Tips for School & District Administrators

Supporting English Language Learners in the General Education Classroom

By Brian Gatens

It’s cliché to state the obvious, but America is a nation of immigrants. As a result, the responsibility of supporting English Language Learners will eventually fall to you. And if you aren’t officially a language instructor, there are things that you can do in the classroom to help our students adapt to their new homes.

Select the proper materials

Helping ELL students in the general education classroomIn my experience, instructional materials — books and other resources in the classroom — tend to be above the ability level of ELL students. Be sure to encourage ELL students to read at a level they can understand that still challenges them.

The fastest way to help ELL students acquire the necessary skills is to get their eyes on words every night. Many teachers use graphic novel versions of famous stories to help students connect words and actions; they usually find these books highly interesting.

Take a whole-school approach

Language acquisition goes far beyond academic skills. To support ELL students, make it a point to involve them in as many academic and social experiences as possible. For example, even though they may not fully grasp the content, there’s no reason why ELL students should not participate in student council or other school groups.

Regular social interactions, combined with friendship and positive experiences, will help to break down the walls that separate them from their peers.

Modify grades as needed

Consult with your school administration and request the option of modifying the child’s grades to pass/fail. This enables you to adjust the academic rigor as necessary but also keep the child engaged in the lessons.

Being a non-native speaker creates an incredible amount of anxiety, so knowing the weight of grades has been made a little lighter will go a long way in easing ELL students’ minds. It’s important, though, that everyone who needs to know is informed of this change in expectations. And you should revert back to standard grading as soon as possible.

Be an advocate

Depending upon a school’s demographics, ELL children can get left out of the social mainstream. If you find this at your school, I strongly recommend that you focus on helping to smooth the path for the child. This includes making certain they can navigate the hallways from class to class and purchase their lunch, and that other students are treating them well.

Playing the role of guardian goes a long way toward setting an example to the child, your colleagues, and other students. Don’t be shy about telling school administrators you’re assisting the child and that they can call upon you as necessary.

Collaborate with like-minded colleagues

As I am fond of suggesting, remember that you are the average of your five closest colleagues. This is particularly important with ELL students: When several teachers work together on their behalf, it can be a powerful force for helping them acquire the language, develop their academic strengths and contribute to your school. Don’t hesitate to partner with your peers in thinking of ways to assist your ELL students.

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