E is for ESL/ELL

May 13, 2015:  E is for ESL/ELL

ESLESL and ELL are acronyms for basically the same thing: ESL stands for English as a Second Language and ELL stands for English language learner. So ESL is a methodology and ELL is the person to whom you apply that methodology in teaching.

There are different programs for ELLs that fall under the general category of ESL. If you are an ESL teacher, chances are you are teaching students from more than one language group, so you teach them in English. (This is different than bilingual education, in which students are taught first in their native language, so that they develop academic skills and

Teacher Ms. Houck with her ESL students. (From Google Images)
Teacher Ms. Houck with her ESL students. (From Google Images)

strategies without the additional load of learning a new language. When they are ready to learn English, many of the skills and strategies they’ve learned “transfer” to the academic work they begin doing in English. Children who come from families who read to them or with them, take them to museums, talk to them about all kinds of things will learn a new language much more quickly than those who don’t get this support in their native language.)

To help ELL students understand, you use lots of supports: visuals such as gestures, pictures, graphic organizers, etc. or objects (“realia”) to illustrate something you are teaching them – something they can look at, touch, smell, feel… You write their

Graphic organizer for a story (Google Images)
Graphic organizer for a story (from Google Images)

experiences in their own words to model the writing process and you let them write their own books with illustrations (see my post “Children’s literature”). ELLs enjoy seeing their work “published”!

You use physical movements, which you teach them so it triggers a memory of what you are talking about, such as making a line with your hands for “horizontal” or shivering to illustrate “cold” or “frigid” or “Arctic”.

You also use poems, rhymes, chants and songs. These are great ways to remember things or concepts. I can still recite TV commercials from the 60s! These silly jingles somehow just stay in one’s head and get filed away in the brain for access much later when there is a trigger for that memory or that response.

I remember having someone from a local nature center come to my classroom of 4th and 5th grade bilingual students to teach them about the water cycle. She taught them a song about precipitation, evaporation and condensation and tried to encourage them to sing it several times. However, at that age, the kids were embarrassed – it wasn’t “cool” to sing

Diagram of the water cycle
                        Diagram of the water cycle

silly songs in front of their peers, so most refused to sing it. However, later, when I gave them a test on the water cycle, which we had studied in English, I would hear some of the students singing to themselves – just barely audibly – “precipita-a-a-a-tion”, “evapora-a-a-a-tion”, … Yes, it definitely helped them remember!

“Sheltered English” is considered ‘best practice’ pedagogy for English learners. You write out language objectives and content objectives for each class, and discuss them with the students so they know exactly what to expect and what is expected from them. You give them as much chance to participate as possible. You use visuals, realia, chants & songs, experiences they can talk and write about, you provide opportunities for students to develop listening, speaking, reading and writing skills in English, and your classroom is full

Graphic organizer for the five senses
       Graphic organizer for the five senses

of colorful pictures, bulletin boards, graphic organizers, spelling patterns, illustrations of math vocabulary with definitions – anything that helps the students advance their academic English skills.

ESL teachers do these things because learning English (or any language) is easier when it is in context. It is easy enough to learn social language – kids pick this up within a year or so because of their socializing with others, watching TV, being surrounded by English everywhere they go.

But academic English is much harder to learn. Not only the student has to learn the content (such as math or science) but they have to learn the language and higher level vocabulary at the same time. It is comparable to an adult who has a basic working knowledge of a foreign language – say Russian – going to Russia to enroll in a college level program in, say, physics. So not only she has to learn about physics, beyond whatever knowledge she’d

Hands on a globe --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis
              Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

gained in high school physics classes, but she has to do all her coursework in Russian, which is not her native language! Young English learning students are at a further disadvantage because they have not yet developed sophisticated vocabulary, particularly if they come from poor families whose members have had limited education in their home country. It takes five to seven years to learn academic English (or academics in whatever language) and during these years, ELLs generally lag behind their native English speaking peers. It is a struggle for many to catch up.

Because I have always loved language and have learned two foreign languages myself, I can relate to the struggles ELLs have. I understand how important it is to know the context when you are trying to decipher a conversation between two native speakers of the language you are attempting to learn. I know how helpful it is to learn cognates (words that are spelled similarly and sound almost the same in two languages, such as television and television) or to make other connections between words in one’s own and another language. Talking on the telephone is difficult in a foreign language because you rely on a person’s body language and looking at their lips as they speak to figure out what they’re saying. All these things are intuitive ways that you use to try to learn another language. But with young students, they have to be specifically taught.  And to do that, the teacher must be specifically taught how to teach students whose native language is different that his own.

Group picture of my bilingual second grade class
                                                   Group picture of my bilingual second grade class

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