Teaching to English language learners, both in the mainstream classroom and in separate ELL classes for those who are very new to English, brings unique challenges to classroom instruction. Depending on the subject matter you are covering in your classroom, your English-speaking students may be having a difficult time themselves mastering the content, particularly in vocabulary-heavy subjects such as secondary science or subjects that require sophisticated levels of interpretation. These challenges can often make it easy for teachers to lose sight of the challenges that their ELL students are facing in the classroom: imagine moving to Japan as a ninth grader and being expected to sit in a biology class or literature seminar conducted completely in Japanese – a language to which you have had no exposure. In addition to dissecting the mysteries of A Tale of Two Cities, or of the complex terminology included in a physics classroom, ELL students are also learning the English language while learning these advanced concepts. For this reason, teachers with ELL students in their classes need to work even harder than their cohorts in the areas of providing comprehensible input, feedback that is immediate and specific, designing appropriate grouping structures and techniques, facilitating the development of context and vocabulary, and fostering student engagement in instruction. It is difficult enough to keep first-language students focused on such historical trivia as the causes of the War of 1812 or the best way to balance chemical equations; bringing ELL students to the point of engagement will be rewarding for the teacher, but will also require additional work.
Comprehensible input may be the most important element that a teacher can work into a lesson for ELL learners. Even first-language students will not be able to succeed if they do not understand the information coming from their teachers. This often means that teachers need to modify instructional materials to make vocabulary more accessible, or to spend extensive time pre-teaching certain concepts so that students are prepared for the units at hand. With ELL students, this task of providing comprehensible input becomes even more important. The most valuable task that a teacher can undertake, when it comes to comprehensible input, is providing the instructional scaffolding that language learners need (Thompson). Where scaffolding begins is discovering your ELL students’ current ability level. What vocabulary do they already possess? Pre-teaching activities such as class discussion and individual and whole-group Socratic questioning can establish this level, and help you find out what vocabulary is already in your students’ realm of competence, and which terms will need some additional exposure. If you’re teaching a unit on the poetry of Robert Frost, and you’re going to cover symbolism, your ELL student will likely know what a symbol is – but may not have the language skills to express that knowledge. Just because your student doesn’t know the meaning of the English word symbol doesn’t mean that he won’t know that the two roads diverging in a yellow wood, in Frost’s “The Road Less Taken,” symbolizes a choice. A brief mini-lesson on the role of symbols may be all that your ELL student needs for your lesson on Frost to become “comprehensible input.”
For scaffolding to work for your ELL students, the feedback you provide to them must be swift, and it must be specific. If you think about it, though, this concept is really true for all of your students. Whether you’re working on skills in writing a five-paragraph essay or helping student with geometric proofs, they will improve more quickly if you provide feedback on a daily (or every few days) basis, rather than just once a week. The feedback gives students information to process so that they can change their own methods of approaching the problems you give them. For ELL students, the only real difference is that they are starting farther down the instructional scaffolding than your first-language students are (McLaughlin). With each mini-lesson and with each assessment that you use to gauge your ELL students’ current ability levels, you should try to provide some level of feedback. This can simply be verbal encouragement; it can also be written corrections (and encouragement) on a short written assignment. Your students will read your feedback intently – particularly your ELL students, because they know they have farther to climb to get to competence than most of their first-language peers.
Grouping your students is a crucial part of creating a classroom in which all learners can excel. While you don’t want all of your work to be completed in groups, because a class with no individual work will not prepare your students for standardized assessments (let alone university or professional-level work), when your students are in groups, you want those groups to help each member succeed (Tarone and Tedick). So you’ll want to give each group a variety of ability levels, both in terms of class content as well as language. Giving each group member a specific job to perform will help students buy into groups that do not include all of their best friends, and that make them work alongside people who, in their opinion, are far below them in terms of ability. Treating group work as a leadership challenge, and as an opportunity to grow socially, will increase student engagement and help all group members improve in areas in which their peers are ahead of them.
Developing subject-area background and vocabulary for ELL and first-language students and fostering student engagement are vital to student success. Remembering that most students will already enter your classroom with exposure to the content in some way will help teachers remember that the primary challenge involves bringing students up to the appropriate linguistic level, except in terminology-heavy classes such as the sciences (Tharp). If you think about what an algebra teacher has to do to teach the solution of equations, at first this might seem a tall order for an ELL student. However, students learn about variables and constants in their mathematics classes around the world. The words “variable” and “constant” are new terms that even first-language English students must learn. However, the concepts behind them are the same, no matter what language the class is conducted in. Once a teacher prepares a student to know what the words mean, then the concepts are easier to teach. If a student is trapped behind the linguistic barrier presented by the new term “variable,” it will be difficult for the teacher to move forward conceptually, and the student will have no engagement in the class. However, once the teacher moves the student past that barrier, conceptual progress should take place fairly quickly (National Research Council).
Teaching English language learners often involves a considerable amount of paperwork, a lot of meetings, particularly in states in which each ELL student has a committee that meets annually or biannually to evaluate progress, and the headaches that go with additional instructional work. However, the rewards are great for those teachers who want to take the time to ensure that their students leave their classroom at the end of the year far ahead of where they started it. Most ELL students have a work ethic that exceeds that of first-language learners, because they know their linguistic disadvantage and want to overcome it. This increased work ethic can make teaching ELL students one of the most rewarding ways a teacher can spend a career.
McLaughlin, B. (1992). Myths and misconceptions about second language learning:
What every teacher needs to unlearn. Santa Cruz, CA: National Center for
Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning.
National Research Council. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and
school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Tarone, E. and Tedick, D. (2000). Conversations with mainstream teachers: What can
we tell them about second language learning and teaching? Keynote address to
University of Minnesota TESOL Conference.
Tharp, R. (1997). From at-risk to excellence: Research, theory and principle for practice.
Santa Cruz: University of California, Santa Cruz Center for Research on
Education, Diversity and Excellence.
Thompson, L. (2004). Literacy development for English language learners: Classroom
challenges in the NCLB age. Web. Retrieved 1 December 2011 from