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The New English Language Learner (ELL) in the Mainstream Classroom

written by: Debi Pruitt • edited by: Laurie Patsalides • updated: 8/2/2012

This article will provide ways to assimilate the new English as a Second Language Learner into the classroom. When a student arrives speaking little to no English, there is no need to panic. You can assist the new student and make him or her feel like a valued part of your classroom.

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    Teaching English Language Learners

    We've all been in a situation in which we were the "odd-man-out." Everyone else seems to know what to do, and we hope the floor will open up and swallow us. Imagine what it feels like to be the new English Language Learner (ELL) in the mainstream classroom!

    • The best thing you can do for your new student is to pair him with a "buddy" who speaks both languages. If there is no one in your class, speak to your principal about the possibility of putting the new student in another class where there is a buddy available. This is fairly simple when you have large groups from the same ethnicity, but what about the lone student from Russia or Japan? It's still a good idea to assign a buddy - another student who will help the student to fit in and succeed in everyday tasks.
    • Have the buddy take the student on a tour of the school to meet the administration, support staff, cafeteria workers, and nurse. A friendly face makes a huge difference when you enter a strange situation! Teach the student essential words such as "bathroom, nurse, note, etc." This will make communication much easier.
    • Label classroom items in English. Using 3x5" cards to label doors, staplers, maps, lights, etc. will help your new student become familiar with English terms. Do not talk loudly when you know the student doesn't understand - she is not deaf. Speak slowly and clearly, and use plenty of repetition. Repetition is essential to learning.
    • Realize that the student is NOT slow or mentally disabled. He speaks a different language and can communicate just fine with others who speak the same language. Put yourself in his shoes - at this point, he may not follow your directions, because he doesn't understand you. He is not being defiant or ignoring your rules. Most language learners learn quickly to watch other students for cues on what to do.
    • Learn about the culture that the student comes from. In some cultures, it is considered rude to look at the teacher while she is speaking. In others, calling you "teacher" instead of your name is considered to be a sign of respect.

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    Making the School Year Easier for the Student

    As the student acclimates to a new school, he will go through a "Silent Period." There is no set length of time for this; it varies from student to student. Just because he is not producing language does not mean he is not receiving it! At this point, he is like a sponge -he is constantly learning. The latest research suggests that it takes 7-10 years to learn a language, so don't expect him to start speaking English overnight.

    Allow the new student to speak her native language with her peers at appropriate times. This could be on the playground, when she has questions, or when she is being helped by another student who speaks her language. It is a good thing to speak two languages, not something to be ashamed of.

    If the new student has problems on the bus or in the cafeteria; have another student who speaks the same language explain the rules to him. Never assume that an English Language Learner understands - always confirm. The same goes for the student who "understands English just fine - I hear him talking on the playground all the time." Just because a child can communicate that he wants a ball does not mean he understands the language of the content areas. Math, science and social studies have specialized vocabularies that take years to internalize.

    Present the curriculum in a variety of ways. Some students may understand written English better than spoken, while others may be able to speak better than they can read. Multi-media presentations will empower all learners, not just those learning English.

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    Making the School Year Easier for the Parents

    Whenever possible, send notes, homework, and information home in the native language. See if your school system has parent liaisons, interpreters, or translation assistance in the form of software or subscription translation programs. DO NOT USE A FREE, ON-LINE TRANSLATION SITE. THEY ARE NOT ACCURATE!

    Consult with your school's ELL/ESL teacher. They may have dictionaries for students and/or parents, handouts that have been translated, or resources. They often have supplemental workbooks designed specifically for ELLs. Do not expect the teacher to stop teaching every time you need something translated, though. Their primary duty is to teach English to their students as quickly as possible, to ensure success in all classrooms!

    Have meetings with the parents as soon as the student enrolls, and then on a regular basis afterward. Have a parent liaison/interpreter present, and/or invite the parent to bring someone to help them with the language. Talk directly to the parent, not to the translator. It doesn't matter if they can't understand a word you are saying - eye contact is critical for validating parental involvement.

    Share good things about the student before you share concerns. This is critical for enlisting the parent onto your team. You are working together to ensure the student's success. Ask the parents if they have concerns or questions, and set up the next meeting while you are all together. Write the date and time down for the parents to take with them, and give them your contact information.

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    Making the School Year Easier for You as the Teacher

    As soon as you get a new English Language Learner in your classroom, let your ELL/ESL/TESOL teacher know. After the student enrolls, you are the next in line, so let the ELL teacher know so that he can collect background information about the student and start serving the student's needs as soon as possible. Have the ELL teacher come by to meet the student, and introduce them. This makes the student feel valued.

    Invite the ELL teacher to parent meetings. This teacher is a specialist who is trained to work with these students and their parents as well as assist with translations, acquiring records, suggesting interventions, and monitoring progress. Plan with the ELL teacher, and provide your curriculum mapping so that he can co-teach the curriculum.

    Pull in resource help for students, such as tutors to help with basic skills like counting in English and learning the English alphabet. In Kindergarten and first grade, this is taught, but in the upper grades, these basic skills can really hinder a Language Learner's progress.

    The most important part about teaching ELL students in the mainstream classroom is to get to know these students. Most of them are bright, creative thinkers who excel in the arts, since that is an equal playing field for them. Learn about their families, their hopes and dreams, and where they come from. Learn about their culture and history, and teach them about ours. Everyone will benefit from the experience!