Monday, November 7, 2011

Reaching Out to English Language Learners

By Rosshalde Pak

Often there is the view of ESL students being low or lacking in intelligence.  In reality, they are lacking English language skills. Being an English Language Learner (ELL), or learning English as Second Language (ESL) students, means needing the skills to be proficient in the language.  It’s as if a native English speaker went to live in a foreign country and had to learn that language fluently.

As our classroom sizes continue to grow, more and more students who need 1:1 or pullout instruction times, aren’t going to receive it.  With that in mind, I came up with some tips on how to best reach and teach your ESL students in mainstream classrooms:

1.   Get to know students and their backgrounds:
Everyone wants to feel special, unique, and important. Too often we are so focused on teaching these students English that we forget they have deep cultural heritages.  As you get to know all of your students, spend extra time with your ELL students by learning about their cultural backgrounds.  Ask questions such as:
                                          ·         How long have you been in this country?

·         What do you like about America?

·         How is it different from your home country?

·         What are some of the special days celebrated in your  country/culture/family?

·         What are popular games or sports in your country?

·         Who lives at home with you?

By taking moments to solely get to know your students’ backgrounds you are showing who they are is important to you, and it will allow them to open up more to you. This also helps them to want to win your approval and work harder to grasp those English Language skills.

2.   Integrate students’ native languages into your classroom:

Closely connected to understanding your ELL’s background, is the idea of integrating their home languages into lessons and learning. Some students, especially younger ones, may be confused as to why they are learning another whole language. Others may be afraid of learning new languages and forgetting their native ones.  This is especially common for students whose (extended) families live with them and/or speak native tongues. As the teacher, use the below ideas to easily integrate learners’ home languages into their lessons:

·         Create flashcards that have words/phrases/sentences written inh English on one side and home languages on the flip side.

·         Have students teach you how to say social greetings in their languages.

·         Have students use English for lessons then you try to learn the same phrases in their home language.

By using these small steps, you are, again, showing your ELL students that you respect their first languages and are not trying to erase them.

                    3.   Utilize peer support:

As an ESL teacher, I’ve come to appreciate how much it can help to have students around. They are so eager to help!  I’ve never had a year when there weren’t several students eager to help their peers. For ESL students this is great news!  By utilizing students who are proficient in English (and perhaps another language), your ESL students can read and work on their fluency and pronunciation skills with peers rather than you. This is important because sometimes ESL students are embarrassed or nervous about their lack of understanding with the English language.  When they can have classmates listen to them read, or vice versa, it helps to build confidences.  Plus, ESL students are not as worried about ‘disappointing’ their teacher with errors made.

                     4.    Break material into smaller chunks:

Who doesn’t feel overwhelmed when faced with reading five chapters in an Ancient Civilizations text or frustrated when you have to write a ten page paper on why David Bowie is the modern renaissance man?  Now, imagine having to do that in a foreign language.  By allowing your students to complete assignments in smaller chunks, you’re giving them the chance to be successful and feel pride in what they have been able to accomplish.  This also helps them from falling further behind. As the teacher, let them focus on writing a single paragraph at a time.  If their task is to read an entire chapter, you could let them focus on one page at a time, reminding them to read aloud at their own pace.

            To make tasks even easier, provide students with checklists of work needed to be completed (useful for any learner).  Watch out—you want students to focus on what they have achieved rather than putting all their attention into seeing how much they have yet to accomplish.

           In addition, keep in mind ELL students are learning the same science materials that their classmates are—plus, ELL students are learning English, too. Sometimes, especially when students are all together, it’s easy to be so in the moment of teaching you forget students with various learning needs are there, too.  

           If you are able to put a few of these tips in place before classes begin, they can save time in the long run.

             5.  Utilize colors and images:

    After repeated use, a grey pencil or blue pen becomes monotonous. Adding splashes of color can help liven up mundane materials. In that same respect, books with pictures can provide more entertainment than plain textbooks. Colors and images can also diversify works.

            Try to utilize colors and images when having ELL students do their class work.  Have them write different parts of grammar with certain colored pencils.  Then, utilize the same colors to identify parts of speech within whole sentences and paragraphs. Colors can help distinguish between spelling and vocabulary terms and how to conjugate those terms.

            Using color-coded images is key for students who are working to develop their English language skills.

                 6.  Learning a language is comprised of four components:

    To learn any language, even learning one language, there are four key steps to fully acquiring a language: (1) Listening, (2) Speaking, (3) Reading, and (4) Writing.  It is crucial to keep these in mind when aiding your English Language Learners:

1.        Listening is the easiest to do, and it takes very little effort on the part of the person listening. It is the most basic of the four steps.

2.       Speaking is just beyond listening.  Now, instead of just nodding along in agreement, students have to respond to what others are saying.  They have to have basic understandings of sounds of words in order to pronounce them correctly.

3.       Reading is the beginning of advanced skills. With reading, students have to know spelling, grammar, phonics, pronunciation, and sentence structures.

4.       Writing is the most difficult and advanced component of learning new languages. There is not as much flexibility with writing—either your students know it or they don’t.  Here, all the previous components come into play.

Although these strategies are specific to needs of ESL students, many of them can be utilized with all types of learners.  In addition, remember we all do better with some encouragement and positive reinforcements.  

Think back to when you were taking foreign language classes in high school and college.  Remember how much time it took to practice those verbs and conjugation?  How difficult was it to learn to ‘trill’ your R’s just the right way? Those same frustrations are happening to English Language Learning students. Those frustrations are even more prominent in young children who are trying to learn the fundamentals of lone anguage—let alone two. Plus, as they become older, people who are proficient in multiple languages have distinct advantages and opportunities that are not open to people who only speak one language. Give students and learning time, put work into smaller chunks, and keep in mind they are learning many required subjects, as well as English.

Our students want to gain our approvals and being English Language Learners can be quite challenging.  If you remind them of how super they are, it will make them feel great!  It’s takes time, but with your patience and support—your students will get there.

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