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Helping English Language Learners in the English and Language Arts Classroom

English and language arts teachers are accustomed to teaching the intricacies of communication to their students. By making reading and writing instruction relevant to students' interests and needs, they create a learning environment where students can thrive.

An increasingly persistent question is: how can teachers create an environment where students who don't speak English as a native language excel? How are the intricacies of English taught as a foreign, or second, language?

In the past, terms such as English as a Second Language (ESL) and English Language Learners (ELL) were unfamiliar to language arts teachers in many parts of the country. However, in recent years, students who do not speak English as a native language are common in secondary classrooms throughout the country.

Teachers in all schools, from rural to urban districts, must be prepared to help these students to be successful in their bid to learn literature, writing, and grammar.

General Strategies for the English Classroom
  • Warm-up activities. As a daily warm-up, pair ELL students with native English speakers and ask each pair to illustrate and explain a specific idiom, colloquialism, or slang term that is common to the English language or to the area of the country where you live. ELL students are often confused by such expressions, so simple, daily instruction as to what these terms mean will improve their overall ability to communicate. Visit the Pocket English Idioms Web site to find a comprehensive list of idioms commonly used in the English language.

  • Dictionary use. Provide and encourage students to use translation dictionaries. Students are frustrated when the word they need eludes them. Access to a dictionary that translates from their native language to English is essential.

  • Visual cues. Rely on visual cues as frequently as possible. When teaching vocabulary, provide pictures of the words. Add interpretive gestures during lecture or explanation, point directly to objects, or draw pictures when appropriate. Use charts, tables, graphs, and other conceptual visuals, and have students create similar visuals to summarize learning.

  • Key vocabulary. Emphasize key vocabulary words by having students create flashcards then build time into instruction for students to use the flashcards. Students should alternate between recognizing the words through the definitions and by recognizing the definition through the word.

  • Everyday English. Focus on useable, everyday English by having students read a local newspaper or watch a local news report that they then must summarize in three sentences or fewer and share with the class.
Skill Builders for English Language Learners
  • Utilize Internet resources. Use the Internet to individualize grammar instruction. If possible, begin by explaining the grammatical concept in the ELL student's native language, and then have the student practice and apply the concept using a program that provides immediate feedback. A great interactive site that provides immediate feedback is the Owl Online Writing Lab of Purdue.

  • Teach students how to break down syntax. Model how to rephrase material using simpler sentence structure. Show students how to strip a sentence by locating the subject (who) and the verb (what). ELL students can use this skill on their own when a sentence or passage is confusing.
  • Allow bilingual approaches. Teach literature using a bi-lingual approach. Ask students to complete a specific reading assignment in the translated version in order to gain context, then have them reread the chapter in English. Expand this bi-lingual approach to literature in a variety of ways.

  • Encourage prediction in the native language. Have students read the first paragraph of a chapter in their native language and then make predictions. Follow this by having them read the English version of the novel seeking words or phrases that permit them to evaluate the prediction. You might have students read portions of the English translation for one analytic purpose, such as locating words or passages that identify the setting. Once students have a firm grasp of the story, permit them to refer to the translated version for clarification only.

  • Instigate choral readings. Use choral and partner readings for short passages. Be certain ELL students are standing close to native English speakers so they can detect inflections and pronunciations.
  • Match abilities. Writing instruction must be progressive and matched to individual abilities

  • Build sentences. For beginning ELL writers, use individual words printed on cards and show students how to form sentences from the cards. Once the basics of sentence structure are understood, print sentences on strips of paper and ask students to arrange the sentences into paragraphs.

  • Model standard structures. Ask your more advanced ELL writers to write in English only. Model standard academic structures of paragraph and essay writing in English.

This article was contributed by Janice Christy, M.Ed., English Department Chair, Louisa County High School, Louisa, Virginia.

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