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Adjust Your Teaching Styles for English Language Learners (ELL) in ESL/Bilingual Classrooms

Research-Based Classroom Strategies for Teachers in Diverse Classrooms
Tobey Cho Bassoff

I have heard the following from many of my colleagues, “I don’t know how to respond positively to students who come to me without any English speaking abilities.”  In the book What Successful Teachers Do in Diverse Classrooms, the authors give us an overview of 71 strategies that have worked in novice and experienced classrooms (Glasgow, McNary, Hicks 2006).  They break their suggestions down into three main points: welcoming classroom culture, high expectations, and an equitable approach to curriculum and reflection.

Welcoming Classroom Culture

Our educational experience begins with a first impression.  Upon entering their classroom, students should feel valued, encouraged, and heard.  How do we achieve this culture?  First, we’re deliberate about incorporating student artwork, work samples, and heritage into class displays.  When students see their voice incorporated into the surrounding environment, they will feel more connected to what we’re trying to teach them. 

Next, we begin the important task of building a relationship of mutual respect and trust with each student.  Even if the student and the teacher speak different languages, the teacher can smile and explain things in English.  The student may not catch all of the words, but he/she will pick up on the tone and feel of the conversation.  People are hard-wired to feel whether or not they are with someone who cares.  Therefore, students, regardless of English language proficiency, will sense your extended hand and be more receptive to a warm welcome. 

Finally, we continue our relationship building work by getting to know students in “specific localized contexts.”  For example, if a student invites you to a family event, like a birthday or a family cookout, consider attending.  You will not only send a message that you value what is important to the student and her family, but you will also work on the home-school connection.

High Expectations

In the process of creating a classroom culture where students can thrive because they feel valued, we must also set high expectations for all student achievement.  High expectations are conveyed through the physical environment, as well as through direct instruction.  By posting daily learning and language objectives, we send all students a clear message that we expect them all to learn.  We carry this message into our lessons by encouraging students toward continual growth.  This is achieved by keeping students aware of the progress they have made on a routine basis.  With English Language Learners, a picture is worth a thousand words.  Encourage them to set goals and to chart their weekly growth across the content areas with a bar graph.  Check-in with the students to reflect on their progress and seek family involvement at times other than teacher-parent conferences.    

Equitable Approach to Curriculum and Reflection

The third piece to successful classroom practice with diverse learners involves not only what we teach, but also how we teach it.  As teachers, we are expected to do whatever it takes to get students to achieve.  This is a tall order, yet one that we can achieve together.  As professional educators, we need to begin asking each other the tough questions in a more formal setting:  What does “whatever it takes mean”?  What if what one student needs appears to be at the expense of what another student needs?  How do we get students to learn when they refuse?  These questions should be asked and answered as a whole school, but what happens when they aren’t?  As teachers involved in professional learning communities (DuFour and Eaker), we can support each other as we seek partial solutions to difficult questions about student achievement, equity, and cultural proficiency. 

Good luck!  Please e-mail me with your thoughts, successes, struggles and suggestions!


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