It’s not for nothing that America has been called the “great melting pot.” We are a country made up of a wide variety of cultures, and it shows in the classroom. English language learners (ELLs) make up the fastest growing demographic in our schools. By the year 2025, the National Education Association predicts that 1 in 4 students will be ELL.
As Edutopia puts it: “These students bring a rich diversity into our classrooms — they represent over 400 languages.” But to paraphrase the famous Spider-Man line: With great diversity comes great responsibility. Educators must be equipped to understand the backgrounds from which each of their ELL students hail and to support them holistically as they go through the process of learning a new language.
ELL Student Characteristics
One mistake that many educators make is to lump all ELL students together. ELL students come from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences and are far from monolithic. But in a large classroom, it can be difficult to give each student completely individualized attention. The TESOL (Teachers of English to Students of Other Languages) International Association provides a guideline of characteristics educators might observe in students at different levels of language proficiencies. These five levels include:
1: Starting Up
This is the level of proficiency at which most ELL students will begin. At this point, their understanding of the English language will be narrow, and they may be limited in their ability to communicate. Characteristics include:
- Nonverbal communication such as nodding or shaking their head
- Repeating individual words or phrases that they hear from others
- Observing quietly during instruction, understanding little English language
- Limited English reading comprehension
- Reliance on images or other non-language representation
At this stage, ELL students are ready to dip their toes in the water. They might begin trying to speak English by repeating phrases they’ve heard before and learning the context for different words. They likely won’t be very comfortable with their skills, and they will still need support. Here are some things you might observe with beginning ELL students:
- Use of basic, common words and phrases
- Memorization of phrases and sentences
- Some reliance on nonverbal communication
- Understanding of short sentences, beginning to follow along during instruction
- Ability to read English with support
As their grasp on the English language begins to develop, ELL students will become more confident. They’re better able to join in discussions and follow along with the class, though they might not yet have mastery of the language. Some of the signs of this stage include:
- Occasionally joining in discussions of familiar topics
- Speaking in complete sentences, with some grammatical errors
- Growing reading comprehension
- Relying on frequently heard or seen words or familiar topics
At this point, ELL students have a strong grasp on speaking, reading, and writing the English language. They are able to participate in class and express themselves without too much frustration. In this stage, you’re likely to see:
- Occasional use of academic language
- Engagement in class discussions or conversations with peers
- Use of complex sentences with fewer grammatical errors
- Using multiple or complex methods of communication and comprehension
- Composition of original writing
5: Bridging Over
ELL students at this level of proficiency are essentially fluent. They can read, write, and speak English and can keep up with conversations and class discussions. Their confidence in the language has grown, and they are able to fully participate with their English-speaking peers. Characteristics include:
- Frequent use of academic language
- Ability to converse in a way comparable to a native speaker, with few grammatical errors
- Ability to participate in reading, writing, listening, and speaking English with comprehension
- Ability to use multiple strategies of comprehension and communication
Instructional Strategies for ELLs
Though these five levels provide a guideline for the progress an ELL student will make, it is again important to remember that each student will ultimately have their own journey through English language learning. You may need to experiment with multiple instructional strategies, and which strategies work best may vary from student to student. Scholastic offers a few targeted strategy suggestions, including:
- Assessing background knowledge: Every ELL student is different. Take into account what they have already learned about English and what their background and experience has provided them. If students are struggling to follow instructions, it may be because they aren’t sure what the activity is. Get a clear sense of their knowledge up to this point so you can better instruct them.
- Modeling steps and a finished product: Similar to the above strategy, it may be that students require an example of the task at hand before they can attempt it themselves. Remember that ELL students at level 1 or 2 might need a visual aid to understand an assignment. Give an example on the board, or through a presentation.
- Jigsaw listening: Jigsaw listening is perfect for group projects, especially with students who can only handle limited instructions. It involves giving each member of the group a piece of the instructions, such as one step in a process. They can then combine their knowledge. This will make students more comfortable not only with the activity and the language but also with working with peers.
- Craft activities: Craft activities offer a visible and tangible element, rather than simply relying on language. Making dolls, papier-mâché, or drawing can all be shown through example, and students will eagerly follow along. Crafts also offer students a chance to express themselves in an accessible way.
- Preteaching: Before you begin a lecture or complex instructions, start with a preteaching session to introduce students to the topic. For example, show them an interactive map of the world and help them identify locations. Provide vocabulary lists so that they can familiarize themselves with some of the terms you might use throughout the semester. Bring in math tables before introducing new concepts.
- Pictorial input charts: When you introduce a new concept, consider whether it can be aided through imagery. Maybe draw a volcano on the chalkboard or whiteboard. Present a diagram of all the parts of a plant. These visual aids will help bridge the language gap.
- Hands-on activities: Like craft activities, hands-on practical learning can help make a subject clearer by connecting an action with the new words and concepts.
- Table talks: Allow time in your lesson for communication. Ask students what they know about the subject you’re about to teach. Give them a chance to ask any questions. Sometimes you can do this by pairing up students, or by having a class-wide table talk.
- Charts and graphic organizers: We’ve talked at length about the benefits of visual aids. Charts and graphics can help students track their progress through a project. Through these charts, they can fill in what they already know, and at the end of the day, they can fill in what they’ve learned. Charts also give students creative, varied ways of expressing their progress.
Other instructional strategies might include being culturally responsive and utilizing CR-PBIS frameworks, increasing your wait time after posing a question, and — when possible — incorporating the student’s native language. As Edutopia puts it, “bilingualism is the goal, not replacement.”
Our country has always beautifully diverse, and the growth of our ELL population only adds to the richness of our society. Teaching English language skills will be one of the most powerful gifts you can give your ELL students.