Starting very early in my career, I felt challenged by meeting the needs of my first grade students that were English language learners (ELL). In the late 1990’s, I worked in a very diverse school on the North Side of Chicago in Illinois. The students that comprised our school population spoke more than 30 languages and there were very few students that were native to the United States. This would have been no big deal, if I had any preparation for this during my undergraduate coursework. But the truth of the matter was that I completed my student teaching assignments in predominantly rural settings and all of my students (but one) were white and spoke English as their first language.
The students I taught during the beginning of my career came from Nigeria, Liberia, India, Bangladesh, Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Africa, to name a few places. I read and talked to everyone I could think of in order to come up with the “magic” programs or strategies that might work with my language learners. Then, I was serendipitously provided an opportunity that would teach me more than any book could about what I really needed to know about how to help my students that were learning English.
It happened when I began collaborating with the ELL teacher in my school, Marcia Rudolph. We decided to partner up during reading and writing; she would push-in to my classroom and we’d co-teach, rather than having her pull the ELL students out of the class to work with them. Through our conversations, as I shared my struggles and worries about instructing my students, I often asked Marcia, “What special strategies should I be using with my ELL students?”. One day, she paused for a moment, and then replied, “Christy, ELL students respond to good instruction. Good instruction for English speaking students IS good instruction for English language learners. All of the good things you are doing to support all of your students is exactly what your language learners need.” What?! It’s that simple?, I thought about her words and the more I thought about them, the more those words made sense to me. I realized I had been making things way more complicated than they needed to be.
Marcia’s words have stayed with me throughout my career; those words are the whisper in my ear when I am supporting any of my ELL students. She was right. When I spent time immersing my students with stories by reading aloud to them everyday, I was providing a valuable opportunity to immerse my ELL students with language, vocabulary, and meaning-making. And, when we spent time reading independently, my ELL students got to read books that were “just right” for them–which meant, that some would read wordless picture books and use their developing knowledge of English to label and name the objects that they saw before them. During phonics/word study, all of the students learned about letters, sounds, words and how they work in English. The students were all growing as they developed their oral language by telling their stories and writing about them. She was right–the good instruction that I was giving in my classroom was exactly what my ELL students needed.
I think that too often, teachers think that if a child learns differently or is in a different place in their learning journey compared to their peers, that the student should have a special curriculum that is separate from what the other students are doing in class. In fact, I see way too many students with unique learning needs receiving their instruction from a classroom aide in the hallway, not in their classroom with their peers. Or, I see students that have to work in dull, black and white workbooks on skill and drill type activities, instead of experiencing the joy of reading beautiful books.
I hope Marcia’s words will become the whisper in your ear, too, guiding you to make the best instructional decisions you can make for your ELL students. If teachers want to do what’s right–and what works….dump the workbooks and remember: “Good instruction for English speaking students IS good instruction for English Language Learners”. Who learns English from workbooks, anyway?