Do you work with English Language Learners? Do you have students struggling with writing? These tips will help all your students especially those learning to speak and write in English as a second language (or third, or fourth…).
Teaching English Language Learners
In 2002, I moved to a school with more than 80% English Language Learners. I learned more in my first year working with these students than I did in my previous 4 years teaching. I’ve had the pleasure of working at this school ever since and seeing first hand the impact that quality instruction and dedication can have.
I tear up sitting here thinking of students that entered our school as silent students afraid to speak up in class that I’ve seen recently and spoken to about how much they love college. There is something beautiful about helping students find their voice.
Recently, I’ve seen a few people asking for advice on working with English Language Learners. I realized that I have never really blogged specifically about teaching ELLs. They are such a huge part of what I do, it never really occurred to me to single them out. I thought a bit about doing a post about SDAIE strategies, but I don’t really want to tell you what you can find in a book or on Google. The thing is, all the strategies I’ve learned to help teach my English Language Learners, help all of my students. Really it is just good, clear, focused instruction.
The Power of Complete Sentences
The best strategy our school ever implemented was committing to requiring students to speak in complete sentences.
It sounds so simple, and when we first decided to do it, I thought nothing would change in my classroom. I thought I was already doing it. But, as I began to pay attention with this new goal in mind, I realized that there was a lot of room for growth.
When asking a simple math question like what is two plus two, students tend to answer 4. Now, I prompt them to say, “Two plus two is four.”
It is an easy change to make. You tell students that from now on, we will speak in complete sentences. Then, when a student says something that isn’t a complete sentence, you prompt them with a sentence starter.
The teacher asks, “What is your favorite food?” The student replies, “Pizza.” The teacher prompts, “My favorite …” The student says, “My favorite food is pizza.”
Our school made this commitment many years ago. It has become habit. I rarely have to prompt a student. Often times, I hear students provide sentence starters for each other during group discussions.
This strategy is powerful for many reasons. Newcomers and English Language Learners have the opportunity to hear complete sentences throughout the day. Students who are used to speaking in complete sentences find answering questions in complete sentences easier. Teachers can hear which grammar or syntax issues students have when they are speaking which can help them plan writing mini-lessons.
Of course, we want students to move beyond speaking in complete sentences. We want them to write them as well. One simple, yet powerful strategy is to have students find the words they need to answer the question in the body of the question.
This seems like a very simple skill at a first grade writing level. However, our English Language Learners struggle with which words to include. I created this resource to use with some sixth graders and many of them would start the sentence, “When the party starts is…” Taking the time teach this to these kids (many of whom have been redesignated and read on grade level) helps them to improve their writing.
Use Visual Support: Pictures, Videos, & Graphic Organizers
Ever felt like the teacher from Charlie Brown standing at the front of the class?
It only takes one day of professional development to realize why kids don’t grasp everything that is said to them. Visuals are a HUGE help in any lesson, but critical for English Language Learners.
When I first started teaching, I used to spend hours prepping visuals for my class. I’d look at upcoming lessons and pull out all the vocabulary words that I thought might be new and find books, magazine pictures, and such to provide visual support.
Technology has made providing visuals so much easier! Now, a kid asks me a random question like, “What is a water buffalo?” and I can ask Siri to show me pictures of water buffalo. My lesson prep has changed. Now, I can find pictures in seconds. I also love to set up video play lists and keep helpful websites handy. Of course, we all know that internet searches can turn up some interesting results. So, gathering resources while students aren’t looking can be important.
But, sometimes, we want them to find the answers and visuals to support their learning. I love KidRex for this.
My favorite resource for videos is Kids National Geographic.
Want to get kids engaged in something? Let the read and write while looking at pictures and videos of animals!
Recently, I’ve fallen in love with creating digital resources for my students. One of the reasons I love it so much is watching how enthusiastic kids are looking at full color pictures and videos.
My sentence writing and paragraph writing resources use animal photographs to engage their interest.
Recently, I’ve been working with 2nd graders who were struggling to write paragraphs. I created a digital resource for them and as soon as they saw the pictures, they were excited to write.
The graphic organizers, however, are key. They help break the writing up into smaller manageable chunks. Students go from listing answers to questions, turning the list into a sentence, and then the sentences into paragraphs.
Add in the option to print when finished (thanks to HP InstaInk) and I had the hardest working group I’d seen in a long time!
Focus on Content
Writing can be a daunting task for English Language Learners and struggling writers. The fear of making mistakes can be paralyzing.
One simple strategy for teachers is to separate content from conventions on any rubric you use. If students who struggle with spelling and grammar mistakes, have a separate score for their ideas and structure, they have the opportunity to be successful.
Once students start to see that conventions are not everything, they can begin writing without the fear of mistakes. Then you can set small incremental goals for improving conventions.
Right Click to Fix
Another way to take the fear out of writing is letting students know how they can easily make corrections.
When I was a kid, I would completely change what I was planning to write if I didn’t know how to spell a word. I don’t want my students to be afraid to use new words.
One way to alleviate that fear is to create a culture where mistakes are no big deal. Students are so excited when I show them that they can right click on a word to fix it in Google Slides.
One great feature available in Google Docs is Voice Typing. You speak and Google writes what you say.
It is quick and easy to use!
I know it can be scary to think about your students using voice recognition when you want them to learn to write their own words. But, as with any tool in your classroom, you can set the boundaries about when to use this tool.
Do you have that student that just sits there when it is time to write but talks and talks and talks at other times? This tool could help him see that writing is just an extension of talking.
This can be a great tool to teach about editing. You can have students read something from a book and then go back in red and add punctuation and fix mistakes when a different word was heard.
I’m a little bummed that the Voice Tool in Google Slides automatically goes to the speak notes. But, kids can copy paste from their into a presentation.
What is your favorite strategy?
I’d love to hear your ideas. Let me know what works for you in the comments or on social media. 🙂