There are many hurdles on the path to English fluency.
Learners may understandably get discouraged.
The way to fluency can hold even more pressure for ELLs (English Language Learners) who are trying to learn the language while keeping up with other academic subjects as well.
But with the right kind of support, we educators can give them enough lift to make it over all of those hurdles.
Undertaking the learning of a language is a big commitment.
Students of English sacrifice precious time and effort to gain proficiency in another language. They need this time and effort to ultimately be worth it, and to see results as soon as possible.
So, what we can we do to ensure our ELLs successfully leap the language barrier and become self-sufficient?
In this post, we’ll look at some strategies you can implement to help students gain the confidence and knowledge they need to use their English in whatever subjects they are studying, as well as in other areas of their lives.
On Your Marks (Organizing Your Space)…
To ensure your students get the optimum benefit from their class time, you must ensure your learning environment is organized in the most effective and efficient manner possible. Investing time in your classroom layout from the outset can reap rich rewards in lesson flow later. The biggest single consideration in terms of classroom layout will be the seating arrangement you choose. It is important to consider the focus of your lessons and the strategies you’ll use when choosing a seating layout.
Let’s take a look at three basic options. When choosing a layout for your class, you’ll want to consider the relative merits of each:
- Old-school rows: Desks and chairs arranged in rows directed toward the front of the classroom. This layout is the more traditional eyes-front approach that many of us will be familiar with from our school days—especially the, ahem, more “experienced” of us. It is teacher-centric, and while it does afford good teacher-student eye contact, visual access to the board, etc., it is not ideal for students to engage in conversation with each other. It may be appropriate for grammar-focused lessons, but is less than ideal for conversation classes.
- Small group clusters: This layout involves having groups of approximately five or six students sitting around a table. It is useful for certain tasks such as working on group presentations and projects. Each member of the group can see, and be seen by, their peers. It does mean, however, that during whole class work some students will have their backs to each other.
- The U-bend: Desks and chairs are arranged around the classroom in a rough “U” shape. This layout is the most suitable choice for whole class discussions, and though there may be some twisting and turning to see the speaker, everyone has an opportunity to make eye contact—a hugely important aspect of communication!
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Get Set (Considering Your Students’ Needs)…
Now that we have given some consideration to the learning environment, before delving into some specific strategies you can use in that environment, let’s give some thought to our ELLs!
As we stand in front of our students in the vaulted position of native English speaker (or possessed of a high level of fluency), it is easy to forget the struggles of our students. Especially if we are monoglots who have never been through the process of acquiring a second language ourselves. Empathy is key to helping our students on their way to language mastery.
The critical age hypothesis postulates that after around the age of six, it gets dramatically more difficult for us to acquire advanced fluency in another language.
The process of first language acquisition is a predominantly passive one. It seems we pick up our mother tongue almost by osmosis. Often, this is not the case for acquiring that second language. It requires a much more conscious effort—learning grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary lists. A lot of time is required to progress through the stages of second language acquisition, from the preproduction stage through early production, speech emergence and intermediate level all the way to the El Dorado of advanced fluency. (Approximately seven years, according to some experts.)
Given the scale of the challenge facing our students, it is important to meet their needs not only as a group, but as individuals. Each student has a preferred learning style, whether tactile, visual, kinesthetic, auditory or a mixture of these. So give thought to planning a variety of differing types of activities to meet the diversity of learning preferences in your class.
Go! 5 Sound Learning Strategies to Help Your ELL Students Leap the Language Barrier
Now let’s take a look at five different strategies you can utilize to maximize learning opportunities for your ELLs in the classroom. Each strategy will be explained with some examples of practical applications offered.
For students learning subjects other than English, these strategies are great opportunities to integrate various types of content into the learning of the language itself. The strategies and activities are all fairly versatile, and so can easily be adapted to your students’ specific needs.
Given that the ultimate aim for an ELL is to gain language fluency in practical situations, cooperative learning is an excellent strategy to adopt. It is heavily focused on peer interaction in groups, typically comprising four people. This allows for efficient transitions into pair work when necessary. In collaborative learning, students work together, often in appointed roles for project work. This strategy lets students form close working relationships. Besides the benefit of learning the target language, this kind of teamwork gives them confidence. Cooperative learning can also be used in conjunction with some other basic strategies, which we’ll look at in a moment.
Suggested Activity: Round Robin
Students are given a certain category—e.g., reptiles—and take turns naming something in that category. This offers them opportunities to pick up new vocabulary from each other, and can be quite motivating if an element of competition is introduced by seeing which group can compile the longest list.
