Helping English Language Learners

March 27, 2007 at 6:36 pm (all, blogging, children, culture, Education, Educational Leadership, Elementary, ESOL, High School, kids, Middle School, Parents, principals, reading, school, school administration, teachers, Thornebrooke)

Quick Tips
Helping English Language Learners

Be an active listener!
When listening to your newcomers as they learn to speak, give feedback, nods, encouragement, and praise. Give your whole attention when trying to understand the communication. Demonstrate your patience through your body language.

Help ELLs negotiate meaning
Provide ELLS with opportunities for negotiating meaning. Comprehensible input is not enough to guarantee comprehension. Your students need the opportunity to interact in a meaningful way with peers who speak English.

Explain BICS and CALP
Do the mainstream teachers in your school know the difference between BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) and CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency)? Explain that BICS may take up to 2 years to develop and CALP may take 5-10 years. Ability to speak English does not mean the student is able to work academically in English.

Communicative competency does not equal academic success
Your ELLs may interact well with classmates but be floundering academically. BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication skills) may be learned quickly. However, CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiencies) may take 5 to 10 years to acquire. If your students are unable to understand your language arts or social studies lessons, they have acquired BIC skills but lack CALP.

Encourage the development of native language literacy
Encourage the parents of your students to develop literacy skills in native language. Whatever your students learn in their home languages will eventually be transferred to English.

Help students develop cognitive skills
Encourage the parents of your English language learners to use their native languages at home. Explain to them that cognitive growth in native language helps their children develop English academic language. It is easier to teach the water cycle, for example, if the student has already learned it in their own language.

Comprehensible output
Comprehensible output is crucial for students learning English. ELLs need to negotiate meaning through interactions with fluent English speakers. This exchange provides second language learners with corrective feedback and knowledge about how to communicate their ideas.

Make lessons visual and kinesthetic
Two methods of helping your English language learners (ELLs) acquire content knowledge are: Provide plenty of visual clues to meaning and assign “hands-on” tasks. Visuals include pictures, photographs, realia, maps, graphic organizers and charts. Hands-on activities that help ELLs are collaborative projects such as mobiles, murals, demonstrations, science experiments, timelines, and pictures with labels.

Use diversity as a resource
Students with diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds bring a wealth of experiences from their families and homes to school. They have unique experiences to share. Teachers should take advantage of the natural resource in their classrooms and use this diversity as a starting point for all children to value the many distinct cultures of the world.

Provide a positive educational experience
The first months are key to the academic success of newcomers. If you want your new students to become an integral part of the school community, you will need to assure that students with culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds have a positive educational and social experience while in you school

Cooperative learning fosters social interaction.
ELLs need opportunities to practice language at their level of English language competency. Cooperative learning groups are one way for new language learners to practice English. A small group setting allows for more comprehensible input because the teacher or classmates modify or adapt the message to the listener’s needs.

Be aware of culture shock
The newcomers in your classroom are probably suffering from culture shock. Being in a strange place and losing the power to communicate can be quite painful. Creating an environment where the newcomer feels secure will lessen the intensity and duration of culture shock.

Develop background knowledge
Teachers need to develop background knowledge, deliver content that is contextualized, and use gestures, pictures and realia to make input comprehensible. When newcomers are assigned to a mainstream classroom and spend most of their day in this environment it is especially critical for them to receive comprehensible input from their teachers and classmates. If that teacher lectures in the front of a classroom, the English language learner will not be receiving this input.

Try to learn a few new words
Join with the your mainstream students to learn a few words in your newcomer’s native language. When you show your good humor about making mistakes and risking smiles and laughter, your newcomer will be more willing to risk speaking in English.

Anxiety impedes learning
A good relationship with the classroom teacher and classmates can help newcomers cope with the challenges they face. If ELLs do not feel secure in school, their learning will be hindered. Conversely, the more positive the newcomers’ experience in school, the more rapid their acquisition of language.

Create an effective learning environment
Classroom teachers who create an effective learning environment for ELLs set a classroom atmosphere that promotes the rapid integration of newly arrived students into the life of the school. They provide an environment that is non-threatening and have a good understanding of the needs of their newcomers.

