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Supporting English Learners in the Content Classroom Without Burning Out!

Updated: Jan 27, 2022

While it is not a secret that the list of professional responsibilities for teachers seems to grow every day, the key to managing those responsibilities is one of the best kept ones! Between reaching gifted students, ensuring compliance with students’ IEPs or 504s, dealing with behavior difficulties, and the general controlled chaos that defines a regular school day, it can seem near impossible to adequately support our students who are in our classrooms trying to learn English and content! As an ESOL teacher who works with students with varying levels of English proficiency from Newcomers to long-term English Learners, I have a few general tips to help incorporate supports that will benefit all students while specifically targeting the unique needs of English Learners.

1. Provide Visuals in the Classroom

You have probably heard this before, but I will say it again: use visuals in the classroom! Not everything needs a picture, but there are some great places to start. The first thing to do is ensure your classroom reflects the content you are teaching! Newcomers might be coming from a country where they stay in one classroom and different teachers come to them, so they can get overwhelmed trying to figure out what class they are taking. Next, think about your content and identify some of the key concepts / vocabulary terms for each unit. Incorporate those into a word wall—kids truly use them!

While you are presenting notes, be sure to include videos and images alongside the concepts you are explaining. If possible, use subtitles when you show videos and even slow the speed to .75 using the video settings. That will be slow enough for your ESOL students to grasp more of the ideas but not too slow where other students will notice (usually). Well-placed visuals can give students somewhere to start, especially if they are Newcomers, and help students activate prior knowledge they have about a topic.

2. Simplify

When you are planning any kind of classwork, project, or assessment, revise your directions to see if you can simplify the language. Use active voice and bullet points when possible. Accentuate key vocabulary and directions so that students can focus on the most important parts. Also, avoid distracting fonts, because they can be challenging for students who are also still developing their literacy skills. When presenting notes, keep a balance of content, visuals, and whitespace on slides so that they are not too overwhelming for students.

Assessments are another area where teachers don’t always accommodate for students’ language needs, especially when they have multiple high-need classes. A quick and easy way to modify an assessment is to limit the number of questions a student needs to answer. There is no need to create a new assessment; just highlight the questions that are essential for the unit so that students can focus their energies on demonstrating what they know rather than getting overwhelmed and giving up.

3. Strategize Your Strategies

As a professional educator, you are already aware of many excellent pedagogical strategies. It seems that every few years a new “strategy” comes along that, in essence, is similar to one you have already used in different packaging. Stick to what you know while being open to learning new strategies. If you try to incorporate different strategies for every type of learner in class, you will burn out! Instead, focus on strategies that will benefit each type of learner in class. Use what you already know and add extra supports for your English Learners. Remember, the goal is for students to participate fully in their classes, so if you change everything for them, they won’t be participating in the same way their peers are.

When you do find a new strategy that you would like to include in your classroom, ensure that you model it for your English Learners. (You may have to model/explain it multiple times.) If the strategy involves a graphic organizer, provide an already completed example. If the strategy involves a new tool, provide a lot of basic practice before using it to complete more abstract or complex work.

4. Keep Tabs on Your Speaking: Speed and Tone

One thing to keep in mind is how you are speaking in the classroom. Many of us talk a lot faster than we realize, so take time to intentionally s l o w down your speaking. Provide think time by pausing and include written instructions using key words. This will give something students can connect to what you are saying in addition to providing vocabulary that they can look up if needed.

For example, if I am explaining the activity for the day I might say:

“Okay everyone. Today you are going to do an interactive activity! You will need your notebook, scissors, and 4 colored pencils. Once you have your materials, sit back at your desk and open your books to page 103. You will have 10 minutes to complete the graphic organizer in your notebook.”

This is what you might write on the board:

· Get your notebook, scissors, and 4 colored pencils.

· Open your book to page 103.

· Complete the graphic organizer in your notebook.

· You have 10 minutes.

Something else to keep in mind is your tone. Because English learners are still learning English, they rely a lot on your tone. If you are using sarcasm, they might not get it and actually think you are angry or irritated. Being intentional in your use of tone can also help them acquire new vocabulary as they connect your words to your tone and observe how other students react/respond.

5. Collaborate & Search Smarter

My final bit of advice for teachers who truly want to help their English Learners while maintaining their own sanity and work-life balance: I recommend you collaborate with other educators in your content area and building. If you have an ESOL teacher in your building, they have a wealth of language development-specific strategies that you could incorporate with your content expertise. As an ESOL teacher, I do enjoy working with content teachers and helping them see effective ways to simply accommodate their class for their English learners. Once you start to develop your “ESOL Eyes,” it becomes easier and easier to identify areas where you can incorporate extra support. One word of caution: please do not email your ESOL teacher asking them to modify you lesson. Work together with your combined expertise to create a lesson that is excellent for all students!

Additionally, you can (and should) reach out to other teachers in your department. Ask them what they have done in the past for a particular lesson. They might even have resources that already have accommodations and supports built in! Do not rely on your expertise alone. Afterall, sharing resources and knowledge between teachers is the entire premise of Bluebird Teaching!

Finally, search the internet smarter. Many teachers will search for resources in Spanish since there are so many Spanish-speaking ESOL students. However, depending on the laws in your state, that might not only be inappropriate but also non-compliant with your state’s policy. Furthermore, some students may not be literate in Spanish or unable to teach themselves. That is, after all, why they are in school. I say this with love: simply handing them something in their home language is not the same thing as teaching them. Instead, search for your content resources with the keywords “ESOL” or “ESL” or “English Learners.” That will bring up a variety of more appropriate and scaffolded lesson materials that you can use with many students, even those who are not necessarily ESOL but need extra support.

The fact that you are still reading this blog post means that you genuinely care about your English Learners, and that is appreciated by me, your students, your school’s ESOL teacher, and the families you serve. I hope a few of these ideas have sparked some inspiration while also validating what you are already doing in your classroom. As you develop your “ESOL Eyes” and mindset, incorporate this question at each step of your planning: How can I simplify, support, and strategize?

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