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Creating ELL-


With the increase of non-English speaking students, teachers are searching for strategies to help them learn and feel part of the class. Teachers Kathleen Fay and Suzanne Whaley outline ways to help ELL students develop their literacy skills. Included: Activities to improve ELL students' reading and writing

Children whose first language is not English are appearing in greater numbers in classrooms across the U.S., and helping those students learn is no longer just a job for a few teachers of English-language-learners.

In the book, Becoming One Community: Reading & Writing with English Language Learners, teachers Kathleen Fay and Suzanne Whaley describe ways classroom teachers can meet the needs of students learning English, and help them practice their skills in all subject areas.

Fay and Whaley talked with Education World about their approaches to helping ELL students learn, and how teachers can make their classrooms welcoming and supportive of ELL students.

Kathleen Fay and Suzanne Whaley

Education World: How did you both become interested in working with English language learners (ELLs)?

Kathleen Fay/Suzanne Whaley: It's hard for either of us to say when we were first interested in teaching English-as-a-second-languagestudents since most of our careers (all of Suzanne's) have been at Bailey's Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences, a school where the majority of the student population is English language learners. Suzanne began teaching at Bailey's after a recommendation from her college professor at Virginia Tech. Kathleen transferred to Bailey's after a recommendation from a fellow teacher.

The day-to-day teaching is what is most fascinating: trying to figure out how best to meet the needs of each individual child, among children who make up a very diverse group of language experiences, life experiences, and school experiences. Our native Spanish-speaking students are from Bolivia, Peru, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Honduras. And students who observe Ramadan are from Palestine, Morocco, Iran, Somalia, and Pakistan. Our experiences with English language learners have helped us see how unique each student is and how we need to take the time to understand and get to know each of them.

EW: If new ELL students are immediately mainstreamed, what is the minimal amount of support they and their teachers need?

Fay/Whaley: It's helpful to have a short amount of pull-out or small group instructional time for newcomer students (students who are new to English speaking schools.) During this hour, students often talk more and feel less inhibited because they feel safer in the small setting with other ELL students.

"Teachers of ELLs may need to take extra time to unearth their students' strengths and background knowledge and find ways to help those students succeed," say teachers and authors Kathleen Fay and Suzanne Whaley.

If students are immediately mainstreamed for the entire day in the regular classroom, however, ELL students should be readily welcomed by including them in all aspects of the class. Many teachers of English speakers of other languages (ESOL) students will spend some time each day in classrooms with the students, co-teaching with the classroom teacher. The ESOL teacher may teach the mini-lesson one day and another day she may work with a small, guided reading group in the classroom.

Strong classroom communities accept and celebrate ELLs developing use of English. Smaller class sizes enable classroom teachers to build a community where everyone is respected. Smaller class sizes are not always possible however, yet teachers who are particularly sensitive and aware can provide opportunities for each child to feel successful. This requires teachers to adapt instruction for each child such as: giving the child more time, having him or her work in small groups, using on-going assessment to measure a child's learning instead of a final unit test, using oral or performance-based assessment rather than paper pencil tasks, or reading a section of text to a child who may not yet be able to read it independently. ELLs also need teachers who are reflective and flexible; when one method of teaching does not work they take time to think about their teaching and then try other ways to reach those students.

The administration can support teachers by providing time for them to collaborate with colleagues and to observe other teachers in action. The administration should also work to provide staff development opportunities for classroom teachers who will be providing the majority of instruction to ELLs.

This staff development can take many forms: attending conferences, reading professional articles and discussing them with colleagues, observing each other, participating in teachers-as-readers groups, and engaging in action research.

Schools need to have a well-stocked library or reading resource room with many levels of texts so that teachers of all grades have access to books that are appropriate for the age and reading level of their students. Along the same lines, English language learners feel particularly welcomed when there are books in their native languages in the school. It is possible to have a reading workshop where many students are reading at various levels. In fact, it works well when teachers meet with various groups throughout the week while the individual children are practicing reading.

EW: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about ELL students?

Fay/Whaley: The biggest misconception about ELLs is that they are "lacking" in some way. Because they are learning English, some think they lack intelligence. English language learners are as capable as any child. Often English language learners are thought of as having limited background knowledge. In fact, they have background knowledge; it's just that it may be very different from some of their peers and teachers. In addition, they are as diverse a group of students as any; one description of an English language learner does not apply to all. Teachers of ELLs may need to take extra time to unearth their students' strengths and background knowledge and find ways to help those students succeed. We always have been mindful not to water down the curriculum or our expectations for our ELLs. We have the same high expectations for them as we do for all our students.

