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Teaching the English Language Learner in the Social Studies Classroom

In the United States, linguistically and culturally diverse classrooms are becoming the rule rather than the exception. According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 90 percent of recent U.S. immigrants are from non-English-speaking countries. Currently one out of fifteen public school students was born outside the United States; one out of seven speaks a language other than English at home.

Meeting the needs of such a heterogeneous student body is challenging, particularly in social studies classrooms, where proficiency in English and a knowledge of American culture greatly facilitate new learning. This article examines some of the special needs of the English language learner (ELL) and describes teaching techniques to help these students succeed.

Social Studies and the ELL
For ELLs, the traditional channels through which students learn the social studies may be blocked with cultural and linguistic obstacles. More specifically, these students may be at a disadvantage because of the following factors:

  • Lack of familiarity with U.S. social institutions and customs For a student whose native culture is very different from U.S. culture, learning social studies can be difficult indeed. Concepts that the U.S.-born student knows through enculturation may be completely foreign to the ELL. This makes learning difficult, because students learn new concepts by fitting them into pre-existing mental schema-networks or frameworks of knowledge built through experience. The less experience a student has with a subject, the more difficult it is for the student to learn that subject. Moreover, cultural differences may inhibit the ELLs from asking questions of their teacher. In some cultures, it is impolite for students to speak to a teacher unless the teacher speaks to them first.

  • Difficulty learning from textbooks In social studies text, facts and details are often condensed, and authors often omit the kinds of concrete or anecdotal detail that can help ELLs relate unfamiliar concepts to their own experiences. ELLs' difficulties with reading comprehension are further compounded when textbooks contain a high concentration of new vocabulary or sophisticated sentence patterns.

  • Difficulty learning from lectures Some ELLs who were taught English in countries other than the United States find it difficult to understand American teachers' accents and pronunciations. Other ELLs may have lived in the United States too short a time to develop a sufficient listening vocabulary or listening skills. These students may be proficient in comprehending written English but unprepared to comprehend spoken English.
Effective Teaching Strategies
Teachers have developed a number of strategies to help ELLs learn the social studies. The following strategies are among the most effective.
  • Use role plays to make abstract concepts concrete For example, if ELLs are unfamiliar with the concept of negotiation, the teacher might create a role play in which family members work together to solve a dispute. If ELLs lack the language skills to participate in a role play, other students can play the roles. ELLs will still benefit from watching and listening.

  • Create analogies to help students link the unfamiliar with the familiar For example, a teacher might help ELLs understand the concept of the U.S. cabinet by comparing it to a school in which each teacher has responsibility for a particular subject and group of students but reports to the principal. One caveat: Teachers should be careful to point out differences as well as similarities to avoid oversimplifying or inadvertently misleading students.

  • Preteach reading assignments to help struggling readers In an ELL-friendly classroom, the teacher discusses a reading assignment with students before they read it, modeling how to use textbook features such as chapter overviews and summaries to preview chapter content, objectives to set learning goals, and questions to self-monitor comprehension. The teacher also preteaches unfamiliar vocabulary and helps students activate prior knowledge through the Use of KWL (Know-Want to Know-Have Learned) activities.

  • Create opportunities for jigsaw learning to provide reading and study support In this form of collaborative learning, the teacher divides a subject or a textbook chapter into five or six logical parts and makes each student responsible for learning and then teaching one of those parts. To create jigsaw groups, the teacher assigns each student a number from one to five or six, then assigns all the "number-one" students the first part of the chapter, all the "number-two" students the second part, and so on. The teacher then forms "expert learning circles" by putting all students with the same number in the same group. In this way native speakers and ELLs work together to understand their section of the chapter, and ELLs are not overwhelmed by a long assignment. After expert learning circles have finished reading and discussing their portions of the chapter, the teacher reorganizes the class into teaching groups, each group containing one number-one student, one number-two student, and so on.

  • Be a considerate lecturer to help struggling listeners Pass out fill-in-the-blank lecture guides or graphic organizers before you lecture. As you lecture, tell students when to fill in each blank. Speak slowly and distinctly, and write key concepts and vocabulary on the board or on a flipchart. Use simple, familiar language whenever possible, and pause frequently to ask and answer questions.

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