Five Strategies for teaching ESL Learners

16.10.19 10:47 PM By Jared Shaw

As more and more English Language Learners (ELLs) attend public schools throughout the United States every year, teacher training programs are not adapting to meet the needs of students or their teachers. In order to receive my teaching certification, I was shocked that I did not have an English Language Education requirement. In New York City, 20% of my students spoke English as a second language, but my school employed only two trained English Language Education providers. My General Education colleagues and I had no training and no idea how to teach our English Language Learners. If you, too, feel overwhelmed and unprepared to meet the needs of your English Language Learners, don’t despair.  I thought catering to my ELLs would be painstaking, but it was actually (nearly) effortless. Seamlessly incorporate the following five ESL/ELL classroom interventions into your existing curriculum, just as I did.

1. Visual Cues

Introducing a new definition or step by step directions? Display and/or distribute pictures of every new procedure, concept, skill and vocabulary word. Create an image or series of images that illustrate the new concept or skill. Whenever possible, have ELL students create their own visual images to illustrate what they learn each day. Display these illustrated words around the classroom as an ever-growing word wall. Use Pixton Comic Maker to easily generate professional, engaging and printable images for every single lesson plan.

2. Prior Knowledge

The easiest and most important way to engage English Language Learners is to explicitly brainstorm prior knowledge. This helps students recognize and connect related themes and ideas in each lesson. It’s simple. Start every single text, topic or lesson with a KWL chart on the subject matter. As part of an opening discussion, ask students what they know and want to know about the subject(s) as they fill in their “K” and “W” columns with important vocabulary words. Consider adding important vocabulary words, definitions, concepts and themes that students will encounter during the reading or lesson. After the lesson, have students add to the “L” column of their KWL chart to share what they learned.

Why is this step so important? Helping students activate prior knowledge before a lesson is like discussing main ideas and themes before watching a foreign film. It helps the audience anticipate, comprehend and make meaning.

3. “Heads Up”

Similar to activating prior knowledge, give students a “heads up” about what to expect before each reading or lesson. For example, state what image, idea, conflict or chain of events students should “be on the lookout for” before reading a passage from a text. For a research project, direct students to specific grade-level reference materials. During every lesson, distribute or display a key word and definition guide. To focus student reading, provide a set of simple guiding questions with paragraph or page numbers. With these simple “heads up” gestures, you can create a lasting positive impact with very little time and effort.

4. Creative Expression

When students create, they learn. The same is true for English Language Learners. Encourage drama, art, music and other forms of creative expression for students to display their understanding of the subject matter. Make the subject matter relevant by assigning a variety of realistic writing experiences for students to write about themselves and their experiences. This can be incorporated into English and History reading response assignments, Math and Science word problems and a variety of bell ringer activities. Whenever possible, provide opportunities for students to create oral and written narratives or to invent academic lyrics to favorite songs. Encourage student groups to make artwork or perform a skit. All of these activities encourage student communication and language acquisition through creativity.

5. Reciprocal Teaching

Reciprocal teaching means that students work in pairs or small groups to teach each other during a reading assignment. Students use fours steps to take turns leading discussions. First, they summarize the reading. Second, they ask their peer(s) questions about the reading to determine understanding. Third, they clarify and answer remaining questions. Finally, they make predictions. As students ask open-ended questions and restate answers, they model correct grammar, syntax and vocabulary. While reciprocal teaching is typically for reading a passage, this student-led model can be used for any activity in any subject. By working in pairs or small groups, English Language Learners can more comfortably speak and ask questions than they can in the whole class setting.

Reciprocal teaching, KWL charts, “heads up” strategies, visual cues and opportunities for creative expression are all easy and proven-effective ways to support ELL students in the general education setting. Don’t wait. Start supporting your English Language Learners today.