English Language Learners

How to Make Your Class Less Stressful for English Language Learners

When students feel like they’re in a safe environment, it becomes easier for them to acquire language and learn course content.

February 9, 2024
SolStock / iStock

When thinking about a trauma-informed approach, restorative and mindfulness practices usually come to mind. While those are very important to a trauma- informed classroom, instructional practices that teachers use also support a comforting space. Working to make these practices more intentional for a nurturing classroom climate not only can increase students’ sense of safety and belonging in the classroom, but eventually can support their academic growth.

In taking English language learners (ELLs) into consideration, it’s important to remember that learning a new language in general can increase anxiety. The Krashen theory, which surfaced in the late 1980s, informed educators about how stress can increase the “affective filter.” This means that when students are in a high-anxiety environment, it blocks their potential to learn language. 

My aim with this article is to support teachers in understanding how to strategically utilize ELL practices in order to create a community for students that gives them access to learning in a way that is nonthreatening. When considering this, it’s important to highlight the SIOP Model (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol), which was developed by Jana Echevarria, Mary Ellen Vogt, and Deborah Short. This is a set of strategies that was recommended to create a language “shelter” to make content approachable for ELLs, but what we don’t always talk about is how this shelter contributes to a low-stress classroom. 

Lesson Planning That Conveys Consistency

Content and language objectives or targets support English language learners in knowing where learning is headed. Think of it this way: If you’re in your day-to-day activities, but you don’t know what’s going to happen next, it may make you nervous. When students know what’s expected of them, it decreases anxiety, and they have an understanding of where learning is going. 

Posting targets and objectives with a class agenda in addition to explaining all of it to students helps facilitate predictability and comfort. Doing this decreases the “What’s next?” question. Content targets help students understand the “what” of the lesson. The language objectives give English language learners guidance in knowing what language the lesson will support and how their language needs are valued. It’s important to remember that when you set structures in the classroom, students who need emotional support really value consistency. 

I make it a point to intentionally plan time in our lessons when students can get in touch with their voices. This gives students a space for creativity and to feel validation. In my classroom, we’re devoted to journaling. At first, students were reluctant. I found that this was mainly because they wondered, “Is my writing good enough?” (especially when English is their second language). I gave students the simple option of writing three sentences or one to two with a picture. I also demonstrated what my own journals look like. Students were given paper journals donated by a community organization that they got to collage and take ownership of as “their writing space.” They write daily and love it when I respond to them. 

Creating Student Experiences for Collaboration

When students work in structured teams that they’re comfortable with, they gain oral language. I learned about academic teaming through staff development centered around the text The Power of Student Teams: Achieving Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Learning in Every Classroom Through Academic Teaming, by Michael Toth and David Sousa. 

As I planned for structured academic teams, I learned that I can strategically place my English language learners in teams with other students who become language models. I work in Illinois, which is part of the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) Consortium. Looking at students’ ACCESS (the WIDA annual language test) scores and using my own observations of their progress, I placed them in flexible teams where they could get linguistic support from other students.

I placed English language learners with others who could be language models but weren’t too far away from them level-wise so as to limit the possibility of intimidation. Not only did this help increase language acquisition, but also my students were less anxious in participating in groups because their peers supported them.

The Importance of Building Background and Comprehensible Input

When we connect content to what students know, we give them a sense of familiarity that can help lower their stress levels. This isn’t new information, but we can keep this in mind as we’re planning lessons—not just from a social and emotional learning standpoint, but also from a language perspective.

Comprehensible input is language input that supports students when they don’t totally understand the content. An example of this is giving English language learners language scaffolds such as word walls and sentence stems. Lately, I’ve been allowing my students to use artificial intelligence (AI) applications to help them understand content. OpenAI is easy for students to use to look up content they don’t know. Even Snapchat—which my students use often—has an AI feature.

My students use AI in research and even in class discussions. It does build confidence. I highly recommend teaching students what these apps are for (and your expectations and guidelines for use in class) before having students use them. 

4 Considerations for Your Lesson Delivery

  1. Allow time for relationship building and grounding in the classroom. This can be through something simple like asking students about their “good things for the day” or taking collective breaths together.
  2. Recognize your tone. We might not notice that we speak in tones that students can find intimidating or scary. You may want to check in with your student population about this by addressing the issue in an anonymous survey or through journal entries.
  3. Give space for student movement. Sometimes I utilize walking carousels where students walk from space to space to complete a learning activity, classroom scavenger hunts, and World Café strategies to have students move around as they learn language and content.
  4. Find unique ways to review and assess content. Move away from paper- or pencil- driven activities. I review with students through games, class discussions, and team-created anchor charts. 

The strategies I’ve discussed are wonderful when used to support English language learners, but they can really help all students’ language learning. When we’re providing a “shelter,” we’re providing a space that allows students to find comfort as they learn a new language. Beyond strategies, our joy is what centers a student’s ability to focus and learn in a safe space. When we put love and happiness into our work, the strategies we use become even stronger and are reflected within the learning of the community that we built.

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Filed Under

  • English Language Learners
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 9-12 High School

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