Whether you’ve heard about ELLs, ELs, or perhaps even DLLs, all these terms refer to students who primarily speak a language other than English in their homes (referring to English Language Learners, English Learners, and Dual Language Learners, respectively). Since the US Department of Education currently refers to English learners as ELs, we will too for the sake of simplicity. I am an educator who has worked with ELs for most of my career – I started by tutoring newly arrived refugees, then teaching English as a second language in the K-12 classroom, and now live abroad and work in curriculum design and e-learning. As such, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how students can most effectively acquire the English skills needed not only for academics but for daily life.
Many educators feel overwhelmed when thinking about how to best work with ELs because, in addition to the many pieces of identity that all students bring to the table, ELs enter the classroom with even more variables. These can include the language they speak at home, literacy level in their home language, immigration or refugee status, level of spoken English, and level of English literacy. The list goes on and on! It’s no wonder that many educators feel overwhelmed when confronted with these additional factors that can impact a student’s learning. However, in 2023, teachers are better equipped than ever before to co-construct authentic English learning opportunities based on trusting relationships, English in context, and technology tools.
English Learners in the United States
The U.S. Department of Education's report 'Our Nation's English Learners indicates that ELs represent more than 10% of the K-12 student population in the United States (Our Nation's English Learners, 2023). Still, this number is much more significant in communities with higher proportions of immigrants or refugees. Among ELs that are classified with disabilities, they are far more likely to be classified with a specific learning disability or speech and language impairment as compared to a non-EL counterpart (Our Nation's English Learners, 2023). Across the United States, ELs speak a wide variety of languages at home, but ELs' most common home language is Spanish, followed distantly by Arabic, Chinese, and Vietnamese (Our Nation's English Learners, 2023). However, these broad statistics cannot accurately characterize the situation of each individual English learner in your classroom. By getting to know a learner and showing genuine interest in their home language and culture, a teacher can begin building a trusting relationship with an English Learner. When I worked with teenage students who were newly arrived in the US with beginning English levels, here were some questions that always elicited enthusiastic and interesting responses!
Getting to Know Your EL Students: Key Questions
Depending on your student’s parent or caregiver’s level of English, it can also help to learn about the student’s past educational history in their prior country, the student’s literacy level in their home language, and if their home language uses Roman or non-Roman characters. Not all of these questions will apply to all students, but by learning about each EL individually, teachers can create a classroom that is culturally relevant and responsive, as my colleague Alicia wrote about in this blog. Genuine interest in ELs home cultures, backgrounds, and the strengths they bring to the classroom lays the groundwork for a more equitable classroom for all learners.
Second Language Acquisition in the Classroom
Most language learning experts agree that the process of language acquisition is complex and multifactorial. It is broadly accepted that language acquisition follows different neuro-cognitive processes in infancy, early childhood, and for older children and adults.
Chomsky's universal grammar theory was one of the first tenets of language acquisition – positing that humans are born with an innate understanding of language structure, a sort of “language blueprint” that sets the stage for future learning. Later, Piaget's cognitive theory suggested that children construct their understanding of language through interaction with their environment ('Theories of Language Acquisition').
While Chomsky’s and Piaget’s theories are foundational for how we understand language acquisition today, many educators who work with ELs adhere to the Input Hypothesis of second language acquisition, as proposed by Stephen Krashen. Krashen emphasizes the importance of comprehensible input, which refers to language input that learners can understand, even if they don't understand every word.
According to Krashen, language learners acquire language most effectively when exposed to input slightly beyond their current proficiency level. Krashen's input hypothesis is often placed under the umbrella of the natural approach, which advocates for a focus on meaningful communication and exposure to language in context, rather than explicit instruction of grammar rules.
What does this mean for a teacher in the classroom? Depending on your ELs level(s), scaffolding English so that it is largely understandable, builds upon existing knowledge or concepts, and providing opportunities for meaningful, authentic communication in English are essential tools to build learners' English skills.
Using Technology with ELs
In the early days that English learners were in US classrooms, teachers were taught to actively discourage ELs from using their first language for any form of communication. However, modern educational approaches, informed by the pioneering work of Gloria Ladson-Billings and further developed by Dr. Django Paris, advocate the opposite. Their Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy encourages teachers to not only recognize but also actively support the diverse cultural backgrounds of students. This approach emphasizes the importance of including and celebrating a variety of languages, traditions, and perspectives in education, encouraging a shift towards emphasizing ELs strengths and potential.
When ELs are encouraged to use their existing strengths and knowledge there can be great value in leveraging their first language for English language learning. Modern technology, including tools like Google Translate, SpanishDict, and ChatGPT, can play a crucial role in this process. While fears that students will use these tools to opt out of the hard work of language learning are natural, when used with boundaries and scaffolding, these tools open up new worlds for ELs.
Leveraging Tech Tools in the Classroom for ELs
These tools can be incorporated alongside day-to-day curriculum, PBL, and other programming in order to encourage ELs to leverage their home language as they grow in their English skills.
Integrating ELs into a Learner-Centered Culture in Real Life
All of the best practices for working with ELs – valuing their culture and language, building trusting relationships, using English that is comprehensible input, and supplementing with modern-day tech tools – also play an integral role in constructing a learner-centered culture in the classroom, one that wholly integrates EL students. As my colleague Kristy wrote, “creating a learner-centered culture requires us to consider every aspect of what we do and how we are in the classroom.” In my own classrooms, both physical and virtual, here are a few ways I have created a learner-centered culture for all students, including ELs.
Practical Strategies for Fostering a Learner-Centered Culture with ELs
EL: Have you a pencil?
Teacher: Do I have a pencil? Yes, I do!
EL: I can borrow it?
Teacher: Can you borrow it? Of course, here you go.
Trusting Relationships + Comprehensible Input + Technology = A Winning Combination for ELs
As with all learning and growth in the classroom, the goal for English learning is always progress, not perfection. A host of factors, including age of first English exposure, home language, auditory and verbal skills, and many more, will influence a student’s eventual capacity for English output.
However, even without speaking native-level English, when ELs know that their home culture and language are recognized and valued in the classroom, this lays the groundwork for a trusting relationship, which sets the learner up for successful English learning. Educators can integrate comprehensive input into any learner-centered pedagogy and supplement learners’ existing knowledge using technology tools from this foundation.
The marriage of these human, linguistic, and technological factors not only enhances the learning experience for all students but also fosters a more inclusive and equitable classroom environment. This approach acknowledges and respects each student's diverse backgrounds and strengths, ultimately fostering a sense of belonging for all learners.
Montsaye Academy. "Theories of Language Acquisition." Accessed [November 2023]. montsaye.northants.sch.uk.
U.S. Department of Education. "Our Nation's English Learners." Accessed [November 2023]. https://www2.ed.gov/datastory/el-characteristics/index.html.