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What Teachers Can Learn from English-Language Learners

I am blogging from the Education Trust conference this afternoon in Arlington, Va., where one of the few presentations focused on English-language learners featured student voices.

Dr. Betty Smallwood from the Center on Applied Linguistics presented a fascinating video of students from Arlington County, Va., talking about what teachers can do better to teach them English. The video is part of a professional development program developed by the Center for Applied Linguistics.

Students were asked to explain what makes learning English easier, what makes it harder and what teachers can do to help them.

Four middle schoolers, all of them beginners in learning English, said that when teachers talk too fast, they struggle to learn. That seems like something that can be relatively easy for teachers of ELLs to fix, if they just are made aware that it's a problem. Students said distractions in the classroom—such as noisy classmates—are also a hindrance.

They all said that working with their peers in small groups is very helpful, a strategy that Dr. Smallwood said is supported by research. Aeydis from Mexico said teachers need to be more patient with her and not give up on her if she doesn't understand or get it the first time. Hababo, from Ethiopia, said teachers sometimes give her too much information and confuse her about what is most important.

Elementary students from Arlington County also had advice for teachers. From Beza, who is from Ethiopia: Give us more time to read what we want to read. And David from El Salvador said encouragement from his fellow ELL students was important for his success. They all talked about the importance of being able to talk to their teachers individually or in small groups. And teachers who take the time to define things for them during instruction are considered most helpful.

Rene Bostick, a principal in Arlington County whose school is full of ELLs, said what helps ELLs most in her experience are having teachers who were ELLs themselves and working with parents to help them learn English, read with their children (in any language) and use the Internet.

Currently, Dr. Smallwood takes this professional development program on the road, but hopes to have it available soon online for teachers and schools to access easily.

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