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Teachers Must Create Ways ELL 'Students Can Show Us What They Know'

(This the fourth post in a six-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are some of the most common mistakes teachers make when working with ELLs, and what should they do, instead?

Part One featured responses from Marina Rodriguez, Altagracia (Grace) H. Delgado, Dr. Denita Harris, and Sarah Said. All Part One's contributors also were guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Silvina Jover, Cindy Garcia, Luisa Palacio, and Laura Landau shared their commentaries.

In Part Three, Dr. Sandra Calderon, Kevin Jepson, Carrie Cobb,  Melissa Wilhemi, Ricardo Robles, Teresa Amodeo, and Donna DeTommaso-Kleinert, Ed.D., answered the question.

Today, Lindsey Moses, Luiza Mureseanu, Melissa Jackson, and Douglas Reeves contribute their thoughts.

Creating "ways for students to show what they know and can do"

Lindsey Moses is an associate professor at Arizona State University. She collaborates with teachers to conduct classroom research on language and literacy development. Lindsey is a staff developer and is the author/co-author of Comprehension and English Language Learners: 25 Oral Reading Strategies that Cross Proficiency Levels, Supporting English Learners in the Reading Workshop, and What are the REST of my Kids Doing? Fostering Independence in the K-2 Reading Workshop:

The two most common mistakes I see teachers make when working with students learning English are the following: planning language support for instruction but not planning for modified ways for students to show what they know and can do, and overlooking the importance of planning for and supporting oral-language development.

Common Mistake #1: Planning for their modifications for instruction but not planning for modified ways for students to show what they know and can do

Most teachers working with students learning English do a great job of setting language objectives and planning for instructional modifications. I have seen really purposeful work of front-loading vocabulary, providing quick opportunities for talk, and comprehensible input throughout the lesson. Yet teachers often provide the same requirements for all students to complete the lesson or show what they know (in the format of an assignment, a reflection, writing, etc.).

If we ask a beginning speaker to write a five-paragraph persuasive essay, they likely won't complete anything. However, based on a supported lesson with opportunity and access to the concept of persuasion, they have knowledge that they can share if we plan for linguistically appropriate ways to show what they know. For example, a beginning speaker might make a persuasive poster/advertisement. It might be in multiple languages. The key is we have to plan ahead of time ways that our students can show us what they know based on their stage of language proficiency. The WIDA Can Do Descriptors is a great resource for planning linguistically appropriate experiences.

Common Mistake #2: Overlooking and planning for oral-language development

Teachers always plan for the content areas, but oral language is often overlooked. Sometimes teacher will give a quick "turn and talk" during the lesson, but they are rarely preplanned with considerations for language supports. A couple of easy solutions to integrate more purposeful and scaffolded talk opportunities include planning for structured talk with equity considerations and creating oral-language-development small groups.

Providing purposeful and scaffolded talk involves simply planning multiple opportunities for speaking with language considerations. In order for these experiences to be beneficial and equitable for students learning English, it is helpful to plan for necessary language scaffolds. These work best if they are directly related to the academic content and language used regularly in class— possibilities could include things like sentence stems, word banks, etc. Plan for wait and processing time—no "turn and talk" until there has been sufficient wait time.  Implement procedures that ensure equitable talk time. This might mean planning for two "turn and talks" during the first part of the lesson but putting in place a structure so that the students alternate who is talking first (something simple like the person with the longest hair goes first on turn 1). 

We have been seeing a lot of success with oral-language-development small-group instruction. We pull a group of students based on their oral-language proficiency and design the lesson and objectives based on oral language. This might include an interactive read-aloud with extensive planned opportunities for scaffolded partner and small-group conversations. We try to connect these lessons to grade-level content but with adaptations for language considerations. For example, I taught a small group of students with an oral-language proficiency score of about 1.8. Here was my initial planning:

  • Literacy Objective: Students will make predictions and retell the story (grade-level content)
  • Goal as related to can-do descriptors: Predict story content based on images and picture walk using simple and expanded language frames; retell simple stories from picture cues.
  • Oracy Objective: Children will learn how to change questions to answers and practice expanding grammatical complexity (temporal and tense changes), picture walk—with children and teacher talking about what they see in the pictures and what is happening in the story, use pictures to guide collaborative retell and use new vocabulary.

In addition to reading, modeling, and interacting with the students, we included written scaffolds and stems (see samples below) to support the oracy goals. This helps make the oral language work more concrete (note the bold and underlined emphasis to support goals) and reduces the amount of cognitive load needed for memorization.

