As ever-increasing numbers of English language learners, or ELLs, are enrolling in schools, the need for teachers who understand how to reach language learners is more important now than ever before. This understanding is not only important in English classes, but also in math, humanities, science, and any other class that the ELL is in. As a former science teacher who made the switch to teaching English language development (ELD) classes (formerly English as a second language or ESL) I feel like I have a unique insight as to how to teach and reach ELLs in the content areas. There are definite special considerations that need to be taken into account, this list of 5 is by no means exhaustive but it is a place to start. Please share any other methods that you find successful in the comment section.
Use of Visuals
I cannot advocate for this enough. A picture is worth a thousand words, right? Especially when learning new vocabulary it is so important to pair the words with a visual to connect with. Using photos or video clips as a starting point can help students to create concrete connections in their brain linking the word to what they are seeing.
In addition, I have found great success using photo-analysis in my lesson plans when trying to access prior knowledge or build background. I simply put a picture up on my white board, or print out a few, and ask students to critically think and observe what the picture is showing. Sometimes we divide the photo into quarters and just focus on one quarter at a time. In a social studies class this could be done with a primary source painting or photograph. This is an activity that all students, including English language learners, can benefit from.
Comprehensible input is simply speaking and teaching in a manner that is understandable for your audience even if they cannot understand all of the words or jargon. Stephen Krashen developed the hypothesis of comprehensible input in the 80’s. He determined that language was best acquired when students received input at a level slightly above where they currently were able to understand. As a teacher your audience is the students, this means that we need to make sure that we are speaking in a way that they can understand, if you are teaching 6th grade you should not be using the same speech patterns that you would in teaching a college course.
I find that the biggest impediments to comprehensible input for teachers is the rate at which they speak. Many teachers speak so fast because they think that it will help them get through the lesson more quickly. However, at the end of the lecture the English language learners are left without any understanding of what just happened. Slow down, if the message is important you have enough time to slow down, also pair your message with a visual as explained above. This will allow ELLs to understand much more of the lesson with minimal differentiation from you as the teacher.
Hands On, Minds On
Using methods and lesson planning for students to engage, actively, in the curriculum is a must. By using hands on activities to teach concepts all students, not just language learners, will benefit. For science teachers, labs are the easiest way, but also demonstrations that the students can do, or simulations that they can actively participate in, will all allow for greater learning and understanding of concepts. Social studies teachers can create participatory simulations that can show difficult concepts. This is much better than simply reading a textbook or listening to lecture. In math students can be given manipulatives to show complex math ideas. Gone are the days of sitting in a class for 60 minutes and quietly absorbing the teacher’s message. Students need to be active learners and this even more true for language learners due to their limited ability to comprehend what is being said during lecture time.
Meeting Them At Their Level
English language learners are required to be tested each year, although states use different tests you should still be able to find their levels in reading, writing, speaking, and listening (as your ELD or ESL teachers). This is a great place to start when lesson planning for ELLs, it will let you know exactly what they can do in each domain (reading, writing, speaking, or listening). You can use this information to develop leveled tasks and it also will let you know where you, as the professional, might need to add in supplemental scaffolds to ensure that your ELL is meeting the standard. I have seen many teachers become frustrated because their ELL is off task and not understanding or engaging in the lesson. Often times when we dig into the lesson it is apparent that the level was not appropriate for where the student is currently at. Similar to Krashen’s comprehensible input, we must strive to be just one level above where the student is currently able to access information, if we go to high then it becomes incomprehensible and the student will tune out.
The final method I recommend is using graphic organizers. These allow students to spatially organize their ideas especially when being asked to write. Perhaps my favorite aspect of using a graphic organizer is that it chunks the assignment into manageable smaller pieces instead of one big, daunting, chunk. This lowers the affective filter for students and will allow them to access the material more easily. I have found that both amount produced and the quality of work increases greatly when a graphic organizer is used compared to when not using one.
Although it can be daunting to have language learners in classes where complex content is being taught it is not something to fear when you are prepared. Using the tips above can help you tomorrow, you can use them right way. Start small, maybe just try one new technique right away and then build on your success and reflect when you fail. There is no perfect solution and what works for one student may not work for another. Stay positive and move forward!
As always, please comment below, this is an open discussion! If you enjoyed the content of this post please subscribe to the monthly newsletter, I will send it out on the first of each month, it will highlight blog posts and will discuss events in education. Thanks!
English Language Development teacher attempting to bring some truth to the table.
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