4 Ways to Support English Language Learners

By Mirta Ramirez Espinola, Ed.D

A group of diverse students learning from a teacher at a whiteboard

Teachers, called to foster learning in all students, face challenges every day. English language learners (ELLs) are students whose first language is not English. When communication can pose a barrier to education, it calls for teachers to be creative. Here are four ways teachers can support English language learners.

1. Promote Cultural Awareness

It is essential to facilitate a classroom that presents a culturally aware environment that is conducive to learning. This process includes getting to know your students, reaching out to parents and making connections to the community. The process of being culturally aware could include building a creative environment by incorporating bulletin boards and videos to integrate with activities that reflect all of the cultures represented in your classroom. Then, students can bring in pictures of their families or items they may want to introduce to the classroom environment that speak to their culture.

Teachers can also find opportunities to invite parents to share culturally rich stories to support social studies or literature curriculum. Some of those stories can include traditions and specialty foods. With the advent of sites like Ancestry, we have all become aware of how culturally diverse we are where years ago we may not have known our full lineage. Some of us are more culturally diverse than we once may have thought. In this way, the classroom should represent its students.

2. Journaling

Journaling is a great way to connect with your students more personally. Teachers can read responses and reply to them or use a journal entry to offer students opportunities to share details about their heritage and how they identify with their culture. This could work especially well with students who are recent immigrants and may have a great deal to share. Teachers can then use this information to foster a supportive classroom environment. This process will allow the teacher to use the responses as a tool to incorporate into various activities like reading literature and other authentic texts. Many autobiographies, historical fiction, folktales, legends and fables contain content that can be used as a tool for students to make connections and strengthen their communication skills and academic knowledge.

3. Use Visual Aids

Graphic organizers are aids that allow students to organize information and visualize what they are learning. English language learners can utilize these resources to support the learning of their second language. For example, graphic organizers can encourage students to learn vocabulary, build fluency and increase the rate of reading. Educators can use the Frayer model, an outline, a Venn diagram, a timeline, a T-chart, a vocabulary journal, flipbooks and much more. Students who combine a multitude of senses while learning may be able to recall and comprehend content readily. This process can include their basic knowledge of words, high frequency/multiple meaning words and academic words (Tier 1, 2 & 3 vocabulary words).

4. Find Opportunities for Communication

Learners cannot learn a new language and how to use it appropriately if there are no opportunities to verbally engage with one another. Students can be involved in conversations during writing workshops, Socratic Seminars, small group guided readings, summer learning and learning stations in any discipline. Students should also converse when learning routines, after modeling and when confirming directions or engaging additional techniques with one another, whether it’s in groups or during instances like think, pair and share. Meaningful talk should not be an afterthought; it is one of the most critical factors in student acquisition of their second language.

Incorporating these four concepts into your practice can assist English language learners or emerging bilingual students to not only become proficient in English, but also become a valuable contributor to their classroom and school communities.

If you like the idea of helping other teachers figure out how to integrate principles of cultural awareness with their current teaching practices, you might make a great curriculum coach. Check out the Master of Arts in Curriculum and Instruction Advanced Program for Continuing Professional Education at Grand Canyon University.

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