Helping English Language Learners (ELLs) in the Classroom
Adjusting to a new home, a new school, and a new language can be tough for English Language Learners (ELLs). ELLs, sometimes called English Learners or ELs, have unique challenges compared to their English-language-proficient classmates, says Danielle Boutin, an EL teacher of students in grades K through 5 at Nashua School District in Nashua, NH.
“Generally speaking, one challenge that faces ELLs more so than English-speaking students is (their) ability to sort, classify, connect, and synthesize new concepts, information, and vocabulary,” Boutin says. “With limited background knowledge in English, it is often difficult for ELLs to make sense of how new information fits in with information they already know.”
Says Kate Cox, an ESL specialist with Penn Manor School District in Millersville, PA, these students lack much of the vocabulary and meaning of words that their peers may have, which leads to a struggle for comprehension. Because of their limited background knowledge, English Language Learners often struggle to catch up with concepts that educators assume students know from experience, she says. They may also struggle with understanding social cues, with pronunciation and letter sounds, and with writing.
“Writing is the last skill to acquire,” Cox says. “English writing requires a lot of articles and the grammar has to be taught. Students can’t hear that a sentence doesn’t make sense.”
In many school districts, ELLs spend much of their day in an English-speaking classroom, working directly with a specialized teacher for only short periods of time. Boutin says classroom teachers can help ELLs find academic success in a variety of ways.
“Teachers can help catapult an ELL’s success by helping them create frameworks or schemas for new information,” she says. “These frameworks may be conceptually based (i.e. a snake is an animal, but not a fish because…) or they might be grammatically based (snake is a singular noun, but if I add an “s” at the end, it is a plural noun. So that means…). This can be done very successfully with the use of T-charts and sentence frames.”
Boutin emphasizes that it’s important to note that “discovering” the framework with these students is far more beneficial to their learning than “giving” them the framework. “Teachers should be cautious to not oversimplify connections or lead students to false frameworks as this could confuse future learning,” she says.
“Sometimes teachers fear that by modeling an assignment, students will copy the same idea and the product won’t be original,” Boutin says. “I find that the benefits of modeling an assignment far outweigh this possibility. Modeling gives students a visual representation of expectations to support the oral directions they are given.”
Give ELLs Strategies to Ask Questions
English Language Learners may be intimidated to ask questions in a whole-class setting, Boutin says, so classroom teachers should develop strategies to help. “This might be as simple as access to an iPad, bilingual dictionary, or bilingual buddy that can answer quick questions without interrupting whole-class instruction,” she says.
As another option, ELLs can keep a small laminated card on the corner of their desk, with a check mark on one side and a question mark on the other. “When ELLs are confused, some teachers have the (student) flip the card over, while other teachers have students raise their hand and point to the card when called on,” Boutin says. “This ensures the teacher is aware there is a question. Once the teacher has a moment, he/she comes over and clarifies one-on-one. This takes some of the pressure off of the English Learner.”
For more proficient students, Boutin suggests having them write their questions on a Post-it note to bring to the teacher. “This gives ELLs a chance to work out how to ask the question and what vocabulary to use before they are face-to-face with the teacher,” she says.
“Any time teachers can support oral language with a visual representation, an ELL will be more successful,” Boutin says. “Initially, it is helpful to show (students) with lower proficiency the same picture to ensure understanding. As (they) become more confident, it is great to show different visual representations of the same thing. This is especially true with vocabulary instruction.”
For example, she says, if she’s teaching ELLs what a tree is, she might initially use a typical picture of a tree with green leaves, but as they understand that concept, she’ll add pictures of leaves with changing colors or even trees with no leaves. “Showing students visual variations is important,” she says. “This helps the student make appropriate assumptions and connections to the picture and definition.”
Make Math Work
Math used to be easy for ELLs, Cox says, because numbers are a universal language. “Today, math is very much language-based,” she says. “Teaching math now requires students to be able to read with comprehension and apply higher-order thinking skills. If given the opportunity, it is great when an ELLs teacher can push-in to a math lesson, but if that is not possible, focusing on the vocabulary and practicing questions/answers that require multiple steps, is just as effective.”
Boutin says tackling math problems begins with a discussion about what the question is really asking and helping ELLs create a visual picture of the problem. “If the question asks, ‘How many shoes would 5 octopus need?’ Start the conversation: What is an octopus? What do we know about an octopus? Why might that information be important?” she says. “Give the students the language support they need to access the math problem. In the early grades especially, that is what we are teaching—how to pull the question apart to find the information we have and need, the information we have and don’t need, and what information is missing. Creating a chart or circling and crossing out right on the question can help students make sense of what it is they are solving for.”
Visuals are important when teaching math as well, says Boutin, who adds that manipulatives and drawing models can help them make sense of key concepts. “Seeing a visual representation of an ELL’s thought process will also allow the teacher to get a better understanding if a child’s confusion is language-related or math concept/calculation-driven,” she says.
Scaffolding is also a helpful technique, especially when it comes to math, Boutin says. “Modeling and scaffolding word problems often and with peers will help students make sense of the process,” she says. “As they grow more confident, you scale back the help. Maybe ask what the first step is, then give them a chance to complete it either in a small group or individually. Keep releasing the scaffolds until the students are ready to complete the problems on their own.”
Keep Communication Lines Open
As ELLs begin to adapt to their new language, remember to keep engaging students, Cox says. “Keep asking questions,” she says. “Don’t assume what a student knows.” And, she says, above all, take the time to listen to what students are saying.
Boutin agrees, adding, “ELLs are similar to English-speaking students because of their potential. (They) should be successful in our classrooms. … Being an ELL should never be seen as a disadvantage. (They) are capable of not only reaching our academic expectations, but surpassing them, just like their English-speaking peers.”