New Teacher Help: English Language Learners in Your Classroom

Even if you aren’t ESL certified, odds are that you will still have English language learners (ELLs) in your classroom. Just stop and imagine what that means for a moment.

What if you had been dropped into a school in China? Italy? Peru? The Ukraine? You’re attempting to learn the language and navigate an unfamiliar culture, but at the same time you’re supposed to learn chemistry, geometry, literature, and history – all in that new language.

What feelings might this situation cause? The excitement of learning something new – perhaps. But certainly there will be anxiety over many things: fearing that you missed something important, that you said something wrong, that you won’t be able to keep up with the workload, that you’ll look dumb in front of your teacher and classmates. You might be missing your former home and your distant family and friends. Now add that to the usual teenaged angst. That’s what some of your students are facing.

That’s why they deserve your utmost compassion, even if their anxieties lead them to act out or withdraw. They also need extra support academically. That’s what this article will help you begin to do.

I’m no expert, by any means. I always struggled with being a better teacher to my ELLs because I had to consciously remind myself to slow down and use ELL strategies (and I didn’t always do the best job of it). But I learned a few tips and tricks from various ELL trainings (including SIOP, which I highly recommend) and from my dear friend who taught ESL next door to me. I share them in the hope that you will apply them more consistently than I did:

  • Speak slowly and clearly. Not so slowly that you sound silly, but you shouldn’t sound like a New Yorker on a venti cappuccino with two extra shots of espresso.
  • Be aware that a student who seems fluent might not be. Conversational English is not the same as academic English – or reading and understanding Dickens (which even native speakers struggle with). Be on the lookout for signs that these students need support.
  • Have a PowerPoint or something similar that outlines the whole class: bell ringer, brief lecture notes, instructions, key vocabulary, etc. That way they have something visual to anchor your spoken words to.
  • Put up anchor charts with key vocabulary and other important info related to what you’re doing in that grading period. In my class, that included things like the parts of an essay/paragraph/sentence or a character list and plot line for whatever we were reading.
  • Ask specific students to answer questions you know they can handle so they can practice their English. If possible, give them their question early so they have time to formulate a response. For example, “We’ll be reading Act 4 of The Crucible today. Near the end, John Proctor will make an important decision. So-and-so, I’ll ask you to tell me what decision he made after we finish reading.” Or, “Here’s today’s bell ringer. In your spiral, copy these two sentences and then identify the direct objects. When we’re finished, so-and-so, I’ll have you share your answer to #1, and so-and-so, you’ll have #2. Please begin.” If you aren’t giving all students a heads-up on questions, though, you might want to notify them quietly so they don’t feel singled out.
  • When you’re teaching a lesson, stop every so often and have students turn to a neighbor to summarize what you just talked about. This gives them time to process before moving on to another point.
  • Give them time to read aloud. Again, depending on their level, you might want to give them their reading assignments ahead of time so they can practice if they wish. I did this with plays all the time: I assigned parts for all or part of the play and gave students a week or so to practice on their own time so they would be prepared to read in class without excessive pauses and stumbling. Their participation grade depended upon a) reading their part, b) reading loudly and clearly enough for the whole class to hear and understand, and c) reading smoothly and confidently. I told them I wasn’t worried about mispronunciations: I told them to just figure out how they were going to pronounce a word or name and then say it boldly and move on. This strategy worked really, really well.
  • Give them opportunities to collaborate with each other on assignments so they can support each other and practice academic conversation. An anchor chart or a PowerPoint slide can really help with this: you can give them sentences and stems that fit the activity. For example, if students are working in pairs to score other students’ short answer questions, your suggested sentences might look like this:
    • It looks like the student’s answer is _________________. Is that correct? Does it contain an inference?
    • There is/are _____ piece(s) of evidence. The first piece of evidence is, “___________.”
    • Does that evidence support the answer?
    • . . . and so on.
  • Hold class discussions that they can prepare for ahead of time. Provide sentences and stems for this, as well.

I hope this helps get you started! Please take any opportunity you can to attend training because it will really help you understand how to support your ELLs. (By the way, these strategies can also help your native speakers . . . just sayin’.) Also, if you have suggestions, please leave a comment below!

Information about SIOP (Judie Haynes):

Seven Teaching Strategies for Classroom Teachers of ELLs (Judie Haynes):

Instructional Strategies for ESL Students Checklist (San Antonio Independent School District):

12 Ways to Support ESL Students in the Mainstream Classroom (Jennifer Gonzalez) – especially #12:

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