How to Teach ELL Students: Bridge the Language Gap in a Multilingual Classroom

American schools are enrolling an increasing number of students whose first language is one other than English. In fact, English language learners comprise more than 10 percent of the student population in the United States, according to teacher Larry Ferlazzo.

This means that all teachers, regardless of the subject they teach, have a greater responsibility to support English language learners. Whether your classroom is full of ELLs or you’re preparing for your first ELL student, here’s how to help all learners integrate into the classroom.

What an ELL Student Needs

When teaching students whose first language isn’t English, there’s never going to be a one-size-fits-all approach. There are simply too many ways to approach language and culture barriers, and too many learning styles to anticipate.

“Learning to understand language remains an ongoing process due to the varied contexts, time periods, and interactions in which we live, learn, and teach,” adds Bradley University’s Melinda  McBee Orzulak, Ph.D.

Fortunately, taking time to explore different teaching strategies can help you find the one that suits you and your ELL students best. The first step in creating an effective teaching approach — and helping students succeed — is understanding your students. Learning about each student’s native culture and language allows you to see things from their perspective, education consultant Josh Keidan says.

Appreciate each student as an individual and as an important, valuable asset to the overall school community. This makes it possible to understand student needs and concerns, and to empathize with their struggles, in the context of their own culture, Keidan adds.

Adapt to Cultural Contexts

Moreover, certain lessons may touch on major cultural differences. Think about it this way: ELL students might not understand the vocabulary in your lesson because those words simply don’t exist in their home cultures. Consider a student from a tropical nation trying to learn vocabulary about winter weather, snow sports and warm clothing, for example.

“Terms such as ‘snowball fight,’ ‘toboggan,’ or ‘blizzard’ can be unfamiliar,” Magoosh’s David Recine explains. “Similarly, students from cultures where marriage is arranged may really struggle to understand a talk about American courtship and dating.” Such lessons can be confusing and disorienting for students.

Preparing yourself for potential confusion can keep your lesson plans running smoothly. Plus, it’s an opportunity to teach the other students in the class about a unique aspect of the ELL students’ cultures, which can help them feel more valued and at ease.

Demonstrate Empathy and Honesty

At the same time, teachers can help ELL students feel like they belong by sharing information about their own personal histories. Claudia Pesce, a freelance translator, says she often told students about how she spent much of her life living and traveling abroad. This helped students feel like their culture was an asset to the classroom rather than a detriment.

Sharing your own true stories also opens up interesting questions and discussions, which can further cross-cultural understanding.

Recognize Where ELL Students Struggle

Learning about the student’s native language is also important for helping students learn English correctly. Specifically, English learner program administrator Kristinia Robertson points out that a student’s native language will inform how they learn English.

Native Spanish speakers might struggle with false cognates, for example, since two words might sound the same yet have different meanings. Pronunciation, grammar and word order are also different across languages. Anticipating troublesome areas can help you mitigate small mistakes before they become bad habits.

Moreover, lack of academic vocabulary is one of the biggest barriers facing English learners in school, says English language teacher Geri McClymont. This is because academic English often differs from the language that ELLs learn in movies or from classmates.

Many English language learners already know enough English to navigate social situations and get their needs met, writes Rachel Karach at MEK Review. However, academic English is applied differently in the classroom, which can be both confusing and daunting.

An effective way to overcome this challenge is to focus on improving student vocabulary across all subjects. Introduce new vocabulary before reading a text that contains those words to give context to the lesson. Share these concepts with a clear definition and a striking visual, McClymont adds.

Address Subject-Specific Challenges

Teachers can also do their part to anticipate challenges in specific subjects.

In math, for example, teachers can focus less on language and more on visual instruction. “Teaching math using a game-based visual learning approach that activates the brain’s spatial-temporal reasoning skills leads to a deeper understanding of concepts for all students, including ELLs,” explains Heera Kang at MIND Research Institute.

Teachers should seek out instructional solutions that present math concepts visually and allow interactive, self-directed exploration. This reduces the stress associated with language and helps students focus purely on numbers, concepts and equations.

Science lessons are a great opportunity to ask students about their thought processes, writer Susan Verner notes. Create an activity where students have to learn a lesson and conduct an experiment. Then, facilitate conversation between students by asking them to explain the experience to each other. This can help ELLs use language in the context of what they learned. It also supports interaction between English language learners and their peers, which can reduce social anxiety and help all students feel more comfortable.

multicultural ELL students

Strategies for Teaching ELL Students

There are many ways you can create a supportive classroom environment for all of your students, including English language learners. Creating a routine, for example, is a simple act that goes a long way. Classroom environments with routines help students thrive, explains Lindsey Tuckett at Teach Away. She suggests daily activities such as circle time and hands-on group projects.

