General Principles for Teaching ELL Students
Language acquisition theories have highlighted four key principles that can be directly applied to the mainstream classroom. These principles are important for all students, but are of particular importance to English language learners (Jameson, 1998).
Increase Comprehensibility: Drawing from Krashen’s theory of comprehensible input, this principle involves the ways in which teachers can make content more understandable to their students. With early to intermediate language learners, these include providing many nonverbal clues such as pictures, objects, demonstrations, gestures, and intonation cues. As competency develops, other strategies include building from language that is already understood, using graphic organizers, hands-on learning opportunities, and cooperative or peer tutoring techniques.
Increase Interaction: Drawing from Swain’s emphasis on comprehensible output, a number of strategies have been developed that increase students’ opportunities to use their language skills in direct communication and for the purpose of "negotiating meaning" in real-life situations. These include cooperative learning, study buddies, project-based learning, and one-to-one teacher/student interactions.
Increase Thinking/Study Skills: Drawing from Cummins’s theories of academic language and cognitively demanding communication, these strategies suggest ways to develop more advanced, higher order thinking skills as a student’s competency increases. Chamot and O’Malley (1994) developed the Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach (CALLA) mentioned above to bridge the gap between Cummins’s theories and actual classroom strategies. These include asking students higher order thinking questions (e.g., what would happen if…?), modeling "thinking language" by thinking aloud, explicitly teaching and reinforcing study skills and test-taking skills, and holding high expectations for all students.
Use a student’s native language to increase comprehensibility: Drawing from several different theories, including Krashen and Cummins, this principle also draws on a wealth of current research that has shown the advantage of incorporating a student’s native language into their instruction (Berman, Minicucci, McLaughlin, Nelson, & Woodworth, 1995; Lucas and Katz, 1994; Pease-Alvarez, Garcia & Espinosa, 1991; Thomas & Collier 1997). Thomas and Collier, for example, in their study of school effectiveness for language minority students, note that first-language support "explains the most variance in student achievement and is the most powerful influence on [ELL] students’ long term academic success" (p. 64). As mentioned in our section on instructional methods and models, using a student’s native language as a support can be seen as both a general method or as any of a number of specific strategies. Many of the strategies we list below include, implicitly or explicitly, the use of a student’s native language to increase his or her understanding.
A Sampling of Teaching Strategies
Below we list some strategies and approaches that numerous evidence-based sources suggest may be beneficial for students learning English as a second language. We advise the reader, however, that researchers have not found conclusive evidence that individual strategies will lead to higher student achievement or increased English proficiency. Although evidence-based research exists, methods of collecting the evidence vary. Much of the current research is based on surveys, case studies, correlational studies, and a few control-group studies. In educational settings, it has been difficult, if not impossible, to conduct random assignment studies.
With little conclusive evidence to go by, the research does suggest that some approaches may be more fruitful than others (August & Hakuta, 1997; Berman, et al.; Costantino, 1999; Derrick-Mescua, Grognet, Rodriquez, Tran, & Wrigley, 1998; Thomas & Collier, 2002, 1997; Wrigley, 2001). These strategies are rarely used in isolation, and some are more appropriate for certain age levels or language proficiency stages. This list is by no means comprehensive or exclusive. Our purpose in sharing this list is to give mainstream teachers a starting point for incorporating stragegies to use with their English language learners.
For more information on implementing these strategies in the classroom and the research-base of the effectiveness of the strategies, consult the resources listed in the Resources and References sections.
- Total Physical Response (TPR). Developed by James J. Asher in the 1960s, TPR is a language-learning tool based on the relationship between language and its physical representation or execution. TPR emphasizes the use of physical activity to increase meaningful learning opportunities and language retention. A TPR lesson involves a detailed series of consecutive actions accompanied by a series of commands or instructions given by the teacher. Students respond by listening and performing the appropriate actions (Asher, 2000a). Asher emphasizes that TPR can be the major focus of a language program or an extremely effective supplement, but that in order for it to be truly effective, training should include "a special course along with hands-on experience monitored by a senior instructor who is also skilled in the intricate applications of TPR" (par. 11). (For a detailed review of the research validating this approach, as well as sample lesson plans and examples of how to use it in the classroom, see Asher, 2000b.)
- Cooperative Learning. Robert E. Slavin (1995) has shown cooperative learning can be effective for students at all academic levels and learning styles. Other research indicates that cooperative learning can be an "effective vehicle for learning content and learning in a second language" (Calderon, 2001; Cohen, Lotan, Scarloss, & Arellano, 1999; McGroarty, 1989, as cited in Calderon, 2001, p. 280). Cooperative learning involves student participation in small-group learning activities that promote positive interactions. As Cochran (1989) notes, "Cooperative learning makes sense for teachers who have LEP pupils in their classes because all students are given frequent opportunities to speak and because a spirit of cooperation and friendship is fostered among classmates." Through a shared learning activity, students benefit from observing learning strategies used by their peers. ELL students can benefit from face-to-face verbal interactions, which promote communication that is natural and meaningful (Johnson, Johnson & Holubec, 1994; Kagan, 1994). Calderon suggests that "cooperative learning is effective when students have an interesting well-structured task such as a set of discussion questions around a story they just read, producing a cognitive map of the story, or inventing a puppet show to highlight character traits" (2001, p. 280).
