Strategies for Supporting English Language Learners

By Wes Noyes
Reposted with permission of Education Elements

Having worked in Title 1 schools for almost a decade, I had the privilege of being surrounded by language learners in all my classrooms. It proved to be a humbling, eye-opening, and fascinating experience in many ways. Because state laws required my classrooms to be conducted only in English, I prioritized creating spaces where students of color and from varied cultural backgrounds could share the best of their communities through experiential learning, project-based units, and narrative writing. In challenging political and educational climates, educators hold the power to create classrooms which allow students to shine in ways that are true to themselves, their families, and their communities and to support them in developing their unique identities. Students are the greatest assets to diverse learning environments, and they bring many experiences, cultural backgrounds, and languages to their classrooms. While it is up to the educator to provide space for these students to bloom and grow, one of the greatest and most common challenges in facilitating these spaces is in supporting English language learners (ELLs). Providing these students with the tools and resources they need can be daunting, especially when working to personalize learning and differentiate in other ways. While a bilingual classroom is preferable for language learners of all kinds, this blog offers support for teachers delivering instruction in English in classrooms with ELLs.

English Language Learners are Experts

Have you ever learned a new language in an immersive environment? If not, it might sound like an impossible task that only the most daring person would try. If you have, you know the challenges in this kind of learning – the intimidation to engage with native speakers, fear of making a mistake in what you are saying or writing, and fear of not being taken seriously or being misunderstood. These mentalities are typical for adults when learning languages, but kids generally have a more resilient and brave approach. In my classroom experience, I have come to appreciate that English language learners are masters of learning, taking risks, and maximizing coping strategies. Some ELLs are also shy and fearful of engaging for various reasons. Both those willing to engage and those who are more hesitant can grow their language skills exponentially with the right tools and in a supportive environment. 

As an adult, I learned to speak Thai, and because foreigners don’t usually learn the language while they are in Thailand, I was an anomaly in most Thai social circles. I could formally introduce myself, tell jokes, and engage in casual conversation. I became an expert at politely ending a conversation when it reached beyond my comprehension. I would usually leave conversations having impressed Thai people by effectively covering up my language deficits. I used my Thai language toolbox regularly and became fluent with it, but this was only a small fraction of the language that a native speaker uses. Our students can do the same on a regular basis. Sometimes this leads educators to assume students are fluent and comfortable speaking, reading, writing, and listening, when in reality, English language learners are using the tools they have repeatedly and are not supported in expanding upon them to reach a level of true fluency. 

Educators as Confidence Builders

Students who engage in content using their non-native language demonstrate their brains are capable of highly complex processes, and as their teachers, it is our job to support them in reducing that cognitive load by providing them with tools they need to be successful. There are several structures that educators can use in their classrooms that not only build out their teaching tool belt and skills, but, more importantly, support students in building confidence and expertise in using English in the classroom and beyond. 

  • Increase student talk time – When planning a lesson, aim for students to talk as much as possible. This is a foundational mindset shift that can have a major impact on student engagement. The gold standard ratio of student-to-teacher talk time is 60%-40%. Every bit of practice helps. Students can even read directions and content aloud from slide presentations. When eliciting student responses, build in the expectation that all answers will be shared in full sentences. Schedule structured student talk time intentionally and strategically throughout a lesson.
  • Design intentional seating charts– Purposefully seat students with partners who will support them in their language development. Depending on the student, sometimes that means seating a new learner with a native speaker, other times it means pairing students who have similar proficiencies. Regardless, it is important to observe partner pairs and groups to adjust as necessary.
  • Provide sentence stems aligned with lesson objectives – Sentence stems can be utilized in all content areas and are most useful with explicit modeling. It is important that students have them available for reference in both speaking and writing practice. They can be included on student worksheets or on a shared laminated copy at each desk for students’ access.
  • Introduce, review, and practice academic vocabulary using visuals, realia, and modeling – Create vocabulary structures you can reuse and repeat in your classroom that provide students with exposure, practice, and the opportunity to build understanding.
  • Use partner sharing strategies with sentence stems – Assign roles to each student to get conversations started easily and without guesswork. This provides a safety expectation for all students.
  • Allow time for repeated practice with academic language and sentence stems – Language mastery comes with repeated practice. Students should use sentence stems and academic vocabulary repeatedly in each lesson, both orally and in writing. Use partner sharing strategies to increase student talk time.
  • Allow structured think-time after asking questions – Provide structured think-time after posing questions to the class and to students individually or in small groups. If it helps, use a timer to hold yourself accountable.
  • Create a culture of inclusion where all students participate– Build a language rich environment where students are encouraged to take risks and try new things.

In my experience, using these structures and strategies in the classroom took some careful practice and framing to make sure that students understood how they worked and exactly what was expected of them. Once that groundwork was in place, it allowed me to move seamlessly through lessons, increasing student talk time and engagement and supporting their language skill development in tandem with content understanding. By encouraging students to practice using explicit language tools on a daily basis, they come to understand that their classroom is a safe space for experimentation and risk-taking, which builds their language understanding, confidence, and sense of community. 

Wes Noyes is a Design Principal on the Design and Implementation team at Education Elements. He brings 10 years of classroom experience along with several years working in higher education to focus on building equity and creating the best possible learning experience for both students and educators alike. He started his career in education working with immigrant and refugee populations in Virginia and continued to hone the craft of language instruction while teaching abroad in Central America and Thailand for several years. Returning to the US, he completed his master’s in education at Arizona State University while serving with Teach for America. He was nominated for the Sue Lehmann Excellence in Teacher Leadership award because of his focus on developing and piloting peer to peer coaching models, creating innovative programs at his school network, and initiated impactful community partnerships.

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