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A Quick-Start Guide for Teaching English-Language Learners

By Wendi Pillars — September 06, 2017 5 min read
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Imagine the following scenario: As a new teacher, you meet with your school’s English-as-a-second-language teacher, who informs you that you have students on your class list who are English-language learners.

Your heart sinks. What will you do with “them”? How will you manage to get high scores when you have ELLs in your class? How will you be able to teach them?

Let’s shift that narrative.

You have language learners in your classes? Congratulations! Imagine all the new angles and perspectives you can include in your teaching this year, the different ways you can tap into students’ critical thinking abilities, and how you can design impactful learning experiences for all the children in your classroom.

For teachers who have ELLs in their classrooms for the first time, or for the first time in a while, I’ve created a quick guide to help jump-start your instruction.

Be Aware of These Facts

• ELLs—and their languages—are assets to your classroom community. Just because students may not be able to express themselves eloquently in English (yet!), it does not mean they don’t understand concepts.

• More than 1 in 10 school-age students in the United States are ELLs. ELLs are the fastest-growing student population in the country, and the majority of these students are natural-born citizens of the United States, including American Indian students and students whose parents immigrated to the United States.

• The average length of time required for ELLs to attain native-speaker levels on norm-referenced tests is between seven and 10 years, depending on the level of formal education students received in their native language.

• Many students need help setting goals. Sharing and co-creating a visual template like this goal-setting poster with students and their parents is a great way to make action steps tangible and connect with your students personally.

Ask Questions

Seek out ESL teachers within your school and ask some basic starter questions:

• Who are the ELLs in my class(es)? This includes both current ELLs and those who have exited the ESL program.

• What are their strengths? In which areas do they need more guidance?

• What are their language proficiency scores?

• Tell me what you know about their “story.” Chances are ESL teachers have worked with these students previously; any connections they can share will make your job much easier.

• What kind of testing accommodations and/or classroom modifications do they receive?

If your school doesn’t have an ESL teacher, reach out to ESL teachers in your district, at the state level, or on social media like Twitter—start with #ellchat or #Ellchat_BkClub to find experts who can help.

Remember that most ESL teachers have their own classes to teach, and teamwork is essential when time is at such a premium. It will be up to you to actually apply the lessons you learn from veteran ESL teachers.

Set Learning Goals

• Monitor the students in your classes. You will observe different strengths and challenges than other teachers because your content, approach, and relationship with the student(s) will differ.

• When considering how to modify an assignment for an ELL, the first question to answer is, “What is the most essential information I need my students to know by the time they leave class today?”

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Research and Reflect on Student Learning

• Think of your classroom as a hub for action research. If an activity or lesson doesn’t work out, don’t give up—revamp and try something different. Brainstorming with colleagues is key to getting out of ruts. Don’t be afraid to use your school’s ESL teachers and other colleagues as a resource.

• Be humble and courageous enough to stop in the middle of class and say, “This isn’t working, is it?” Don’t push through when evidence indicates a lesson or teaching strategy isn’t resonating with students—just make sure to have a backup plan.

• Reflect by asking questions like: What went well? What do I wish would have happened differently? How and what did my students learn today?

Revisit Learning Goals

• Determine clear criteria for gauging student success that are aligned with content and language needs, and then share the criteria with students.

• Ensure students are analyzing and evaluating their own progress. As the school year progresses, entrust students with more responsibility for tracking their learning.

• Consider new goals for you and your student to work toward, as well as new ways to measure progress.

Expect More

• Many make false assumptions that ELLs lack the context and experiences necessary to succeed in class. In reality, they are equipped with just as much relevant knowledge, experience, and language acumen as their peers who are native English speakers. Set reasonable, yet high, expectations for your students’ success, and help them rise to the challenge.

• Place the onus of learning on students as much as possible. Teach them to self-assess by using grading policies and competency charts like the many listed here or this student-friendly chart. These tools highlight what learners in each proficiency level can do rather than what they can’t, and specify what students need in order to achieve greater success.

• Set routines and protocols and stick to them; consistency is an important scaffold. Consider establishing routines for requesting help, participating in productive partner and group work, and building a supportive classroom community.

• Speaking, writing, reading, and listening should happen every day. The more frequently students generate and use the language rather than just hear it, the more proficient and adept they become in broader academic and social contexts.

Remember the Non-Academic Skills

• As a teacher, your body language, tone, facial expressions, reassurance, and efforts to monitor other students’ actions and reactions to ELLs all play a tremendous role in helping students feel comfortable and safe in their learning environments.

Granted, there is a lot to think about and accomplish when you have ELLs in your classroom, but I can attest that taking these extra measures will be worthwhile. As a longtime ESL teacher, I remain inspired by and excited to witness my students’ growth. Challenges are what help us grow beyond our perceived abilities as teachers, and when we grow, it’s inevitable that our students will, too.

It can be daunting to consider all the elements that comprise best practices for ELLs. Still, try to be actively open to the possibilities of each student you see. Rest assured that since we work with human beings, there will never be one right way to teach an ELL student.

I like to encourage myself by remembering this quote from author Erin Hanson: "...What if they fall? Oh, but my darling, what if they fly?”

Infographic provided by the author, see the full version here.

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