- Language Experience Approach (also known as Dictated Stories). This approach uses students’ words to create a text that becomes material for a reading lesson (Carrasquillo & Rodriguez, 2002). Students describe orally a personal experience to a teacher or peer. The teacher or another student writes down the story, using the student’s words verbatim. The teacher/student then reads the story back as it was written, while the student follows along. Then the student reads the story aloud or silently. Other follow-up activities can be done with this approach. In this way, students learn how their language is encoded as they watch it written down, building sight word knowledge and fluency as they use their own familiar language. This approach allows students to bring their personal experiences into the classroom—especially important for culturally diverse students (Peterson, Caverly, Nicholson, O’Neal, & Cusenbary, 2000).
- Dialogue Journals (Also known as Interactive Journals). This approach is a way for teachers to engage students in writing. Students write in a journal, and the teacher writes back regularly, responding to questions, asking questions, making comments, or introducing new topics. Here the teacher does not evaluate what is written, but models correct language and provides a nonthreatening opportunity for ELL students to communicate in writing with someone proficient in English, and to receive some feedback (Peyton, 2000; Reid, 1997). Reid’s literature review and her action research project show dialogue journaling with a teacher to be beneficial in improving spelling and fluency.
- Academic Language Scaffolding. The term "scaffolding" is used to describe the step-by-step process of building students’ ability to complete tasks on their own (Gibbons, 2002). Academic language scaffolding draws on Cummins’s research into Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency that we described above (Chamot & O’Malley, 1994; Cummins, 1981). Scaffolding actually consists of several linked strategies, including modeling academic language; contextualizing academic language using visuals, gestures, and demonstrations; and using hands-on learning activities that involve academic language. These strategies are a central part of sheltered instruction methods, but can be used in any classroom context. (See Gibbons  for specific scaffolding strategies.)
- Native Language Support. Whenever possible, ELL students should be provided with academic support in their native language (Thomas & Collier, 2002). Even in English-only classrooms, and even when an instructor is not fluent in a student’s language, this can still be done in a number of ways. According to Lucas and Katz (1994), a student’s native language serves several important functions: it gives students "access to academic content, to classroom activities, and to their own knowledge and experience" (paragraph 5). In addition, they found that it also "gave teachers a way to show their respect and value for students’ languages and cultures; acted as a medium for social interaction and establishment of rapport; fostered family involvement, and fostered students’ development of, knowledge of, and pride in their native languages and cultures" (paragraph 24).
Teachers can use texts that are bilingual or that involve a student’s native culture, can decorate the classroom with posters and objects that reflect the students’ diversity of language and culture, can organize entire lessons around cultural content, and can encourage students to use words from their native language when they cannot find the appropriate word in English (Freeman & Freeman, 2001).
- Accessing Prior Knowledge. As mentioned in the previous strategy, using a student’s native language can be an important way to access his or her previous knowledge (Marzano, Gaddy, & Dean, 2000). All students, regardless of their proficiency in English, come to school with a valuable background of experience and knowledge on which teachers can capitalize. One example when teaching a new concept, is to ask students what they already know about a subject. Creating a visual, such as "semantic webs," with the topic in the center and students’ knowledge surrounding it, is a good way to engage students in the topic and to find out what they already know. Another simple technique is to ask them what they want to learn about a topic. As Savaria-Shore and Garcia (1995) note: "Students are more likely to be interested in researching a topic when they begin with their own real questions" (p. 55). This is another example of a strategy that works equally well with native English speakers and English language learners.
- Culture Studies. The importance of including a student’s home culture in the classroom is a well-documented, fundamental concept in the instruction of English language learners (Doherty, Hilberg, Pinal, & Tharp, 2003). Culture study, in this context, is a project in which students do research and share information about their own cultural history. This often involves interviewing parents and/or grandparents as well as others who share the student’s cultural background. Culture studies can be appropriate at any grade level and can incorporate many skills, including reading, writing, speaking, giving presentations, and creating visuals. Culture studies can be combined with other strategies such as project-based learning, cooperative learning, and accessing a student’s prior knowledge. They can also be effective as part of an alternative assessment process (Freeman & Freeman, 1994).
