Helping English Language Learners (ELLs) succeed requires a strong partnership between ELLs teachers and classroom teachers. Knowing some of the common situations or struggles ELLs (sometimes called ELs, or English Learners) face can help a mainstream teacher understand the best way to serve these students.
“The experience and perspective an English Learner brings to any classroom is one that should be celebrated and treasured,” says Danielle Boutin, an EL teacher of students in grades K through 5 at Nashua School District in Nashua, NH. “Sometimes the unknown is scary, but fostering a learning environment where students and teachers are learning from each other side by side—that is what is important.”
How can you support ELLs for success in the classroom? Follow these suggestions from ELLs teachers.
1. Support Self-Advocacy
It’s easy to prepare ELLs for success if you understand the cultural, social, and academic factors that influence classroom outcomes.
“My English Learners often need help advocating for themselves and their learning,” Boutin says. “Sometimes, ELs with lower proficiency aren’t even sure what it is they don’t understand. They just know the material doesn’t make sense.”
Help your ELLs by encouraging them to speak up if they don’t understand something, and support advocacy at home by getting parents of ELLs involved in raising classroom confidence levels.
Kate Cox, an ESL specialist with Penn Manor School District in Millersville, PA, says ELLs often struggle because of the transient nature of the U.S. population in general. “Moving from place to place puts gaps in any student’s learning, which makes it hard to catch up to the grade-level appropriate content material, especially when there is a language barrier,” she says.
2. Create a Positive Environment
Boutin notes that creating a comfortable environment is important to both students and teachers, adding that classroom teachers have confided feeling nervous about working with a particular ELL if the teacher finds the student difficult to understand.
“The teacher often feels guilty or worried that they might offend or frustrate the student,” she says. “If I know this is a concern, then I can also model questions to put the teacher at ease. Students can sense the hesitation or the dreaded feeling that they are not being understood.”
3. Align Instruction Between Classrooms
For many ELL teachers, including Boutin and Cox, individual instruction happens in a pull-out setting, but ELLs do best when the instruction is aligned with what’s happening in the classroom.
“If they are reading or learning about a particular historical topic or science concept, I try to use the same topics,” Boutin says. “I can teach language through nearly any material or topic.”
Cox says a “survival folder” comes in handy to encourage collaboration between her classroom and the mainstream teacher. “I make each one of my classroom teachers an ESL survival folder,” she says.
The folder includes items such as WIDA ACCESS scores, translated documents, accommodations for the content areas, report card comments, how to request an interpreter, and information for ELLs who have Individualized Education Plans.
4. Don’t Assume Anything
Boutin says classroom teachers—and ELL teachers as well—should never make assumptions about what a student knows.
She recalls a student she taught early on in her career, a 5th-grade refugee who had been in the United States for three years. Although his oral language skills were developing well, and he could easily hold a conversation with his teacher and peers, he ran into trouble when he encountered a basic word he didn’t know.
“I remember teaching a lesson and in the discussion that followed, the words ‘humans’ and ‘people’ were being used interchangeably by students. I could tell by the boy’s face that he was completely baffled,” Boutin says. “Eventually, I realized his confusion—he didn’t realize the words were synonyms. He knew what people were, and he knew what aliens were—he thought a human was somewhere in between. He had no reference point for the word ‘human.’”
Building background and making connections to previous learning is the first step, she says. “If you are talking about the Boston Tea Party, you want your ELs’ minds in the right time and place—we are talking about the American Revolution era, not a game your little sister likes to play,” she explains. “Helping situate an EL in his or her learning is a very important step.”
5. Focus on Specific Words, Not Just Concepts
Not having a strong grasp of basic English words can put ELLs at a disadvantage, Cox says. “They lack much of the vocabulary and meaning of words, therefore comprehension is a struggle,” she says, even for subjects and concepts below grade level.
No matter what’s being taught, a classroom teacher can support ELLs for success by emphasizing basic vocabulary in every lesson, Boutin says. “Don’t just jump into photosynthesis without reviewing the key vocabulary,” she explains. “Make sure students have a firm grasp of the language and vocabulary before teaching new concepts.”