Picture this: you are a 1st grade teacher with 24 students, well over the number of students you anticipated teaching in your first year. But there you are with 24 desks, 24 chairs, 24 sets of parents to conference with, and 24 minds to nurture.
In the middle of the spring, another student is added; she is new to the country and speaks only a few words of English. You want to be excited to watch her grow, but you are mostly overwhelmed.
How do you support a student that you have trouble communicating with? How do you help her integrate socially? How do you help her catch up without slowing other students down?
For an increasing number of teachers across the U.S., this is not an imaginative exercise but a reality. The Department of Education reports that English Language Learners (ELLs) “represent 10% of the total K-12 student population,” which translates to over 4 million students.
The ELL population is growing, with increases of over 40% in five states between 2009 and 2014, and it is projected to grow further in the coming years. However, most teachers do not have ELL certification or even training.
This disconnect leads to overly stressed teachers and insufficiently supported students.
As one veteran ELL teacher puts it, teachers who are overwhelmed by responsibilities and sheer class numbers will “often then see an ELL kid as one more thing, as opposed to a person to be included and blended in, who has something incredibly powerful to contribute to the class.”
In order to help you become a knowledgeable and supportive teacher to your current and future ELL students, we have actionable tips for supporting ELLs in every aspect of your classroom—from your mindset to your directions, from your assignments to your feedback.
Supporting ELLs through Language and Mindset
The first way to help support English Language Learners in your classroom is to examine your own mindset when thinking about ELLs and your language when speaking about them.
Are your ELLs just “one more thing” or are they people who can make a powerful contribution to your class? One NCTE guide provides a graphic that you can use to think through your own choices.
Don’t be discouraged if you fall more on the negative or neutral side right now! Unfortunately, you have probably heard the words “challenge” and “problem” associated with ELLs too many times before; you didn’t create these stereotypes on your own.
The most important thing is to recognize where you stand right now and be prepared to change your language moving forward.
The Benefits of ELLs
In order to shift our focus on the strengths and benefits of having ELLs in the classroom, let’s look at what the research has to say about English Language Learners and bilingualism:
Studies show that people who speak two languages approach problem-solving in more flexible and creative ways, a skill that emerges at age 2
“Being bilingual has a positive impact on cognitive flexibility in children”
Bilingual people have increased metalinguistic awareness, “the ability to intentionally think about, reflect on, use knowledge about, and manipulate language”
It’s easy to see how having students in your classroom with increased cognitive flexibility, awareness of language, and creative problem-solving skills could be exciting and beneficial to your entire classroom.
On a more personal level, expert ELL teacher Kim says that teaching English Language Learners can be particularly fulfilling because they can make huge amounts of growth in a single year.
In an interview with Jennifer Gonzalez from Cult of Pedagogy, Kim explained that she’s had students who didn’t even know how to ask to go to the bathroom at the beginning of the year, but by the end of the year, they were having “a debate about the structure of their home country’s government versus the U.S. government.”
This kind of linguistic growth spurt can be thrilling for a teacher to watch and encourage.
ELLs and the Importance of Cultural Background
The Power of Specificity
After thinking through and challenging your general mindset about ELLs, it’s important to adopt an attitude of humility and curiosity when meeting individual English Language Learners in your classroom.
Just as an ELL student is learning about American culture and the English language, their teacher should be learning about their student’s home culture and language to better understand them as a person and serve them as a unique learner.
It’s important to note that it’s not enough to know that a student comes from “somewhere in the Middle East/South America/Asia/Africa.” You likely don’t see yourself as a North American; you probably identify as an American and even more specifically as a Southerner or a Brooklynite. The more you know about a student’s background, the better.
For example, a lot of Burmese ethnic groups are lumped together when they actually have a long history of violent conflict. If a student chooses to identify not as Burmese but as Karen, allow them to self-identify and do a few minutes of research into what that means.
If you have a very diverse class and it seems overwhelming to research every student’s background, consider this teacher’s approach: he “assigns an About Me paper, which he models based on his own cultural background,” so the entire class participates in cultural sharing at the beginning of the year.
Another way to gather information and get to know your ELL students is to talk to their parents and/or the ELL specialist. The Penn State School of Education recommends bringing this list of questions to meetings:
What kind of prior schooling has the child had? Is the student literate in the home language?
What is the cultural orientation towards personal space? Eye contact when an authority figure is speaking to a student? Touch? Timeliness?
What is the cultural orientation towards work and leisure?
Is the culture more oriented towards competition or cooperation?
There are many benefits to having broad cultural knowledge of the country that your student comes from and more specific knowledge of this student’s academic background. For example, the answer to #2 above could help to explain otherwise confusing teacher-student interactions.
