Lessons from behind the scenes of ESL

ELL students are a unique challenge for many teachers. The older the student, the bigger the challenge it seems. Young students pick up a new language quickly the more they are immersed in the language. As many of their peers are also learning and experimenting with language and meaning, the have the opportunity to practice in a safe and differentiated environment.  When you reach high school, content is key and process is focused. There isn’t time for students to learn a language and curriculum.

The question then becomes how to best support those students. When I first started in my role this year, I searched for the magic solution to support my students and my colleagues. After many frustrations, I realized the answer isn’t so simple.

Key factors to student success seem to be:

  • Instructional organization
    • Not just small class sizes or pullout groups but a multi-faceted and flexible collaborative environment tailored to the different needs of the individuals.
  • Teacher Knowledge
    • Teachers don’t have all the answers but they need to be open to learning and trying new things. They also need to be open to being wrong. Solutions are rarely straight forward and I have yet to see the same strategies work for multiple students.
  • Patience
    • Research shows that students first need to develop the Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills that lead to socialization before they can develop Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. It is also found that students take 5-7 years to develop these skills and can often appear to be “stuck” in different phases of their development.
  • Relationships
    • Students need to know that you care, that you understand, and they need to know they can trust you. This MUST come before they are willing to take the risk of learning a new language.

So what do we do? Well, there is no magic answer. This year I developed a pyramid of interventions and strategies for my colleagues to help support them with this journey. I offer my colleagues support and mini-workshops on using the benchmarks, and I read – A LOT! Still, I do not have all the answers. The ESL gurus (such as Larry Ferlazzo) are always learning and growing in their practice. In one of his latest posts, he writes “We’ll see for how long it’s effective, but it certainly can’t hurt….”

Patience, always learning, trying new things, and tenacity are my super secret tips I can share with you for now. Context is key and adaptability is a necessity.

How do you support ELL students in your classroom?

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