Engaging English Language Learners

I’ve thought allot about English Language Learners. Perhaps because 4.6 million students in the United States during the school year 2014-2015 were English language learners (National Center for Education Statistics 2014). Or maybe because new standards and assessments emphasized accountability, bringing additional challenges to ELLs. Either way, accommodating ELL students will require a little bit more effort. However, you do not need to become an expert in ELL to work with students. In fact, Writing Across the Curriculum has many useful classroom tools.

Start off by brainstorming the issues you’ve encountered with ELL writers in your classroom. In my courses I’ve noticed:

  • Limited class participation
  • Students are afraid to ask for clarification
  • grammatical errors, organizational issues and, odd vocabulary usage

While these can be frustrating, imagine how ELL students feel. Although the number of non-native English speakers is quite high, it is important to note that there is wide variation among these students. Students represent the entire spectrum of ELL writers, many are fluent in English, but some have only been in English speaking environments for 1-4 years.

Some ideas for success:

Engage students in language rich practices, this means focusing less exclusively on fluency and grammar and more on comprehension and communication. As professors we should try to avoid separating language from analytical practices and conceptual development. This may require teaching how to make connections, ask questions and solve problems a process that builds deeper understanding and more sophisticated language in students. Professors can help students learn writing skills in a number of ways.

 Scaffold assignments. Scaffolding is a central WAC principal. Begin with small, informal pieces that gradually build to the bigger final project. Over the course of the semester assignments can be broken into small pieces such as students submit thesis statements, or introductory paragraphs. This requires professors provide detailed, written assignment prompts.

Provide models of good work. Provide students with models of well-organized papers and highlight the specific points that are well written, such as clear topic sentences. I often use an (anonymous) example from a student’s paper to demonstrate how to effectively communicate ones ideas.

One-on-one meetings about writing. This can occur outside the classroom or professors can use class time to meet with students. This allows professors to provide feedback to students who might otherwise be reluctant to attend office hours. These one-on-one meetings can address general concerns or a specific assignment.

Writing-to-learn activities. To help build vocabulary especially discipline specific vocabulary, professors should introduce cooperative, collaborative writing activities that can promote discussion. This means less teacher-led, whole-class instruction, and more small groups, where students can practice language with their peers in a more personal, lower-risk setting.

Free write in class. Encourage students to write in their native language and in English. Professors can use free writing assignments to encourage students to write in their native language and/or in English. This can occur at the beginning or ending of class. Prompts can ask students to relate course material to their personal experience. Which can deepen students’ engagement with the material.

Peer Review. Research suggest that some ELL writers do not trust English-speaking writers peer feedback and that native English-speaking writers do not trust ELL peer feedback (Cox 2014). As instructors we can dispel this myth by explaining the value of peer review. One benefit of peer review is that students develop their own ideas while the process of reviewing another students’ work provides insight into the types of components needed to communicate findings and/or arguments effectively. Professors can provide students with prompt questions to guide the discussion and ensure students understand how much attention to devote to surface level issues. Professors can ask students to exchange papers before class, rather than during. This provides ELL students more time to read drafts.

Evaluation. Professors should evaluate ELL writers the same as native English-speaking writers. Resist the temptation to hyper correct grammatical errors. We do not want to crush a students’ potential, rather allow students to develop their ideas, become comfortable with course concepts, methods and reading. The WAC principle of high order concerns/lower order concerns is incredibly useful to highlight the strengthens of students’ papers. For a more detailed discussion on high order concerns/lower order concerns please see “Strategies for Evaluating Student’s Work. https://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/writingacrossthecurriculum/2017/10/17/grading-on-a-budget-strategies-for-evaluating-students-work/

Remember that academic discourse is a language in its own right.

Works Cited

Cox, Michelle. (2014). “In Response to Today’s ‘Felt Need’: WAC, Faculty Development, and Second Language Writers.” In WAC and Second-Language Writers: Research Towards Linguistically and Culturally Inclusive Programs and Practices, ed. Terry Myers Zawacki and Michelle Cox (The WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press): 299-326.

National Center for Education Statistics 2014 https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgf.asp

Additional resource:

National Council of Teachers of English Journal http://www.ncte.org/journals/rte/issues/v52-2

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