Accommodating ELLs

We are now a month (or more) into another school year and that means it is time for the annual struggle to begin. There are many annual struggles in education, but the one I’m considering today is the one that I have been most involved in over the years: the struggle between the ESL teacher and the classroom teacher over accommodations for English language learners (ELLs). A big part of my job as an ESL teacher involves helping ELLs succeed in their content classes. I do this through various means such as providing teachers with resources (such as my CCSS-old WIDA I Can Statement alignment), finding alternate readings, pre-teaching vocabulary, working with students on projects, helping adjust tests, etc. But the real work ultimately falls on the classroom teacher, and classroom teachers are the busiest and hardest working people in education (except maybe school secretaries–they truly make the education world go round!).  I completely understand the tendency towards just translating materials, getting bilingual paras to translate classroom discussions, and generally relying on a student’s first language. It’s easier on the teacher, it’s easier on the student, the teacher is happier, the student is happier…what’s the problem?

The problem is that while I agree, it is easier and it does (at least in the short-term) make everyone happier, it is not the best thing for the student in the long term. Students need to learn English. Yes, they also need to learn math, science, history, etc., but ultimately their greatest need is to learn English. Consider the big picture. This student has moved to our country and intends to live here for the rest of his/her life. In order to have a future, he/she will need to be able to speak English. Yes, he/she also needs to be able to read and write, do basic math, and understand science, etc., but he/she needs to be able to do all of this in English. When this student finishes high school and wants to go to college, he/she can take remedial math courses if needed, but those courses will be in English. If the student decides to go into a trade, he/she may be able to find an apprenticeship in his/her first language, but what kind of a customer base will he/she be able to establish without being able to speak English? If he/she goes into the military, what language will orders be given in? English. The most crucial educational need ELLs have is to learn English, everything else flows from that. Therefore, we need to do whatever it takes to help these students learn English, while also helping them take in as much of the content as possible. 

As I’ve already acknowledged, an ESL teacher’s job is to help content area teachers in this effort, but the bulk of the work is going to fall on general education teachers. I’ve also already acknowledged that general education teachers are extremely hardworking and lacking in one key resource: time. Knowing all of this, when I was asked to put together a professional development on ESL for teachers, I decided to focus on accommodations for the general education classroom. More specifically, I decided to focus on accommodations that I knew worked and did not take much time to implement. In fact, most of the accommodations in this post take less than five minutes (many of them less than 1 minute) to implement. (Attached to this post is a Google Slides version of the presentation I developed for professional development presentations. In it you’ll find many helpful examples and illustrations of these accommodations.)

1. Slow Down
When learning a language it’s not just the tongue that needs to be trained, the ears have to be trained as well. Our ears are attuned to specific sounds and speech patterns, any deviation and we have to work harder to understand what we’re hearing. Think about when you speak to someone with a different accent than your own. I don’t mean someone who is not a native speaker of English, I mean think about when you have to listen to another native speaker from a different region or country (see slide 2 of the presentation for examples). You can understand them, but it takes more work, doesn’t it? You may even find yourself asking that person to slow down a little because the slower the speech the more time you have to process it.

2. Extend Wait Times
Another factor that we often fail to consider is how many times an ELL, especially a low proficiency ELL, has to process information. First he has to hear the information in English. Second, he has to search the English for words he knows. Third, he has to “translate” the information into his first language and determine what the question might be. Fourth, he has to search his brain for an answer/response in his first language. Fifth, he has to translate the response into English. Sixth, he has to communicate his response. All of this takes time. Do you know the average teacher wait time? One and a half seconds. Think back to your educational training, what is the minimal wait time for improved learning for all students? Three to five seconds. Try an experiment: start talking to a friend or family member, after finishing a sentence, stop and wait for four seconds (time it with your watch). I’m willing to be it will be longer than you expect and there’s a better than decent chance the person you’re talking to will start talking. Remember, this four seconds is for your average student, your ELLs need a minimum of ten seconds. Try to wait that long in a conversation and see what happens, I dare you! Make this easier on yourself and give students something to do while they wait. Tell them up front that you don’t want anyone to raise a hand until you give a signal, and encourage students to write their responses on white boards or scrap paper to help them think.

3. Enunciate
Remember how we talked about our ears needing to be trained as well as our tongues? You can help your ELLs with this process by doing one simple thing: enunciate. Pronounce the complete word, don’t slur your words together. This helps your ELLs to more easily hear vowel sounds, word breaks, and other finer points of language. Don’t go overboard, you want to model good pronunciation and natural speech, but speak clearly. Think of an actor, they have to enunciate to make their speech clear for large audiences (see slide 3 for an example–President Reagan wasn’t speaking slowly, but he was pronouncing every word deliberately and clearly). This same principal of pronouncing each word deliberately and clearly helps ELLs hear syllables, multiple letters, and other idiosyncrasies of the English language.