EW: What are some things teachers can do to help ELL students feel comfortable in the classroom?

Fay/Whaley: One of the best ways to help ELL students feel comfortable is to provide multiple opportunities for them to talk -- with a partner, in a small group, to someone who speaks their native language, to the teachers. Creating time for students to talk regularly is essential but it is more nuanced. Teachers need to observe and adjust accordingly as they notice students participating or not participating fully in various activities.

In a kindergarten classroom recently, most of the ESOL students were actively engaged while we were reading the story aloud as a whole group. I elicited some of their comments, "What do you think the farmer would say?" "What else could he say?" When I called on Noura (her hand was up), she sat silent. I waited and rephrased my question, guiding a little more, "Do you think the farmer is mad or happy?' I used facial expressions to help Noura understand my question. Noura seemed engaged -- she nodded her head and looked eager to share, but said nothing. I gave her a little more wait time (I didn't want another child answering for her) and then decided to try something else, "Everybody, turn and talk to a partner about what you think the farmer might say here." I watched Noura as she shared her idea with Bryant. When I went from pair to pair, Noura was eager for me to hear her idea. For whatever reason, she was not ready to share in the whole group. This didn't bother me because I was able to assess her understanding of the story while she talked with Bryant. Maybe tomorrow she will share in the large group. Maybe it'll take all year. As the year goes on I'll learn more about her and the others in the class and find additional ways to engage the students in the lessons.

We have found that ELLs feel comfortable with a morning meeting time each day. This is a time set aside each morning where students greet each other by name in any language. This can be as informal as greeting one or two students or as ritualistic as sitting in a circle with a set order of greeting. Some classes extend this meeting and invite students to share personal stories with each other. ELLs easily participate in this ritual and are often the experts when they teach a new greeting to the class.

Another important way to encourage a comfortable community for the students is to invite their lives into the classroom. Students are encouraged to write in their first language, and we include books, pictures, and objects that reflect our students' culture into our classroom. Setting aside baskets of books about the students' native countries is another way to help the students feel a sense of belonging.

EW: How can teachers build language practice into other areas, such as science and math?

Fay/Whaley: Because it takes ELLs five to seven years, and some research suggests even longer, to successfully use and process academic language, it is paramount that ELLs have many opportunities to use the language they are learning. It would not be unusual to see ELLs actively engaged in very lively and talkative classrooms. Art, drama, and role-play provide an avenue for learning that is not language dependent.

For example, having students participate in creating a tableau about the Underground Railroad is one example of how teachers might use drama in their classrooms to teach specific curricular objectives. The benefits are twofold -- it helps students learn new concepts and gives teachers additional information to assess their students' learning of the content material. In using these alternate methods, they allow a more relaxed atmosphere for the students to learn and process a new language.

Teachers also can build language into the content areas by

  • having the students keep interactive notebooks.
  • having the students keep science sketchbooks.
  • using manipulatives to illustrate math concepts.
  • making content specific word walls with student created illustrations.
  • creating class-made dictionaries with content-specific vocabulary.

EW: What do schools need to do to keep up with the growing numbers of non-English speaking students enrolling?

Fay/Whaley: We have found that the best way to keep abreast of changes in our school is to create a professional culture where teacher learning is expected and celebrated. Engaging in teacher research, reading professional periodicals and texts, and regularly reflecting on our practice has helped us adapt to the ever-changing educational climate. It has taken our school many years to build this type of professional atmosphere and we are continuing to learn effective ways to teach our students.

Professional development takes time. If a school is facing a sudden influx of English language learners, it may take time for teachers to understand how to provide the best instruction for them. A school may decide to focus on writing workshops one year and then reading workshops the next year. Or school staff may decide that science would be a wonderful focus and work together as a school to develop hands-on activities, providing an opportunity for students to learn scientific concepts as they learn the language in an engaging and natural environment. It may appear at first to be a challenge to teach ELLs, and it is, but in the long run, having a diverse population of students enriches all of the members in the group.

This e-interview with Kathleen Fay and Suzanne Whaley is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Originally published 12/02/2004
Last updated 05/28/2009