Dear Dr. Mooney…
I’ve been teaching ELs for a few years. I still have a lot to learn, but I think I’m doing a pretty good job of meeting their needs. However, I have colleagues that do not feel prepared to work with the ELs in their classes. I share ideas, but it’s hard for me to always know how to help them.
What do you think are the most important things I should share that would help them make good decisions about teaching their ELs well, particularly in the remote context we’ve having to use right now?
Striving to be a Helpful Colleague
Thank you for caring so much about your colleagues and the ELs at your school! We all need colleagues who want to be as helpful as you. I applaud your efforts to share thoughts and ideas about teaching ELs. It can be difficult to know how to be most helpful when you’re not the one actually teaching their students.
Being a good model of teaching ELs effectively is probably the best thing you can do. If possible, you could invite them to sit in on your class during their planning period and then debrief afterwards about what they saw and explain why you did what you did.
Sharing teaching strategies and resources is always helpful, too; however, that can sometimes result in “giving your colleague a fish” rather than “teaching them to fish.” Strategies will only last so long, and if they don’t understand why the strategy is beneficial, then they might not know how to select new strategies or resources.
In addition to all you are already doing, I would recommend sharing these three tips in order to improve your colleagues’ “fishing” skills. Knowing these may help them to make other pedagogical decisions independently.
Tip #1 – Don’t be fooled!
Make sure you colleagues know the difference between BICS and CALP. I think this understanding can have the biggest influence over how teachers perceive and respond to ELs. Sometimes teachers think ELs are trying to fool them. They hear ELs and their friends speaking English relatively well in the hallway or on the playground, but when asked to complete academic tasks, the ELs struggle. It may seem to the teacher that the EL is pretending to not know English so they can get out of doing their assignments.
You and I know this typically isn’t true. Sure, there are plenty of students who do all they can to avoid schoolwork, but for most ELs, this difference in their language ability is real. They have acquired BICS or “playground English”, but not CALP or “academic/school English”. It takes a lot longer to learn the academic English needed for schoolwork. You could refer your colleagues to this article that provides even more details about BICS and CALP.
Tip #2 – Amplify your speech!
Suggest to your colleagues that amplifying their speech is vital. No, I don’t mean speaking louder! Many of us are tempted to speak louder when someone doesn’t understand what we say. Yet, shouting at me in French will not help me understand if I don’t know French!
By amplifying, I mean working to make your speech comprehensible through a variety of techniques. Think about what happens when you ask your smartphone to give you directions to a new location. The automated voice will tell you where your next turn will be. Often, these directions will come multiple times – “In 5 miles, turn left on Hwy. 101. In 2 miles, turn left on Hwy. 101. In 1 mile, turn left on Hwy. 101. Turn left on Hwy. 101 now.” In addition to the oral instructions, the screen on your phone also shows where you are on the map and how close you are getting to Hwy. 101. There is likely also an icon with a left arrow and Hwy. 101 is probably written at the top.
The directions are given in this way so that you have multiple opportunities to understand. If you don’t remember whether the voice said to turn left or right, you can glance at the screen to see the left arrow icon. We must do the same things for our ELs. They need various opportunities to understand the English we speak and the content we are trying to teach.
When teaching content or giving instructions, encourage your colleagues to do these three things whenever possible:
Say it! – Speak as simply and clearly as possible. Avoid idioms (hard as nails, break a leg) and complex sentences when you can say it more simply.
Write it! – Write the instructions on the board in the classroom or on the computer screen in a remote environment. This writing reinforces what is being said and gives students another chance to understand.
Show it! – Show pictures or videos related to the content you’re teaching. Act out what you want them to do. Sometimes it’s helpful to have a volunteer walk through the activity with you as a demonstration.
By the way, these strategies are extremely helpful for all of your students, not just the ELs in the class!
Tip #3 – Involve Families
All teachers know that it’s vital to involve families in the education of their children. In a remote teaching environment, this might be even more feasible. Perhaps young siblings are curious about their older brother’s online video session. They may appear on the screen periodically to see what’s going on, or just to see themselves on camera! Moms or Dads may be close by as well. Teachers can use this to their advantage.
Consider activities that students could do that would also involve their family members. If they would have acted something out with a partner in the classroom, encourage them to enlist the help of that younger sibling. They could teach the concept briefly to their sister and in the process have solidified their own learning.
Finally, encourage families to ask their children specific questions about their school day and to conduct these discussions in their native language. Doing so lets the student further develop their bilingual/biliterate abilities and can strengthen familial relationships.
Thanks again, Striving, for all you are doing to help the ELs in your classroom, and in your colleagues’ classes as well. Learning to meet all of our students’ needs is often a challenge, but these “fishing” tips will help your colleagues design even more effective lessons in the future!