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Helping English Language Learners in the Classroom

From urban to rural settings, most schools are responsible for educating English Language Learners (ELLs). For students who are learning English as a second language, school can represent a formidable daily task, both socially and academically.

In addition to the pressures that all adolescents experience, these students also experience a myriad of other strains:

  • loss of identity, friends, and culture
  • an inability to express ideas or communicate in the community at large
  • high familial expectations for academic success
  • unfamiliar learning environments and teaching styles
For mainstream content teachers without a background in English as a second language, determining appropriate teaching methods and goals for these students poses a significant and unique challenge.

Considerations for Teaching Non-Native Speakers
While it is difficult to generalize about English Language Learners because they come from such diverse backgrounds, success with English language acquisition often depends on:
  • Age – Typically, the older the student the more difficult it is for them to assume the second language naturally. If the school offers courses in the student's native language, it is often helpful to enroll the child in the beginning levels so he/she hears a combination of English and his native language.

  • Native Language – A student fluent in the nuances and grammatical structure of his or her first language is at an advantage when learning English. Proximity of speech sounds for oral communication and whether or not the first language uses Roman letters for written communication are also important factors in English proficiency.

  • Literacy of Parents – The level of literacy of a student's parents may also affect the acquisition of written language. Typically, the more fluent the parent the more fluent the child; fluency in the native language promotes acquisition of English.

  • Reason for Immigrating – Gaining knowledge of why a student's family immigrated can help teachers understand the psychological implications of the move. Refugee status immigrants may be escaping violence, war, or political or religious persecution. These issues may surface in the classroom.
Academic Language Skills Take Time
ELLs pose unique educational challenges to mainstream classroom teachers. It is worthwhile to be aware of several specific difficulties that second language learners face.

Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills
Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency

An important distinction exists between interpersonal and academic communication for all students, including those being schooled in their native languages. Often, a student who seemed to be successful in communicating on an interpersonal level is unable to apply those skills to an academic situation.

This distinction is more prominent with non-native speakers, however. Second language researcher Dr. Jim Cummins of the University of Toronto found that this difference had important implications for the non-native speaker in academic environments.

Researchers believe that, on average, ELLs may take two years to master interpersonal communication, yet up to five to master academic language.

Thus, many students are released prematurely from English as a second language courses only to be mainstreamed into classes for which they are not yet prepared to succeed.

Respect Cultural Differences
Cultural differences can be a source of misunderstanding for teachers and their ELL students. Each culture expresses itself in both verbal and non-verbal forms of communication. Cultural cues in one culture may represent something entirely different in another.
  • Educate yourself about your students' cultures. This will help you communicate that you value their heritage. It may also allow you to connect academic content to a student's set of experiences and knowledge about the world. Ultimately, students whose native culture is valued have a greater sense of self-worth and higher academic achievement.
General Teaching Strategies for ELL Students
  • Use visual aids often.
  • Incorporate hands-on activities to demonstrate concepts.
  • Allow sufficient wait time.
  • Model spoken language, but refrain from embarrassing ELL students with verbal correction in front of others.
  • Prepare outlines for lectures and distribute to ELL learners.
  • Encourage skim and scan reading strategies for textbook assignments.
  • Avoid forcing language learners to speak. Encourage them to contribute when they are ready.
This article was contributed by Janice Christy, M.Ed., English Department Chair at Louisa County High School in Louisa, Virginia.

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