In my 30 years of teaching I have gained so much valuable knowledge working with 1000’s of students who have experienced some form of learning need at sometime in their education. I thank every one of them for helping me become a better, more effective teacher. They have taught me so much by working closely with them, evaluating my own practice and seeing first-hand what works and what doesn’t. All types of learner fascinate me. I am always amazed by the rapid progress ELL students can make when the only learning need they have is the fact they are ELL and new to English, once they have been provided with appropriate support. I have also seen how frustrating it is for them if their needs are not met. I would like to share with you a few of my thoughts and some of the techniques I have found that work.
I think there are five essential areas that we need to focus on:
- Make students feel secure
- Develop conversational language
- Quickly teach reading skills
- Teach Latin and etymology
- Look at classroom practice
As with all labels used in education (e.g. ESE, SLD, SpLD, Dyslexia, Asperger’s) the ELL label covers a group of individual learners and therefore their needs will vary dramatically.
Good teaching for ELL learners is simply good teaching. It revolves around the need of the student, regardless of what label they have. ELL students have specific needs, so in order to teach them well we need to know exactly what their needs are.
Some ELL students are completely new to English and they may not have had any formal schooling. Many will have a basic level of conversational language but cannot access academic language. Others may have dyslexic profiles and some may have other forms of learning difficulty; I could go on.
So really, the term ELL as a label is not particularly helpful. However, I think everyone would agree every student needs to feel secure, be able to communicate, understand and be understood.
Make students feel secure
No one learns if they are feeling isolated and vulnerable, so the first thing that we need to ensure is that they feel safe, secure and welcome in school. This must be top priority. Students need to have a place of safety to go to and have someone they can turn to. Having a buddy who can help with basic instructions will relieve some of their initial insecurities and, of course, it is even better if there is another student who can speak to them in their home language.
Develop conversational language
Immersing students in spoken language will develop conversational and informal language. Listening to and engaging with peers in the playground, at lunchtime and in class will develop conversational language. They seem to have the ability to absorb this level of language skill quickly. However, academic language needs to be taught and taught well because… the curriculum doesn’t wait! They need to catch up.
Quickly teach reading skills
Rapid progress needs to be made in understanding technical and academic language and by far the best way to accelerate this is to get students to read as soon as possible.
If students read fluently, it opens up the world to them because they can begin to teach themselves. For our ELL students, we need to ensure they are quickly taught to read fluently and this can only be done with very explicit, clearly targeted teaching of reading. We can’t teach everything at once, so what we need to ensure is that we build a strong foundation – a strong ‘literacy skeleton’ – so that the students can become independent learners as soon as possible. The English language is difficult to learn; there are lots of rules and then exceptions to those rules. However, if the basics are firmly in place, the exceptions can be taught and learned when it is appropriate for the student.
Therefore, before we can start to teach we need to know where each student’s strengths, weaknesses and gaps of knowledge lie. Teach to their needs; don’t waste valuable teaching time on what they already know.
It may be necessary to start with very basic decoding. I find myself not wanting to use the ‘phonics’ word for fear of starting another phonics reading war, but students need to rapidly recall letter sounds, start building words and move on to syllables as soon as possible. Pace is crucial – remember, the curriculum doesn’t wait!
The delivery needs to be fast, fun and engaging. When they see success, this becomes self-motivating.
Teach Latin and etymology
Combine reading tuition with a fast, focused and fun version of teaching Latin and you are on to a winning formula. This can transform their ability to grasp hold of academic language.
I recently listened to two teenage students who had arrived in England with little or no knowledge of English. Both boys spoke Urdu and Punjabi. One was fluent in Spanish, the other fluent in Italian as they had previously lived and had been educated in those two respective countries. Within one year they were both able to use and understand complex vocabulary and were excelling in class. When asked how they had been able to gain this knowledge so quickly, their answers were exactly the same; they had used their knowledge of Latin. This knowledge had not only helped them with developing their language skill but also their ability to read and their pronunciation of English.
So we clearly need to bring back Latin tuition, and this is true for all students.
We cannot teach the meaning of every word but we can teach all the component parts.
Teach all students, not just ELL, how to look for the links between words. By pulling one word apart you can teach many.
tion = act or process of
port = to carry
trans = across
trans: translation, transatlantic, transient, transformer
port: portable, important, export, import
tion: addition, subtraction, explanation, creation
It also results in the students being able to start building their own vocabulary knowledge.
Look at classroom practice
There are other things we can do in mainstream classrooms that can make a difference. English speaking students and teachers are likely to talk quickly, too quickly for ELL learners to make sense of what is being said. So simply speaking slower will help tremendously. We would always make allowances for a hearing impaired child in our class, so the same thing applies here too. This is good teaching. Please bear in mind that speaking slower does not mean speaking slowly. We need to use a normal, yet slower pace that follows normal speech pattern that does not distort the sound and intonation we use.
Students will begin to pick up on intonation cues, e.g. they should be able to differentiate between a question and a statement by simply listening to the speech patterns. They will benefit from repeated words and hearing common phrases. Communication is greatly improved when we use gestures, body language and, of course, pictures.
Use an interactive whiteboard as much as possible and make use of images and pictures alongside written words and verbal instructions. Contextualizing language with pictures helps to forge connections in the mind, so make full use of them in the classroom.
If there are ELL learners in your class, it provides a good opportunity for you to listen critically to your own speech during the course of teaching. Observe how you explain tasks, your use of paralanguage (um, er etc.), the extent to which you get things clear in your own mind before talking, and the choices you make over which words to use.
Be aware of your sentence structures and use of language. What causes misunderstanding for ELL learners is the use of common idioms and sarcasm.
“Pull your socks up” “Oh yes, we are ALL going to do that!”
Perhaps by making small adaptations to your own language you will be making life easier for all of your students, including ELL. Please just think about it!
So there are my thoughts.
We simply need to look at our students’ needs and then deliver good teaching.
Do you agree?
Founder Director of Sound Training.
Lexonik Leap benefits ELL learners and those who have difficulty with learning basic literacy skills.
Do you want to experience this kind of improvement in literacy at your school? Or in your school district?