One ELL specialist notes that “90% of [her] students don’t look their teacher in the eye” because it’s seen as disrespectful or threatening in many cultures, whereas for Americans it’s a sign of attention and respect.
Knowing the background of your ELLs will prevent you from punishing them for doing things that they were previously taught to do, and it will show them that you care about them. Not everyone will care enough to cultivate a positive and inquisitive mindset about other cultures; dedicate some time to being someone who does.
Support for ELLs in the Daily Classroom
Routine and Predictability
In addition to supporting ELLs through a positive and inquisitive mindset, you can run your daily classroom in ways that create a more stable learning environment. Luckily, most of these changes are fairly minor on your part, but they can make a major difference for ELLs (and the rest of your students too!).
The first key: routine. For English Language Learners, the more predictable your classroom routines are, the better. According to the Penn State College of Education, here are a few places in your day where you can rely on routine:
Post the daily schedule and keep it as constant as possible.
Use specific morning routines, such as lunch count, turning in homework, putting things away, morning greetings, etc.
Use predictable signals for getting student attention, transitions, lining up, etc.
Use predictable procedures for passing out materials.
If a student knows what to expect when they enter the classroom every day, it makes them feel more comfortable in their environment and frees up cognitive energy for the important and hard work of language acquisition.
ELLs benefit from a language-rich environment, but not all of it should be auditory and oral language. As Melissa Eddington, an ELL teacher in Ohio, puts it, “avoid giving instructions in the air.” If you’ve ever visited a country where you don’t speak the language, you might notice that street signs are far easier to understand than the locals’ conversations.
Likewise, it will make it easier for ELLs to understand the task and stay focused if “instructions—even basic directions for classroom procedures” are “written on the board whenever possible.” In addition, when you are teaching a difficult concept, it may be helpful for ELLs (and visual learners) if you supplement descriptions with graphics, diagrams, and physical models.
There are even ways to be visual that don’t involve words at all. For example, if your students need to work in a grammar notebook every day, ask all your students to use green notebooks rather than simply writing “Grammar” or “Notebook 1” on differently colored notebooks.
Then, hold up the green notebook to indicate that it is time to move to the grammar work for the day. In this way, you are using the visual element of color to stand in for language in a way that even a student with very limited knowledge of English can understand.
There are a number of keys to making sure you are taking your ELL students into account while giving daily directions or lecturing. Ideally, when teaching ELLs, you should speak:
Slower and with pauses
In shorter lectures
Without slang, idioms, or sarcasm
Slower and With Pauses
First, do speak “with a natural tone and rhythm” but slow down your speech to allow students to “process the words separately and form an understanding.” A common misinterpretation of this aim is to speak louder when speaking to ELLs, but this is unhelpful and can be seen as condescending.
In addition to pausing in between words, pause in between ideas and check for understanding. If you ask yes/no questions, it may be tempting for students to nod automatically, wanting to please the teacher.
Instead, ask more substantial questions to summarize the material and genuinely check for understanding at regular intervals; this way, you are both confirming that they understand your language and the course material.
2. Shorter Lectures
Even if you are taking sufficient pauses while lecturing or giving directions, it can still be cognitively exhausting for ELLs to process another language while also making sense of the material. To help with this challenge, shorten your lectures.
One teacher found that the sweet spot for lectures to ELLs is 5 to 7 minutes long—shorter didn’t allow for enough time to communicate and longer caused frustration and fatigue.
Interestingly, this recommendation is similar to a recent call for teachers to experiment with 1,000-word lectures (about 9 minutes) in order to increase student engagement.
Thus, lectures under ten minutes might benefit both ELLs and native speakers since they allow more time for students to reflect on and apply their learning while reducing cognitive fatigue.
If you are pausing sufficiently during shorter lectures and some of your ELLs are still struggling to comprehend your speech, consider employing technology to give your students another chance at understanding: tape record your lectures to allow for subsequent listening sections at home.
3. Without slang, idioms, or sarcasm
Lastly, it is very important to avoid sarcasm and avoid (or explicitly teach) slang and idiomatic language. Sarcasm is best to avoid because not all cultures use sarcasm like Americans do, and it can be easily misinterpreted or taken literally.
Similarly, ELL students may be confused by slang, idioms, and American-specific vocabulary.
Mount Rushmore, MLK’s “I Have A Dream Speech,” three strikes and you’re out, Coke, raining cats and dogs… teaching ELLs might make you realize just how many common expressions would be unintelligible to someone who didn’t grow up hearing them.
Unlike sarcasm, vocabulary and idioms don’t need to be avoided altogether. Edutopia points out that many ELL students love learning idioms; you might even devote an entire class to teaching them.
