For English learners, acquiring language proficiency opens the door to thrive across all subjects. However, learning a new language can be a long, difficult process that requires courage, resilience and trust from students who initially might feel vulnerable and out of place.
Schools are challenged by the growing number of English learners in their classrooms, with some districts having as many as 100 different native languages spoken by their students. While many regions of the country are equipped to integrate these students, there is still a struggle to find the best ways to support English learners and their caregivers.
It’s crucial for teachers to create classrooms that are safe places for students to try, experiment and get meaningful feedback that allows them to make sense of what’s going on around them. The first step requires developing a more comprehensive linguistic profile of students.
Standardized tests are an important part of a linguistic profile, but we need to also consider a student’s background and exposure – what languages they speak at home and with whom do they speak those languages – in order to build a more comprehensive picture. Understanding the linguistic and cultural profile of your students will enable you to select the most appropriate evidence-based strategies and customize them to meet individual needs.
To effectively set each student – regardless of their native language – on a path toward achievement in the classroom and overall academic success, consider these five key strategies:
- Provide consistency and routine. Familiarity with a schedule is helpful for all students, particularly when children are not native speakers, as it gives them a sense of security knowing what is coming next. This can have particular implications for students in the early production stage of language development. During this stage, students can engage in routine or formulaic speech, which often marks the beginning stage of expressive language skills. Building a consistent classroom routine will facilitate the use of these “formulaic chunks” as it creates context around these phrases.
- Create an ongoing list of words in the English language with multiple meanings and cross curricular application. Language acquisition isn’t something that is limited to a 45 or 90 minute block of language arts. Every content area teacher, academic or nonacademic, has a role in creating an environment where language learning is facilitated. Teachers can look for opportunities for vocabulary growth that are cross-curricular. For example, the word “plot.” Plot can mean the theme of a story, an area of land or a marking a spot on a graph. And conversely, if a student can’t read or understand the words “add” and “subtract,” they won’t do well on a math test.
- Take advantage of native language skills as a bridge to English. Honoring the native language will embolden students to keep their identity while matching the words of their natural thoughts and feelings with the English versions. For example, let them journal in their native language and then translate to English. And incorporate experiential learning by looking for ways to connect the curriculum to the world of the students, as well as providing an opportunity for shared experiences that can be used as a foundation for discussion or written reflection.
- Utilize peers. Peers in the classroom are often an untapped resource. For some students, it is more comfortable to interact with other students as opposed to the teacher or another adult. Activities can range from structured to unstructured and will depend on the individual classroom dynamics and the personalities of the students. Peers are excellent language models and collaborative learning provides amazing opportunities to build community and strengthen relationships, while giving students an opportunity to show what they know and use and apply their skills to help others. It may be your first inclination to always pair more proficient students with less proficient students but it can be powerful to look for situations in which we capitalize on the strengths of all students and provide them opportunities to be the leader or the expert. Again, it is going to depend on the objective of the lesson. Another advantage of peer interactions is that students sharpen their listening skills when talking with students whose first language is English. Listening is often a weak point on language proficiency tests because it’s not easy to listen to another language and comprehend well.
- Face students when you teach. It is easier to learn a language when watching how you speak. Teachers should make efforts not to turn to the whiteboard to write while speaking. Watching your facial expressions and gestures make a great impact with interpretation. And by the same token, ask students to turn and face each other when someone speaks. This simple act builds a culture of respect for listening to other voices in the room, and it develops the practice of listening and responding instead of thinking about what they’ll say next.
In the classroom, the most fundamental aspect of a successful teacher is establishing a culture of trust. However, for some students, this can be more of a challenge because English is not their native language. By developing linguistic profiles that go beyond standardized testing and leveraging these five key strategies in the classroom, teachers can help English learners overcome hurdles and achieve in the classroom.
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Designing fair and inclusive tests for non-native speakers
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