Monday, July 18, 2011

A day in the zapatos of an ELL

            What is it like to go to a new school in a new country where the language of instruction is not your first language? One of the fastest growing segments of the American student population is English language learners. Although schools are required to offer programs and services for English language learners, most of these students still spend the majority of their time in mainstream content classrooms. Sadly, most mainstream teachers have little or no training in how to meet the academic needs of someone who does not speak English as his or her first language.
            As a result, many English language learners never realize their full academic potential. Content teachers are asking themselves “what can I do?” when they find that English language learners are performing poorly in their content-area classes. There are some important steps that all teachers can take to help ensure the success of English language learners in their classrooms.
1.    Communicate with the ESL teacher at your school
The ESL teacher works closely with these students and will be familiar with each student's abilities and level of proficiency. The ESL teacher can also help identify each student's strengths and weaknesses, and offer advice on how to properly modify assignments and  readings. Furthermore, when the ESL instructor is aware of what the student is doing in content classes, he or she will be able to offer valuable instruction and guidance in an ESL setting that will assist the student in acquiring important vocabulary and language skills that he or she will need in the content classroom.
2.    Offer Modified Assignments for ESL students
Although it may take a few extra moments when preparing lesson plans, it is very important to
modify assignments and readings so that they contain language that is comprehensible to the student. If new or special vocabulary is required for understanding, then a special effort should be made to ensure that students acquire and use the new vocabulary properly before proceeding- sentence and word walls placed in visible areas around the classroom can be especially effective. Comprehensible does not mean easy- the work should still be challenging and require the use of higher cognitive skills. If you are particularly short on time, keep in mind that many topics can be found in simpler language by simply looking in the textbook of a lower grade level. If you have a large number of students, the extra time may seem like a burden, but it will be worth it when the English language learners in your classroom begin to understand the concepts that the rest of their classmates are learning.
3.    Be sure that assignments are meaningful
As with any student, be sure that assignments are meaningful and not just intended to keep the student busy. If assignments are not meaningful, then students will quickly become bored and will not learn as much. Meaningful assignments should be relevant to the material covered in class, comprehensible, and allow the student to make important connections between his world and what he is learning in the classroom.
4.    Place English language learners close to the front of the class
When English language learners are having difficulty, any distraction can be an excuse to tune out. Placing them near the front will help minimize distractions. Be sure that students understand that they are not being placed in the front because they are behaving or performing poorly, but that you want to do all that you can to help ensure their academic success.
5.    Hold English language learners responsible
When giving out quizzes or assignments, never tell an English language learner to “just write something down” or to “do what you can.” English language learners need specific instructions to follow and should be required to follow them. If everyone else in the class is doing an assignment or working on a project, then the English language learners should also be doing a meaningful activity that will help them acquire the required knowledge (this is where those modified assignments come in!). If an English language learner is not held responsible for classwork and homework related to the content, he or she cannot be expected to learn.
6.    Provide plenty of examples
While one or two examples may be sufficient for most students, extra examples may be required for English language learners to understand is required of them. Never simply assume that English language learners understand- they may be hesitant to admit that they need more explanation or to ask questions in front of the class. Instead, speak with the English language learners after they have received the assignment to be sure that they understand the instructions and to give them an opportunity to ask any questions privately.
7.    Create a comfortable learning environment
Last but not least, it is important for students, especially those learning English as a second language, to be comfortable. Be sure that students feel free to ask questions that will aid in their understanding. Have an open door policy so that students can not only discuss academic difficulties, but other problems that may be affecting them as well. Offer encouragement, praise, and constructive criticism when necessary, but always be culturally sensitive. When students feel comfortable in the classroom, learning is much easier.

            Many teachers feel at a loss when it comes to teaching English language learners- either because they do not have the time to make the extra effort or because they do not know how. These seven steps will require only a little more time, but will vastly increase the chances of success for English language learners in your classroom.

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