Reaching Various Exceptionalities: English Language Learners

By Scott Sterling

This is the first in a series of posts about actionable strategies that any teacher can use to reach students with varying exceptionalities. This week: English language learners.

English language learning students are the fastest growing segment of the student population in the United States. It is anticipated that ELL students could make up a quarter of all students in the country by the end of the decade. Although more resources are being pledged at the federal level to educating these students, many states and districts are lagging behind.

ELL teachers do a tremendous job, but there are ways for general ed teachers to help ELL students have more success in their classrooms.

Connect on a personal and cultural level

White teachers make up the vast majority of the education ranks, which means there can be immediate disconnects with students of differing backgrounds, especially if that background is foreign. Many problems can be avoided if a teacher simply makes an effort to understand a student’s life and past.

Knowing that a student has to go home to take care of many siblings or help out in their parents’ shop can explain a lot about homework not getting done and can provide ideas for solutions. Perhaps they need information presented to them in a way that makes more sense (more about that later). You won’t know that unless you talk to them.

For example, in many Latin cultures, teachers are revered in a similar way that priests are—to the point where parents might be apprehensive about communicating. Knowing that can go a long way toward explaining why a student’s parents never show up for conferences. Talk to the student about their home life and where they come from. It builds engagement and rapport.

Reading, writing, and speaking—no matter the subject area

In schools with significant ELL populations, a concerted effort must be made to have students consistently reading, writing, and speaking in all of their subject areas—every day. Practicing these skills solely in their ELL classes and language arts is wasting more than half the school day, when they can be making language acquisition progress. Working on language skills across the curriculum also exposes the ELL student to the various vocabularies that come with subject areas, much of which can have confusing meanings if taken at face value.

Authentic visuals

When encountering ELLs, teachers often rely on using more visual representation in their content. Although this is an effective and recognized approach, using pictures just to represent tricky words can make the ELL student stand out compared to their English-proficient counterparts.

Instead, use visuals that even the proficient students would find helpful. Instead of a lecture, try a video. Real-world visuals like menus, newspapers, and schedules will make the ELL student feel less self conscious because everyone needs to learn how to read those texts.

Pausing to check for understanding

Effective teachers often use strategies such as Think-Pair-Share or Turn & Talk to let students process new information. These pauses are doubly important for ELLs because they not only get to practice their interaction skills, but they also get a momentary pause to translate their thoughts internally, rather than a constant struggle to catch up to a stream of information.

Get rid of idioms and sarcasm

Just like any other culture, Americans have their “inside jokes”. The problem is that a new ELL student will not be familiar with any idiomatic phrases that a teacher may use in the classroom. They also lack the ability to understand sarcasm at first. Until a certain level of proficiency is attained by the student, keep your language business-like.

Next week: Reaching students on the autism spectrum