Transformative Teaching for ELLs

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Language acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language - natural communication - in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding.
— Stephen Krashen

Transformative Teaching for English Language Learners

We are ecstatic about the release of our brand new book, Transformative Teaching, by Kathleen Kryza, MaryAnn Brittingham and Alicia Duncan. (Solution Tree, 2016.) As we mentioned in our September newsletter, the book honors and supports teachers on their heroes’ journey as they teach with the “whole learner” in mind, considering students’ culturalemotional, and academic needs as they design lessons around the content they teach. 

In Transformative Teaching, we dig deep into the following 6 foundations;

  • Creating a safe learning environment

  • Establishing clear routines and procedures

  • Nurturing growth mindsets

  • Student talk time

  • Student self-assessment

  • Mindfulness

These foundations – when taught intentionally and transparently with modeling and scaffolding and deliberate practice – create a recipe for growth and well-being for ALL students. The more teachers lay down these proper foundations, the more they truly unite students culturally, emotionally, and academically.   

This month we will look more closely at the needs of English Language Learners. We will dispel five of the most common misconceptions about ELLs and offer tips that work especially well with these students.

1. Not just slower and louder: A common misconception when working with kids whose first language is not English is to talk slower and louder to help them understand the lesson. Though monitoring pace and volume may provide some benefit for these students there are far more effective strategies to use that not only help English learners but all learners succeed. 

 Activate & Build Prior Knowledge

Activating and building prior knowledge helps all learners, but ELLs especially benefit from this practice (Hill & Flynn, 2006)! Before reading about or introducing a new topic to students, take some time to ask them what they already know about it. There are many ways to guide this discussion. You can use graphic organizers like a KWL chartYou can do a “Stop and Draw” – in which students take a moment to draw what they know about the topic. Students will be better prepared to participate in classroom discussions after having the opportunity to recall vocabulary and experiences related to the topic.

When discussing a topic that you feel students will have had limited exposure to, it’s important to create opportunities to build prior knowledge in that area. Teachers can create experiences for students by taking field trips, bringing in realia (the actual object that you’re studying) for students to explore, or by watching short, comprehensible video clips that expose students to the topic. 

2. Simpler not EasierAnother common misconception about teaching English Language Learners is that teachers should give them “easier” work than their peers. “Watering down” academic content for ELLs is actually a disservice to these students. Though they will need language support, the content standards themselves should not be lowered. Grade-level appropriate material will provide the intellectual stimulation necessary to inspire students to use the language they have acquired to learn material that interests them. 

To best support English Language Learners, teachers should present the CHUNK of new material in simpler terms and provide appropriate scaffolding (such as sentence frames, visuals, and modeling), but the depth of content should not be altered. Another strategy is to pre-teach new vocabulary to help them prepare for the new content. 

 3. Silence is golden! When students are in the beginning stages of learning a language, they are in the “silent period.” During this phase, it is normal for students to be listening to language, but not producing it. A common misconception is that students must produce language in order to learn it. With ELLs it’s exactly the opposite. Production comes after processing. Teachers should allow these students the time they need to acquire the language before expecting spontaneous production.

Another form of silence that helps ELLs and ALL students is instituting wait time after posing a question. This extra time gives students the chance to formulate their thoughts before having to share them with a partner or listen to what their partner has to say. This holds each student accountable for the material and provides a simple scaffold that’s easy to implement. Following are some strategies you can use to build in wait time: walk and talk, musical matches, and stop and write. (Download 10 easy Chew strategies for descriptions of these activities.)  

 4. Careful with corrections: When people are learning a new language, it can be tempting to correct their every mistake. Doing so can actually stunt students' progress. Stephen Krashen's Theory of the Affective Filter states that students' affective needs (safety, comfort, respect, etc.) must be met in order for them to acquire new language (Krashen, 2003). If students don't feel safe in a learning environment, their brain raises a "filter" thus blocking them from processing all of the information that is presented. 

That said, students should be able to learn from their mistakes. So how can teachers best support ELLs without causing anxiety? Creating a safe learning environment in which growth mindsets are modeled and encouraged is one way to help students see mistakes as opportunities for growth. (See our newsletter for more information on growth mindsets.) Lastly, it's important to first honor and respond to the message that the student is trying to convey before offering any feedback on grammar. The purpose of language is to communicate ideas and feelings. Once that has been accomplished, there can be time for reflection and feedback. 

5. ELLs Learn in Varied Learning Styles, Too! We know that students are generally more inclined towards one learning style over another, but the truth is - all learners - especially ELLs - benefit from exposure to content using as many modalities as possible. All of your learners will benefit from including movement strategies like Total Physical Response in your lessons. Students love acting out vocabulary words or lesson concepts using motions! It makes the learning fun and sticky for all learners!

Including visuals gives ELLs more context for the content, and it works great for all learners as well. You can use graphs, charts, photographs, drawings, or other types of art to help students conceptualize the material discussed in the lesson.

Finally, ELLs and ALL learners benefit from auditory stimulation. Playing soft music during work time can lower anxiety and allow all learners to focus better on the content. Singing songs or chants makes the information catchy and easy to process. Listening to read alouds helps all learners but also models natural fluent language for English Language Learners.

Co-Authored byMichelle Leip and Kathleen Kryza

 Tune in next month when we will focus on the needs of Gifted Learners.

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Free Resources

Ten Easy Chew Strategies


Hill, Jane, and Kathleen Flynn. Classroom Instruction That Works with English Language Learners. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2006. Print.

Krashen, Stephen D. Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use: The Taipei Lectures. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2003. Print.

Kryza, K, Brittingham, M andDuncan, Transformative Teaching: Changing Today’s Classrooms Culturally, Emotionally and Academically. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree. 2015. Print.