Guest Blogger: Teaching ESL Students

Hello my name is Michelle and I blog at Teaching Eternity.  I am an ESL teacher in Upstate New York.  This September I started my 5th year teaching Kindergarten through 6th grade English Language Learners.  I am so happy to be a guest blogger for Michelle today!

I am often asked about the different acronyms that ESL teachers use seemingly interchangeably.  So really quickly here is the alphabet soup of ESL:

The Importance of the Native Language

If there is one thing I want you to remember from my blog post it's this...

Ok now before you decide I've lost my marbles (because this seems counter-intuitive) let me explain my reasoning...
1.) It is better for your students to hear fluent language that is not English, than for them to hear imperfect, broken English. Think of it this way - consider the English proficiency of your students' parents... is that the English you'd like your students to be learning?
2.) When students learn academic concepts in their native language they will more easily learn that topic in the second language.
3.) Once students understand underlying literacy concepts in their native language, these skills can be used to learn in a second language

It is my experience that students who are truly bilingual (they are proficient in both the native language and English) do better academically.  They test out of ESL earlier and continue to do better in school than other students who are not fluent in the native language.


BICS stands for Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills
This is the social language that we all learn first and for our ELLs it can be learned within 1-2 years.  Sometimes these language skills can give the impression of greater English proficiency than actually exists.  

CALP stands for Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency
This is why ELLs need to receive services from an ESL teacher.  This develops second and can take 5 to 7 years to develop.  Without Native Language Proficiency it can take 7-10 years to develop these language skills.  (Going back to my point about valuing the native language)

In the ESL world we think of BICS and CALP as an ice berg!

Strategies for working with English Language Learners

Predictable Routines and Signals

Creating routine in your classroom will reduce the anxiety of your ELLs.  
Set up your room -  designate certain areas for certain activities (group work, play, independent work etc) create clear signs and graphics to help the students know what is expected in each area
Contextualize directions by modeling them.
Use visual direction cards (my favorites are from Ashley Hughes - HERE and HERE)

Preview and Review the Lesson

  1. plan and gather materials: plan your lesson, identify key concepts and vocabulary (choose only the most important vocabulary), gather visuals (Google images is your friend) or realia (real things!)
  2. introduce key vocabulary and concepts: explicitly teach the key vocabulary prior to teaching the lesson
  3. teach the lesson: refer to the support materials already introduced
  4. Review vocabulary and concepts
  5. Provide additional practice: allow the students to use the support materials after the lesson

Example: If you are teaching a lesson about winter,  show pictures of snow and icicles, bring in hats, mittens, gloves, scarves etc.  Teach these items explicitly - while most students know what they are, they may not have the vocabulary in English.  After the lesson give them a chance to pretend play with the winter clothes.

Total Physical Response

Identify vocabulary that can be taught with motion

feelings - "show me a __________ face"
directions - "point up/down"
body parts - "touch your ____________ "
descriptive words - big (wide arms) little (close hands)
movements/actions - act out  

One of my favorites is when I am teaching about winter clothing and we are discussing the difference between gloves and mittens we open and close our hands to show the difference, and we say the words each time!

Another of my favorites is teaching verb tenses
Pointing behind us we say "past, yesterday"
Pointing right in front of us we say "present, today"
Pointing ahead of us we say "future, tomorrow"
(obviously those aren't exact descriptions for verb tenses, but the kids get the idea!)

Asking Questions
A few things to keep in mind...

Give the students plenty of wait-time
Let the students know they are expected to answer
Allow them to answer with pointing and gestures (thumbs up or down, hold up 1...2...3 fingers etc.)
Allow alternate methods of answering (pointing to a picture, drawing a picture etc)
Make answering questions a privilege
Allow them to rehearse an answer with a partner first ("turn and tell your partner...")

I'd like to share just one more thing:

Do you work with English Language Learners?  What have you learned about working with them?

Please come to visit me on my own blog and see what I'm doing in my classroom!
(and other ramblings!)

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  1. Fantastic post! I love that you are teaching vocab with full body movements!

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