While we bring the mental health needs of our students into laser focus this year, it’s still crucial that we keep the social and emotional world of our English language learners (ELLs) front and center. Just like their peers, ELL students come to our classrooms with the burning need to be seen and acknowledged for their unique personalities, life experiences, and talents. But language challenges can obstruct all these amazing facets of their personalities. Additionally, the social pressures of suddenly being in person again and needing to communicate may make them feel anxious, isolated, and embarrassed.
Because of the often-obvious communication difficulties, grade-level and subject-area teachers understandably often rely on ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers to step in and help these students. However, even if you aren’t an ESL teacher, there’s a plethora of strategies you can use to help these incredible students feel comfortable sharing their strengths and unique perspectives on the world.
Helping ELL Students Across All Subjects
1. Closed captioning isn’t just for the hearing impaired. If you’re showing video content, turning on closed captioning supports ELL students’ comprehension as well as everyone’s literacy skills. According to a 2017 study, the simple act of using closed captioning improves learning, even for students without learning challenges.
2. Voice typing in Google Docs (under the Tools menu) provides students with a voice-to-text option that can help learners who have some oral language but struggle with spelling and writing. By clicking the arrow next to the language, students can even dictate a text in their native language, if need be, and then use Google Translate to translate it.
For older students, or for those who are somewhat more advanced in English but need material translated immediately, the Google Translate app also lets you hold your camera (on a smartphone/iPad, etc.) up to a document and instantly see it in another language, no typing required.
3. Offer choices of what students can say if they’re called on and aren’t sure how to respond. This helpful anchor chart, for example, offers students options other than the ubiquitous “I don’t know.”
4. Add gestures to reinforce communication. Remember that in order to communicate, we need to ensure that the sounds coming out of our mouth create a mental image or concept in our listener’s mind. You can increase comprehensible input (the amount of language that’s understood) by using good, old-fashioned gestures. If you want to take it a step further, TPR (Total Physical Response) is a method of teaching vocabulary that uses physical movements to react to verbal input, similar to how young children naturally learn language at home.
5. Draw or write key words frequently as they come up during instruction to help students further decode what you’re saying. You can also use Google Image search to help students visualize what your words refer to and share the images.
6. Utilize a chart: A PECS (Pictorial Exchange Communication System) chart can help individuals with communication challenges to express themselves. By pointing to an image on a classroom-themed PECS chart, students can let you know, for example, that they need to go to the bathroom by pointing to an image of a lavatory or that they are thirsty, sad, or confused, need a pencil, and so on. You can give them a laminated copy to tuck into their desk or hang one up on the wall for little learners. You may want to encourage students to say the words aloud as they point to the images to decrease their dependence on the chart. Try searching Google for “PECS chart for classroom” to find a chart that fits your needs.
7. Add images: A picture is truly worth a thousand words, but for ELLs, images are worth exponentially more. Document cameras provide ELL students with much-needed visual input of texts, worksheets, books, and other printed materials or realia. Project pages from a novel or picture book as the students follow along, display handouts and student writing samples, or use math manipulatives to solve a problem together. Document cameras make a world of difference in showing ELL students exactly what you’re talking about rather than trying to explain it.
8. Pair up: If you want to pair an ELL newcomer with a bilingual student to help them, ask the ELL student to choose a student or two whom they’d prefer to work with, if possible. This prevents you from inadvertently pairing them up with someone they don’t feel comfortable asking for help or with whom they really don’t get along.
9. Give students a “language toolbox,” a notebook full of pages of illustrated vocabulary words organized by theme that students can use as a reference. This is like a simplified version of an illustrated dictionary that younger ELLs can look through by theme to see vocabulary related to the colors, days of the week, classroom items, family members, and so on. In my classroom, I put these pages in plastic page protectors inside a binder for each student to flip through quickly. They can pull it out to help them fill in missing vocabulary when they write or as an easy reference whenever they need it.
10. Use a microphone or voice amplification system, which can help ELL students hear the nuances of your voice more clearly and understand you better. Record the lesson (if permitted), and digitally share the resulting video or audio with ELL students who might benefit from hearing/watching a replay. Similarly, ELLs have a hard time producing sounds correctly when the speaker’s mouth is covered by a mask. Consider sharing posters of mouth formations or videos of you unmasked, creating some of these sounds.
Think about trying these strategies to help alleviate the communication difficulties that can prevent ELL students from becoming fully engaged in their learning and sharing who they are and what they can bring to the classroom.