K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

Reaching English language learners

Teachers must differentiate tasks, taking into consideration what educational philosopher John Dewey suggested long ago: that we begin where the students are, not where we would like them to be.

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Many educators and administrators find the world of providing instruction for Limited English Proficient (LEP) students to be mysterious and complicated when in fact there exists a simple mantra: good teaching is good teaching. But what exactly is meant by good teaching? Good teaching in all subject areas is employing basic techniques that assist all students in learning. Some of these techniques, such as paired and cooperative learning and hands-on instruction, are ways of differentiating instruction that help meet the needs of a variety of learners. There is no doubt that instructional delivery becomes more of a challenge when there are students whose native language is not English. And when ten or more languages and nationalities may be represented in the same classroom, the problem is compounded. Nevertheless, even with a minimum of instructional delivery modifications, English language learners (ELLs) can and will grow in their abilities to communicate in English.

A goal of not only the state and federal governments but also of all ELLs is to become proficient in English as quickly as possible. LEP students who do not want to fit in with their native-English-speaking peers are rare. Therefore, motivation tends to be high on the part of the English as a Second Language (ESL) students. Nevertheless, even the highest level of enthusiasm for learning can be thwarted with tedious tasks that are beyond the student’s level of capability. Therefore, it is important that teachers differentiate tasks, taking into consideration what educational philosopher John Dewey suggested long ago: that we begin where the students are, not where we would like them to be.

It is important to remember that it is not just the task of the ESL specialist teacher to deliver instruction to ESL students. Rather, it is for all of us to contribute to the education of all children.

Tips for working with English language learners

So how can classroom teachers accommodate ESL students in their classrooms? What are some tips that all teachers can utilize to facilitate their LEP students’ learning of English? What follows is a variety of strategies that all teachers in all classes can employ successfully with ELLs.

Speak clearly and in standard English.

Teachers need to model academic English with clear pronunciation and diction. Teachers should also refrain from using slang

Position yourself so that the ESL student can see your face when you are speaking.

Language learners rely on both verbal and nonverbal cues. Therefore, beginning ELLs will want to watch your mouth when you speak since they are not only hearing the pronunciation but they are also watching the words as you form them with your lips. Also, speaking while facing away from the class can muffle your voice, for example if you are speaking toward the chalk board or wall. Additionally, novice ESL students rely not only on being able to see your mouth when you are speaking but also on watching your face for other nonverbal cues to meaning.

Assign a "buddy" to your ESL student.

These buddies should be strong students who will help the ELL become inducted into the class and into the school. Initially, seat the ESL student next to the buddy so that the buddy can guide the student and answer questions at any point in the class in as unobtrusive a manner as possible.

Learn and use the student’s name.

Foreign names can be a challenge for teachers, but it is important to practice their pronunciation. Students tend to say their names quickly; ask them to repeat their name slowly, and tell them you want to learn how to say their name correctly. If you have not received any written information from the administration in the form of student files, ask the student to write his or her name for you. At the elementary school level, do not give the student an English name to make it easier for you or the rest of the class to remember or to pronounce.

For middle school and high school students, ask the student what he or she would like to be called.

At the middle school and high school levels, some ESL students intentionally change their names to English names because they want to blend in with their American classmates. Honor their choices.

Be as visual as possible.

It is good to say something in clear, concise English; it is even better to have a picture or visual to use while you are speaking that reinforces what you are saying. For example, if you are teaching a science unit on the water cycle, have as many pictures to visualize each part of the cycle as possible.

Comprehension precedes production.

Beginning ESL students understand more than they are able to produce orally. Look for other ways for students to demonstrate comprehension. If you are teaching the science concept of the water cycle, have the student put visuals in the correct sequence of the water cycle to demonstrate comprehension of the topic. Ability to verbalize will follow. Also, do not simply ask students "Do you understand?" to check for comprehension. They will almost always say "yes" to avoid embarrassment. Rather, ask students to demonstrate (if they are preverbal) or to repeat what they understood you to say.

If students can say it, they can write it.

In native language development, the normal progression of skills is first to say something and then to be able to read and write what one can say. Therefore, abundant oral practice needs to be made available to students in order to afford them the first steps of creating with language. The converse of this phenomenon is also true; if students are not able to produce an idea orally, they will probably not be able to write it. A corollary to this axiom is that students will usually write at the level at which they speak. Although there will be some students who will read and write at a higher level than their speaking ability, this tends not to be the norm. This notion becomes clearer when we think of the ability of our native-English-speaking students. It is usually true that our best writers and readers are those who have the highest level of spoken language.

Speaking louder does not aid in comprehension.

Unless the student is hearing impaired, speaking louder does not aid in comprehension. Also, speaking in an exaggerated, slow fashion only embarrasses the ELL student and does not facilitate comprehension.

Create certain predictable routines in your class.

For example, at the elementary school level, start each day with taking attendance, reading the lunch options out loud, and making announcements. If your cafeteria has dedicated lunch days, such as hot dogs on Mondays and hamburgers on Tuesdays, you may wish to have pictures of the meals for your novice ESL students. An example of a routine at the middle and high school levels would be to have homework assignments written in the same corner of the chalkboard each day. If assignments are listed on the Internet, a reminder on the chalkboard that you point to each day will help the ESL students incorporate this into their daily habits.

Learn as much as you can about the countries represented in your class.

As often as possible, honor the diversity in your classroom. You can do this through reading assignments about a particular culture that the entire class reads, class discussions about cultural practices, or assignments where the students can speak or write about their heritages. Also, learning about the cultures represented in your classroom may explain some resistant behavior or behavioral problems. For example, in some countries, students are taught in single-sex classrooms by teachers of the same sex, so some boys have never had female teachers and some girls have never had male teachers.

Keep a student’s linguistic ability in mind when selecting reading assignments.

Learning to read is a major key to any student’s success. Research says that to remain academically competitive, a student should be able to read at grade level by the end of the second grade. Imagine, then, the challenges for LEP students who arrive in the United States in middle or high school. Those challenges are compounded if the students cannot read in their native language. The teacher must plan for differentiated instruction. For example, teachers can help beginning language learners read for key points or underline topic sentences. You can also provide students with essential core vocabulary words for the lesson. The number of words should be manageable so that the student does not become overwhelmed.

A smile is international.

A smile from the teacher is worth far more than the time and energy it takes. Smiles help to assuage fears and doubts.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, we need to remember that every student yearns to be successful. Teachers therefore must provide ways to help students achieve their academic goals. We are able to facilitate student success when we return to the original premise of this article: good teaching is good teaching. By incorporating a variety of teaching styles, accommodating instructional delivery, and motivating students to learn, we are best able to help English language learners reach their goal of becoming competent and productive communicators in English.