Jane Hill's article, Engaging your Beginners: Six Do's and Don'ts Help Teachers Engage Students at all Levels of Speaking English-- Including the First Level in ASCD's February 2016 edition of Educational Leadership, provides great guidance on working with students with different levels of language proficiency. These do's include:
- Consider each language learner's stage of language acquisition- Students with different levels of ability in English need different things from their teachers. Students in the first stage are silent; they need to be allowed to point to correct answers, nod, or draw responses. Students at the second stage can use one or two word utterances and need questions with simple one or two word responses. At the third stage, people have good comprehension and can give short sentence responses. At the fourth level, intermediate fluency, students make few grammar errors and can give responses that are a couple of sentences long. At the fluent stage, students may still need extra processing time, but can formulate long responses. Being an English Language Learner (ELL) does not make all kids similar; treat each as an individual who needs a teacher not a slightly more proficient peer.
- Use tiered questions- Think about language proficiency and match question responses to the level of the student. Early stage students need more scaffolding than more fluent students.
- Don't expect the same product from each student- Differentiation has been part of the education lexicon for a couple of decades now. We need to modify products to match student ability. Homework can look different for different kids. Programs like ixl.com, newsela.com, and Raz kids allow customized assignments. They may not, however, be enough for students in early stages of English proficiency.
- Engage preproduction students at the same level of thinking as other students. This requires extra work. It can be hard to identify upper level questions for the class. Taking that question and modifying it to be answerable by a nonverbal student is not instinctive for most people. Furthermore preparing adapted materials may require extra planning. If you want a student to determine the advantage that allowed the patriots to win the Revolutionary War, you may need images of the choices. In order to determine whether students understand science lab safety standards may mean pictures of correct and incorrect behavior in which they circle or point to problem behaviors.
- Don't assess language when you want to assess content. This goes back to differentiation. Oral questioning, picture drawing or selection may be important for some. Word banks and grammar exemptions may be critical for others. Proper grammar needs to take a back seat to information. Instead of complete sentences, a requirement for the class in general, bullets or single word responses might be acceptable. Pictures or mime rather than written descriptions may be necessary.
- Be aware of your own language use. Augment verbal language with visuals, manipulatives, gestures, and expression. Slow down speech. Kindergarten teachers are often experts at slow speech, but even they may need to take it down a notch when working with ELLs. One approach, Sheltered Instructional Observation Protocol, SIOP, is one plan for ELL instruction that emphasizes these skills. More can be learned about SIOP here or here.
These guidelines are also useful for my mute student. She needs me to figure out ways to communicate using multiple choice, but I still need to raise the instructional level to incorporate some high level thinking. Getting someone to operate at upper levels of Bloom when she will not talk or compose an independent sentence is one thing. Getting them to do so when she also will not draw, model, or act something out is even more challenging. Sometimes we never get beyond application level work. I need to keep pushing the threshold so that we can work her brain, but it is not a easy task. At least I work with her independently, in a classroom where a teacher needs to plan for typical students as well as ELLs and students with special needs requires support and collaboration to get the job done.