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Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners

A veteran teacher helps you understand current research and put theory into practice.

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

If you're like most teachers, your classes have increasingly become more linguistically diverse. If you're looking for ways to meet the needs of students who struggle with or are just learning English, I am here to help! For the last eight years, I have had the fortunate opportunity to work with many students who are English language learners. It's been an exceptionally challenging and rewarding experience and I am thrilled to be able to share with you some of the best practices that I've used in my classroom.

My background includes three years solely focused on English Language Development (ELD). I have also taught the CLAD (Cross-Language and Academic Development) course at California State University, Fullerton and worked with veteran teachers to help them integrate ELD and SDAIE (Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English) strategies.

ELD & The Natural Approach

ELD is an acronym for English Language Development. ELD is the systematic use of instructional strategies designed to promote the acquisition of English by students whose primary language is not English. According to Dr. Stephen Krashen, an expert in the study of second language acquisition and the co-author of The Natural Approach, the best way to learn a second language is through total immersion. ELD strategies support this learning method, enabling students to acquire English language in a manner similar to the way they learned their native language, naturally and through regular interaction with others who already know the language.

In the natural process of language acquisition, students first develop basic communication skills in English. The focus is on fluency and learning to speak English in a social context with native speakers, which is why heterogeneous cooperative grouping is so important to the Natural Approach. According to Krashen, this method allows for effortless acquisition. Rather than getting caught up in grammar and the mechanics of language, non-native speakers learn by interacting with English-only models. This approach is most successful when there are two conditions:

  1. Comprehensible input is provided, which means messages are made understandable and meaningful to the learner via a variety of techniques.
  2. There is a low-affective filter, which means students are made to feel comfortable and there is little pressure to learn "it all" right now.

Here are some ways you can create a classroom environment that supports natural acquisition:

  • Use visuals that reinforce spoken or written words.
  • Employ gestures for added emphasis
  • Adjust your speech: Speak slowly; enunciate; use longer natural pauses; repeat words or phrases; include shorter sentences, fewer pronouns, and simpler syntax.
  • Exaggerate intonations at times.
  • Stress high-frequency vocabulary words.
  • Use fewer idioms and clarify the meaning of words or phrases in context.
  • Stress participatory learning.
  • Maintain a low anxiety level and be enthusiastic.

With these conditions in place, students can't help but learn the language!

How ELD Is Taught

ELD consists of five proficiency levels: Beginning, early intermediate, intermediate, early advanced and advanced. The four domains of ELD are: Listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Students need to be instructed at their proficiency level for the different domains. It is crucial to understand that students progress through the levels of proficiency at different rates. Research has shown that it takes four to seven years to master advanced levels of fluency.

ELD focuses on four skill areas:

  1. Function: Functions are the purposes of communication. This includes social conversations, jokes, and inquiry.
  2. Form: This refers to the structure of the English language such as grammar, sentence structure, and syntax. These are used as building blocks.
  3. Fluency: Fluency is the ease in speaking the language. English language learners need ample amount of time just practicing speaking English in order to become fluent.
  4. Vocabulary: The development of a wide and varied vocabulary is essential. Research shows that English language learners should be taught key vocabulary, or brick words, prior to a lesson in order to assist them in their language development. For example, whatever concept you are teaching, it is recommended that you include vocabulary words that will make the content more comprehensible to the learner. A key ELD strategy is to provide comprehensible input for the English language learner by the use of visuals, realia, and gestures.

For tips on integrating ELD strategies into your classroom, visit my blog Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners.

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