I was teaching about steel magnate Andrew Carnegie as part of a lesson in which my class debated whether a number of industrialists were robber barons or captains of industry. The majority of the students thought Carnegie was one of the good guys: He was a philanthropist who gave away a large portion of his fortune, despite having some blemishes on his record.
One of my students, an English language learner (ELL), came up to me in the front of the room after the lesson. He was perplexed. “I’m not sure how people can claim Carnegie was a decent man when all he did was steal,” he explained. It took me longer than it should have to realize that this student had made the common error of confusing steel with steal. Homophones, or words that sound the same but have different meanings, are one of the most difficult components of mastering the English language.
I was crushed. This kid sat in my class for 45 minutes and completely missed the meaning of the lesson, all while thinking he was on track. It made me wonder how many other students were struggling in the same way—maybe students who might never voice their concerns. I’ve given this episode a considerable amount of attention, and I’ve tried several approaches in the classroom to help me avoid miscommunications and give my ELL students time to process information.
1. Check for Understanding
After an explanation, I like to ask for a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down to gauge how comfortable my students are with new material. However, this low-stakes check-in works only if students feel safe expressing themselves in your classroom and if they understand that their input will be used to support them.
I’ve also seen teachers use sticky notes, note cards, or technology, like a Google Forms survey or a Pear Deck extension, to elicit student answers for check-ins. It’s critical to communicate to your students that it’s OK if they don’t understand everything right away. It’s part of the learning process! These check-ins help to avoid misunderstandings and provide teachers with rapid feedback to help confused students get back on track.
Anything that gets my students talking about content to one another is appealing to me. I sometimes ask them to turn and talk, in which they immediately turn to a neighbor and discuss a posed question, but I prefer think-pair-share for my ELL students. Students in a think-pair-share are given time to think about a question silently first, giving them more time to digest the question. Then, they discuss their response with a partner; it’s important for ELL students to have time to practice their academic language. After that, students share their ideas with the entire class.
While whole-class discussions can be valuable, ELL students are less likely to participate in the same way they would if they could talk to a neighbor in a casual and low-stakes setting. These discussions also allow students to clarify misconceptions with a peer and confirm that everyone is on the same page before moving on.
3. Wait Time
Sometimes, I get out over my skis and move too quickly through a lecture or lesson. If I’m moving too quickly for my native-English-speaking students, I’m definitely moving far too quickly for my English-learning students.
It's vital that we remind ourselves to talk slowly and with clarity while delivering content and directions, and to give students enough time to think. As a student, I recall laboring in high school Spanish class trying to think and process in two languages. While my ELLs are doing this processing and thinking exponentially faster than I was, wait time is still important. It allows all students to think and process, and it offers ELLs, in particular, the time they need to craft a response. I usually use the think time strategy by asking students to think about a question for 15 seconds before raising their hands to answer a question.
4. Write it First
Have you ever begun asking a question in class, and before you finished, three hands were in the air, ready to answer? When we immediately address those students, we dismiss those who are thinking but are not yet ready to articulate a response. A “quick write” is another tool I like to use in this situation.
Students often grab a note card at the start of class, and when I have a thought-provoking question, I have them write a sentence on their note card first, rather than answering it aloud straightaway. After a minute or so, I’ll ask for responses. This does two things. First, it requires everyone in the class to bear some cognitive weight rather than deferring to the kid with a quick reflexive hand raise. Second, it allows students to see their idea staring back at them and obtain clarity before expressing it verbally.
5. Always be Listening
Whatever intervention I use, I make sure to circulate the room and listen or watch. I like to be within earshot of my students who I know are struggling so that I can hear their comments. When I hear something insightful, I usually offer a shout-out and either share the student’s response with the class or ask the student to repeat it for the group. I think this can support the growth of confidence and self-esteem for those students.
I’ve tried to improve my ability to slow down and ensure that everyone is on the same page, but there’s always space for improvement. Being intentional and reminding myself of these tools has been important for me, and I hope this serves as a reminder to you that rather than rewarding speed, we can create environments where every student has time to think at their own pace, because profound learning often occurs in the space between the question and the answer.