Hands Up! Engagement Strategies for ELL Students
According to the National Education Association, it is projected that by 2025, 1 out of every 4 students in the United States will be an English language learner (ELL). As this population continues to grow, it becomes increasingly important for teachers to understand how to support ELL students’ educational needs.
Class participation has a strong correlation with positive academic outcomes. Of course, we want all of our students to be actively engaged in learning— but how can we do that when a language barrier exists?
One of the biggest challenges that ELL students face is active class participation. Therefore, it’s crucial to be aware of engagement strategies for ELL students and how to implement them in your daily lessons.
Our blog will discuss both “big picture” strategies to address social-emotional obstacles as well as tips for helping your ELL students become more active learners during your lessons.
Getting Started: Build Your Classroom Climate
The affective filter is a theoretical term that is used to explain the connection between a student’s emotions and their acquisition of a new language.
When the filter is high, anxiety and stress may impact the student’s ability to engage in learning. When the filter is low, the student feels safe and confident to participate in the classroom.
For students who are facing a language barrier, simply answering a question can be a huge learning risk.
The following strategies can help you lower your ELL students’ affective filter and create a learning climate where students feel safe to take learning risks:
Get to know your students and their families
While getting to know your ELL students certainly includes identifying their native language or English proficiency level, building relationships with them encompasses so much more.
- Begin by making sure that you’re pronouncing their and their families’ names correctly. A student’s name is an important part of their identity and culture. Consider incorporating name-related activities or books to help students share the meaning of their names.
- Take time to learn about their hobbies and interests, cultural or religious traditions, and home life— anything that could help you meet your student’s needs and inform your instructional decisions.
- Meet with your students’ families to gain a deeper understanding of their previous academic experiences as well as their goals for their children.
- Embrace your students’ cultures and languages as an integral part of who they are— remember, home language is an asset, not a deficit.
Cultivate an appreciation for diversity
An effective classroom is one where all students feel seen, understood, and appreciated. Foster your students’ sense of belonging by celebrating the diversity in your classroom.
When you emphasize appreciation and acceptance of diverse cultures, all students will reap the benefits.
A classroom that values diversity helps students develop their critical thinking and problem-solving skills, foster empathy, build leadership skills, and prepares them to enter a global community as an adult.
Create an inclusive classroom
Studies have shown that representation in the classroom increases feelings of belonging, promotes peer relationships, and boosts students’ self-esteem.
This is especially important for your ELL students, many of whom are adjusting to life in a brand-new country.
Take note of the resources in your classroom by asking yourself the following questions:
- How inclusive is your classroom library?
- What about your other classroom materials (posters, textbooks, etc.)?
- If your ELL student looks around the classroom, would they be able to see themselves in your materials?
Make sure that you are choosing materials for your classroom that reflect the students who are in it.
4 Engagement Strategies for ELL Students
Now that you’ve laid the foundation to lower your ELL students’ affective filters before your lesson, the question remains: how can you increase ELL students’ participation during your lesson?
The following strategies for ELL students can boost active participation and cognitive engagement for all of your students.
1. Use scaffolds to increase productive language
By using scaffolding strategies for ELLs, you’ll make the English language less intimidating and help them to gradually build on what they already know.
Scaffolds reduce frustration and help ELs become more confident, motivated, and independent— and help to increase their class participation. Some examples of scaffolds include:
- Sentence Starters or Sentence Frames
By providing your ELLs with sentence frames, you can help them reduce their cognitive load and focus more on engaging with the academic content.
- Graphic Organizers
Graphic organizers are powerful tools for helping students visually organize information, make connections between topics, and activate background knowledge.
- Use Visual Aids
Visuals are incredibly important for helping ELL students contextualize and retain information— they can be a helpful reference point for students as they participate in class activities.
- Word Banks
English learners need opportunities to practice using new vocabulary words in the context of writing and speaking— word banks can provide your ELs with helpful resources.
- Picture Dictionaries
Picture dictionaries allow English learners to communicate in writing or orally regardless of their proficiency level— increasing participation for all students.
2. Increase wait time
Did you know that the average teacher pauses for less than one second to call on a student after asking a question?
Increasing your wait time is beneficial for all students, but it is especially crucial for students who are processing information in two languages.
It can feel uncomfortable at first, but pausing for even five seconds after asking a question can help your students develop more complex answers.
3. Incorporate Total Participation Strategies
Think about the traditional question-and-answer sessions of teaching. When you call on only a few students, how much evidence of learning are you able to gather? What about the rest of the students whose hands haven’t gone up?
Coined by Drs. Persida and William Himmele, “Total Participation Techniques” (TPTs) refer to strategies that teachers can use to encourage higher-order thinking while gaining evidence of cognitive engagement for ALL students— even those who haven’t mastered English yet.
These formative assessments can help us to gather the information we need to ensure all students are cognitively engaged, resulting in better outcomes for our English learners.
Remember this equation: high cognition + high engagement = maximum learning.
Below are some examples of simple ELL strategies that you can easily use in your lessons to boost participation for your ELs.
Think-Pair-Share is a collaborative activity where students pause to reflect on a prompt before sharing their answers with a partner. This activity removes the pressure on ELLs to come up with an immediate response.
To encourage active listening, you can have students summarize their partner’s responses— depending on their proficiency level, it may be easier for an EL to repeat their partner’s answer than come up with one independently.
Quick-Draws provide students with an opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of a vocabulary term or concept by creating a drawing.
Students can then share and explain their drawings with a partner or in a small group. This activity can be used at any grade level or language proficiency.
Hold-Ups are a teaching strategy that boosts student engagement and allows you to quickly check for understanding for all of your students. They can take many forms: whiteboards, true/false cards, multiple-choice notecards, or even colored popsicle sticks.
English learners benefit from discussing their responses in pairs or small groups before answering.
Kahoot is a game-based learning platform that utilizes technology for the review of concepts. Create your own Kahoot to tailor it to your learning objectives for your English learners.
The data that you gather from your students’ answers can help you determine the best differentiation strategies for your ESL students.
4. Take advantage of technology
Most students love to use technology and will gladly join in any opportunity to use it.
Technology is an invaluable resource in the ESL classroom for many reasons:
- It can provide a low-risk opportunity for your ELs to communicate.
- It can build confidence for newcomers and other students who are in the early stages of language acquisition as they show what they know through modalities other than speaking or writing.
- It can facilitate communication and strengthen connections between parents and teachers.
- It can help students access content outside of the classroom so that they can deepen their understanding.
Whether you use multilingual or bilingual websites to deliver content or Google Translate to help you communicate with your students and families, technology can help your English learners achieve language mastery.
Although class participation can be a challenge, these engagement strategies for ELL students will help you foster active learning for all learners.
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