"HELP! I Do Not Teach ELL!"

Two experts tackle your toughest ELL questions.

Working with English language earners (ELLs) can be one of the most rewarding experiences in teaching. It’s a unique opportunity to view how different people think, communicate, and learn, and often provides a firsthand view into another culture’s customs and beliefs.

Of course, it’s also a challenge to teach a student who has recently arrived and does not yet know English (and whose native language you most likely do not speak). Difficulites will inevitably arise! When this happens, keep in mind that however challenging you may find the situation, it is almost certainly far more troubling for your ELL students—after all, ELLs are not just learning a new language; they are adapting to a whole new culture and environment. How you respond to your ELLs can make a huge difference in how they feel about school and how other students respond to them.

Together, Katherine Davies Samway and Dorothy Taylor have spent decades teaching and working on behalf of ELLs. In their new book, Teaching English Language Leaners (Scholastic 2008), they answer questions about integrating ELLs into your classroom and teaching students across a language barrier.

Q: How can I communicate with my students when we don’t share a language?

You will have to rely heavily on visual clues and your intuition. Observe your students carefully and monitor their expressions for signs of comprehension or confusion. Since anxiety inhibits language learning, it is most important in the first weeks and months of school to make your ELL students feel comfortable with you, their classmates, and their surroundings.
When addressing language learners, speak clearly, using a slightly slower pace than when speaking with native speakers—but make sure not to exaggerate your speech. Resist the urge to increase your volume: Louder does not equal clearer. Visual support fosters comprehension, so use your body language and facial expressions to reinforce what you are saying. Have plenty of visual aids on hand too, such as photographs, videos, and every-day objects (utensils, furniture, food, clothing, etc.).

With students who have very limited language skills, try to be concrete, keeping your focus on the here and now. If you live in New York, for example, a humid late summer day is not the best time to talk about snow. But in November when the weather changes, bring in scarves, boots, and gloves and introduce vocabulary for winter clothing. After the first snowstorm, take the class outside to make a snowman and talk about winter activities.

Q: Sometimes other students give my ells a hard time. What can I do to prevent this?

Good preparation is key. Schools need to have strong guidelines in place against teasing and bullying, and every adult on campus should make it clear that all races, cultures, and religions are welcome, and that prejudice of any kind will not be tolerated. 

In the classroom, you can prepare the other children for ELL students. Often, students who tease ELLs about their accents or nonnative grammar have never been in a situation where they had to use a foreign language or adapt to new customs. Helping students understand that language develops over time and showing them how they can support ELLs in their learning can generate a positive classroom atmosphere.

Try presenting students with scenarios and have them brainstorm unhelpful responses and positive alternatives that you can list the board. For instance, you might say, “Someone asks you a question, but you can’t understand them. What do you do?” Write responses such as “Laugh” or “Keep saying, ‘I don’t understand,’ ” under the heading NOT Helpful. Under Helpful, record answers like, “Say I don’t understand and ask them to repeat what they said,” or “Try to explain the misunderstanding.”

Q: My students have a lot of trouble with verb tenses. What’s going on?

Here’s something that might surprise you: Research has shown that most errors that second-language learners make do not reflect the influence of their native language as much as they demonstrate a developmental order in which English seems to be acquired. In other words, correcting grammatical errors will not automatically change a student’s speech; neither will explaining the differences between English and the native language.

While it might seem obvious to start teaching with the simple present tense (I go, you go, she goes), the third person form (goes) is typically acquired later in an English language learner’s progress. This doesn’t mean that you should throw out your grammar books; just be patient and remember that there is a difference between knowing standard grammar and being able to use it. 

Q: How should i correct my students’ grammar, then?

In conversation, the most natural way of clarifying meaning is to ask questions. The same is true of correcting errors in an instructional setting. For example, if a student says, “I go to doctor. I miss class,” you might ask, “Do you mean that you will go to the doctor later today, so you will miss class?” (As you speak, point to the date on the calendar or make whatever gesture you regularly use to indicate today, such as pointing at the ground.) Research shows that this approach is more effective than simply drilling students in grammar. You might not see an immediate effect in your students’ language, but gradually they will recognize the importance of subtleties in verb tense, pronoun use, and other complicated aspects of grammar and learn how to apply them in their own speech.

Q: How can I tell whether I’m getting through?

This can be very difficult to gauge—especially since early on many students go through a silent period lasting from one to six months or longer in which they do not respond orally. These silent newcomers can sometimes get lost in the busyness of classroom routines and instruction. However, it is essential that you communicate with them through the silent phase. There are ways of testing comprehension without pressuring students to speak before they are ready.

You can have students draw a response to a lesson. For example, if you are working on animal classification, you might ask students to fill in a chart by placing the names of animals under their correct classification. ELL students, who might not know the names of the animals in English, could draw pictures of them instead.

Students who are unable to express themselves orally can sometimes do so in writing. Asking students to write a short summary of a lesson or compile a list of keywords can be helpful to older students, especially if they are able to use a bilingual dictionary.

A useful teaching and review technique is called Total Physical Response. Essentially, it is miming vocabulary. Standing in front of the class, you recite a series of actions while performing them (e.g. Stand up. Sit down, sit on the chair, sit on the rug. Pick up a pencil. Put the pencil on the chair, put the pencil on the rug). Then you invite an ELL student to do the same. (You can turn this into a game by letting the student you chose take the lead, who will then pass it on to another classmate.) Matching words with actions helps students retain them, and getting students moving is a way of relaxing the tension of prolonged concentration.

Q: How do I get my advanced students to talk more?

Even after the silent phase, language learners are often reluctant to speak because they are afraid of making mistakes. The most important way you can help them overcome this anxiety is to show that their attempts at communication are appreciated by both you and the rest of the class. Make a point of acknowledging that volunteering to read or contributing an opinion is a courageous act, and be sure to thank your students on a regular basis for their hard work and achievement.

Hardly less important than encouraging your students to speak is giving them something they want to talk about. Encourage them to discuss subjects that they are interested in and are confident about. PowerPoint presentations are particularly effective for drawing students out. The slides provide a focus for speaking, but when classmates ask questions, presenters have the opportunity to speak extemporaneously. Have your students make presentations on some aspect of their lives (perhaps family or friends), their native land (geography, music, history), or a topic of personal interest.

It also doesn’t hurt to try learning a few words in your students’ native language. When they hear you mispronounce the words (as you invariably will), they will see that it is normal to make mistakes.

Q: Why do My students nod and say they understand, when clearly they don’t?

It’s embarrassing to admit that you don’t understand something, especially when it seems that everyone else does. In some cases, too, students actually think they do comprehend when they’re not getting a full or accurate picture.

Instead of just asking if they understand, help your students get answers for themselves by using the think-pair-share technique. Give your class a prompt and allow them time to think about it on their own. For example, in introducing a unit on Antarctica, you can show it to students on a map and ask, “What do you think the climate is like in Antarctica?” Then pair them off and let them discuss their thoughts. Maybe one student doesn’t recognize the word climate; the partner might know it, or they could look it up together. Later, you can invite pairs to share their ideas with the rest of the class. Because they have had time to clarify the task, learn unfamiliar words, and talk about the topic with a partner, students may feel comfortable enough to address the class. If individuals do not want to share with the whole group, at least they still have had the opportunity to express their thoughts to a smaller audience.

Anyone who has entered a new environment can understand the feelings that ELL students sometimes experience. The first step is to put children at ease. From there, communication is bound to move forward!

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