I love the challenge of teaching and mentoring English language learners!
I have often had completely non-English-speaking students in my classroom. Seeing the amazing progress they make over the course of year – going from confused, frightened and silent to happy, outgoing and talkative – really gives my teacher heart a warm glow.
Here are a few of my strategies for integrating them and making rapid progress.
Math is a universal language
Even without a grasp of English, many ELL students can understand how to work problems during our math block. If you have an in-class translator (see below), then they can even work on story problems.
This is a critical consideration when you consider the timing of when your ESL/ELL teacher or aide will be stopping by to help, especially if they are doing a pull-out. You want the student to be pulled during your literacy block, not your math block. Why? Because they are likely to be totally lost during literacy, so they are better off working with an ELL aide.
But they'll have some success in math, so they should be staying in the room for that. A pull-out during math would have them missing out on the one block of instruction they can understand during the entire day.
This will delay their English fluency and rob them of an opportunity to demonstrate to themselves how smart they really are!
Don't overdo the pull-out model
A pull-out for ELL instruction should only occur until the student is functional with basic English vocabulary and can begin to grasp the basics of what I am teaching in literacy.
After that, the student needs to be in the classroom learning with the rest of the students, while the ESL teacher or aide provides services alongside them to keep their progress moving forward.
I had a little girl from Burma one year who had some English skills. She was very sharp and learned quickly how to spell the vocabulary words that I was providing every week. I realized about three months into the school year, however, that while she could spell the words, she did not know what many of them meant.
This was an oversight on my part; I was operating on the assumption that the kids in my fourth-grade class knew what the words meant, they just needed to learn to spell them correctly. Of course, this was not true in her case.
To correct this problem, I started adding pictures to the spelling word list every week in the form of Smart Notebook activities. Here are some screen shots of those activities to give you an idea of what I'm talking about.
In the first activity, the children drag the pictures that represent spelling words into the appropriate bucket that signifies the spelling pattern that the word belongs to. (Click for larger images.)
In the second activity, the kids match the picture to the appropriate word in the table.
This approach made a huge difference to the learning of my Burmese girl – and it helped the rest of the class as well. Anytime we encourage children to process information using different methods of learning, they will always retain the information better.
In these activities, the children are able to physically click and drag the pictures into different categories or into the matching matrix with their fingers on the Smartboard, a process which involves physical touch in their learning process. Of course, the visual representation also helps.
Is this a lot of work?
You bet it is! Finding pictures for some non-nouns is hard. I do try to find alternative meanings for words (see “spoke” above) which keeps the kids interested and broadens their vocabulary.
The lessons are just a one-time commitment, though. Once you work your way through an entire year of spelling activities, you'll be all set for the future (assuming you stay in the same grade level).
My Moldovan girl made such great progress with this support that I have to show off one of her spelling tests, corrected just a few months after the start of school. 17 out of 28 is a great result for her! (Again, click for a larger image.)
Post-It notes for vocabulary
Once an English language learner has started to grasp some basic vocabulary, it's time to have them expand their repertoire to every item in your classroom.
It's as simple as giving them a pad of Post-It notes and telling them to label everything they can find. They are of course allowed to ask other students for help identifying how to spell “pencil sharpener” (for example). In exchange, the other students get to learn the foreign word for the object. They love that!
Your ELL student will most likely be shy about approaching other kids, so set expectations for the whole class. Let them know what's going on and that when the ELL student is in their area, to nicely offer their friendly help. They'll be eager to do it.
As you can guess, this is also a great way for new students to make friends more quickly.
Video tips: helping ELL students with English skills
Tablets and ELL reading fluency
Increasing reading fluency is, of course, very important for English language learners. Listening to a story while reading it really accelerates their progress, but unless you have volunteers, this can be very hard to arrange. Fortunately, this is a great use for iPads in the classroom.
You can find apps that provide access to narrated story books (Google for them). These are great for your ESL students, helping them make rapid progress with fluency.
But you can't just plug them in and forget them! It's too easy for them to ignore the words and just listen to the story, thus making progress with language comprehension but not with reading comprehension.
You'll need to spend your one-on-one time with them reviewing these same stories and having them read aloud so you can check their progress and help with pronunciation.
Moving to essay writing
ELL students will soon arrive at a level of vocabulary proficiency that allows them to speak a bit with other kids and even do OK with basic spelling words. At this point, however, their level of proficiency will not allow them to do essay writing.
Here's a great way to jump-start their English writing ability: Create a “Rosetta Stone.”
The Rosetta Stone is the famous carving unearthed in Egypt that finally allowed scholars to decode ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. The key is that it held the same message written in three different languages. One of them, ancient Greek, was already known and allowed Egyptologists to decipher the mysterious writing of the pharaohs.
Here's how I used this approach to help a Russian-speaking girl. First, my student wrote an essay in Cyrillic. Here's the beginning:
Next I had it translated to English. Here is the same portion:
Then she was able to see the differences in syntax between the two languages, using a very personal and meaningful text of her own creation. Much more effective than using a generic text! Having her copy the passage in English completed this exercise.
Don't forget parent outreach
You absolutely want your ELL students' parents to be on your team. They need to know that their child's teacher is open to interacting with them and that they have an avenue for communicating.
Google translate to the rescue!
Make it a point early in the year to write a note to ELL parents and run it through Google translate. Just include this sentence:
“I put this through Google translate, so it may sound a little odd!”
Let them know some of the activities you are using to bring their child along, compliment their student's work ethic and invite them to contact you at any time by note or email.
Believe me, they will totally appreciate this effort. Their support will help your English language learners make even faster progress in your classroom.