Essential Tips for Mainstream Teachers with ELLs (Part 2)

This is part two in my series of posts highlighting essential tips for mainstream teachers to work with English language learners and help them thrive in their classes. 

My first post focused a lot on creating a welcoming classroom environment, you can find that here. This is so important because no learning will happen if a student does not feel safe enough to take the risks necessary to learn. 

I'm going to break this one up into tips for comprehensible input and output for students. Comprehensible input is important for English language learners, the content and language must be accessible to students for students to learn in. I can reflect back onto my own language learning experiences and saying silly phrases like "La souris est sous la chaise" because that is what I could handle. Along those same lines, the task that students do, and the language they are asked to produce also needs to be comprehensible. As essay is not an appropriate task for a newcomer, etc.

Comprehensible Input/Output

1. Use Visuals - Incorporate visuals into everything. Instructions. Procedures. Reading. Everything. Spoken language, especially if it is not modified, can be difficult for English language learners to follow. Having directions written is good, having directions supported with pictures is even better. Giving directions is good, modeling and showing our students what they need to do is better. Sometimes that is all they need to be able to do something. Making it visual does not have to just be pictures. I can make it visual by demonstrating with my body or with classroom objects too.

In many of my workshops for teachers I go through a full lesson in German. Whether it is my lesson on Unser Sonnensystem or gleichwertige BrĂ¼che the one thing participants say as soon as I open up reflection is the visuals made all the difference. Most go as far to say that without the visuals they could not have completed the lesson, let alone pass the quiz at the end (no one has ever failed one of the quizzes)

I just recently did my workshop for teaching mathematics to English language learners and I shared with them a problem I saw a teacher give on a worksheet. The lesson just crashed and burned at this point, and we as a group reflected on why. 

A farmer has 52 chickens and oxen combined. They have a total of 148 legs. How many of each animal does the farmer have

There are many native English speakers who do not know what an oxen is, in fact there was not a student in the classroom who did. The problem is, that knowledge is necessary for solving the problem, because you have to know how many legs it has to get the answer. I know you can make a logical guess that they have 4 legs, because lets face it, many farm animals do, but the difficulty disappears by adding a picture of an oxen and a chicken with the problem.

2. Provide Sentence stems/frames - providing sentence stems/frames for oral and written responses gives students an opportunity to practice with academic language and sentence structures. All students need practice with academic English. I say over and over again to teachers all students are academic language learners, these strategies really do work for all students. I gave my students sentence stems for talking about content:

The tone of the _______ is _________. In the text it says, "..." This means ___________.

Guess what my students were also learning to do: cite text evidence and write a paragraph.

I gave them sentence stems/frames to talk about cognitive and meta-cognitive strategies:

I predicted _______. My prediction was (not) confirmed.

I was confused by _________, I thought __________.

I also gave them sentence stems/frames for classroom discussion:

I agree with _______ because ________. I respectfully disagree with what ________ said because _________. 

I get more push back from teachers on this point than I would have expected. They tell me this is seems to babyish. When I get them to try it, they are always amazed. If it has never been the norm for students to use complete sentences and have academic conversations, you have to teach them how. Sentence stems/frames take the guess work out of that for students, and they know exactly what is expected.

I had a place in my room for sentence stems/frames that students would need regularly. But just like my word walls these were fluid, as we mastered these things I could take them down and add more. I also always gave my students the option, to try something beyond the sentence stem/frame if they were able. 

The participants of my German lessons are asked to write complete sentences, and they always tell me, I couldn't have done that without sentence stems, and once again, no one has ever failed the post-quiz. The best part is now in their notes they have it written out completely and correctly to refer to later. For my German lesson it isn't a big deal, they don't need to know it later, but for students they do. 

3. Allow use of their native language - I know this has been the subjected of heated debates, but the native language has its place. First, if the student is a newcomer and you tell them to quit speaking in their native language, you have cut off their primary form of communication. Second, instruction should be in English (and modified), but clarification is fine in the native language, a language buddy can be a great thing. But remember, use them, don't abuse them, or else you'll lose them! I even allowed students to write responses/plan first in their native language so that they could get their ideas out before having to worry about English. 

I hear over and over again, I don't speak X, how do I know they are on task? Or how do I know what they wrote is appropriate? etc.  Allowing native language use just might be the difference in a student fully participating and engaging, and tuning out. It's all about setting expectations for students, and encouraging them.

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