I have greatly enjoyed working with English Language Learners as a reading interventionist. The students I work with range from minimal knowledge of the English language to a more advanced knowledge of English. I consider myself lucky because I share a room with our school’s English as a New Langauge Teacher. She has been a great support in helping me to grow in my understanding of language acquisition. Here are 5 tips that have worked for me in helping to maximize my impact on my students’ learning.
1. Accept any type of communication
When a child is silent and not communicating yet I don’t force them to speak. First, I work on building a trusting respectful relationship.
When any of my students communicate with a one-word answer I accept it and acknowledge it. Through my response back to the child I model a simple sentence that includes the word they know.
Teacher: Need a pencil? (point to shelf)
When I am accepting of the child’s attempt the child is more likely to take risks with their speaking in the future. If the child does not use the correct grammar when speaking I provide a natural response that includes a model of the correct grammar.
Child: “No have pencil.”
Teacher: “Oh, you don’t have a pencil? Pencils are on the shelf (while pointing).”
I want my students to always feel comfortable taking risks with their new language when working with me. When I value their approximations, rather than always correcting them, I send them the message that their attempts are important.
2. Teach with each ELL student in mind
Just like each student in a small guided reading group is different, despite reading at the same level, each ELL student is also different. I find it helpful to know what stage of language acquisition each of my students is in. This knowledge helps me to better communicate with my students and helps with planning for the support needed during book introductions. Each ELL student is quite different in their abilities.
3. Read engaging books
I feel that it is important to read books that represent my ELL students’ cultures. All children should have access to books that have children that look like them. If you haven’t had the opportunity to hear The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie I highly recommend that you click the link. Be prepared to be inspired! Engaging texts inspire a need to communicate. I want to do all I can to encourage and inspire my ELL students to talk. ELL students learn by using the language, so I need to give them something to talk about.
4. Build background knowledge/support English syntax
When planning, I build background knowledge and support unfamiliar language structures to help the student to comprehend the text. I introduce a new language structure by having my students choral read or repeat my model. I have found it to be most beneficial to give ELL students a sense of the whole picture (what the book is about) first then the little pieces (tricky language structures and new or important words). In early levels, I choose texts with repetitive language structures to help my students to acquire those structures in their own speaking. I also choose books with clear supportive pictures and concepts that are easy for ELL students to understand. I consistently check running records and anecdotal notes to makes sure that my students are at the appropriate levels in guided reading. Although I want my students to have mostly accurate reading, it is not required that the reading is perfect. We’re not teaching the book, we’re supporting the growth of reading behaviors. My goal for guided reading is to introduce a text in a way that allows for my ELL students to be able to read the text fairly fluent all of the way through the first time it is read. I don’t want to see my ELLs laboring through the book while I am having to offer a lot of support.
5. Translate all home communication
I am careful to be respectful by making sure that any letters that are sent home to the child’s family are translated into their home language. This allows the family the opportunity to know what is happening with their child’s education. It is important to have a translator present at Open House, Reading Night, or any other school functions so that families are able to fully participate in the events. I encourage the parents of ELL students to read books to their child in their home language. Your native language is a big part of your identity and I want my students to feel pride in their home culture.
I am always fascinated by the growth of ELL students as they grapple with learning both a new language and academic content. ELL students require thoughtful intentional planning beyond what you do for your non-ELL students. I hope that you find these tips to be helpful when working with your ELL students.
Fountas I. & Pinnell G. (2017). Guided Reading: Responsive Teaching Across Grades. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Bradbury, J. & Busch E. (2015). Empowering Families: Practical Ways to Involve Parents in Boosting Literacy, Grades Pre-K-5. NY: Routledge.