ELLs: Let's Start at the Very Beginning
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Beginning proficient English Language Learners enroll into our schools with a variety of language levels and varying levels of understanding of the content and concepts we need to teach according to the state standards and educational requirements. In addition, they have varying levels of expertise in their own first language. We, as educators, can’t group our beginning English Language Learners into one category. Let’s break these categories down.

1.     ELLs who have a very limited understanding of English, yet are well educated in their first languages. For these students, our instructional time is best spent on building English vocabulary through academic conversations. Encourage students to express understanding of content and concepts in their first languages, but urge them to integrate relevant English vocabulary into their conversations. As students discuss content and concepts, tell them the exact vocabulary you expect them to use during academic conversations.

2.     ELLs who have a very limited understanding of English and are not well educated in their first languages. Surround these students with pictorial representations of the content and concepts being taught. Label the pictorial representations and read these labels to and with the students throughout instruction. Provide sentence stems for students so they can use the vocabulary as they have relevant conversations with classmates. Create sentence stems so students will have to “put the vocabulary into their mouths” so the content language is used in authentic ways.

3.     ELLs who have general understandings of English, yet are well educated in their first languages. Build on the English language the students bring with them to your classroom. Find cognates and connections to words they understand and use in their first languages. Think aloud to explain processes as you work through problems or explanations for your content, emphasizing the vocabulary students need to understand to fully comprehend the content. Provide a systematic way for students to understand the processes, such as using sequencing vocabulary to organize thoughts.

4.     ELLs who have general understandings of English yet are not well educated in their first languages. The use of graphic organizers has been a proven strategy to use with this group of students. By using organizers, such as the Frayer Model and Venn Diagram, to organize information, students can visualize the connection of the content vocabulary and their understanding of the concept. Graphic organizers are critical for ELLs whose first languages are not Latin-based.

Our beginning level proficient English Language Learners may require a lot of encouragement from you, their teachers. This is time well spent because using strategies designed to support language and concept learning will lead ELLs to greater independence.


--Jan Corona

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