Like many of the other tips regarding teaching ELL students, the key is to be intentional, rather than relying on assumptions about what your ELL students might understand based on your own cultural background.
Support through Assignments and Feedback
Assignments for ELL students
Scaffolding with the Native Language
One of the most important ways to accommodate ELLs with assignments is to allow scaffolding with your students’ native languages. It used to be common practice for ELLs to be placed in “English only” classrooms, as it was believed that their native language (or home language) was a “crutch” that would prevent them from learning English as quickly.
However, extensive research has found that “educational programs that systematically incorporate use of ELLs' home language result in levels of academic success, including achievement in literacy and other academic subjects, that are as high as and often better than that of ELLs in English-only programs.”
In fact, some ELL teachers now consider the home language to be an English Language Learners “most valuable resource.”
To help ELLs harness the power of their bilingualism, consider asking them to think consciously about the relationship between their home language and English. The following questions can be a jumping off point for an assignment or discussion on this topic:
How is the home language the same and how is it different from English?
Are there words in the home language that sound the same and mean the same thing in both languages?
Are there words in the home language and English that sound the same but mean different things?
In addition to encouraging your students’ metalinguistic awareness, when you give ELLs writing assignments, consider allowing them to pre-write and brainstorm in their home language.
If you have students who otherwise could not participate in certain assignments, “‘Don’t make them just sit there and do nothing,’ one ELL teacher says. ‘Allow them to write in their first language if they’re able. This allows them to still participate in journal writing or a math extended response, even if you can’t read what they write.’”
In addition to incorporating students’ native languages into assignments, it’s important to allow English Language Learners more opportunities to “preview” assignments. As one ELL handbook explains, “paging through a text ahead of time to look at pictures or headings can begin to activate prior knowledge that helps a reader to both decode words and make meaning of text.”
Also, ELL students usually have different background knowledge than native speakers, and previewing can help put them on more equal footing.
Rather than giving your ELL students the direction, “use this class period to write your own fairytale” on the spot, you might consider giving them the prompt the day beforehand.
Having more time can allow ELL students to familiarize themselves with the “once upon a time” narrative structure that might be more familiar to native speakers who grew up hearing those stories.
Feedback for ELL students
Using Positive Expressions
When your ELL students turn in assignments or participate in discussions, it’s imperative that you have a system for giving them feedback on both the content of their ideas and their burgeoning English language skills.
One common pitfall that teachers sometimes fall into is constantly correcting students’ grammar with negative expressions. This pattern can easily become discouraging to a shy ELL student and can give the impression that a student’s language mistakes are more important than their ideas.
For example, if a student says, “I seen things differently,” instead of correcting with a negative expression, “No, the verb ‘seen’ is incorrect,” you could instead model the correct usage, “Yes, that’s true! We see things differently.”
This kind of teaching method will prevent students’ language mistakes from “fossilizing” while still providing students with a safe non-judgmental space to practice their communication skills.
Giving Focused Feedback
When it comes to written feedback on papers, make sure not to overwhelm ELLs with too many corrections. If an ELL student makes two grammatical mistakes per sentence for a six-page paper, marking every single one will take the teacher hours and will flood the student with too much information.
Instead, one ELL resource suggests that teachers “focus on one or two concepts at a time when listening to or reading student work” and that teachers let students know beforehand which concepts will be targeted.
If you are using The Graide Network to get your ELL students even more high-quality and student-friendly feedback, you can let our trained teaching assistants (called Graiders) know which concepts they should concentrate on in their feedback.
Graiders are trained to look at a mixture of larger-order concerns, like argument and organization, and smaller-order concerns, like punctuation and grammar, and they can spend more time commenting on the type of concerns would benefit your students the most.
Giving Students the Reins
A final grading strategy to employ when working with ELL students is to allow your students to correct their own work. As one teacher puts it, “If I correct your English, I improve my English. If you correct your English, you improve yours.”
By the end of the year when your ELL students have more explicit grammar and language knowledge, you could experiment with simply circling any writing errors that you see and letting your students figure out the mistakes.
Often when students are directed toward the right area, they can figure out the right answer with the help of their prior knowledge. If a student still can’t figure it out, it may be helpful to allow students to work together, and you may occasionally need to provide them with the right answer.
Regardless of how the students arrive at the right answer, students can still learn a lot from the problem-solving process.
Ultimately, while English Language Learners are a distinct population of students with distinct needs, accommodating ELLs should not be seen as separate or additional work.
All students come into the classroom with different cultural backgrounds, language knowledge, abilities, and experiences, and many of the tips and tricks that we shared in this article can benefit your diverse group of native speakers as well.
In the end, teaching ELLs well is not a matter of changing everything you are already doing; teaching ELLs well is simply good teaching.