Creating a daily schedule and placing it at the front of the classroom each morning is also a great way to set expectations and ease student worry.

How teachers review concepts can also determine whether they stick. Repetition is essential for helping students acquire new academic vocabulary and concepts, ESL teacher Erica Hilliker writes. She suggests dedicating the last 5–10 minutes of each lesson for concept review. This can also give students another opportunity to hear concepts spoken aloud. Weekly review is also helpful. Review games and interactive activities can keep students inspired and engaged during the process.

Also, get into the habit of using visuals to convey ideas and themes. This caters to everyone’s learning needs, especially when you have students of multiple backgrounds in the same class. Pictures are a universally accepted way to introduce new concepts and vocabulary to students, former teacher Amanda Morin says.

Anyone who sees a picture of a flower understands what it means in their own language. This strategy works across nearly every subject, regardless of whether you’re teaching math, history or science. Associating the picture with the concept in English helps everyone learn at the same rate no matter what their native language.

Digital tools can help make visuals easier to access and share, too. You can use PowerPoint to create a sequence of images based on a certain theme, education writer Kim Haynes points out. Sounds and visual words can accompany digital visuals, supporting all the learning styles in the classroom.

How to Assess an ELL Student’s Progress

Teachers should have a distinct process for assessing ELL student progress. Since every student will enter the class with different background knowledge, teachers must assess what each student already knows.

One idea is to ask students about their previous knowledge on a topic, English language learner specialist Amber McWilliams at Amplify, says. “Building on students’ prior knowledge and background can empower them to make connections to new concepts, to build new mental schemas and to reflect on their own ideas and language use,” she writes.

Keeping track of how your students’ English language skills are improving ensures they get the help they need and don’t fall behind in any subject. However, assessing English can be abstract and complex, educator Serena Makofsky writes. This is because students all learn English at their own pace, and this progress might be informed by natural abilities, native languages and a number of other factors. Teachers can assess student progress accurately by composing a test based on specific lessons learned in class.

Conducting short interviews with students, using rubrics for grading long projects and maintaining observation logs are all methods that make it easier to assess the language acquisition process more accurately.

Finally, having students reflect on their own progress can be valuable for both teachers and students, curriculum designer and teaching coach Jennifer L.M. Gunn says. “From informal to formalized reflections, the idea is to guide students toward a habit of self-examination, analysis, and revision of their assignments.” This helps put students and teachers more in touch with their progress and needs. The ability to identify progress and challenges can also encourage students to seek help when they need it.

english reading - ELL students

Technology to Help Teachers of ELL Students

Technology has evolved to meet the learning challenges of today’s English language learners. “Lots of online tools have built-in features to support differentiated instruction for a variety of learners,” explains Jeff Knutson at Common Sense Education.

This helps meet one of the biggest demands of today’s instructors: teaching English vocabulary to a classroom that speaks a variety of native languages. He suggests the tool ThinkCERCA, which caters to students of different backgrounds and skill levels with scaffolding and audio texts.

Apps can also make it fun and easy to learn English skills, especially when they include gamification. Elegant E-Learning founder Andrei Zakhareuski likes Grammar Up, which tests students on specific parts of speech like verbs and prepositions. Even classic board games such as Scrabble and Boggle have online versions that support English language learning.

Translation tools are a must-have for the multilingual classroom, as most teachers already know. Aside from simply looking up words, however, translation tools can be used to provide real-time cues and captions for learners.

Reading specialist Sara Mata notes that Microsoft Translator “documents your dialogue as you speak into your microphone and provides live captions on the screen of anyone that is part of the conversation.” If you’re working with students via video, this is a great tool. It can also support students while they’re doing homework, especially if they’re engaging with video content.

Google also has a number of tools that support ELL learners, including its translation tool. Google Docs helps ELL students with academic writing in particular, explains Christina Ponzio at EdSurge. “Besides making it easy to hold all students accountable just by peeking on my computer screen, Google Docs makes it simple to provide immediate intervention.”

The edit and comments features in Google Docs allows teachers to correct student work in a manner that is timely and private. Teachers and students can also keep track of progress over time.

Images by: bbtreesubmission/©123RF.com, Nataliya Kogut, jason sackey

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