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English Language Learners

Dismantling Barriers for English Language Learners

English language learners with diverse abilities can thrive with simple supports in an an equity-driven learning environment.

June 25, 2021
urbancow / iStock

With increasing numbers of English language learners (ELLs)—especially those with diverse abilities (hidden and identifiable physical, emotional, and mental differences)—the demands of literacy have transformed dramatically in all grades. 

ELLs are in a unique position of acquiring a new language while being in the immersion process in the mainstream classroom. Now that educators are more aware of myriad approaches for a spectrum of diverse abilities, there are more opportunities for intentional change. Without appropriate implementation of instructions and accommodations, ELLs with diverse abilities are at an academic disadvantage compared with their peers. Aside from acknowledging and accommodating the students’ linguistic needs, students with diverse abilities benefit from being in an equity-driven learning space that makes them feel valued while learning.

With the appropriate considerations, students with diverse abilities will be accommodated and thriving members of the classroom team.You can utilize new and updated teaching methodologies to help your students receive immediate and long-term benefits.

Consult With Students’ Accommodation Plans Frequently

Many students with identifiable diverse abilities who have been medically diagnosed might have an accommodation plan. An individualized education program or a 504 intervention plan contains specific interventions that can be implemented to support students in their lessons. In your teaching practice, you can include additional time on an assignment or assessment, chunking the text, working with a partner, etc. These actions can help the student focus more on achieving the objective and master the intended goals.

Understand That Students Come With Knowledge

ELLs—no matter the level of their language acquisition—all enter the classroom with some knowledge. It’s useful to find out the extent of their knowledge and interests and include them in the classroom community. Research posits that to better support this population of students, teachers should integrate Gloria Ladson-Billings’ culturally responsive teaching practices to meet their students’ cultural and linguistic needs.

For example, in English, I use real-world global content that my students can relate to in order to help them engage with a text or in a discussion. Our discussions this year included powerful exchanges where students sometimes chose the topic—such as societal and cultural norms, identity, academic expectations, race, and religion. Students make academic gains when they feel themselves represented positively in the classroom. Equity pedagogy supports teachers in utilizing instructional strategies that embrace linguistic and cultural diversity.

A lack of culturally responsive background knowledge, teaching strategies, and concepts minimizes teachers’ impact when working with diverse learners and limits their academic success. Try incorporating texts representing a variety of cultures into your classes, or find some that fit your students’ needs: Amy Tan’s Fish Cheeks; The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros; Coming to America: A Muslim Family’s Story, by Bernard Wolf; Tea Time, by Lawrence Tolbert; and Testing the Ice: A True Story About Jackie Robinson, by Sharon Robinson.

Incorporate Varying Levels of Technology

During the Covid-19 pandemic, we had no choice but to utilize technology to meet our students’ needs. When I access certain technological resources, I feel more equipped to support my ELLs with diverse needs. My ninth-grade professional learning community (PLC) used Microsoft Teams and the BigBlueButton platform to focus on enrichment and remediation. I also often use fun resources like Kahoot, Quizizz, and Nearpod, which give students the option to work collaboratively or individually.

Use the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model

I always consider which stage of the language acquisition process my students are in, to ensure that as they progress through their zone of proximal development, I’m scaffolding appropriately and allowing them enough time and space to master the tasks.

When I understand where my students are, then I can apply the gradual release of responsibility model as needed. This method of teaching was especially useful this year with the ongoing pandemic, as many teachers relied heavily on it to simultaneously engage learners who were face-to-face and those who were virtual. In this model, the students can work together in small groups or practice the concept on their own to help achieve mastery.

Prepare to Pivot

Students with diverse abilities might need more time to process the information being delivered. There will be days when you might need to pivot or change course from the curriculum sequence. A lesson might need more differentiation in delivery (review ideas in small chunks, focus on one area of discussion at a time) and practice as well as more intentional scaffolding to help students with varying abilities master smaller pieces of information.

For example, some students can quickly answer writing prompts and use complex graphic organizers. Alternate options for students with diverse abilities are sentence stems with fill-in-the-blanks or a graphic organizer that is partially filled out with some answers, which help the students feel like they have an attainable task. Additionally, having the students use the turn-and-talk method or giving them the option to work in groups of two to discuss ideas allows a level of support that is outside of the teacher.

Give Brain Breaks

ELLs with diverse abilities may be unable to focus for periods as long as their peers can. They might need more opportunities to relax their minds before moving on to the next lesson.

Brain breaks are a simple way to counter the monotony of a lesson or aid students in processing the information. I use turn-and-talk, stretches, and computer games in my classes to give students a well-deserved brain break. I also incorporate music and sometimes change locations of learning from the classroom to an outside setting. My PLC and I have even planned and visited each other’s classrooms to give the students a change of pace, scenery, and delivery of lessons. These pauses in instruction activate the brain and are instrumental in deterring fatigue.

With the appropriate considerations, students with diverse abilities will be accommodated and thriving members of the classroom team. You can utilize new and updated teaching methodologies to help your students receive immediate and long-term benefits.

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  • English Language Learners
  • Education Equity
  • Special Education
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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