I am a third-year fourth-grade teacher in an
urban school district. We have many children
of immigrant families who seem to pick up
English like magic in the first few years, but
by the time they get to my grade level, their
standardized-test scores are significantly lower
than those of their native English-speaking
peers. What can I do to help my English-language
learners (ELLs) catch up?
You raise a very important question. Current research
about language learners tends to defy conventional wisdom:
Young children do not learn language faster than
adults. They certainly have fewer inhibitions about trying
out their new vocabularies, and they have an
uncanny ability to pick up accents, but they're sliding
by on the strength of their 3,000- to 5,000-word social
vocabularies, sounding great but understanding little.
Like adult language learners, they often won't admit
they are lost, so you need to look beyond what they say
("Oh, sure, I understand") to how they perform in
class, on independent assignments (including homework),
and on standardized tests.
Students who started school as non-English speakers
probably lag behind their peers on core vocabulary
by at least 5,000 words by fifth grade, which helps
explain the achievement gap. So, if vocabulary is the
heart of the matter, teachers look for ways to increase
English-language learners' vocabulary within every lesson and
Direct vocabulary instruction (the good
old vocabulary word list) is a little helpful, but we know
that students will retain many more new words when
the new words are taught and used repeatedly in context --
and with visual accompaniment. Learning new
words can be exciting, and if you model how you actually
learn new words, you will see your students start to
share the new words they come across.
Reading aloud in class can be scary for ELLs; the possible land mine of an unfamiliar word
lurks in every paragraph. But your thoughtful concern
for them suggests to me that your classroom is a
safe place to risk making mistakes and where challenges
while learning the notoriously difficult-to-pronounce
English language are dealt with light-heartedly.
Independent reading should always be valued, but
reading materials for ELLs should be carefully selected.
A "just right" ELL book might have new words highlighted
and explained on every page, for example.
As you create an environment that supports language
development across all content areas, you want
to be sure your students have opportunities for purposeful
conversation. You might want to ask yourself, "Are my activities structured so students have to talk
with to one another? Am I providing content and
structure for meaningful conversations to happen? Am
I helping my students extend their vocabulary and sentence
structure? Are my students interacting with students
of all backgrounds and language abilities?"
Classroom Instruction That Works, by Robert J.
Marzano, Debra Pickering, and Jane E. Pollock, lists
the nine most effective strategies in order of promoting
academic success. Classroom Instruction That Works
with English Language Learners, by Jane D. Hill and
Kathleen M. Flynn, is my favorite because it
identifies why those strategies are critical to ELLs and
how they can be used for students at different stages of
learning academic English. You might also want to
become familiar with successful programs designed for
learners of academic English, such as Guided Language
Acquisition Design (GLAD).
You, Frances, like many more experienced teachers,
struggle to find that fine balance between making
content accessible for all and imparting that content
in the required time. I encourage you to work with
your grade-level colleagues, your administrators, and
district-level curriculum specialists to help guide you
in making these important decisions in support of your
ELLs. There isn't an easy answer,
but I think you'll find it helpful
to be continually conscious of
these strategies and use them
Credit: Bart Nagel
And, most importantly, keep
asking these kinds of important
Best of luck,
Ellen Moir is a veteran bilingual teacher who is focused on the challenges faced by new teachers as well as on the needs of those with long careers in education. She is also the executive director of the New Teacher Center, at the University of California at Santa Cruz, a resource for educator-induction research, policy, and practice.
Bewitched? Bothered? Bewildered? Ellen Moir is here to help. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org, and please include your name, affiliation,
and contact information.