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Understanding the Language Challenge

Q & A from an ESL Teacher

By Jennifer Politano
Westmere ESL Teacher, Guilderland Central School District

Question from a distressed classroom teacher:

“My beginning level LEP-ELL (Limited English Proficient English Language Learner) in the elementary school receives 6 hours of ESL (English as a Second Language) service each week. The ESL teacher does a combination of push-in and pull-out services for this student, but now what? This student is in MY class for the rest of the day or week and I have no idea what to do with him or her.”

Answer from an ESL teacher:

Don’t Panic! Use the following document and the NCLB Action Briefs as a day by day guide to help you keep your LEP-ELL meaningfully engaged in learning activities throughout the week while your ESL teacher is busy servicing other students.

Recognizing Grade Level Differences

The academic demands on an ESL student in your classroom vary by grade level. A student in the first grade is likely to learn the building blocks of the written English language right along with his or her native English speaking peers, while a 5th grade student is already behind his or her peers when it comes to learning letter names and sounds. The same is true for learning many of the subject areas where academic content is cumulative across the grade levels. Mathematics is one subject that has more universality, however, the language of math word problems and directions make simple calculations a challenge for an ESL student. The following checklist suggests activities that your LEP-ELL can be engaged in during each subject area.

Modifying the Curriculum

Perhaps the best way to help your ESL student achieve mastery of the subject areas is to modify the content to an input level that is at and slightly above the comprehension level of your LEP-ELL. (Refer to Stephen Krashen’s idea of comprehensible input, i+1, and his input hypothesis.) However, modifying curriculum is a time consuming task and is not practical under all circumstances. Your ESL teacher is not responsible for this task, but can advise you on the process. Meet with your ESL teacher regularly not only to learn how to modify curriculum but to collaborate on teaching subject areas to LEP-ELL’s and to learn strategies and techniques for teaching in a classroom that has both LEP-ELL’s and native English speakers together.

Getting to Know Your ELL

Get to know your ELL and find out what he or she already knows or can do. This is the starting point from which you will you base all modifications and expectations. Setting realistic expectations will have a lasting impact on the motivation level of your ELL. The following checklist is a set of suggestions for students at all grade and language ability levels. It is recommended that you meet with both the ESL teacher and the parents in deciding which activities are suitable for your ELL. Have items on the checklist translated into the native language of the student, if possible, or meet with and demonstrate activities to the student to be sure the expectations are clear. As your ELL develops language proficiency these expectations should be revisited and updated to continue to keep your student meaningfully engaged in the learning process.

Setting Realistic Expectations

Being surrounded by a new culture in a setting where people are speaking a different language can be overwhelming to new students. They may experience fatigue, headaches, or other signs of stress. Also be aware that for some families, the most English proficient parent may attend university classes in the evening and arrive home late to begin helping your student with homework or looking over papers from the school. To help keep your LEP-ELL focused and motivated during the day it is important to allow periodic down-time from academic pressures. Try to negotiate a set amount of time that a student can spend doing down-time activities and be clear that some academic work is expected from the student every day. Having a parent or translator explain this to a student can be very helpful. Some down-time activities can include: resting, drawing, playing games, playing with puzzles or toys, playing on the computer, cleaning out his or her desk, etc...

Preparing for a New Student

If I could provide an ESL Survival Kit at the beginning of the school year for the classroom teacher of each new beginning level student it would contain the following items:

  • a packet of educational worksheets that require little explanation in any language
  • flashcards with pictures and words that show: letters of the alphabet, numbers, commonly used school objects, feelings, colors, shapes, math facts, etc.
  • file folder games (see those by Carson Dellosa Publisher, for example)
  • index cards with names of (and even pictures of) objects in the room for easy “room labeling” by the LEP-ELL student and an English speaking/reading partner
  • bilingual dictionary
  • monolingual and/or bilingual picture dictionary
  • bilingual picture books
  • bathroom pass, nurse pass, drinking fountain pass
  • set of documents for the classroom teacher describing the LEP-ELL’s country and cultural background, collected from the internet, Culture Grams, etc.
  • set of documents labeled “Teacher Tips” for working with LEP-ELLs
  • this document with the following checklist of suggested activities for the LEP-ELL’s in the mainstream classroom

Supervising Your ELL

The ESL teacher, the classroom teacher, special area teachers, teaching assistants, former ESL students, native English speaking classmates, a “buddy” assigned to your student, parents and administrators…. We are all partners in helping your ELL become proficient in the English Language. You are not alone. As you choose items from the checklist, consider how your ELL’s progress can be monitored by other partners in his or her learning process. Maintaining a structure and focus for learning will keep both you and your ELL motivated. Some options to consider in monitoring student progress are:

  • laminate the checklist and allow the student to check off what he or she will do each day... OR you check off your expectations of the student for each day
  • create a schedule for each day of the week and check for progress on a daily basis
  • schedule a learning buddy to help your LEP-ELL at certain times of the day, rotate this responsibility to different students in the class
  • assign someone the task of checking a particular learning activity on a daily basis
  • meet with your ESL teacher on a regular basis to discuss effectiveness of the checklist and make changes to it

Additional Resources

NCLB Action Briefs