2. Problem-based Learning
Problem-based learning allows students the opportunity to utilize the target language in solving simulated real-life problems in groups. To use this strategy, teachers can create a problem for their students to solve. Students are particularly motivated by the selection of problems that can be easily related to their own lives. Consider the social dynamics of your students while coming up with problems.
Problem-based learning gives opportunities for students to learn authentic language that will be useful in their lives and, of course, is adaptable to a variety of subjects. The focus is heavily on interaction, both with fellow students and the teacher, as the problem is worked through and solutions refined. Adult students especially often find this type of learning extremely engaging.
Suggested Activity: Family Move
Groups are told that they are a family of four. Mum/Mom is a doctor and Dad a university lecturer. They have two elementary school children, a boy aged seven and a girl aged six. They are moving to the United Kingdom (or another English-speaking country) and need to choose a city to live in. They need to consider setup costs, transportation, education, availability of employment, cost of living, standard of living, etc. Groups will need to research and discuss their priorities when making their decisions.
3. Taking Visual Stimuli to the Next Level
Our students are diverse in appearance, in cultural background and, crucially for us as educators, in learning style. It is important for us to cater to the needs of all our students, and the best way of doing this is by ensuring we consider individual learning styles in our approach to lesson delivery. This strategy takes the visual learning style into account.
The use of visual aids to reinforce students’ learning can be a very effective tool. Visual aids can offer a useful means of maintaining student attention. Flashcards, of course, can be really effective for teaching nouns and also verbs. They allow students to access the meaning of vocabulary directly, without the need of translation into their native languages.
However, we can take traditional visual aids a step further by using cartoon sequences to stimulate the building of descriptive sentences.
Suggested Activity: Cartoon Q&A
Numerous cartoon sequences are available online and these can be shared with your students via distributed photocopies or overhead projection. Give a cartoon sequence to each group. These may be selected based on the abilities of your groups. Cartoons can be cut from the “funnies” section of the newspaper or, wonder of wonders, downloaded from the Internet. Choose cartoons with situations that relate to vocabulary or topics you have been working on or subjects relevant to what your students are studying. These cartoons will provide the focus for group discussions: Have students work in pairs generating questions around the sequence for each other to answer.
The beauty of this activity is that it draws on students’ cognitive abilities. This can be a great motivator as students attempt to express their thoughts on the situation presented to them in the target language.
You can also adapt this activity by giving out a sheet of sentence starters for suitable questions and answers based on the selected cartoon.
Cartoons can be a great way to stimulate conversation, and they are also a whole lot of fun!
4. Assessment as a Learning Tool
As teachers, we frequently reflect on the success, or otherwise, of our lessons. This makes us better at our jobs. Our assessments of our students are an important part of it, as are students’ assessments of their own and each other’s work. There are several simple ways to implement useful assessment in your classroom, from the tried-and-tested teacher-marking of student work to inform lesson planning, to peer-assessments and self-assessments undertaken by the students themselves.
Suggested Activity: Peer-assessment and Self-assessment
A helpful technique here is the “two stars and a wish” approach. Here a student provides feedback on a peer’s work in the form of two things they did well and one thing on which they could improve. This focuses the student’s mind on the necessary criteria for the task and will help them think about their own work critically in the future, while also providing useful feedback for their peer.
It can also be beneficial for students to set personal learning targets for themselves. The target should be achievable, measurable and within a certain time-frame. It may be learning a given number of words, using certain sentence structures with confidence or even a more general public speaking target. Agree on a personal target with each student and have them assess how far they have come after a week, month or whatever is appropriate. When the target is met, repeat the process for a new target.
5. Using Realia to Develop a Wide Range of Vocabulary
Learning new words is a huge part of the language acquisition process, and much of students’ time will be spent trying to remember, and then use, new vocabulary. Using realia is one great way to introduce words and is, again, a strategy that’s easily adaptable to whatever subjects your students may be learning along with English. Incorporating real-life objects into your teaching can maintain focus, encourage participation and successfully teach not just nouns, but verbs, adjectives and even adverbs!
Suggested Activity: Grab It
You can modify the language of this activity according to the abilities of your class and relevant subject matter. Select four or five students to play a round. Place several items on a table at the front of the classroom. Begin slowly describing one of the items on the table, employing vocabulary relevant to your students’ knowledge or studies. For example, you could use simple adjectives, verbs and adverbs to begin with, then extend into figurative speech such as similes. The first student to realize which object you are describing runs to the table and grabs it. The “winner” is the student who has collected the most objects by the end of the round.
So there you have it, adaptable strategies and activities you can use in your classroom today to help your students make that leap to practical English language fluency.
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