- Other strategies for including culture. As many researchers and practitioners have noted, incorporating culture into the classroom should be about more than holidays and food. There are many strategies that teachers can use to encourage an awareness of student diversity. Story-telling is one important strategy that can be used across grade levels. Asking students to tell a story that is either popular in their home country or draws on their own experience, and allowing them to tell it both in their native language and in English, can help build their confidence and can send a powerful message of cross-cultural appreciation. A similar strategy, and one that is not limited to elementary school, is Show & Tell. Inviting students to bring an object that represents their home culture and to tell the class about its uses, where it is from, how it is made, and so on., sends a similar message of inclusiveness and awareness. A third strategy for working culture into the classroom is known as Misunderstandings. Teachers can ask students to share an incident they have experienced that involved a cultural misunderstanding. Questions can be asked about the nature of the misunderstanding—whether it involved words, body language, social customs, stereotypes, or any number of other factors. Students can examine the misunderstandings and gain insight into the complexities and importance of cross-cultural awareness. The humor that is often involved can also help engage students in further culture-based inquiry (Derrick-Mescua, et al., 1998).
- Realia Strategies. "Realia" is a term for any real, concrete object used in the classroom to create connections with vocabulary words, stimulate conversation, and build background knowledge. Realia gives students the opportunity to use all of their senses to learn about a given subject, and is appropriate for any grade or skill level. Teachers can defray costs by collaborating on a schoolwide collection of realia that all can use. When the real object is not available or is impractical, teachers can use models or semi-concrete objects, such as photographs, illustrations, and artwork. The use of realia can also be an ideal way to incorporate cultural content into a lesson. For example, eating utensils and kitchen appliances (chopsticks, a tortilla press, a tea set, a wok) can build vocabulary and increase comprehension while also providing insight into different cultures. Studying clothing items from different cultures is another good example (Herrell, 2000).
The chart on the following page is adapted from the Oregon Department of Education publication The English Language Learners’ Program Guide (n.d.). Each of the five stages of second language acquisition is linked to appropriate and specific instructional strategies.
|Intermediate /Advanced Proficiency |
Stages IV & V
|Use of visual aids and gestures
||Engage students in charades and linguistic guessing games
||Conduct group discussions
||Sponsor student panel discussions on the thematic topics*|
|Slow speech emphasizing key words
||Do role-playing activities
||Use skits for dramatic interaction
||Have students identify a social issue and defend their position*|
|Do not force oral production
||Present open-ended sentences
||Have student fill out forms and applications*
||Promote critical analysis and evaluation of pertinent issues|
|Write key words on the board with students copying them as they are presented
||Promote open dialogues
||Assign writing compositions
||Assign writing tasks that involve writing, rewriting, editing, critiquing written examples*|
|Use pictures and manipulatives to help illustrate concepts
||Conduct student interviews with the guidelines written out
||Have students write descriptions of visuals and props
||Encourage critical interpretation of stories, legends, and poetry*|
|Use multimedia language role models
||Use charts, tables, graphs, and other conceptual visuals
||Use music, TV, and radio with class activities
||Have students design questions, directions, and activities for others to follow|
|Use interactive dialogue journals
||Use newspaper ads and other mainstream materials to encourage language interaction*
||Show filmstrips and videos with cooperative groups scripting the visuals
||Encourage appropriate story telling|
|Encourage choral readings
||Encourage partner and trio readings
||Encourage solo readings with interactive comprehension checks*
|Use Total Physical Response (TPR) techniques
*It is important to structure activities that are both age- and linguistically appropriate.
Ten Things the Mainstream Teacher Can Do Today To Improve Instruction for ELL Students
These tips were adapted from the Help! They Don’t Speak English Starter Kit for Primary Teachers (1998) (developed by the Region IV and Region XIV Comprehensive Centers, the Center for Applied Linguistics, and ESCORT, a national resource center dedicated to improving the educational opportunities for migrant children) and from Integrating Language and Content Instruction: Strategies and Techniques (1991) by Deborah Short of the Center for Applied Linguistics.
- Enunciate clearly, but do not raise your voice. Add gestures, point directly to objects, or draw pictures when appropriate.
- Write clearly, legibly, and in print—many ELL students have difficulty reading cursive.
- Develop and maintain routines. Use clear and consistent signals for classroom instructions.
- Repeat information and review frequently. If a student does not understand, try rephrasing or paraphrasing in shorter sentences and simpler syntax. Check often for understanding, but do not ask "Do you understand?" Instead, have students demonstrate their learning in order to show comprehension.
- Try to avoid idioms and slang words.
- Present new information in the context of known information.
- Announce the lesson’s objectives and activities, and list instructions step-by-step.
- Present information in a variety of ways.
- Provide frequent summations of the salient points of a lesson, and always emphasize key vocabulary words.
- Recognize student success overtly and frequently. But, also be aware that in some cultures overt, individual praise is considered inappropriate and can therefore be embarrassing or confusing to the student.
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