Monday, August 22, 2016

5 Quick and Easy Beginning of the Year Tips to Help Your ELLs

Regardless of the subject you are licensed to teach, if you work in a U.S. public school you are probably an ESL teacher, too.  Chances are you have at least one English Language Learner (ELL) in your class and if you don’t this year, you most likely will in the future.  That’s because, as of the 2012-13 school year (the most recent for which statistics are available), ELLs comprised 9.3% of the student population in PreK – 12th grade (NCES 2016).  That may not sound like a lot but it’s just the average – the figure ranged from 1.3% of the students in Mississippi being ELLs to 23.2% in California.  And since they are the fastest-growing segment of the public school population in the U.S. (Edutopia 2016), there will be many, many more ELLs in the public school system in the years to come. 

So what are mainstream and special education teachers who don’t have a master’s degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages or years of in-service training supposed to do when an ELL is placed in their classroom?  Well, first of all, don’t panic!  Even without advanced training, there are many things you can do to make your ELL students feel comfortable in class and help them learn.  Here are five things you can do right away to help you and your ELLs have a positive start to the new school year.  There's also a freebie you can download at the end of this blog post.

Image of classroom with title text overlaid on top
Graphic created by The ESL Nexus
Tip#1: If You Use Cursive
If you like to use cursive when writing on the board in class or when writing comments on students’ papers, consider printing instead.  Many ELLs, especially those who immigrated from other countries, are not familiar with the American style of cursive. I didn’t realize that some languages write the letters of the Roman alphabet in different ways than we do in the U.S. until I saw some of my ELLs’ work and had to ask them what it said.  When students are trying to comprehend what sentences mean, you can make it easier for them to decipher the words by printing the letters rather than using cursive.

Tip#2: If You Give Oral Directions
If you give instructions to students orally, then also write them on the board or type them onscreen as well so students can read what to do.  When an ELL only hears directions from the teacher, it’s very easy to forget part of what was said.  This is especially important when giving multi-step instructions.  Providing a visual reference so the students can quickly and easily read what to do will not only benefit ELLs, it’ll also help other students and lessen the number of times you have to repeat your instructions.  I remember being in a kindergarten class one year and the teacher was explaining how to do a craftivity – she explained everything from start to finish and by time she reached the fifth step, I’d forgotten what the second step was.  I couldn’t imagine how the ELLs would be able to complete the task!
5 tips to encourage and support the English Language Learners in your class. | The ESL Connection
Understanding directions can be confusing! Source: The ESL Nexus
Tip #3: If an ELL is Distracted and/or Not Paying Attention
If you notice that an ELL is often looking out the window or looking around the class, instead of focusing on you and the lesson being implemented, then consider the possibility that the student might be overloaded by the language demands of the class.  When you have to concentrate so hard on trying to understand everything that is going on in a language you are not fluent in, it’s really easy to feel overwhelmed.  So it’s only natural that an ELL in that situation would need a break.  It’s easy for a teacher to fall into the trap of thinking the reason the ELL isn’t paying attention is because he or she doesn't care -- as a first grade teacher once told me about one of my students who was doing well in my class but not so well in hers -- when the reality is that the student is just mentally tired.  Give the ELL a break by letting him or her do something less linguistically challenging for a short while.

Tip #4: If a Well-Behaved ELL Isn’t Participating in Class
If an ELL spends most of the class period sitting quietly and is well-behaved, then don’t assume that the student understands the lesson and is following along with whatever the class is doing.  In many cultures, it’s considered the teacher’s fault if the students don’t understand and it would be showing a lack of respect to say something, so ELLs just sit quietly and pretend they know what’s going on.  Or they may be embarrassed to admit in front of their classmates that they don't understand.  Or they may think they understand what's going on and not realize until later that, in fact, they didn't.  To make sure this isn’t happening with your ELLs, consider arranging a special signal they can use to indicate when they don’t understand something -- a certain hand gesture or putting a small object unobtrusively on their desks.  Even if you can’t address the issue right then, at least you will know what your students need some additional support with.
5 tips to encourage and support the English Language Learners in your class. | The ESL Connection
Doing homework when there's no support at home can be really hard; source: The ESL Nexus
Tip#5: If an ELL Isn’t Turning In Homework
If there is a pattern of an ELL not turning in homework, then please consider the possibility that the student doesn’t understand the material and not that the student doesn’t care or is lazy.  It’s easy to get discouraged and frustrated and then stop trying when you just don’t understand the material!  Often, a student can do the work in class but then gets stuck at home because there are no supports available there.  If this happens on a regular basis, consider working with the student before or after school if that is possible, or finding another student who can explain the concepts in either the ELL’s native language or in English if the student’s language proficiency is high enough.  It's likely that the pace of the class is too fast for the ELL to process both the language and the concepts simultaneously and needs more time to completely comprehend everything.

Being aware of these issues and implementing these five tips will help you start the year off on a positive note with your ELLs.  Maintaining contact with their parents or guardians is also crucial for helping them be successful in school.  Every year on the first day I had my students for class, I gave them an index card and asked them to write down their name, address, phone number, and other information.  I sent the form home with students so their parents or guardians could fill out the sections asking for contact info.  I also wanted to know if my students had a computer, printer, and Internet access at home.  Not all of them had access to the Web so having that info was really useful because it helped me know what kind of homework I could give them.  I've created a freebie with the questions I asked my students that you can just print out and photocopy for your classes.  You can download it HERE.
This freebie lets teachers easily collect home family contact info and also info about computer access at home. | The ESL Connection
Click HERE to get your own copy; source: The ESL Nexus
Another very useful method for helping ELLs succeed in your class is to write not just content objectives for your lessons but language objectives as well.  I’ll discuss how to do that in an upcoming blog post.  In the meantime, you can find lots of useful ideas and resources about teaching ELLs on my Pinterest board, Teaching English To ELLs.  Wishing you the best in the new school year!