Sunday, January 17, 2016

Ten Teacher Tips: Engaging English Language Learners

In any classroom one of the most important things a teacher can do is get to know their students. It is critical teachers not only know their students' strengths, weaknesses, learning styles and needs, but also their likes, dislikes and "emotional backpack" they carry with them to school. This is a term that I learned in one of my undergraduate courses that has really stuck with me. Children come to school with their backpack full of homework and school supplies but they also come to school with an invisible or emotional backpack that holds their background, life events and feelings they may have that will affect them at school. Teachers must get the time to get to know their students and these backpacks in order to cater to their needs and ensure meaningful learning is going on in their classroom.

Before I started my teaching block I had several days of observation which were incredibly helpful. I was able to sit back and watch my associate teacher teach, while helping with small assessment tasks on the side; this played a huge part in getting to know my learners before I even taught them.

After the first day of observation it became apparent to me that very few of my students spoke English at home. Even for the children who spoke English fairly well, it was not their first language. I soon found out that within this class only two of my students did not qualify for ESL (English as a Second Language) help - however, only 4 students were actually able to receive this extra help because of staffing. It got me thinking, how am I going to keep these students engaged when they may not even understand what I am saying?

I began to think about when my sister talks to me about her University program. My sister is studying math and she will ramble on and on about formulas and equations; I find that eventually I stop listening because I just cannot seem to understand what she is talking about. Well this is what I feared for my students. I did not want them to become bored and disengaged when I taught them. I wanted them to gain meaningful learning experiences where they were not bored, confused and therefore acting out. Rather, I wanted them to understand what I was saying, be engaged in what I was saying and therefore be able to add what I was teaching to their existing body of knowledge. That is when I decided to focus some attention on researching this topic.

Keeping all of my students engaged was a top priority for me. I knew my students would not be learning what I wanted them to without getting and keeping their attention. So during my observation days I began to take thorough notes about instructional strategies my associate teacher was using to engage the students regardless of their level of English. I didn't want to stop here, so I started to do some research on engaging ELLs (English Language Learners). I looked at many teacher blogs to see what other teachers had tried. I also found many of the Ministry of Education's resources to be extremely helpful.

Now as you know, I am just a teacher candidate. I have only finished one teaching block and by no means am I an expert.. but I would love to share the findings of this research project in hopes that you can use some of these strategies in your own classroom. Rather than write you a lengthy report detailing my observations, online and print sources, I decided to summarize my findings in the form of some teacher tips.

From my observations, research and addressing my own challenges, I have come up with ten tips for engaging English language learners in the 21st century classroom that really helped me - I hope you find them helpful as well!

1. Know Your Students
Like I mentioned, it is essential that teachers are taking the time to get to know each and every one of their students on both an academic and personal level. When teaching ELLs it is important a teacher gets to know each students proficiency in English; this will make designing lessons and differentiating instruction easier to do prior to the lesson.

It is also important that you do not limit these students based on their English proficiency, you should be setting high but attainable expectations for them similar to the rest of the students; just because they may not be able to communicate in English, does not mean they do not understand the content.

2. Create a Welcoming Environment
It's important that all students feel welcome in any classroom; this can be a challenge when students don't speak the language of their peers. You may fill your classroom with motivational posters - but what do these do for children who can't read and understand them?

Try and create print-rich environments where students can relate to the visuals posted around the room. This may include putting labels on everyday classroom furniture and items (i.e. desk, door, etc.) This will help your students as they begin to read English. Including clear and coherent schedules for student reference is also a great way to engage ELLs - it is not uncommon for ELLs to have come to Canada from a different country. Using visual schedules will help them to develop routine and learn what to expect each day at school.

Pronounce your students' names correctly! I know for me, nothing makes me feel more unwelcome than someone not knowing my name. This may seem straight forward, but it is critical in developing a positive rapport. Take the time to understand how to pronounce your students' names, you may even want to write your own pronunciation beside their names on your own notes at the beginning of the year, this will make the student feel welcome and a part of the class.

3. Watch Your Language
It's easy for those of us who are fluent in English to ramble on using complex words. It's always important we're using appropriate language, tone and speed when talking to our students but we must be increasingly aware when we have students in our classes that are learning English. It is important that we slow down our speech, simplify our vocabulary and frequently check in with students to ensure comprehension.

It's important that we give clear instructions and always model the correct pronunciation of words. In addition, we must watch our use of common expressions - this was a challenge for me! For example, if you tell a child who is just learning English that their nose is running, they will likely be confused as their nose is still on their face and doesn't have the legs to go anywhere!

4. Use Collaborative Learning
Working in small groups or in pairs may be intimidating for children who don't speak English, however, it can also be a fantastic socialization experience. From my own experience in my teaching block, I found that students often learned English best when engaging with their peers in lunch time or recess discussions. Having students collaborate in the classroom allows this dialogue to take place.

There may also be times when you may have bilingual students in your class. If your ELLs speak this language, your bilingual students can be a great tool to ensure your ELLs feel welcome and understand all of the work they are doing in your class. I was fortunate enough to be able to use this strategy during my own teaching block and it is definitely one that works very well.

5. Be Organized!
It's important for all teachers to be organized, but when addressing the needs of ELLs it's critical you stay on top of your classroom work and routines. As I have mentioned, keeping routine in the classroom can contribute to making learners feel welcome. It will help students to feel comfortable as they learn to anticipate what is coming in a day without surprising them or taking them off guard. Keeping effective and meaningful routines comes from the organization of the teacher.

