English Language Learners - Diversity & Best Instructional Practices
Begin With Knowing Your Students
How long have they been in the United States?
How familiar are they with the U.S. school system?
What is the student's prior educational experience?
Has the student been formally instructed in English before? If so, for how long?
Prior Education: Have the learners established learning skills/strategies, which you can utilize? Are they literate in another language you can utilize?
If prior educational experience is limited: Students who have had limited prior educational experience in the U.S. or in their native country will need to develop basic learner habits / learning strategies or skills such as time management, note-taking, and using supports. They will also need organizational skills, such as keeping a homework diary, organizing work in a binders and using dividers, using sticky notes to mark pages, and using a highlighter to mark important words for quick review. Encourage learners to take responsibility for their own learning and manage their learning.
‘If learners are not used to formal study or are familiar with a learning culture in which the teacher or the textbook regulates learning very closely, then they may find it difficult to make time to study any English at home.’ (AMEP Research Centre, Australia, 2006)
‘If learners have been used to a single textbook or approaches to learning that do not make extensive use of paper handouts, then they may find it difficult to organise the worksheets and other loose-leaf material they acquire in classes. When learners are not able to organise their work, they cannot access it easily to go back over something or to work at home. They may also ‘lose the plot’ in understanding exactly where they are going with their learning and how far they have progressed.’ (AMEP Research Centre, Australia, 2006)
If students have familiarity with school, whether in their country of origin or in the United States: For students who are new the country and/or the English language but have some familiarity with school, either at home or in the U.S., discuss with them what learning was like in their country; it may well be much different from the learning culture in the United States. They may not fully understand:
The role of learners in taking responsibility for and managing their own learning
The role of the teacher as a facilitator rather than the fount of all knowledge
Support learners as they adjust to the unfamiliar culture, norms, values, practices, and expectations in the classrooms of the U.S. Many learners may be used to more teacher-centered, chalk-and-talk, rote learning approaches to learning, and unfamiliar with inquiry-based, learner-centered approaches encouraged in American classrooms: ‘Many learners may be used to more teacher-centered approaches to learning that emphasise the teacher’s role as the authority figure, and they may therefore expect the teacher to set and police clear rules for behaviour, and to closely prescribe all learning tasks and activities.’ (AMEP Research Centre, Australia, 2006)
Students with a degree of familiarity with school may be able to:
use a bilingual dictionary or Google translate.
explain the structure of the English language by comparing it to the written/spoken language with which they are familiar. For example, they may be able to make comparisons between English and their own language, and identify such grammar structures as order of nouns, verbs, and adjectives in sentences.
use their strongest skills, such as speaking, to build and reinforce other skills. They may be able to, for example, talk about a topic in English, watch video or listen to audio before reading about a topic, and then writing about the topic.
Generic Skills / Employability Skills Support the development of not just academic skills but social/personal skills and generic/soft skills, which are heavily entrenched in culture. These skills are essential in readiness for college and career. The 7 skills are:
Communicating (ideas and information)
Working in teams
Collecting, analyzing and organizing information
A Closer look at #1: Communication
Listening and understanding
Speaking clearly and directly
Writing for an audience
‘People interact in different ways in different cultures. So, a speaker who has developed generic skills in, say, ‘communication’ or ‘teamwork’ in their first language and culture may find that they cannot necessarily transfer them directly for use in (American) contexts because the conventions and expectations involved are different.’ (AMEP Research Centre, Australia, 2005)
Although they may be very proficient at ‘speaking clearly and directly’, ‘negotiating responsively’ and ‘persuading effectively’ in their first language and culture, they may find that these skills are interpreted and accomplished in subtly different ways in English. Examples of micro elements of communication:
How long we pause before answering, – for example, is it polite to leave a long pause or only a short one?
How we introduce what we say – for example, the meaning of short markers such as ‘well’, ‘ah’, ‘oh’, ‘yeah but’, ‘yeah no’, ‘so’, ‘look’, ‘okay’ to introduce a response;
How baldly we state our opinions – for example, ‘No, I don’t want to do that’ vs ‘Well, perhaps we could do it this way ...’;
How much and when we soften a request – for example, ‘just’, modals, ‘I wonder if I could ...’, ‘I was hoping to ...’;
How and to whom we use smiles and eye contact.
Such micro elements of communication vary across cultures, and learners are likely to transfer the way they use them from their first language and culture into their use of English. What may be a perfectly acceptable usage in one culture may have a completely different effect in English, and so serious short-term and long-term misunderstandings can arise quite inadvertently. (AMEP Research Centre, Australia, 2005)
MINDSETS: What is their motivation to learn?
Establish a relationship of trust, a safe environment to take risks, and where mistakes are part of learning.
Use texts or videos with characters they can identify with, people who achieved because of their mindsets.
How do they learn best? Survey students using a learning profileto help students and yourself better understand their learning styles. This can also motivate them.
STRUGGLING English Language Learners: An ecological approach to information gathering In order to make accurate decisions about ELLs’ sources of difficulties, information from a number of levels must be gathered and examined, specifically: information about the learner, his or her classroom experiences, and his or her home and community contexts.
Learner characteristics include language, experiential background, values/norms, higher-order thinking skills, individual learning style, proficiency in both languages, how the students became bilingual (sequentially or simultaneously), content area strengths, and weaknesses in each language.
Classroom experiences include the ways in which instruction has been implemented with the student. Current classroom characteristics can be assessed though curriculum- based measures, classroom observations, and performance-based assessments.
Home-community characteristics include home language, adjustment to new environment, and family educational history. Teams can gather student background information through family interviews, review of records, portfolio assessments, and/or home visits.
SPEAKING and LISTENING Teachers must target language development early. A key finding from recent developmental science is that the most common source of reading difficulty for ELLs is underdeveloped oral language. The one-to-one which after-school programs afford is a good opportunity to provide specialized support in this area.