3 Things You Need to Know About Your English Language Learners

July 19, 2017

By Jacqueline Valenzuela, Second Grade Teacher, Marquette School of Excellence, Chicago IL

Teaching an English Language Learner can be a challenge, especially if you don’t have experience with your students’ native language.

As a second grade bilingual teacher, I have students who are all over the spectrum in their English proficiency. Some are highly proficient in reading and writing English for their grade whereas others are just beginning to learn the language.

Having taught students from such diverse backgrounds and English proficiency levels, I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work when helping students reach grade-level proficiency.

Because of this, I’m often tracked down in the hallways by other teachers who want to know how to handle certain situations with their English Language Learner students. Sometimes the questions I receive are very specific and require a unique answer, but I’ve noticed that many of my answers fall into the realm of three concepts. After taking some time to reflect on them, I thought it would be helpful to share the three things I think all teachers should know about their English Language Learner students.

1. It’s Important to Know Who They Are

As with any subject, knowing your students can help you tailor lessons to better fit their learning styles and personalities. English Language Learner students are no different. Taking the time to understand who they are as individuals, what their interests are, and what their family life is like will help you develop a stronger connection with them.

This connection is important because learning a new language puts people in a vulnerable place. Therefore, a strong level of trust is paramount to helping your English Language Learner students succeed.

“If they trust you, they will be more willing to attempt more difficult lessons and make mistakes they can grow from.”

In addition to building trust, knowing your students will also enable you to read them better. English Language Learner students may struggle to communicate what they’re feeling in English, but they have years of experience articulating their feelings with body language. I constantly ask myself, “What do they look like they’re understanding? What do they look like they’re not understanding? What do they look confused by? What do they look excited about?” Their body language is a great guide for determining when to slow down and provide additional support or when to move on.

2. Learning a Second Language is an Asset, Not a Deficiency

Many educators believe that having a native language other than English in U.S. schools is a deficiency. However, having a different native language in itself is not a deficiency. In fact, it’s an asset.

English Language Learner students already have a deep understanding of the world around them as well as a thorough understanding of how a language functions. They’re not trying to learn everything from scratch, they’re just trying to learn how to express what they know in a new language.

3. Watering Down Support is Counterproductive

As mentioned in point #2, if you believe your English Language Learner students are deficient simply because they have a different native language, you are inevitably going to provide support that is watered down. This starts a negative cycle for English Language Learner students because it means they will receive materials that are below grade-level and lack rigor.

This has a compounding effect and will cause English Language Learner students to become deficient down the road – not because they started with deficiencies, but because they haven’t received the challenging materials they deserved to grow to grade-level along the way.

When providing support, I like to think about what I can do to tap into the asset of their native language. English Language Learner students are great listeners and already have a wealth of knowledge about the world around them, so what I really need to do is create bridges between the world of knowledge they already have and the English language they’re learning.

Visuals, hand signs, and other interactive activities are great for this. For example, if we’re reading a story where a character takes something with their hand and my English Language Learner students already know what a hand is, I don’t need to pivot into a lesson to teach them what a hand is; they simply need a quick visual to make the connection that “hand” is the same thing as “mano.”

When English Language Learner students need support with a text, I often see teachers translate the text for the students. While well-intentioned, the translation is often at a lower level and doesn’t provide the student with an opportunity to grow. Instead, I recommend supporting students by providing an additional text in their native language that can be paired with the English text they’re learning in class. This will help them fill in the gaps and make stronger connections while maintaining rigor and academic vocabulary in both languages.

Finally, one of the most consistent ways that you can support your English Language Learner students is by speaking clearly. It’s incredibly frustrating for learning language to try and understand someone who talks quickly or slurs their words. For a non-native speaker, these types of speech patterns are challenging to decode and can cause simple language to be uninterpretable. Be mindful of speaking articulately at a moderate speed with clear starts and stops to each word.

The Key Takeaway

These three ideas may seem simple, but I believe implementing them will go a long way in helping your English Language Learner students achieve grade-level standards. Together, we need to remember that our students will often rise to the expectations that we set for them. Let’s make sure we hold our English Language Learner students to the same high standards that we expect of our native English speakers, and provide them with the appropriate support they need to get there.