Today, we are going to focus on general questions about teaching English Learners (ELs). These are questions we regularly get from teachers. If you would like further information about teaching English Learners, feel free to contact us. We also recommend the book, Explicit Direct Instruction for English Learners by DataWORKS co-founders John Hollingsworth and Dr. Silvia Ybarra.
How can I help English Learners while working with the whole class?
There are three principles that we need to understand to answer this question.
First of all, we can realize that ALL students are really English learners. What do I mean by that? I mean that every student, even a native English speaker, has to learn new English vocabulary. In that sense, all students are learning English. That means, using specific strategies to teach vocabulary to ELs will also help native English speakers improve their vocab.
The second key to teaching ELs within your whole class is that you must consciously modify the language you use during the lesson so ELs can understand it. There is a wide range of Content Access Strategies that teachers can use to achieve more comprehensible delivery of the lesson. These include speaking more slowly, using formal rather than informal language, inserting longer pauses between words, extending vowels, stressing consonants, or emphasizing each syllable.
You can also make sentences easier to understand by breaking long sentences into shorter ones, simplifying sentences by rearranging words or removing dependent clauses, and removing unnecessary information. Explaining context clues can also make content easier to access for EL students.
The third principle to teaching ELs within your whole class is that you need to support your ELs in learning more English every day. The way to support ELs every day – and all other students too – is by emphasizing vocabulary development, and using Language Objectives.
For vocabulary, you should use different strategies depending on whether the word is support, content, or academic vocabulary.
- Support vocab only needs contextualized definitions.
- Content vocab can be explained by defining concepts, attaching a label when they already know the concept but not the word (e.g., inference), providing new meanings for known words that might have more than one meaning (e.g., trunk or crown), and showing how homophones work (e.g., coarse, course; pie, pi).
- Academic vocab can be taught by explaining synonyms, giving definitions, showing the breakdown of the word (e.g., theo-logical), and using more sophisticated words when describing relationships (e.g., similar for the same).
Language Objectives are goals that a teacher keeps in mind, while teaching, to help the EL students do more listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Teachers, or peers, can repeat words so ELs listen to the sounds. Choral reading and Pair-Shares are strategies for getting students to speak more. Tracked reading will help them read and speak. You can also use specific word reading strategies such as phonics and syllabication rules that give them tools for decoding words. For the Writing Language Objective, it’s good to use whiteboards. You can have them write new vocab words or write answers to questions.
Do I have to simplify the instruction for ELs?
It seems natural to try to simplify things for ELs. But the key is to simplify the language not the lesson. In fact, we do a dis-service to ELs if we water down the lesson. DataWORKS has identified five reasons why teaching on grade level is very important to ELs:
- Teaching all students (including ELs) on grade level provides equal opportunity to learn.
- Students (including ELs) cannot learn grade-level content they are not taught.
- Students (including ELs) perform no higher than the assignments they are given. Students taught below grade level perform below grade level.
- Students (including ELs) test higher – even if their grades go down – when they are taught on grade level. It’s better to get C’s on grade-level work than A’s and B’s on below-grade-level assignments.
- State tests assess ELs with grade-level questions.
Many ELs are afraid to speak up in class. How can I help them do that?
It’s important for ELs to use their voices in class; that’s how they get better in using English. But the problem is they feel shy or embarrassed to make mistakes using this second language. The Explicit Direct Instruction (EDI) model of teaching overcomes this problem quite easily with several strategies.
- Tracked choral reading of the Learning Objective, Concept, and some examples gives group practice in speaking.
- Pair-Shares give the students a chance to practice their language skills with a peer before being called upon by the teacher.
- In Checking For Understanding, the teacher is encouraged to pause for 3-5 seconds after asking the question to give any student a chance to respond. Since many ELs are translating their answers from their native language to English, they need more time. Teachers can easily pause 8-10 seconds when calling on EL students.
Here is a story told by DataWORKS co-founder John Hollingsworth that illustrates the power of these techniques for ELs:
I was teaching a math demo lesson in a school with a high English Learner population. I provided a lot of EL support during this lesson. I pre-pronounced words. I pre-read all the text and had the students read right after me. I defined words. I provided sentence starters and had students pair-share using new vocabulary words before answering any questions.
As part of Checking for Understanding, I had a cup of Popsicle sticks with student names on them. Sure enough, part way through the lesson, I pulled a stick with the name of a beginning English speaker. She stood up, looked right at me, and gave her first-ever sentence in English to the class, “Prime factorization means finding all the prime factors you multiply together to get a composite number.”
The teachers in the back of the room stopped breathing for a moment. We were speechless. I was a little choked up. It was an amazing moment. Afterwards, one teacher excitedly added, “And John you missed the best part. You should have seen the intensity in the eyes of her pair-share partner, almost willing the correct answer to come out of the girl’s mouth.”
Later I discovered that the partner had been pair-sharing in Spanish to convey the content of the lesson. This works well with newcomers if the students are strategically partnered and the teacher pair-shares often enough to provide translation time.
Pair-shares can help in both directions. I used the pair-share-in-Spanish approach in a
high school history lesson. When the student could not respond in English, I asked her partner to translate a Spanish response into English. “Today, I learned that one of the Progressive reforms in the early 1900s was the starting of the national parks system including Yosemite.”
How can teachers of science and social studies help ELs? Or should they?
The answer is “Yes, science and social studies teachers should do all they can to help ELs.” Even the new Common Core Standards recommend literacy standards for content area teachers, besides English and Math. With an EDI approach to science and history, teachers can easily contribute to the literacy of ELs.
Here are several ways that can happen:
- Most science and history lessons involve declarative knowledge. That is, they expect students to understand concepts from text rather than practice skill procedures. EDI Lessons are already text-based so students are able to strongly interact with text. Students get an overview of the lesson in Concept Development, then in Skill Development, they dig into more details of the lesson.
- Lessons can involve graphic organizers which help ELs, or any students, interact and think about the text.
- Lessons should teach academic and content vocabulary, and this will help ELs advance their use of language.