It's also important you are staying on top of assessment, taking anecdotal notes and always being aware of your students' progress. We cannot place a label on ELLs and continue to teach them in the same way - always being aware of how they are progressing will allow you to cater your instruction to their individual needs. Being organized will allow you to prepare for this prior to your lessons, rather than having to make last minute changes.

6. Find the Right Resources
In the technological era we live in, we can simply conduct a Google search where hundreds of thousands of resources are at our finger tips...however this can become overwhelming. There are so many resources out there to help us engage ELLs that we have to look carefully to find the right ones for our students.

Bilingual dictionaries and books can work to help students better understand a book the class may be studying. There are many apps, computer programs and websites that can also be of assistance to helping your ELLs learn English: Starfall, Reading A-Z, Everything ESL...just to name a few.

It goes with being organized, we must seek out these resources and use them meaningfully in order to really benefit our students. A great place to start is with the Ministry of Education's resource: Supporting English Language Learners: A Practical Guide for Ontario Educators. This is where I initially started doing my research during my practicum block and it was extremely helpful! Ontario's Ministry of Education has quite a few resources to help teachers with my very research topic, I definitely recommend checking them out.

7. Use a Variety of Mediums in Each Lesson
It's important that you're not delivering instructions or lessons in a single manner when trying to engage ELLs. If you are simply speaking or writing in English, they will likely become disengaged as they will not comprehend what is going on. Use a variety of mediums in every lesson so that they gain an understanding of course content or task instructions. What really worked for me was always using pictures and visual representations. Though I'm not much of an artist, when writing words on the board I would draw a picture beside them. Regardless if the child could read or understand the word I was talking about, they could always recognize the picture.

I would also model tasks as I would explain them, this way students could make a connection between my actions and words. Another great strategy I found was not only using pictures and actions, but real life objects. When I taught the grade one unit on materials, objects and structures, I brought in a box full of items made out of different materials like wood, rubber, plastic, glass, etc. As a class we sorted them to identify the materials; my students who barely spoke a word of English still learned to identify the materials correctly.

Finally, another medium that I found really worked was the use of musical chants. Singing content matter is a way to engage ELLs because it can be easier to pick up on in comparison to lengthy explanations. I taught my grade one students a short chant to the tune of Three Blind Mice so that they could remember the primary colours. When I conducted an oral assessment of which students could identify these colours, I found it was mostly the ELLs who would reference the song when I asked them - it was a great learning tool.

8. Differentiate, Differentiate, Differentiate!
Along with using a variety of mediums it is ESSENTIAL we are differentiating our instruction. There are endless accommodations we can use to ensure our ELLs are being taught and assessed fairly. It's important we allow students to demonstrate their understanding of a concept in alternative ways, this may be through drawing a picture or attempting to provide an oral explanation rather than a written report. I found in my own experiences, my grade one ELLs excelled with a combination of drawing and explaining their picture to me. The dialogue and discussion we would have about their picture was sometimes difficult for me to understand but it was a great learning experience for us both, I would help them find the right English words and they would help me to learn effective strategies to communicate with them.

Another strategy I have also read about to differentiate for older students is allowing students to research a topic in their first language, and then summarizing it for the teacher in a few English sentences. You can even check your students' research by simply putting it into an online translator to make sure they are on the right track (note: the accuracy of these translators tends to be literal and varies in accuracy).

9. Incorporate Multicultural Education
It's always important for your students to be able to relate to the content being taught in the classroom. When you have students from a variety of backgrounds, regardless if they speak English, you should always incorporate multicultural education.

I found a great way to engage my ELLs in my practice teaching was to use pictures and words to find things they could recognize and relate to. For example, when teaching healthy eating, we did not focus on the foods in Canada's food guide, but we used the portion and food groups and looked up pictures online of the foods they more commonly ate - this made the curriculum relatable and relevant for everyone!

10. Encourage the Use of Their First Language 
This was certainly a misconception for myself and I'm sure many other teachers and teacher candidates when finding out they would be teaching ELLs. I thought that there was such a focus on learning English in schools that the home was the place for the focus of the first language... however this is absolutely NOT the case. According to the Ontario Ministry of Education, there are countless positive outcomes for the student by promoting the use of the child's first language in addition to English including building confident learners, developing mental flexibility, experiencing a sense of cultural stability, developing awareness of global issues and more.

I found it wasn't uncommon for students in my placement class to be asked to speak English to each other rather than their first language by school personnel. However, in my research I learned that it's incredibly important we promote the use of both languages in a child's life. It is important that students learn English but being bilingual is a highly beneficial skill that will also keep them connected to their family and culture. One strategy I read about but did not have the opportunity to try myself was to assign certain tasks in English and others for the child to do in their first language; this may be tasks like research, journal writing or even reading books if you can get a hold of them in the child's first language.

A year ago I had the opportunity to teach English in Lima, Peru where children spoke only Spanish. This was an amazing learning experience and ignited my passion for teaching ELLs. A quote I always like to remember is "fairness is not sameness". Students don't always have to do their work or be assessed in the same manner for it to be fair. This belief of mine was only reaffirmed through my experiences with ELLs.

I hope that some of these tips and tricks will help you in your own practice. But please check out some of the great resources I found to help me in my own teaching, I hope you will find them as helpful as I did.

Ontario Ministry of Education Documents:
Supporting English Language Learners: A practical guide for Ontario Educators

English Language Learners ESL and ELD Programs and Services

Supporting English Language Learners with Limited Prior Schooling

Steps to English Proficiency 

Other Teacher Resources:
4 Strategies to Help ELLs in the Mainstream Classroom 

Engaging English Language Learners in Your Classroom 

Everything ESL

Student Resources:

Reading A-Z

Storyline Online