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Five Things Teachers Can Do to Improve Learning for ELLs in the New Year

By: Kristina Robertson
This Bright Ideas article recommends five specific and measurable actions teachers can implement to assist ELL learning in the upcoming year. All of the strategies have been featured on the Colorín Colorado website, and the Hotlinks section has links to helpful articles and websites for further support.

It is resolution season! In January we reflect on past joys and concerns from the previous year, and take the opportunity to make a resolution that will improve our lives in the New Year. Of course, we all know that resolutions are hard to keep and can often be unrealistic. The expert advice I've received on resolutions (mostly advice from women's magazines) states that you are more likely to be successful if your goal is specific and measurable. So, instead of saying, "I want to save more money" you might say, "I want to save enough money each month so that I can buy a new computer in August."

Teachers are always looking for ways to improve in the classroom; to assist with any of your New Year's resolutions that relate to instruction, I will recommend five specific and measurable actions you can implement to assist ELL learning in 2009. To increase the likelihood of success and continuity, I suggest teachers pick one item and stick to it for the rest of the year. It is better to do one thing consistently and do it well than to try to do all five and possibly lose focus and motivation, becoming a Jack of all trades and master of none. I also suggest teachers employ the "support group" method to ensure success and use the chosen strategy as a topic for a professional learning community. Sharing successes and challenges with colleagues will help you all grow professionally, and more students will benefit academically.

All of the following strategies have been featured on the Colorín Colorado website, and the Hotlinks section has links to helpful articles and websites for further support. When choosing an instructional strategy, frame it as a specific and measurable goal and display it next to your desk to remind you of what you want to accomplish.

Strategies for the New Year

1. Increase ELL students' English language production and peer interaction.

Specific and measurable goal: ELL students will verbally demonstrate their English speaking abilities in classroom work at least three times a week.

There are two key items ELLs need in order to improve their English — time and practice. There is nothing teachers can do to rush English acquisition, but there are many ways to provide opportunities to practice English in the classroom. If activities are structured to support student-to-student or group interaction, ELLs are required to use English to explain concepts and contribute to the work. This gives teachers an opportunity to gauge what the student has learned, and it demonstrates student progress in English language development.

Teachers can also informally assess for correct use of language structures and academic vocabulary. If ELLs are having difficulty with phrases or vocabulary, the teacher will be able to offer guidance or further instruction to support language development. See the Hotlinks section for links to ideas on interactive learning activities.

2. Explicitly teach English language vocabulary and structures.

Specific and measurable resolution: I will identify, teach, and post key academic vocabulary and structures for one content lesson each day.

In, "What Teachers Need to Know about Language" by Lily Wong Fillmore and Catherine Snow, the authors state that:

Teachers play a critical role in supporting language development. Beyond teaching children to read and write in school, they need to help children learn and use aspects of language associated with the academic discourse of the various school subjects. They need to help them become more aware of how language functions in various modes of communication across the curriculum. They need to understand how language works well enough to select materials that will help expand their students' linguistic horizons and to plan instructional activities that give students opportunities to use the new forms and modes of expression to which they are being exposed. Teachers need to understand how to design the classroom language environment so as to optimize language and literacy learning and to avoid linguistic obstacles to content area learning (Wong Fillmore & Snow, p. 7).

The need to understand English language structures and language acquisition theory is increasingly important as the number of ELLs increases in classrooms. However, very few teachers have had the formal training required to be prepared to identify and teach the English vocabulary and structures found in specific content areas. When I first started teaching ESL, my students knew way more about grammar than I did. I joked with them, "I don't know English; I just speak it."

Content teachers can begin by reviewing a content area lesson and identifying not just the vocabulary that every student needs to know, but other vocabulary words and grammar structures that ELL students may not be familiar with. See the Hotlinks section for resources on how to provide explicit instruction on English vocabulary and structures.

3. Build on ELLs' Background Knowledge to Increase Comprehension

Specific and measurable goal: I will elicit background knowledge from ELLs in one content area through a variety of activities, including questioning and graphic organizers.

Learning something new is like stacking building blocks. The more you have, the higher you can go. It is not always apparent what building blocks ELLs come with due to language barriers, and sometimes ELL students don't connect their previous experience with the lesson currently being taught. That is where the teacher's skill at drawing on background knowledge becomes so important.

Teachers can work creatively to elicit background knowledge from students on content topics in order to increase comprehension of the material. This may be as simple as taking the time to do a "K/W/L" (Know, Want to Know, Learned) chart, or as individualized as asking questions about the topic: "Has anyone ever visited the jungle? A jungle is like a rainforest. What do you see in a jungle?" Students can share their knowledge and see how it is connected to new academic information. See the Hotlinks section for more resources on strategies to increase connections with student background knowledge.

4. Increase ELL Parent Involvement

Specific and measurable goal: Teacher will contact one ELL parent each week to share information on his/her student or to inform the parent of a school event.

No matter what language you or your students' parents speak, parental support is a big key to academic success. ELL families are often at a disadvantage when it comes to supporting their child because of language and cultural barriers. It can be easy to interpret ELL parent "no shows" as a lack of interest in education; however, very often ELL parents want their children to succeed as much as any other parent but are unable to participate to the same extent that other parents participate due to these barriers or their work schedules.

Regular, open and friendly communication from the teacher can make a big difference in ELL parent participation. It can feel daunting for an English speaking teacher to call a non-English speaking parent, but usually there is someone in the family who speaks enough English to interpret the message for the parent, or the parent speaks enough English to understand a simple message. It may also be possible to get help from a bilingual school staff member to assist in making a quick phone call. ELL parents will be very pleased and excited to hear positive news about their child and will feel more comfortable asking questions and visiting the school in the future. The more informed the parents are, the more likely it is that the student will get support at home and parents will have the information they need to help their child be successful. See the Hotlinks section for links to further resources with specific ideas for ELL family outreach.

5. Increase Writing Opportunities

Specific and measurable goal: Students will engage in a weekly writing activity that will focus on developing a certain skill such as creative vocabulary use, the correct format of an essay or the peer editing process.

The ability to write effectively and accurately to convey a message is a very important skill for a college student and in most careers. However, it often seems as if the curriculum is largely focused on developing reading and math skills. Of course, these are very important too, but students need to have many positive opportunities to develop writing skills in a variety of formats in order to strengthen their communication skills. For ELLs this is particularly important. Depending on their writing skill level in their first language and their English language abilities, writing may be frustrating. Students need to engage in a variety of writing to develop an understanding of different types of writing and to identify their strengths and weaknesses as a writer.

I want to underscore the importance of interacting with writing in a positive way by examining creativity and word usage, in addition to the mechanics of writing. Many ELLs will focus negatively on problems with mechanics and miss the strengths they display in their writing. We write the way we think and speak, and by analyzing our writing we begin to analyze our thoughts and speech as well. When students discuss their writing they are able to see their thoughts and statements from someone else's perspective and they gain awareness of their own language development. In this age of technology where a lot of communication is done electronically, it is more important than ever that students develop the ability to state their thoughts clearly and accurately in writing — as well as to know the difference between texting a message to buddies and sending an email to the boss. See the Hotlinks section for links to instructional resources for writing.

I hope that this list of "Five Things" will be helpful as you set academic goals for the rest of the year. You may find, of course, that if you create your own they will be more meaningful, and you're more likely to stick with your plan. I hope you will be able to pick at least one thing and give it a try. The other thing I have learned from the resolution experts at women's magazines is that baby steps are better than no steps at all. So give it a try and go easy on yourself if it doesn't go as well as planned or if you get busy and don't keep up as well as you'd like. The most important thing is that you explore an instructional area that you know will improve the academic achievement of ELLs, and commit yourself to continued improvement in 2009. Happy Teaching in the New Year!

Hotlinks

Note: For more recommended online resources, take a look at the Hotlinks that follow each of these articles and webcasts.

Increase Interaction

Explicitly Teach Academic English Structures

Build on Background Knowledge

Increase ELL Parent Involvement

Writing

Kristina Robertson (2009)

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