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11Tips for Teaching English language learners in Mainstream Classrooms.

Hello everyone

Today I want to share my top 11 Tips for Teaching English language learners in Mainstream Classrooms. I have developed these 11 tips from an amalgamation of the 7 ESOL principles on ESOL Online, my own ESOL knowledge and from a blogpost written byAyanna Cooper on Edutopia (10 Tips for Teaching English language learners, posted on 25 Janurary, 2014). I would be interested in receiving feedback on these tips and on what you think should be added to this list. Please also share them with other educators who may benefit from them. 

The need for ALL teachers to teach English across ALL curriculum learning areas

Classrooms across New Zealand are becoming increasingly diverse with increasing numbers of students whose primary home languages are not English. There were 31,589 students with English language learning needs high enough to qualify for ESOL Funding in 2013. There are also many more students who no longer qualify for ESOL funding but who would benefit from additional language support from their classroom teacher. Statistics show that about ¼ of all students in New Zealand schools speak a language other than English at home.

In order to access the curriculum all students need to understand and use English. New learners of English need to achieve an accelerated rate of learning English in order for them to catch-up with their cohort peers and to access the curriculum at an age appropriate level. Many other students including some who were born in New Zealand would also benefit from additional English language support particularly in the specialised academic language of each learning area. In order to achieve this, all educators need to view themselves as language teachers.

11 Tips for Teaching English-Language Learners in Mainstream Classrooms (In no particular order)

1.              Know your students (ESOL Principle 1)

Increase your understanding of who your students are, their backgrounds and educational experiences, as this will provide you with a better understanding of their educational needs and how to support them. For example do you know what language they speak at home? How long they have lived in New Zealand? Did they receive schooling in their home country and to what level?  Are they literate or not in their first language?  What do you know about your students' language skills (both English and other languages)? What do you know about their prior knowledge? How will this knowledge affect your planning? How will you find out this information? 

2.              Be aware of their social and emotional needs and develop strong Home-School partnerships

Understanding more about the students' families and their needs is key. For example if a student comes from a refugee background they may have experienced or witnessed traumatic events or have broken schooling. They may also have lost family members or have family living outside New Zealand and sometimes still facing danger.

Or, when ELL's have siblings to care for after school, possibly live with extended family members or have jobs to help support their families, completing homework assignments may not take priority. 

The research supports developing Home-School Partnerships (HSP) /relationships. All parents want the best for their child and they want them succeed at school and in life. Often the motivation to do well is even stronger in migrant families. However speaking a language other than English can be a barrier for some parents to access the knowledge of how they can best support their child’s learning at home. HSP programmes can help parents to overcome this barrier.  It is also important to encourage families to teach their child literacy skills in their first language and to continue speak their first language with their child.

HSP programmes should be two-way learning, where not only the parents are learning about school and how to support their child, but also schools are learning from families about the child’s home literacy practices, language and culture. Teachers can then use this information as a learning platform in their classroom. The MOE’s Home-school partnership site has a wealth of information to support you in developing strong partnerships with diverse community groups.

 3.              Increase your understanding of first and second language acquisition

Although courses about second language acquisition are not required as part of teacher education programmes, understanding the theories about language acquisition and the variables that contribute to language learning may help you teach ELLs more effectively. One way to do this is through further academic study. MOE a href="mailto:

 4.               Ensure a balance between receptive and productive language (ESOL Principle 6)

The language modes of Speaking, Writing, Reading and Listening need to be equally used across content areas daily. Assuring that students are using all modes of language acquisition to support their English language development is essential. Using peer work and group collaboration increase the number of opportunities that an individual has to interact and use language. A good check is to ask, “Are the students using both productive (speaking, writing) and receptive (listening, reading) language in this lesson?”

 5.              Increase your understanding of English language proficiency

 Social English language proficiency and academic English language proficiency are very different. A student may be more proficient in one vs. the other. A student's level of academic English may be masked by a higher level of Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) compared to their Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). For example, often teachers can assume a student has sufficient English because they can easily communicate with native English speakers while in the playground or in social situations. However that same student may struggle to understand in academic contexts across different learning areas such as social studies, science, maths or technology. 

 6.               Know the language of your content area by identifying the learning outcomes including the language demands of the teaching and learning (ESOL Principle 2)

What language do the students need to complete the task? Do the students know what the content and language learning outcomes are? The Ministry has developed several teacher resources that will assist you in doing this, see a href="mailto:The English Language Intensive Programme (ELIP). These resources provide a wealth of information and guidance about which language needs to be taught and how to plan for it. Although the DVD series, Making Language and Learning Work 1, 2 and 3 are aimed at years 7-13 teachers they are still helpful to year 1-6 teachers. They provide video footage of how different subject teachers support ELLs in mainstream content classrooms.  

 7.               Provide multiple opportunities for authentic language use with a focus on students using academic language (ESOL Principle 5)

Is the language focus on key language? Do I make sure the students have many opportunities to notice and use new language? Do I teach the typical text structures used in each subject area? Do I scaffold language learning? Students need to have multiple opportunities to use language in order to really ‘know a word.’ Provide many opportunities to reuse language and to practice using it, especially through the use of collaborative task work. Review the vocabulary of your content area often and check in with ELLs to assure they know the words and possibly the multiple meanings associated with the words. For example, a "plot" of land in geography class versus the "plot" in a literature class. A "table" we sit at versus a multiplication "table."  But there is more to ' it ' than just teaching vocabulary, students also need to know the typical text structures, word phrases and sentence types etc.

 8.               Begin with context-embedded tasks which make the abstract concrete (ESOL Principle 4)

Try to incorporate real objects or use authentic visuals whenever possible especially early on in a sequence of work. These all help students to understand abstract ideas and concepts. The introduction of technology has provided many apps and web pages that are also suitable to use. 

 9.               Maintain and make explicit the same learning outcomes for all the learners (ESOL Principle 3)

How can I make the lesson comprehensible to all students? How can I plan the learning tasks so that all the students are actively involved? Do my students understand the learning outcomes? Students need to be accessing the curriculum at an age appropriate level. Therefore knowing the level of English language proficiency at which your students are functioning academically is vital in order to be able to scaffold appropriately. Break the learning down into small steps and scaffold learning so that all students can succeed.  Not all strategies are appropriate for all ages or levels of language learners. You will find some suggestions of strategies to use on this ESOL Online page.  

 10.           Include opportunities for monitoring and self-evaluation (ESOL Principle 7)

Am I using 'think alouds' to show students my strategy use? What opportunities are there for reflection and self-evaluation? Are my learners using learning prompts and strategies? Cognition (thinking about learning) and metacognition (thinking about thinking and learning) are both important components of learning and in helping students to become independent.  Using ‘learning to learn’ prompts will help a teacher to achieve this. The last chapter of the English Language Learning Progressions (ELLP) has examples of learning prompts and strategies suitable for ELLs. Teachers who use the ELLP also have a way of tracking and monitoring student English language progress over time and to determine appropriate next language learning steps for students.

 11.          Encourage and actively facilitate the use of the student’s first language within the classroom with a focus on developing or maintaining their bilingualism/biliteracy?

 There is increasingly strong international evidence that mother tongue based education results in better outcomes for English language by the end of primary school.  In most NZ schools this is not currently possible but I would encourage all teachers to do everything possible to encourage students to use their first language for learning whenever possible within the regular classroom. Allowing ELLs to use their first language in the classroom will provide them with ‘pegs’ to hang the second language onto. For example being able to use their first language to discuss difficult concepts with in their first language will help students to grapple with content and then to transfer that knowledge into English. There are multiple ways you can encourage L1 use for example you might have access to first language texts that could be used for guided reading lessons, allow the use of L1 texts for independent reading, students can draft written texts in L1 before writing or speaking in English, this allows them to quickly get their ideas and thoughts organised onto paper etc. This presentation has a nice overview of some strategies in the international school context http://www.isgr.se/nn13/pdf/PromotingMT.pdf.

Actively encourage learners and their families to value their first language (L1) and to continue to use it orally in the home and also to continue to develop their child’s L1 literacy skills, see the HSP tip.

Finally I know I said 11 tips but there is one extra thing to remember, collaborate and seek support from other teachers who teach ELLs. They may have suggestions and resources that support English language development and content concepts. Creating and sustaining professional learning communities that support ELLs are vital for student success.


Questions for reflection 

1. What is my next learning step for my own professional development in teaching ELLs? 

2. Am I using, all the MOE ESOL Teacher Resources in my teaching? See the Supporting English language learners, 2014 powerpoint which covers all the resources that are available.