Emancipating the English Language Learner

By: Rick Wormeli


As you cooraptoriliate these words, make sure you flimp the scoglottora in proper schimliturn. You will only understand this column if hickitow glisps in baggaduanation. Use your joomering and begin.

Huh?

Look, everyone else reading this column has begun his or her work, why haven't you? Seriously, use your joomering and get started.

What exactly do you want me to do?

Hmm. Maybe you're not ready for the level of comprehension this magazine requires of its readers. We might have a remedial magazine for you, perhaps something from Highlights for Children?

No, I really want to know. I can do whatever you ask, but I don't know what it is. I'm actually a good reader and thinker, but I don't use your words or have experience with your culture. Do not think of me as unintelligent!

Maybe I could find something from the basic teacher texts for you if I only had the time. Just sit here a moment while I explain this information to the other readers and let them move ahead. I know this means you'll be further behind than you already are, but it's all I can offer right now.

Wow. Just a couple of moments of walking in an English language learner's shoes and a few things are abundantly clear:

  • Well-intentioned yet uninformed teachers can offend English language learners (ELLs) if they are not careful.
  • Some ELL students don't receive appropriate instruction for their intellectual level.
  • We feel a lot of anxiety when we don't know the language or culture of the country in which we are living—so much so that some of us stop trying. It takes a tremendous amount of energy and patience every day to remain attentive and engaged when you're learning a language, and some days ELL students are so emotionally drained they can't muster either one.

We need to be mindful of the emotions at play when asking students to do all this thinking aloud in a language and culture foreign to their own. Students are stressed not only about learning a new academic concept, but also about having to adjust to different cultural expectations in which they may not succeed.

Debra Coggins and her coauthors explain in English Language Learners in the Mathematics Classroom: "For students from cultures in which students are expected to wait to be asked before speaking, and where students are not expected to ask questions of elders, it is very important for the teacher to explicitly set the expectation for students to ask questions and express their opinions in the…classroom. Otherwise, classroom discourse becomes an exercise in trying to participate in a game where only others know the unwritten rules."

Simple Strategies

If we embrace the promise of America from its earliest roots, we realize that with the noted exception of native peoples, we are a nation of immigrants. What can those of us not trained in working with English language learners do in our regular classrooms to help them succeed?

Twenty minutes of empathetic reflection on the needs of ELL students yields some common sense responses that truly help them learn:

  1. Speak slowly and clearly.
  2. Repeat important words and information several times.
  3. Extend time for responding to prompts as necessary.
  4. Avoid using idioms and colloquialisms until students are more advanced with our culture; if we use them, we take the time to explain them.
  5. Gesture and point to what we are referring.
  6. Ask students to read text more than once.
  7. Label objects and concepts in the classroom frequently.
  8. Provide a lot of specific models, including hands-on experiences.
  9. Use visuals during instruction: pictures, illustrations, graphs, pictographs, as well as real objects.
  10. Frequently demonstrate what we mean, not just describe it.
  11. Make ELL students feel as though they belong and have a role to play in classroom learning. One way to do this is to find something in the student's background that connects to the topic we're studying.
  12. Use thinking aloud or self-talk to model the sequence of doing the task.
  13. Use cooperative learning groups; let ELL students work with English-proficient partners.
  14. Let students draw responses occasionally instead of writing them; use more than one format for assessing students if the general approach won't allow ELL students to accurately portray what they know.
  15. Find ways to enable ELL students to demonstrate their intellectual skills and maintain dignity.
  16. Give students quick feedback on their word use: An ELL says in halting English, "This correct paper?" and we say in affirmation, "Yes, that is the correct paper. Thank you."
  17. Spend time before lessons on important topics to build a personal background in English language learners so they have an equal chance to attach new learning to what's already in their minds. This is good for all students, not just ELLs, of course. If we're about to teach students about magnetic fields, for example, we can let them play with magnets, lightly pouring iron shavings near their poles to watch their pattern of dispersal or gathering.
  18. Stay focused on how ELL students are doing toward reaching their learning goals, not how they're doing in relation to other students. This is huge. We remove all hope when we ceaselessly cajole ELL students into proficiency by comparing them to language-proficient students.
  19. Recognize the difference between conversational language and academic language and that students need help with both; learning one does not mean you've learned the other.
  20. Take the time to learn about English language learners' home countries. This engenders good will and allows you to make connections in the curriculum.

In addition, in English Language Learners in the Mathematics Classroom, the authors remind us to

  • Invite ELL students to learn and explore ideas in their own languages first, then translate them to English
  • Provide ELL students with response stems, such as, "One thing that I learned was … ."
  • Ask students to restate classmates' comments as they begin their own comments
  • Relate concepts in story format before specific instruction.

Stephen Cary, author of Working with English Language Learners: Answers to Teachers' Top Ten Questions favors authentic talk over compliance talk. "Authentic talk" refers to real conversations about real topics to satisfy real needs, even when this includes the incorporation of local colloquialisms, phrasings, and terms. Consider the value of this dialogue:

  • Where can I buy soccer cleats? Mine are too old. I can't turn fast in them. I'm the sweep this weekend.
  • Wow, I hate playing sweep. I'm a mid-fielder.
  • I can't play mid-field very well. It's too tiring. You have to be everywhere.
  • Yeah, but you can get the other team off sides.
  • Sometimes, but I don't think about that a lot. So, the cleats?
  • Oh yeah. Over at Fair Oaks Mall, there's a sports store near the soft pretzel shop.

Students need plenty of experiences with real conversations.

Something Else to Consider

Some people—educators included—equate low language proficiency with diminished mental function. Because teachers are so accustomed to using verbal and written responses as students' manifestation of internal thought, they think ELL students are not capable of abstract or sophisticated thinking because their words are not abstract or sophisticated. As a result, they don't ask ELL students to make comparisons, analyze data, connect ideas, synthesize concepts, or evaluate performances. By not pushing their ELL students this way, teachers allow these students to fall further behind.

Add to this the reality that our society tends to be insensitive to those who do not speak our language well or who do not have our same cultural references.

Many English language learners who are employed in service positions such as custodian, stock clerk, construction worker, and housekeeper have extraordinary depth, complexity, and rich educational backgrounds but are doing these jobs because their lack of language skills prevents them from working in other positions.

One year, I taught a student whose family escaped from brutality in former Romania. The student's parents had been math professors at prestigious universities in Romania. Here in the United States, however, the student's father was cleaning offices in the building next to my school and the mother was teaching English at the local library.

Even ELL students who are not from such academically advanced families think in wonderfully imaginative ways, often beyond what can be expressed in English.

To not include metaphors and analogies in ELL students' learning experiences due to language struggles is like assuming they don't know how to feed themselves because they don't eat the same food we do. It's pompous, and it denies ELL students their basic instruction. We can't save advanced thinking only for advanced language proficiency students.

Freeing Learners to Learn

Nearing the end of our first full decade in the 21st century, it is no longer acceptable to consider ELL students as someone else's problem or beyond our instruction. They are just as much a part of the modern teacher's daily commitment as taking attendance and making sure students have their supplies.

We have effective tools for the regular education teacher to help ELL students find every success in our schools. It's time to free them from what lack of language proficiency would impose.

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, April 2009


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