4. Visualize
Almost all teachers put the objective, or at least the topic for the day’s lesson on the board. It’s good teaching practice. Here’s an example: Efni dagsins er veðrið. Ready to learn? No? Why not? The topic is right there, I even used first grade level vocabulary. What if I drew a picture of the sun peaking out from behind the clouds (see slide four)? Can you at least make a guess as to what we’ll be talking about? With the addition of one picture (and an easy one that even a non-artist such as me can draw in seconds), you are at least able to figure out the topic of the lesson and start activating your prior knowledge. A simple rule of thumb: if you can add a picture (or clipart), do it. Pictures are key; it’s not unusual for ELL to be completely lost with very easy vocabulary or concepts, but as soon as they see a picture her face lights up and she starts exclaiming in her first language a translation or explanation. Put pictures everywhere: on charts, posters, word walls, etc. 

5. Subtitles
When you show a video, turn on the English subtitles. This not only helps when the speaking gets going to fast for your ELLs, it provides a visual support for the language helping them improve their reading and better segment sounds into individual words. It will also help your native English speaking students catch important information when background noise or music makes words indistinct or hard to hear. If you want to experience the difference this can make, look at slide five in the presentation for an example.

6. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
You know you’re going to have to say it all again anyway, don’t wait for that one student in the back to wake up and ask you what you just said, say it again now. Research has shown that it takes an average of ten separate meetings of a new word in context for us to truly learn it and its usage. I’m going to say that again–IN CONTEXT. Yes, that means what you think it does, all those hours spent looking up words in dictionaries and copying the definitions truly were worthless. Rather than inflicting that same pointless torture on your students, spend the time explicitly teaching them strategies such as context clues and text features. Then expose them to vocabulary rich texts and environments. Also keep in mind that ten contextual exposures is a minimum for ELLs, and is increased for words that are challenging such as homonyms, idioms, and abstract terms that have changed meaning through the years. See slides six and seven of the presentation for examples of how I make this fun for my students. You can also look at my blog post Vocabulary Activities for examples of how I provide less context-rich exposure to vocabulary in an effort to speed up its acquisition.

7. Kinesthetic Learning
We already know that the more senses we involve, the greater the learning. This is magnified for ELLs because the auditory methods and written text (often the foundation of our visual methods after kindergarten) are all but useless for them, especially in the beginning. So what do we do? Active learning! Get them actively doing something; manipulating words, playing with language, and creating things that communicate. This is why math and science are generally an ELL’s best subjects, we use a lot of manipulatives and do a lot of lab activities. Slides eight, nine, and ten of the presentation have several examples of this (and activities I like to use) on them. My blog (which you’re already reading!) is also filled with games and other activities for playing with words and grammar (and even a few math an science activities).

8. Story Time
Read to them, all of them. I read picture books to my middle school students and they loved it. I read picture books to my college students and they love it. All ages like to be read to and all ages can benefit from it. Research tells us that ELLs need to be read to as much as six times more than native speakers! It helps them with their intonation, fluency, and pronunciation, among other things (including context-rich vocabulary exposure). Look into and invest in good picture books for your subject such as Scholastic’s Grammar TalesMagic School Bus books, or the Sir Cumference series. There are lots of picture books out there for all subjects, and don’t forget to read some just for the fun of it!

9. Scaffold
This one is going to take a little longer, but it’s something you have to do anyway. Prior knowledge is absolutely essential. The good news is that many ELLs have grade level knowledge, they just don’t have it in English. If you can find a way to access that knowledge, it will help a lot. An ideal lesson should present a new concept or new vocabulary, never both (enlist the ESL teacher to help you pre-teach vocabulary by giving him/her a list and a couple weeks notice). If you must teach new vocabulary and new content simultaneously expect it to take two to three times longer, and know that neither may not actually be conveyed at this time. 

10. Love Them
You love all your students, but love on your ELLs a little extra. Love translates to any language. I can’t count the number of moms who speak absolutely zero English and have quite literally nothing in common with me, but they come to school and give me the biggest, tightest hugs ever. Why? They know I love their children. I can also tell you story after story of students who were terrors for every other teacher but were eager to learn with me; or students who sat in chairs shaking with teachers who were beloved by all, but clung to my hand and refused to leave my side even when I would discipline them and force them to do things they didn’t want to do. Why? They knew I loved them. Not that their other teachers didn’t, I just had the extra time to spend with them (because I’m not a general classroom teacher and didn’t have 30 other little voices calling for my attention) and did. Love them, even when they are hard to love, and you will reap great dividends! But watch out, they just might steal your heart. 😉

July, 2022 update:

I’ve had several requests for an easy to distribute summary or tip sheet of this information. This one page pdf is a quick and easy document that you are welcome to print and distribute to your colleagues. Happy teaching, everyone!