Having students in our classes who are brand new to the English language can be tricky. However, we teachers are a crazy smart bunch, and we can definitely find effective ways to support these kiddos!
I always try to keep in mind how nervous these students must be; they probably won’t ask for help. Not only because they’re scared, but also because they don’t know how. That’s why I try to always be extremely proactive.
Here’s a list of some things we can do as teachers to help support beginning English language learners in our classes.
USE LOTS OF VISUALS
When students come to us with little to no English, a great way to support them is by using visuals. Depending on grades/ages/subjects taught, this will look different for everyone.
A great way to include visuals is to include a picture next to each vocabulary word for a subject or unit. You can also have students draw their own.
Before starting a new unit, I’ll often give my ELL students a dictionary which has them draw a picture and write the definition in their home language. If there’s time, and if they’re ready, I’ll also have them write the definition in English. This helps them follow along better during the unit, since I can’t differentiate every single lecture, lesson, task, and so on (as much as I’d like to).
Having visuals up on the board when you’re teaching is also a good way to help out, not only your ELL students, but a ton of others who also learn in a variety of ways. Draw a diagram or an example to help illustrate and clarify what you’re speaking about to help out your students.
When I taught elementary students with severe learning disabilities, I had a visual for everything. I would put pictures up of the supplies they needed for a lesson, pictures of other classrooms, etc. Now, this may be a little young for older kids, but wherever you can squeeze in visual support, it’s really going to help those kiddos who are developing language skills.
PACE YOUR INSTRUCTION
Make sure you’re not going through your lessons, lectures, activities, and so on too quickly. A lot of teachers, especially new teachers, get very worried about “dead air time”. That time when you’re waiting for the class to settle down or for a hand to raise to answer a question.
Don’t be afraid of silence or always being “on”.
All our kids need a chance to pause and absorb what you’ve taught. They need something for it to “attach” to in their memories and prior knowledge.
This takes time for all students, but especially for those who are beginning to learn English and are, generally, missing a bunch of vocabulary, may not have the same background knowledge as other students, and trying to translate between languages in their heads. Go just a little bit slower to ensure all your students are up to speed.
If you’re speaking to your class without using visuals or gestures, chances are you’re beginning ELL students are lost.
Using gestures when you speak is a helpful visual to help keep them engaged. For example, pointing to items when you speak about them (like a computer, pencil, and so on) or illustrating action words (like jumping, running, and so on) are very helpful.
You may feel a little silly at first, but it’s going to really help. If you just tell your class that you try to use gestures, visuals, examples, and so on when you teach in order to ensure everyone knows what’s going on, they’ll get used to you doing silly things like hopping around the room. Plus, they’ll get a kick out of it!
USE SAME-LANGUAGE GROUPINGS
When we have students who are first beginning to learn English, we often feel it will be beneficial to just thrust them into all-English-speaking groups so that they will be exposed to the language. However, if they’re brand new to the language, they are most likely not only going to be extremely confused, but also too shy to say anything or build any peer connections.
Instead, if you have fellow students who speak the same language, try to put them together. This way, students who are more advanced in English can help support those who are at the beginning stages. Also, it may help new students form bonds with fellow students in a new setting.
Having students explain rules, vocabulary, assignments, and so on will help newer students build language skills, friendships, and the confidence to take more risks as they become more comfortable in your class.
USE HOME LANGUAGE WHEN POSSIBLE
Just like when using same-language groupings, it’s extremely helpful for beginning English language learners to have access to their home language when possible.
Of course, this can be much easier if their first language is something like Spanish, French, Tagalog, or another language with a lot of resources or a lot of students at your school community who speak the same language.
This year, I’ve been pulling my hair out trying to find supports for beginning students who speak Tigrinya; we hardly even have enough translators for parent teacher conferences!
Providing students with instructions, vocabulary, and so on in their home language makes it much easier for them to figure out how to complete tasks, understand classroom routines, and start to be able to attend to some of the curriculum.
Allowing students to use digital or physical translators is a must for beginning language learners!
There’s only so much we can provide in our end without being fluent in their home language, or not having enough time to prepare every single assignment, task, and so on with vocabulary and translations.
