When teaching English Language Learners (ELLs), the most important and beneficial thing you can do is put yourself in their shoes.
Imagine moving to a foreign country, one whose language you don’t speak and can hardly understand. This happened to my oldest sisters, Faviola and Carolina, when they moved to the United States and started middle school. According to Faviola, she started her American education only knowing the phrase, “I am Faviola” and the lyrics to “Frosty the Snowman.”
Encouragement and Praise Can Boost Language Learning
Naturally, my sisters were nervous to start school, but thanks to an amazing teacher, they felt comfortable in the classroom. This meant that the teacher was effectively able to lower the affective filter in her classroom so that her students would feel safe taking chances, and as we all know, you can’t get anywhere without taking chances.
One very simple way to lower the affective filter is to provide genuine praise. When a teacher praises a student for their accomplishments or attempts, this strengthens the learner’s confidence. It lets the student know that the classroom environment encourages growth. If a student is harshly corrected every time they do something wrong, it discourages them from participating in class out of fear. A teacher must be gentle in their corrections to create an encouraging environment.
Understanding the Importance of Learning the Language in the Larger World
While my sisters had a positive classroom environment, this is not true for all ELLs. For example, some of my cousins attended the same school but had a teacher that belittled them for “not learning English fast enough.” Eventually, this type of treatment led them to disregard the importance of learning the language.
Students often live in communities where it may not be a necessity to speak English. They are able to communicate with members of their community effectively, and they may not aspire for much more. Students like my cousins may succumb to the pressures of school and drop out before completing their education. Only 63% of ELLs graduate from high school, compared with the overall national rate of 82%.
In order to combat this, educators must not only provide a positive classroom environment, but they also need to provide students with the opportunity to have meaningful interactions in English. When students are given authentic, real-world opportunities to practice their English, they begin to see the importance of learning the language and how it can affect their interactions with the larger world.
Comprehension of Instruction and Expectations is Key to Success
Finally, teachers need to make sure that their ELLs are able to comprehend instruction and expectations in the classroom. This brings me back to my own experiences as an ELL. My teachers made sure to speak slowly and enunciate clearly when transitioning from the class’s primary language (Spanish) to English. They would often pause after important phrases to make sure the students had time to process the information and would repeat key words.
During my time as a teacher, I have discovered the importance of modeling my own thinking and process for my students. This provides validation for some students, as well as a guide for others who may not know where to begin. Of course, as a student’s proficiency level progresses, they may not need as many of these supports or may not need supports as frequently, but that is the goal. As students become more comfortable with the language, they will be able to comprehend more and more.
The experiences of each ELL are different, but the goal is the same: to master the English language. If we treat all ELL’s with respect, praise their accomplishments and instill a love of learning, they will work diligently to learn the language. The path to language acquisition may not be smooth, but it is our responsibility as educators to facilitate this process, to provide every student with the best resources and environment for them to accomplish their goals and succeed in life.