Secrets to Leveraging Diversity in ELL Instruction
Thirty years ago, English language learners (ELLs) were a very small minority in American classrooms. With the influx of immigrants from around the world since the 1990s their numbers have steadily increased. In 2016, Education Week reported that ELLs represent about 10% of public school students—with 3 out of 4 classrooms having at least one ELL. English language learners are now the fastest-growing student population.
ELLs are a diverse group with different levels of language proficiency, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and content knowledge. They also have disparate socioeconomic and immigration statuses. Yet they all have one thing in common: They’re all learning English.
As the ELL landscape continues to evolve, researchers have revised the “tried and true” instructional methods for ELLs. New approaches are increasingly using diversity as a springboard for better learning.
Respect Home Languages
It might seem counterintuitive, but students learn English faster when they speak and write their home languages at school.
Research by Bruce Fuller and Margaret Bridges from UC Berkeley supports this use of home language in the classroom. By practicing their mother tongues, students develop foundational concepts, vocabulary acquisition, and phonological awareness. These skills in turn promote the development of cognitive skills and lay a foundation for better, faster English acquisition.
Teachers who support home languages show ELLs that they honor them and their diverse heritages. Respect fosters stronger teacher-student trust bonds and promotes a positive classroom climate.
Recognize Different Cultures
Connection with prior knowledge is an essential component of learning. To provide the best instructional experience for ELLs, teachers should be familiar and connected with each ELL’s personal, familial, cultural, and world experiences.
Some ELLs have significant learning gaps. Additionally, an ELL often doesn’t have the background knowledge necessary to comprehend certain test questions and reading passages. Teachers might need to provide scaffolding and/or background knowledge before lessons, or adapt materials while maintaining academic standards and levels of challenge.
Home culture also plays a part in an ELL’s style of learning English. For example, when English language learners are quiet in the classroom, they often don’t understand the material. If an ELL comes from a culture that teaches respect for elders, that student might be cautious about questioning the teacher. It’s the educator’s challenge to identify cultural disconnection and address it in a way that respects both the ELL’s home culture and the classroom culture.
Research shows that when ELLs use English outside the classroom, they develop text comprehension ability and better writing skills. Teachers should reach out to homes and communities, enlisting additional support to help ELLs succeed.
Teach Language in Context
Although ELLs need to learn English grammar, immersing them in a sea of worksheets isn’t effective. The Institute of Education Sciences, the Education Department's research agency, suggests teaching grammar in context. Books, thematic units, and studies in other content areas are all opportunities for learning and practicing English grammar.
Spoken and written English should also be embedded in context, and students should be producing as much in English as possible. Activities such as science demonstrations and plays about historical events, to name a few, are great for practicing speaking. Another essential activity is regular, structured writing.
Challenging content, organized around “big questions” with opportunities for exploration, is the best way to provide meaningful opportunities for ELLs to learn. Engaging material may also be pulled from students’ home cultures. This embedded practice doesn’t replace the need to explicitly teach English language vocabulary and structures, but it provides an accessible framework for learner comprehension.
To learn more about recent teaching strategies check out Stanford’s ELL Teaching Resources.
Classic ELL Instruction Still Works
Not everything in teaching ELLs has changed, as good instruction is still good instruction. The following teaching methods have stood the test of time and should be used in every classroom with ELLs.
- Speak slowly and clearly.
- Allow extra time for responses.
- Clearly explain and demonstrate expectations.
- Use visual materials like textbooks, worksheets, and writing on the board, but don’t solely rely on them.
- Use cues such as visual aids, graphic organizers, gestures, and tone of voice.
- Provide examples of finished products.
- Rephrase or change delivery methods when concepts are unclear.
- Check nonverbally for understanding—e.g., have students turn their pencils in a certain direction, or write on white boards or Post-Its.
- Teach vocabulary intensively, over several days and using a variety of activities.
- Provide struggling students with small-group interventions and peer support.
Being open to ELLs’ home cultures and languages, offering content-based English language instruction, and using proven best practices can help today’s ELL students to excel.
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