What makes instruction different for English Language Learners? Well, the learners themselves, of course. English Language Learners (ELLs) are not all the same. They represent different cultures, different learning styles and different levels of English language knowledge. Attending to these differences involves utilizing some differentiation strategies.
This allows ELLs to work as a member of a group, and to have the choice to display their learning in a visual or physical mode, if they are not yet ready to share it in a written mode.[Sousa and Tomlinson, 2011, p. 157]
First, acknowledge the different cultures present in your classroom. How do you do this? Have books from and about these cultures. Put up pictures about the cultures and respect the cultural differences of your students. On that last one, you may have to do without eye contact from students whose culture teaches them that to look authority figures or older people in the eye are disrespectful.
Second, recognize that all learners, not just ELLs, learn differently and need a chance to approach the content from those different styles. You can at least approach your teaching from the visual, auditory or kinesthetic styles. Allow learners to paint or draw their responses, to do storytelling or use audio books, and to role play or use physical responses. No matter what style your ELLs have, you will need to speak slowly and enunciate, to model how to complete tasks — using plenty of gestures — and use graphic organizers and other visuals to support lessons.
Third, you will need to do plenty of observation to determine where your ELLs are in terms of their second language acquisition. Generally, students move through five stages while developing English language proficiency:
- Preproduction. Students observe and internalize the new language, using nonverbal cues such as pointing and gesturing.
- Early production. They will use yes/no responses and single words to communicate.
- Speech emergence. They will use simple sentences to communicate.
- Intermediate fluency. They can handle some social language situations, and state opinions or ask for clarification.
- Continued language development. This is where students start to develop academic vocabulary and participate in classroom activities, with support for comprehension.
Finally, you will need to use plenty of differentiation strategies to fully engage your ELLs at all stages of their language development.
Many of these strategies will benefit all of your students, but especially your ELLs. Since all of your learners, not just the ELLs, will learn at a different pace, it is important that you build in appropriate anchor activities. “Anchors are specifically designed activities that aid in deepening student understanding of content while enhancing language skills.” [Haley, 2010, p. 16]
Anchor activities should not be just “busywork,” but built around the content to be taught and practiced ahead of time so students can complete them without teacher help. They might be things like creating a PowerPoint presentation on the topic, journal writing, interest centers, listening stations or creating games/books.
Once you have the anchor activities in place, students should understand any time they finish their assigned work, they can go back to working on one of the anchor activities. This frees you up to differentiate the content, the process or the product for them.
One of the easiest ways to differentiate the content is to provide multiple texts around the same topic. Have texts available at different Lexile levels, including picture books for those ELLs at the preproduction stage. All of the texts should include information on topic, but just at different reading levels, so students can “enter” the content from an appropriate spot for them. Another way to differentiate the content is to present it in different styles: books to read, books to listen to and movies to watch, etc.
Allowing students to learn individually, in pairs, or in small groups can differentiate the process. Pairing an ELL with an accomplished English speaker helps to ensure they can tackle the task. Doing some “Think-Pair-Share” work allows each learner to contribute in the discussion. In this way, each learner thinks about the content they have been taught, talks with a partner about it, and then one of them shares out with the large group their thoughts. This would allow an ELL learner who is still learning the English language to share their knowledge, but not to have to be the one who shares it out loud with the whole class.
The product can be differentiated by allowing learners to share out their learning through a variety of modes. Another good way for ELLs to get involved is to be a part of a “synthesis group”:
- The teacher selects four students who tend to approach learning or express themselves differently to work together in a synthesis group.
- The group is given a specified amount of time to agree upon the meaning of the content and to express that meaning in three different modes.
- Each group shares out with other groups, and chooses the best example from each group to be shared out with the whole group.
English Language Learners still need to learn the content, but the above methods allow for them to learn it at their own pace and in their own way. Also, giving the ELLs ways to work with other students, but not always be put in the “spotlight” and have to share with the whole group will give them more comfort. ELLs need to be given the opportunity to learn all of the important content being taught in the classroom, but in their own ways, and in their own time.