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Putting Theory into Practice: Implementing Effective Strategies for English Language Learners

Wednesday, August 21, 2013 -- Shari Rios

Shari Rios, National ESL Specialist at Edmentum, kicks off her new series, “Best Practices in ESL.”

In my last blog post: “What does Common Core Mean for English Language Learners?” we explored some effective strategies for teaching English Language Learners (ELLs). In this series, we will delve deeper into those strategies and look at some practical ways to implement them in the classroom.

For this offering, we will focus on Vocabulary.

When acquiring a second language, learning and understanding new vocabulary is key. As we first begin learning a language, we start with common words, (high frequency vocabulary) and phrases. We might even use pictures to understand meaning or to communicate. When we are able to start speaking the new language, we may only speak in one or two word phrases. Even though we aren’t yet fluent, we are able to communicate the “main idea” to a native speaker of the language.

Let’s take that knowledge and apply it to the classroom.

Scenario: Mr. Boyd is an 8th grade science teacher. In his classroom, they use a textbook to read and learn about topics, work on experiments to test theories, and record their findings in a lab book. Mr. Boyd has various learners in his class, including English Language Learners. While his ELLs usually do okay during experiments, Mr. Boyd is struggling with how to help these students comprehend the material on the level needed in order to contribute in class, and also master the objectives being taught.

Applying what we know about language acquisition and vocabulary, let’s take a look at this scenario and incorporate some practical strategies Mr. Boyd can use to help these students.  Again, our focus will be on Vocabulary.

  1. While working on his lesson plans, Mr. Boyd knows what topics/chapter he will be teaching. Because vocabulary is the key for language learners to understand the material, Mr. Boyd understands he must provide some additional support for his students.
  2. Mr. Boyd breaks the chapter up into sections and highlights key vocabulary the students need to know. He provides these terms, with definitions, an example in context, and even a picture to illustrate the meaning of the word. Mr. Boyd gives this to his ELL students in advance, in paper form. Depending on where students are in their language acquisition (Newcomer, Beginner, etc.), Mr. Boyd may also provide native language support by including the word in the student’s native language, and the same term in English. This allows students to decode; understanding it first in their native language, and then transferring to the new language.

How does this impact the learning experience for ELLs? By providing ELLs with the key vocabulary, the definition (as needed to understand, not the dictionary definition), an example and a picture, students have multiple exposures to the same word.

For ELLs, we don’t want to just give them the definition as it is written in a dictionary or the textbook. Those can be just as confusing! We want to ensure we are providing an accessible definition of the word, as well as removing any unnecessary information that will distract from the meaning. Providing the word in context and a picture will help further “define” it.

Because Mr. Boyd provided this information to his ELLs in advance, they had time to review and begin to have a basic grasp on the meaning. When the class discusses this material and the students hear the vocabulary, it is not new to them. It is being reinforced, in another context, furthering their comprehension.

Now, as students continue in the material, the vocabulary is reinforced over and over. Mr. Boyd can assess his students to check for understanding and clarify as needed. His students have had the opportunity to explore the new vocabulary in advance. Their confidence improves and they acquire the new vocabulary and concepts more quickly.

In this scenario, we followed Mr. Boyd through the scaffolding process. By implementing some changes in his teaching strategies and delivery of the complex material, the English Language Learners in his class were better able to access the information.

How can you apply the above scenario with your English Language Learners?

Next month, we will continue this series and explore more ways to practically implement teaching strategies for your English Language Learners.