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20 Tips for teaching ELLs' who have very little English

20 Tips for teaching ELLs' who have very little English 

Teaching a new student who speaks little or no English is a challenge for most classroom teachers.  Sometimes these students also have limited schooling or literacy in their first language which makes teaching them even more complex. Helping these students to access age-appropriate concepts and material requires skilful scaffolding. At the same time you also need to be teaching them foundation level English language and literacy.

These tips will provide you with some suggestions for supporting these students.

  1. If possible provide them with a first language buddy or teacher aide even if they are not in their own class.
  2. Also provide a second English speaking kiwi buddy to assist them.
  3. English language learners (ELLs) should be allowed to use their first language (L1) in the classroom. Using their first language allows students to think more deeply and to process difficult concepts before being expected to talk about or write their ideas in English. Group ELLs appropriately so that they can use their first language as a bridge to second language learning.
  4. Being fully immersed in an English speaking classroom all day will often be over whelming and extremely tiring. Allow some down time as appropriate especially when they are very new
  5. Find out as much as you can about the student’s first language, their culture, their country and also their prior schooling experiences. The more you discover about them the more connections you can make with their language, culture, interests etc. You will also be able to identify some gaps in their learning and some differences which may require more explicit instruction.  It may also provide you with an insight and understanding of any behaviour or social issues that might arise.  Much of this information can be gleaned at enrolment or by having conversations with the child and their family or through the use of surveys. An interpreter may be required at the enrolment interview. One resource which should be in your school that may help you know more about their country and culture is New to New Zealand Ethnic Communities in Aotearoa: A Handbook. It provides information about some ethnic groups living in New Zealand including comments about the geography, history, religion, language and culture of each group.Pages can be added to ethnic boxes or given to teachers to develop knowledge about new students.
  6. Try to learn and use some simple greetings and phrases in their first language.
  7. Have an ethnic box or similar available. An ethnic box is a box which contains a variety of first language and cultural resources to help make a new student feel at home. They can be used by the student to share with their classmates, for study, for reading in their own language or for their own personal interest and comfort.  For example an ethnic box might contain resources and books in the student’s first language that they can read and continue to learn from; bilingual dictionaries; cultural items; books about their country; maps; music; video clips; games and some learning activities that they can continue on with when the class learning is just too difficult for them to participate in. Or alternatively they could build a My Cultural Village page to share with the class.
  8. Don’t assume that new arrivals know and understand the way we ‘do’ school in New Zealand. School looks very different in different countries even in countries who speak the same language. Cultures are all different and it will mean that sometimes, something that is perfectly acceptable in New Zealand might appear very rude from their perspective. You may need to explicitly teach the way we do things in New Zealand and set clear expectations e.g. I taught my Asian students that it was perfectly acceptable to ask questions in NZ schools. Then I would explicitly teach them how to ask questions using a question marker - who, what, where, when why and how. The orientation to learning section of the English Language Intensive Programme years 1-6 and 7-13 will help you to know what might need teaching. Build upon what the students bring to the classroom. When teaching make links with their prior experiences.
  9. Establish routines. Be sure all students understand the classroom rules, where equipment is stored, safety rules, and daily routines. When students know where the things they need to use are in the classroom, and what to expect next, they will be more comfortable and participate more.
  10. Explicitly teach some basic everyday language structures and language chunks such as, how to introduce yourself and say your name; how to ask for the name of something; how to ask for help, please and thank-you; classroom instructions, “I am fine…”, I like…,  etc.  Practice activities can be included in a self- pacing box for self-access or to review with a buddy. Sometimes it is good to have more than one buddy so the buddies don’t miss too much schoolwork.  Get parent permission first to be a buddy. There are also lots of websites with suitable activities and with downloadable resources and flash cards.  These can also be printed off for the ethnic box.  
  11. Also ensure that the student has access to a bilingual dictionary either paper based or online, and that they know how to use it.
  12. Have lots books available at the students reading level, where possible with age appropriate content and with an audio version available. Primary schools have access to many readers and most now come with audio texts and teacher support materials. E.g. Ready-to ReadSchool  JournalsSchool Journal Story LibraryJunior JournalsElectronic Storybooks, and Connected(Which has articles, text, images, and media freely available to teachers and students on Google Drive.) etc. Audio recordings enable the student to listen as many times as needed in order to gain understanding of the text and to the sounds of spoken English. Exposure to as much oral language as possible will help new ELLs to learn the sounds and patterns of English faster. There are also many readers available online with audio recordings such as Unite for Literacy. The Rainbow Readers series also has audio recordings. Ensure that the student also has access to books to read at home both in English and in their L1.
  13. Provide visual support and use real objects as frequently as possible. Mime and gestures also support learning.
  14. Use group work to maximise participation and oral language interaction.
  15. Extend wait time so that the student has time to process the language before
  16. Many new language learners go through a silent period, during which they will speak very little, if at all. “Don’t force them to talk if they don’t want to.”
  17. Encourage ELLs to have the courage to take risks. This is needed for learning a new language. Ensure that your class environment is safe and that when they get it wrong that they won’t be humiliated and ridiculed. Help them to have a sense of humour about making mistakes whilst learning a language.
  18. Find out what motivates them and tap into that motivation for language learning. Learning a language is a long, difficult process so the more motivated they are the quicker that process is likely to be.
  19. Set high expectations and don’t dumb down academic content. Instead scaffold them to success. E.g. provide sentence frames, pre-teach vocabulary, use graphic organisers etc. See ESOL Online pedagogy section for strategies and
  20. Teach some basic computer skills so they can access online resources.  There is so much available online including online first language dictionaries. This will be even more powerful if you provide links to activities that they can continue with at home or from the local library. ESOL Courses has lessons for beginners on computer terminology etc.