Sunday, May 7, 2017

Modifying Instruction for Newcomer ELLs

One of the toughest situations many teachers- ESOL and mainstream alike- deal with is receiving a newcomer student who doesn't speak any English. How do we include that student in learning activities? How do we ensure that their time at school is spent doing meaningful learning? How do we help that student acquire English? It is absolutely possible to modify your instruction so that your newcomers can not only participate, but learn!

What exactly is a "newcomer"? What comes to your mind when you think of "newcomers"? Share your ideas below. If you have questions about newcomer ELLs, feel free to ask those below too:
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Just to get started, here are some quick guidelines for working with your newcomer students:

Since this post is about modifying instruction to be appropriate for a student at the very lowest proficiency levels, we are talking about those students who have been here less than a year, and have a very low proficiency in English. On the WIDA scale that we use in my state, that would be 1.0-1.5. These students are new to the country and new to English, too. It's true that sometimes students who are new to the country come with some English proficiency, and these students have different needs.

One of the most important first steps you can take is to find out about the student's educational background. This can help you plan the most effective instruction possible. Here are some great questions to ask the parents (you may need to get a translator!):
  • When did the student start school?
  • How many years of schooling has the student had?
  • Have there been periods of time, other than normal school holidays, where the child did not attend school? If so, how long and why? 
  • Is the child a refugee or has the child suffered trauma prior to coming to the US?
  • Is the child literate in their native language?
  • What is the child's native language
  • Has the child been diagnosed with learning disabilities before? 
Knowing the answers to these questions can help you avoid surprises, and help you to understand where the child may struggle both socially and academically. Knowing the child's background can often be one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. For example, some students may come from a country where their writing system is based on a non-Roman alphabet. In such a case, you will need to start with the very basics of letters and phonics. If the child is not literate in their native language, that will mean starting with letter-sound correspondence and basic print conventions.

If you really want to dig in to student background, I have some native language activities and student background questionnaires in my ESOL Portfolio Starter Pack

Now, once we understand the student's background, we can start looking at the instruction we provide. So, if newcomers have a proficiency level of 1.0 to 1.5, what does that mean? What are these students realistically able to process and produce at this level? Let's take a look at WIDA's performance definitions to see.
The first row pertains to productive skills, like speaking and writing.
The second row refers to receptive skills, like listening and reading. 

In order for instruction to be appropriate for students at this level of proficiency, we need to modify the input we are providing to students so that it is comprehensible and we need to modify our expectations for student expression. As you can see, for our newcomer students that means providing very simple input with simple sentences, common phrases, and basic words and expressions. Our expectations regarding production should be based around learned words and phrases, small chunks of language, and basic vocabulary usage.

When working with teachers of newcomer ELLs, I always recommend starting simple, and modifying instruction in 7 basic ways:

Over the next few weeks, I'll be going over these 7 methods for modifying instruction and providing practical advice, specific strategies, and pictures to show you what it looks like so you can implement in your own classroom.

Don't miss the next post in the series: Scaffolding and Support.

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