I often find that many of my brand new students are very hesitant to use translators. They don’t want to look different or “dumb” compared to their peers, especially as they’re trying to navigate a new school, culture, and language; they want to make friends!
Really trying to push translators on students, or having peers show that it’s “normal” can help here.
Of course, it always depends on the student themselves, don’t give up though and resign to “they just won’t use the translator”, it’s such an important tool to help them navigate. They can pull Google translator right up on their phone and it will just look to peers like they’re searching for a song.
If we’re just relying on explaining tasks orally and with written instructions, our English language learners are going to be lost, especially if they’re brand new to English. Instead, make sure you also include visuals and examples of what is required.
For example, instead of just saying “spin two times”, give the instruction and then model the action. Show students how to fold or cut how you expect them to do so.
Display how you expect math equations to be solved.
Illustrate how to highlight vocabulary. I could go on and on here.
This is a basic strategy that works for all students, but often we get so caught up in what we’re doing and talking about that we simply forget to do it. Try to mentally remind yourself to stay on top of this and you’ll be helping out every single student in your class, not just the English language learners.
PRACTICE DAILY ROUTINES
As mentioned above, our beginning English language learners often do not want to stick out from their peers. They want to look “normal”, fit in, and make friends.
If these kiddos don’t know what classroom expectations and routines are, they’re probably going to feel out of place. They also may be too embarrassed or shy to ask for help. Or, they may not even know how to ask for help.
Make sure class expectations and routines are as consistent as possible and practice these with newcomers so that they know what to expect. They are new to your school and learning a new culture; they may need support around things like where to hang coats, what recess is, how to use cutlery, where the bathrooms are, and so on.
If you have a consistent routine each day, it will make things far easier for all your students, not just English language learners. Posting the routine and expectations, along with visuals and times, is also really helpful. This way, students can simply glance at the schedule and know what’s going on.
This strategy can help English language learners a lot, as well as any students with anxiety, students on the Autism spectrum, and so on.
ALLOW FOR WAIT TIME
Students who are new to learning English are generally translating what you’ve said in their heads, then translating their answers from their home language to English; they definitely won’t be able to process what you’ve asked and give their answer as quickly as native English speakers.
Like I mentioned above, don’t be afraid of silence when addressing the whole class, a small group, or an individual student. Instead, let all your kids really think about what you’ve asked and have time to process and think of an appropriate answer.
This strategy will definitely aid your ELL students as they learn a new language, as well as other students who may just need a bit more time to think.
Even really strong students can also benefit from just a little more time to think and play around with different ideas.
WORK 1-1 WHEN YOU CAN
Of course, it can be difficult to work one-on-one with students when we have large classes and little time, but it’s always a strategy that works when possible.
Students who are new to the country and language often need a lot of extra support.
Being able to sit with them and work on things like vocabulary, readings, writing and so on are highly valuable. Plus, you’ll be able to build a connection with these kiddos which will help them feel more at ease at school and in the classroom.
If you have educational assistant or parent volunteer time, it’s always great to have them work with newcomers. Even better, if you can swing it, have your educational assistant or parent volunteer monitor the class while you work one-on-one with students who need support.
A great time for this is during tests; your new English language learners likely won’t be writing tests yet, so you can work with them while another adults walks up and down aisles and answers any questions they’re able to.
Last but not least, using videos in your classes is a great way to help your beginning English language learners. There can be a stigma that showing videos in class is for “lazy” teachers. I’m here today to tell you that that is bullshit.
Sure, if you base all of your lessons on just showing a video and then asking kids to work based off of it, that’s hella lazy. But, using videos to supplement your teaching is highly effective.
Use videos to help students really understand a concept; they use both vocals and visuals to get points across. Plus, it’s an additional source for kids to understand.
Some students may be lost when you’re teaching, but a video can provide a connection in their brains that are necessary for lasting knowledge. Additionally, videos can provide more clear imagery to help clarify any questions students may have.
Don’t be afraid of the “lazy teacher” stigma, videos are extremely helpful for both English language learners and the other kiddos in your class.
Well, what do you think? Are these useful? Is there anything else you use in your class to help out beginning English language learners? Let me know in the comments!
Enjoyed this? Here are some other blog posts on Katie is a Teacher you may like:
Want even more? Here are some Katie is a Teacher resources you may be interested in: