As classroom environments continue to become more diverse, it’s important for teachers to have some instructional strategies and tools in order to support English Language Learners in primary classrooms. The good news is that when students learn their native languages, they acquire understandings about how language helps them navigate through their world and communicate with others. In addition, students will also have learned about a sound system, how sentences are put together, and develop a large bank of words that can be used in their oral language. If we can forge a link between what is known about students’ native languages to help them begin to learn the English language, we will be able to more effectively support these students. In the book, Literacy Beginnings, Gay Su Pinnell and Irene Fountas, outline some very helpful suggestions about how to support English Language Learners in the classroom.
Suggestions for Working with English Language Learners (Fountas & Pinnell, 2011)
1. Provide a visual demonstration: Use visuals and act out directions whenever possible.
2. Keep language clear and simple: Think about how you can use the least amount of words possible to clearly explain directions. Too much talk can be confusing when a student is first learning a new language.
3. Invite children to act out what they mean: The student may be able to demonstrate understanding by acting out what they mean before they acquire the words that can be used to tell about what they know.
4. Allow silence: Think about how you can engage learners in oral language throughout the day and allow silence until the child becomes comfortable.
5. Check understanding: Break the steps down into manageable chunks and encourage children to demonstrate their understanding with visuals/acting out. Oftentimes, a child may understand more than they can show you by using words to explain. It’s important to use many strategies to ascertain understanding and not rely solely on what the student elicits through oral language.
7. Repeat the language of stories: Increasing the number of exposures students see, hear, and read repeated language patterns is a powerful way of helping students learn a new language. Repeated readings of little books, big books, shared poems, and shared writing are all great texts to use over and over to increase language acquisition.
8. Avoid correcting children’s attempts at language: This may seem counter-intuitive, but think of children’s errors as approximations (or practice) with learning how to use new words. Through this practice, students will consolidate their understandings but the practice is a critical part of the learning process. However, you can summarize or rephrase sentences/words in a conversational way, when needed.
9. Explain the vocabulary and academic language: Preview texts that will be read and mark any words you believe will need an explanation in the form of a picture, actual object, video, acting out, or oral explanation. Always pair the oral explanation with another tactic for the greatest impact with vocabulary learning. Relate the new words to other known words when possible.
10. Provide “wait and think” time: Most language learners benefit from extended wait/think time. The translation process that occurs in the head takes a moment and is very overt in the beginning stages of language acquisition.
11. Pronounce words and say words slowly: Avoid using words that are difficult to pronounce or learn, when possible.
12. Repeat messages children attempt to write: In shared, interactive, and independent writing, be sure to keep sentences simple enough that the learner can hold it in their memory. Over time, you can increase the amount of language used to expand ideas. Use these written texts as repeated readings and for teaching other concepts like rhyming. Repeating language structures is also helpful for students as they learn about how to construct sentences in English.
13. Provide hands-on activities: Magnetic letters, picture cards, word cards, i pads (for videos/picture dictionaries) are all excellent ways to provide language learners with a multisensory experiences that will enhance their developing understanding about how language works.
14. Learn about children’s home languages and cultures: Learn something about the child’s first language. This information will give you helpful insights about how students are using their first language when learning about the English language. For example, are the vowels in their first language different than English? Are they using their knowledge of the first language’s vowel patterns to read simple words in English?
15. Create strong connections with children’s homes: Don’t be afraid to reach out and communicate with families as much as you can. Find ways to translate letters and other communications, if possible. Remember, even if the family is not literate in English yet, they often have neighbors and friends that can help translate letters and messages if they are written in English.