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Strategies for English Language Learners

What can teachers do to increase effective communication in classrooms when language barriers exist? Historically, professional development training for teachers with no background in working with English Language Learners (ELLs) has failed to shore up the ever-widening gaps in achievement that occur as classroom processes continue to elevate methods that are outdated and culturally unresponsive. Building structures so that language learners can thrive sounds intimidating; however, making positive strides is completely doable with intentional, targeted action.

Increase Language Production

Recently, I observed an ELL math class that was noticeably quiet. The teacher stood in front, providing direct instruction at the board. Once he was finished demonstrating the problem, students began filling out worksheets. Some of the students asked one another questions, but not many. One intrepid student circulated throughout the room, both asking for and offering help, but he was the only one who was doing much talking. Without strategies for discourse built into a lesson, language growth is limited.

The most vital aspect of maximizing the success of ELLs is upping the use of language production in class. My content background is secondary English, but I work with all subjects on building structures for increasing verbal output not just for ELLs, but for all students. Strategies that serve specific populations also benefit everyone in the class. An accessible best practice involves the process of questioning. Typically, teachers ask the questions. Instead, flip the questioning process so that instead of doing a worksheet or teacher-created assessment, students are asked to develop open-ended questions about the lesson, both to share with one another and to give to the teacher. When students are responsible for creating higher-order questions, the rigor of course expectations elevates critical thinking processes as well as student-centered understanding of the learning. To ensure that this process of questioning happens, intentionally work the questions into lesson plans and have them ready to go before a lesson begins.

Value the Power of Choice, Flexibility and Responsiveness

Last year, one of my ELL students came up to me after class. His attendance had been spotty at best, and he was sitting at about 25 absences only a couple of months into the school year. “I like this class,” he said, “but I’m working two jobs at night. My older brother is sick and needs medicine. I don’t want you to think I’m skipping because I don’t care.” It took such bravery for this student to share a piece of his story with me, and I told him that he would succeed, but not with the current system in place. Instead, we developed a plan that would allow him to do the work with check-ins, and arranged time for academic support on his schedule. He did just as much work as his classmates, and the benefit of meeting with me on his own increased his confidence as a student.

When I was in school, I struggled to learn on the teacher’s terms. For that reason, my own teaching practice has largely been about increasing student ownership of the class through choice-driven methods. From a culturally responsive lens, being flexible is a cornerstone to creating understanding between teacher and student. ELLs come to classes with a broad range of challenges; some, like my student, work long hours outside of school. Some live in challenging conditions. Some are hungry, or cold, or tired. If students are financially and physically comfortable, they still struggle with processing endless unfamiliar words, phrases and expressions that come at them each day, which is exhausting. As a strategy, learn each student’s story, and be explicit about providing options for learning. Whenever work is assigned, make it clear that one way is not the only way. If teachers share their willingness to provide choice, students will appreciate that responsiveness and respond with achievement.

Reach Out

千亿体育官网Every teacher hits walls, and I have worked with several who are continuously frustrated because their efforts to meet learning goals for language learners are unsuccessful. Even with experienced teachers, content area expertise is not going to do the trick; we need to reach out to experts. For instance, ESOL teachers are able to provide an array of strategies and supports to help ELLs. Furthermore, by simply opening lines of communication, teachers are better equipped to ask questions, however great or small, about day-to-day challenges of teaching a set curriculum to students who need more responsiveness.

While we can implement strategies to help language learners, that is not the same as being certified in ESOL. If we do not take advantage of the human resources in the school, both we and our students stand to lose. Too often, particularly in secondary schools, we do not look to our colleagues in other areas of expertise for help. Instead, we work alone in frustration, creating lesson plans in bubbles and hoping they work. Instead, both teachers and school leaders should brainstorm collaborative structures that would allow teams to plan across contents and areas of specialty. Not only does effective team planning allow for a deeper level of professional development, but it also leads to increased student achievement.

Teaching for student mastery in classes with ELLs is about implementing accessible but lasting strategies that let our students know we care about them and that they are part of our community. If everyone collaborates to do this work, we can make huge strides in making sure that our ELLs do more than just survive; rather, they thrive in classrooms that cherish their strengths and contributions to the school community.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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