Teaching English language learners: Non-negotiable teaching practices
Every time I start a workshop for teachers, or present at a conference, I start with the same photo of my former students in Whitehall City Schools. Underneath the photo, the caption reads, "Everything I learn about teaching ELLs, I learned it from these children"
Not only this is an homage to my former students who have taught me so much. But it's also my reminder to keep on listening to students. I won't deny that my college education was fantastic but my understandings, teaching practices and philosophies were actually developed in the company of my students.
My journey with ELLs began in 1999 and it hasn't stopped since then. After all these years of trials and errors, of learning, trying, revising and redefining my teaching, I feel strong writing the following statements that I have set up for myself when it comes to teaching ELLs. These are my 5 non-negotiables when it comes to working with English language learners.
1. Read aloud: regardless of the language proficiency of my students, I read aloud to my students every single day. No matter how busy we are. No matter if it's Field Day, Art Festival at school, I'll read aloud. If I have a class where all my students know only a couple of words in the English language, I'll read aloud. And we will read aloud the same book many times during the year.
2. Conferring: the beauty of classrooms where reading, writing, or math workshops happen, it's that conferring is at the heart of these workshop models. ELLs benefit tremendously from these few minutes of touching base with the teacher. Whether you are setting up language goals or academic goals, these minutes are precious for our ELLs as they are not only processing the language but also content. These one on one moment may give you an insight to their growth that you might not be able to see it during whole group instruction.
3. Learning how to pronounce names: this one is a big one for me! I have met students from all over the world and I've met children with so many beautiful names. Names are important. It's part of our identity, part of our story: past and present. It's important for me to make the effort to pronounce their names correctly. One tip I can share about learning correct pronunciations is using your smart phone to record their names so you can play it over and over. I ask my students to say their name on the memo app of my phone. This way, I can listen to it over and over. It works. :-)
4. Making sure they have access to books. I stand strong on this ground because I know reading makes a difference. It's easy to assume that nowadays everyone has access to a public library or digital access to books through tablets or smartphones. But the truth is that there are still many families who work two or three jobs. Thus, making it harder to attend a public library frequently. The same holds true for internet connection. Not everyone has access to it. So I would ask myself, "what systems can I put in place so this child has accessibility to books? Can I send books home? Is there another device I have access at school that might make the home/school bridge connection easier? What list of resources would family need to access?
5. Oral Language Development is integrated in all parts of my teaching. That is. There are several intentional oral language opportunities for children to interact, share, ask questions, practice, work with partners, show their thinking. Regardless of the students' language proficiency (expect for students who have just arrived and might still be in the silent period), students will be given daily and multiple opportunities to talk throughout the day. Why is this such an intentional practice? Well, first, they only way to learn a language is by using it. Second, if leaving alone, many English language learners will remain silent for a large chunk of the day unless encouraged to speak out. This is not an addition to the workshop model. It's something build in the structure of the day. There are so many interaction opportunities: the active involvement part of a mini lesson, after read alouds, partner working, sharing time, among others.
Throughout my teaching years, I have "tried" many things when it comes to teaching ELLs. But some of these "things" didn't stand on any philosophical ground. So, the results were not consistent. However, experience have taught me that when I learn my students' name correctly, I earn their trust. By conferring with them every day, I am showing one of the many ways I care about their learning (despite language barriers). By reading them aloud every day, at least three times a day, I know I am not only exposing them to great literature but I am also letting them absorb the English language in a natural way. By making sure they are conversing every day, I know they are not only growing in their language abilities but they are also being participant of their learning. And by making sure they have daily access to books at home and at school, I know I am nurturing the reader in themselves.