Foster social interaction
Provide a variety of activities for newcomers. Set limits on the amount of time English language learners listen to tapes or work on a computer. They need to interact with real speakers of English. Social acceptance is a powerful motivator for learning a new language.

Provide ELLs with a source of natural communication
Children acquire language through a subconscious process during which they are unaware of grammatical rules. This is similar to the way they acquire their first language. They get a feel for what is and what isn’t correct. In order to acquire language, the learner needs a source of natural communication.

Support home language development
Promote the maintenance of home languages. Encourage the parents of your ELLS to develop literacy skills in native language. Whatever your students learn in their home languages will eventually be transferred to English.

Assessing ELLs for learning disabilities
The referral of an English Language Learner (ELL) by the Child Study Team should not be taken lightly. All avenues must be explored before a second language learner is identified for special education. It is important when evaluating ELLs to throw away the traditional testing model and to collect data in a portfolio. Input from the ESL/Bilingual teacher, the classroom teacher, and the parents should all be considered during the assessment process. Students should be tested in native language unless they speak a language for which there is no test. At this time, a trained interpreter can be used.

Respect newcomers “silent period”
Don’t force your newcomers to speak before they are ready. ELLs will acquire language when they have comprehensible input and their affective filter is low. Allow students a “silent period” during which they acquire language by listening and understanding English.

Reading strategies are universal
Students who are already literate in native language learn to read at a higher level in English than those who are not. Literacy related skills are transferred from one language to another even if the writing systems are quite different. However, only concepts that are completely learned will make that transfer. Building native language literacy is important.

Teach about fire drills
Schools in many countries do not conduct fire drills and the noise made by the bell can be frightening for a newcomer. Ask a bilingual person to explain what a fire drill is before your newcomers start school.

Give simple directions
Give clear, simple directions to ESL students. Break complex directions down into simple steps. Ask students to retell, in their own words, what you are asking them to do before they attempt a task.

Tie culture to your curriculum
Tie the cultures of your second language learners to your curriculum. Children with diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds have stories and experiences that are unique. Teachers should build on the background knowledge and cultures their students bring from their home countries.

Develop pride in cultures
Help your students develop pride in their cultures. Display pictures in your classroom from your students’ home counties. Have newcomers write in a home-language diary, read books in their home language, draw pictures of people and places in their home countries, and listen to native language music.

Teach the text backwards
It is very difficult for ELLs to understand a textbook if it is taught in the traditional sequence: Read text, answer questions, discuss, apply information. When teaching the text backwards you do an application such as a science experiment first. Then you discuss the material in class, and answer the questions at the end of the chapter. Reading the text is the last thing you have students do.

Emphasize key words
Write the key words of a lesson on the chalkboard so that students have visual as well as auditory input. Emphasize these key words. Print clearly and legibly. Many of your students will not be able to read cursive writing. When writing notes home to parents, print your message and use a pen with black or blue ink. In some cultures red is the color of death.

Encourage participation in class
Help students to participate in your class by letting them know which question you are going to ask in advance. This will give your students the time to prepare a response. This is most effective if your ELL feels secure in the content area. For example, a good math student should be asked to participate in math class.

Make language input comprehensible
In order to acquire English, ELLs need to understand what is said to them. The message should be appropriate to their language level. This language should be just beyond the learners’ current proficiency but easy enough for them to understand. Develop ELLs’ background knowledge through the use of gestures, pictures and realia to make input comprehensible.

Check for comprehension
Check comprehension frequently. If you ask “Do you understand?” you will not receive a reliable response. Many students will answer “yes” when they do not understand. Your question should be more specific. Allow a response in the form of drawing, pointing, gestures, and mime. Students can also respond using a word bank that you have provided.

