Tuesday, June 19, 2018

What Modifications Would You Make for ELLs in Mainstream Classes? – Part 1

Tamara Jones is an ESL Instructor at Howard Community College, Columbia, Maryland

One of my best friends in the whole world recently sent me a message asking for some help with a job application she is putting together. She is a mainstream teacher; her work experience has always been with “regular” primary school classes in English-speaking countries. However, interestingly, one of the application questions she was asking about was a distinctly ESOLy question. I suspect that is because the make-up of public school classrooms in North America is changing and teachers, even mainstream content teachers, are increasingly expected to adjust their lessons to accommodate and include English Language Learners, or ELLs.

Her question was: What modifications and adaptations would you make for ELLs in your classroom?

This question really got me excited. Although my day job is as an administrator and teacher in an English language program for adult students at Howard Community College, for fun, I teach in the MA TESOL program at Notre Dame of Maryland University one night a week. My MA students are usually public school teachers who want to specialize in ESOL or who are seeing more and more international students in their classrooms and want to learn how to best support them. So, yeah, I had some ideas to share with my bestie on the topic of accommodating ELLs in mainstream classes.

Here is my first piece of advice:

Words! Words! Words!

If I were a mainstream K-12 teacher of a class with ELLs, I would incorporate a lot of explicit vocabulary instruction. This is the biggest hurdle for ELLs in content-based classes; they simply have far less vocabulary than English-proficient students. Nation (1997) found that in order to comprehend a text without support, learners need to understand a whopping 98% of the vocabulary within the text. They need to know 95% of the words to understand it with support. That’s a pretty tall order for our ELLs, when “[b]y conservative estimates, native speakers increase their vocabulary by over 1,000 words per year, at least up to their twenties. Most learners of English as a foreign language are lucky to achieve one quarter of this rate. Young learners of English as a second language can match native-speaker rates but struggle to close the gap that existed at the beginning of their learning” (Nation, 2001). Clearly, ELLs need more exposure to and review of new vocabulary than their proficient English speaking peers.

Our students benefit from learning content specific words (photosynthesis, table, serf), just like English proficient students; however, they often need more passes with the vocabulary in order to remember new words. According to Hinkel (2009), ELLs need to see or hear or use new vocabulary 12 to 15 times before it sticks! In fact, frequency of encounters contributes more to vocabulary learning than contextual richness does (Joe, 2010). In other words, students need to mentally touch these words more frequently then English proficient students. Our learners also need exposure to and practice with function words that signpost (first, second, next) and that show textual connections (nevertheless, however). They often struggle with idiomatic language and phrasal verbs, too. “The vocabulary gap between English learners and native English speakers is substantial because English learners do not know many of the simpler words or conversational words that native English speakers acquire before they enter school or learn in school without explicit teaching” (Gersten, et al., 2007).

What can Teachers do?

In order to help students grow their everyday and academic word banks, if I were an ESOL teacher, I would take several important steps.

a) I would have word walls so that students could see the vocabulary words whenever they need them. I would create content-specific walls and display pictures of the words to help my learners remember them. And, I would work with the vocabulary frequently to give students multiple passes with the vocabulary. For proof of the importance of vocabulary support and the barrier the lack of a strong vocabulary can have for students, there is a very powerful video about Moises, a struggling student in a math class.

b) I would give my ELLs vocabulary sheets before a lesson so they could look up the words in their language at home and come to the lesson prepared. There is a great deal of research that indicates students benefit from translation activities (Folse, 2004) and it stands to reason that if ELLs can come to school prepared with an understanding of key vocabulary, they will be that much more prepared to learn the content, particularly if they already are familiar with the concepts in their L1.

c) I would have all of the students chorally repeat important content words so that they could master their pronunciation. I would have them use rubber bands to draw their attention to the word stress (Gilbert, 2008). Students pull the rubber band on the stressed syllable so they really feel the stress of the long, clear syllable. Mastering word stress is an essential part of correctly pronouncing words; it’s even more important than perfecting the discrete sounds of a word. “The stress pattern of a polysyllabic word is a very important identifying feature of the word … We store words under stress patterns … and we find it difficult to interpret an utterance in which a word is pronounced with the wrong stress pattern – we begin to “look up” possible words under this wrong stress pattern” (Brown, 1990).

Although being familiar with key vocabulary words in English won’t guarantee that ELLs will access mainstream curriculum without issue, it will go a long way in giving them a toehold into academic content. After all, “[w]ithout grammar, little communication may be possible; without vocabulary, no communication is possible” (Folse, 2004, 25).

Stay tuned for two more pieces of advice I shared with my friend in future blog posts.

Brown, G. (1990). Listening to Spoken English. London, UK: Longman.
Folse, K. (2004). Vocabulary Myths. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Gersten, R. Baker, S.K., Shanahan, T., Linan-Thompson, S. Collins, P. & Scarella, R. (2007). Effective Literacy and English Language Instruction for English Learners in the Elementary Grades. National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. U.S. Department of Education.
Gilbert, J. (2008). Teaching Pronunciation: Using the Prosody Pyramid. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Hinkle, E. (2009). Teaching Academic Vocabulary and Helping Students to Retain it. Paper presented at TESOL International Convention and English Language Expo, Denver, CO, USA.
Nation, I.S.P. (1997). Vocabulary size, text coverage, and word lists. In N. Schmitt & M. McCarthy (Eds.) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 6–19.
Nation, P. (2001). How good is your vocabulary program? ESL Magazine, 4(3), 22-24.


Comment from Anpan
June 22, 2018 at 3:10 pm

yourwritings are very useful to ESL teachers like us. Thankyou very much.

Comment from Anpan
June 22, 2018 at 3:10 pm

yourwritings are very useful to ESL teachers like us. Thankyou very much.

Comment from Tamara
June 26, 2018 at 7:47 am

I am delighted that you find my posts useful!

Comment from Tamara
June 26, 2018 at 11:36 am

I wanted to share an email I received from James Johns about this post:

Good job on this newsletter.

I’d just add those classroom teachers who have ELLs need to be able to differentiate between BICS and CALP, and then they need to be able to identify which kind of vocabulary they will explicitly teach. Thinking of the vocabulary tiers seems to be helpful for teachers in my district.

I’d also stay away from teaching pronunciation with elementary students. Those without speech problems almost always get the pronunciation right on their own. Also, drawing attention to pronunciation could be a self-esteem minefield. I know it is a lot different from adult students, who will oftentimes ask for help in this area.

Comment from James
June 26, 2018 at 11:50 am

I look forward to reading Part 2!

Comment from suba suba
June 11, 2020 at 3:19 am

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