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Move beyond "deficit mindsets"

Luiza Mureseanu is an instructional resource teacher for K-12 for ESL/ELD programs, in Peel DSB, Ontario, with over 17 years of teaching middle and high school students in Canada and Romania. She believes that all English-learners will be successful in schools that cultivate culturally and linguistically responsive practices:

At the heart of effective classroom instruction for ELLs is knowing the learner very well. Some of the most common mistakes that teachers make are rooted in misconceptions and misunderstandings of English-learners.

The negative results of these typically are program misplacement, insufficient supports, deficit mindsets, or lack of culturally responsive curriculum. Teachers of ESL or ELD programs need to know precisely their ELLs and the group they belong to—Canadian (or U.S.)-born, newcomers, refugees, international, or Visa students—and must ensure the program placement and supports are flexible and tailored to their needs.

Using data and evidence of student work is the best way to inform the differentiated-instruction and program-specific strategies. Prepared and versatile teachers know that instructional approaches are different when teaching ELLs with limited or interrupted prior schooling (ELD) or a group of Canadian (or U.S.)-born learners. Using rapid literacy and numeracy strategies is appropriate for EDL while targeted supports for improving academic language is often a requirement for the second group. Proper instructional supports and course/level placement determine the entire language- learning process for ELLs.

At the same time, knowing the learner means recognizing the multiple skills and knowledge they bring to class. We need to engage our practice in a clear asset-based framework. Our students speak additional languages, they arrive at our schools with a variety of learning and life experiences, they bring a rich cultural and linguistical background. The deficit-minded educator tends to perceive these experiences in a negative way: Students do not have English skills, they do not understand the mainstream curriculum, they have inherent gaps in education. The key to student success is to flip the deficit perspective into an asset-based approach to learning and teaching.

ELLs use transferable skills from the languages they speak to build understanding of English, and their cultural background inspires a climate for creating welcoming and diverse classrooms and schools. Recognizing students' identities results in engaging in culturally responsive pedagogy and curriculum. It is a mistake to think that our learners "walk into" a set curriculum and this is where the language acquisition journey starts. Teachers must use cultural awareness and allow for student voice and choice. Students can generate their own identity texts, and they can generate content to be used collectively in the classroom. These are very powerful tools to use with ELLs and boost their language-acquisition process. Teaching language must not be separated from the learner's life. These experiences as the steppingstones of the learning-language journey.

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"Consult with the ESL teacher"

Melissa Jackson is an ESL teacher at Southeast Middle School in Kernersville, N.C., grades 6-8. Her husband is a high school assistant principal, and they have two high school teenagers. She loves film, voiceovers, and hanging out with her family:

I think some teachers make mistakes, when working with ELLs, because they aren't cognizant of what to do, and I understand that. This is why it is important for schools to have professional- development opportunities for teachers and/or connect with ESL teachers.

One mistake I have seen, in the attempt to do something, is Google Translating ... everything! We have to remember the target language is English. We are aware that the English language has words that have more than one meaning, and this is the same with other languages as well. Using this as a mode of instruction, etc., the information can get lost in translation, leaving the student confused. Also, using Google to translate may put more work on the student. Depending on their background, students may not have been taught the concept or vocabulary, in their native language, so this would cause more work for the student.

Another mistake is always immediately giving ELLs the same work as native-English-speaking students. Sometimes this is done because teachers hear ELLs talking to their peers and assume that they can easily do the same work. This is social language ELLs pick up a little easier. It is the Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) that ELLs use every day to communicate. It is not as linguistically demanding as Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) which is needed for academic language that students need to understand in the classroom. The social language is more meaningful and takes less time (six months to two years) to develop. This ability may be misleading to teachers and may be why some teachers do not give more modified work and support to some ELLs as needed. 

What should happen is teachers should connect and consult with the ESL teacher. They can work together to look at students' English-proficiency scores to see what students can do and what supports are needed. They can do some of the same work but with scaffolds in place.

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Distingushing between mistakes

Douglas Reeves is the author of more than 30 books and 100 articles on educational leadership, teaching, and student achievement. His videos and articles are all free downloads at CreativeLeadership.net. Doug Tweets @DouglasReeves and can be reached at [email protected]:

As I reflect on my own mistakes as a math teacher with many ELLs, I realize I failed to distinguish between mistakes in math and mistakes in literacy. Ultimately, I learned to assess their math skills by providing assessment items that contained only the language of mathematics—numbers, letters, and symbols—and to assess their literacy skills by using other items that embedded the math within an English-language story problem. Only then could I more accurately determine the barriers—mathematical and linguistic—to the success of my students.

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Thanks to Lindsey, Luiza, Melissa, and Douglas for their contributions!

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