Supporting ELL Students

Some of you know that I’ve started a new role as an ELL/LST teacher this year.  One challenging part of that role is helping ELL students, many of whom are new comers to Canada and have just been introduced to English.  In my context, these ELL students are ushered into mainstream, academic courses within months of their arrival to Canada.

This post is all about giving teachers some tools and ideas to support the ELL students in their classes.   Really, this is a more detailed answer to one of my most frequently asked questions, “What are some practical ways that I can support ELL students in my class?” Here are a few suggestions.

10 Tips for Supporting ELL Students

  1. Pair them up with a language buddy. Teaming up with another student who speaks their language often allows for increased comprehension of spoken language and motivation for learning. It can be a little bit tricky to have someone translating at the same time you are giving instruction but it is possible. Layout some ground rules for the translators so there is minimal disruption. Let the rest of the class know that they are permitted to talk because they are translating.
  2. Front-load vocabulary. It sounds too simple to help but providing a vocabulary list or asking students to make one before you start direct instruction phase of a lesson is important to ELL learners. ELL students don’t always need to look up definitions to these words but they often need to translate them into their own language prior to instruction. This will ensure that they can at least understand some of the key words being discussed.
  3. Provide print. This point goes along with the last one but should be underlined because of how prominent video is becoming in classrooms. Printed notes with definitions and examples, or digital copies of textbooks, are very important for ELL learners because they allow students to translate at their own pace inside or outside of the classroom. Digital notes also allow them to use powerful online translation tools like Read and Write.
  4. Provide technology. If you don’t supply many digital texts for students, make sure you supply students with technology that will help them translate the text they are reading. Using a tablet with an app like Google Translate or Microsoft Translator allows students to take a picture of English text and have it instantly translated for them into their language. These tools are especially valuable to Beginning and Developing ELL students. However, students can easily become over-dependent on translation tools at the Emerging and Expanding levels.
  5. Communicate with extra effort. Translation technology is also a very valuable tool for teachers. Translating an email into a students home language can make a huge difference! Using the “Conversation” feature on a translation app can also facilitate a small conversation with a parent or teacher. Connecting with a multi-cultural worker and communicating with students and parents face-to-face is another important means of overcoming culture and language barriers with ELL students. If you don’t know who the multi-cultural workers are, just ask your ELL teacher or your administrators.
  6. Honour their culture. Look for ways to honour the cultural background of your ELL students. Knowing the date of an important holiday, learning a few words in their language, or thoughtfully integrating someone of the same race or background into your curricular content are small ways to value a students culture. The National Film Board has some great resources to help include content from different cultures.
  7. Give them a voice. Giving a voice to students is always important but for ELL students it’s more significant. Many ELL students immigrate to Canada from very oppressive environments. Their default mode is passivity and silence. Try to draw them out and constantly encourage them to speak, ask questions and share their interests. Sometimes this requires a little coaching. Many students don’t feel comfortable putting up their hand in class but they might feel comfortable with a more subtle signal to get your attention.
  8. Give extra time and support options. Evaluations are difficult for ELL learners they often need more time to translate each word. Often LST teachers can support test taking students or provide a monitored environment where students can continue working on tests. Catch Up or Homework Clubs often provide additional, supported time for ELL students.
  9. Reach-out early. If after attempting to support ELL students in a variety of ways they are lost and overwhelmed, reach out and contact a support teacher, school counsellor, multicultural worker or settlement worker to gather information about the student and solve problems in the classroom.
  10. Don’t mistake lack of language for lack of intelligence. In her blog post about 12 Ways to Supporting English Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom, Jennifer Gonzalez makes this excellent point. When a child can’t express themselves in a way that sounds intelligent, it’s tempting to make the assumption that they aren’t intelligent. In fact, many ELL students are brilliant. They often need teachers to overlook their accent, translation error or missed social cue to give them the respect that they deserve. Actually, when you think about it, ELL student are doing twice the mental work of regular students but their English output often doesn’t reflect this mental effort. You can help students by assuming the concepts are making sense even when the language isn’t. This is true, especially when concepts are made visual.
  11. Recognize the stages and phases of cultural shock. When students transition from different countries and cultures, the first few months are glorious but then there is a big dip. After about three or four months, students go through a phase where they are miserable. They miss their home foods, customs, fashion, people and language. In these culture shock and adjustment phases, they need more care and understanding. They may need a lighten workload or extra time with others who share their language and cultural background.

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

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