Comprehensible input
Students do not acquire language in a vacuum. It does not seep into their brains when they sit in a classroom. Comprehensible Input is an essential part of Stephen Krashen’s Input Hypothesis. This hypothesis maintains that in order to acquire a second language, the learner must understand what is said to him. Learners should receive input that is appropriate to their age and language level. This language should be just beyond the learner’s current proficiency but easy enough for them to understand. Teachers need to develop background knowledge, deliver content that is contextualized, and use gestures, pictures and realia to make input comprehensible.When newcomers are assigned to a mainstream classroom and spend most of their day in this environment it is especially critical for them to receive comprehensible input from their teachers and classmates. If that teacher lectures in the front of a classroom, the English language learner will not be receiving this input.

Focus on the positive
The more comfortable ESL newcomers feel in your classroom, the quicker they will be able to learn. Focus on the positive. Give lots of encouragement and praise for what the student can do. Don’t dwell on all that they can’t yet do. Create frequent opportunities for their success in your class.

Allow translation time
Newcomers are translating the language they hear back to their native language, formulating a response and then translating that response into English. Allow extra time for this translation.

Assign a buddy!
A buddy or cross-grade tutor who speaks the newcomer’s language is a wonderful asset at the beginning of the school year. During the adjustment phase, the buddy or cross-grade tutor can explain what’s going on. You may want to rotate buddies so that the bilingual buddy does not miss too much work.

Use manuscript writing
Your newcomers and their parents may know the Roman alphabet but will probably not be able to read cursive writing. Either write in manuscript or ask a mainstream student to copy homework in manuscript.

Make an I.D. card for newcomers
More than one newly arrived student has become lost during their first few days of school and this is a terrifying experience. Write the newcomer’s name, home address, telephone number and school address on an index card. The student should keep this card in his/her pocket.

Provide time-outs
Provide frequent “time-out from English” periods for newcomers. Allow the newcomer to spend time each day during those first weeks speaking with others of the same native language. He or she needs to ask someone “What’s going on here?”

Teach to your newcomer’s learning mode
Most newcomers learn best kinesthetically. Don’t expect them to sit and listen to incomprehensible auditory input for long periods of time. Use gestures, drawings, sketches, drama, or other visual support. Give students hands-on activities to complete.

Learn that name correctly!
Determine which part of a newcomer’s name is the given name and which is the family name. Two-part first names are common in many cultures, and may appear to be a first name and a middle name. Ask. Use both parts of a two-part name.(Asian names are given in reverse order from ours; this may or may not have been reversed in the office.) Hispanic family names may also be two-part. Saying the name right isn’t always easy, but it’s important.

Pronounce that name correctly!
Don’t let your new student lose his/her name. Write it on the board with a phonetic translation. Practice until you can say it correctly. Don’t Americanize a student’s name unless requested by parents.

Be generous with thanks
Thanks and praise will go a long way with your English-speaking buddies and cross-age tutors.Let them know that you appreciate their efforts. Acknowledge their contributions frequently and point out the progress newcomers in your class have made.

Where should newcomers sit?
Give advance thought to where you will seat an incoming student so the decision doesn’t have to be made on the spot. Put a new student near your desk so you can provide help or near a student who has been trained as a buddy. Avoid front-row center. If your class sits in groups, place newcomers with sociable English speakers.

Avoid drawing unwanted attention to newcomer
If you have something important to convey, speak one-on-one to the newcomer rather than in front of the class. The anxiety of being in the spotlight interferes with comprehension.

Keep a list of translators
Keep a list of the people in your building who speak the languages of your students so that classroom teachers have a resource when they need someone to translate important instructions. Make sure that the main office and the school nurse have a copy of these lists.

Enlist parent volunteers
If possible, have parent volunteers or older students who speak the newcomers’ languages take your new students on a tour of the important places in your school. Have a bilingual student or parent show newcomers immediately where the bathrooms are and explain what the rules are for leaving the classroom.



  1. rickscheibner said,

    Good stuff here…I just took my ELL admin class a few weeks ago, and this fits right in with everything we learned. Well done!

  2. An ESL blog » Blog Archive » Helping English Language Learners said,

    […] the rest of the article here. This entry was posted on Monday, April 9th, 2007 at 9:42 am and is filed under Language usage. […]

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