families behind. They don’t speak the language or understand the culture. They may pick up on the secondhand stress of their parents or siblings who are also adjusting.
And, many cultures are not comfortable or used to talking about mental health openly. All of these things can lead to ELLs struggling with their mental health.
While a growth mindset can help students thrive, they need to first build a strong foundation for their mental health. Know the signs of mental health problems in children. Ensure your students understand the resources available to them. And don’t be afraid to talk about mental health in your classroom in an age-appropriate way.
3. Identify Areas of Strength and Weakness
While most people can master a skill with hard work and determination, there are certainly some skills that come easier to us than others. Identifying these areas of strength in your students can be particularly useful in developing an ELL growth mindset.
In the early days with an ELL newcomer, these natural strengths will be your best tool in showing your students that change and growth are possible, even if English may seem daunting. Whether the student in question is a math facts wiz or a star on the monkey bars, acknowledge their success and remind them of the days when they were just developing these skills.
Likewise, knowing the areas where students will struggle most can help you set them up for emotional and educational success. Provide reasonable expectations before difficult tasks and reward students for trying tasks that challenge them.
4. Document (and Share) Your Students’ Progress
Teachers frequently document student progress to gather data for their school, our district, and themselves. But sharing student progress with students can be just as important when developing a growth mindset. Allowing your students to collect their own data on their learning can also help them understand the progress they’ve made and take ownership of their learning.
One bad grade can feel like the end of the world for a child who is trying their best. Helping them visualize their progress and see that they are growing over time can help them gain the confidence they need to succeed.
5. Take Time to Reflect With Your Students
Reflection is a huge part of developing the ELL growth mindset. Build time into the conclusions of your lesson plans to talk about how the task or assignment went.
After an assignment, ask your students:
- What strategies did you use?
- Which strategies helped you most? Which weren’t helpful?
- What was the most difficult part of the task? How did you overcome it?
- How did it feel when you knew you had succeeded or completed the assignment?
- How would you help a classmate who struggled on this assignment?
This type of reflection can make a big impact and remind students to ask and answer these questions themselves when working independently or on homework assignments or tests.
Growth Mindset Activities and Lesson Plan Ideas
While living the principles of a growth mindset is a great way to model behavior for your class, you may also want to include lessons and activities on the topic as well. Here are six ideas for activities and lesson plans to encourage the ELL growth mindset.
- Teach SMART Goals – Young learners often get frustrated because they don’t know how to track and recognize their success. Explain and model SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely) goals so they can learn how to create them on their own.
- Build Self Esteem – A growth mindset for ELL students is often built on a foundation of positivity and self-confidence. Newcomers and beginning ELLs need extra support while they navigate the challenges of learning a new language. From reading a book on the topic to doing an art or writing assignment on what students like most about themselves, there are countless ways to incorporate self-esteem into your lesson plans.
- Select Relevant Readings – Children relate best to books and texts featuring people and characters like them. Whether they share a culture, age, or interest, reading about someone who has faced an injustice or difficult situation can help students connect and feel inspired. Students can then journal, create their own texts (using the reading as a model) or respond in another creative way (e.g. offering advice, encouragement, or praise to a character in the story).
- Three-Two-One – This activity is perfect as the conclusion to a new skill, subject, or activity. Ask students to write down three things they learned, two things they hope to learn, and one question they have after the lesson. This exercise can also be performed at the end of each school day or week.
- Guest Interview – This activity is a great way to incorporate listening and writing skills while developing an ELL growth mindset. Invite a guest (virtual or in-person) who is willing to share their experiences in overcoming challenges. Students can create a list of questions to ask the guest speaker, or teachers can give pre-determined questions to help guide students to thinking about growth mindset while listening. If it’s not possible to find someone who is able to come in and share their experiences, consider looking for inspirational speakers on YouTube. It can be particularly impactful to have someone with a similar background as your students.
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Thank you to Ellen Richardson, an ELL teacher at Abraham Lincoln Middle School in Lancaster, PA for consulting on this blog post.
This blog was originally published on October 12, 2021. It was updated on December 19, 2022.