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

The Primary Needs of ELL/ESL Learners
Tobey Bassoff

Often times we look at our ESL learners as if their only problem was trying to acquire a second language. However, in doing so, we may overlook the student as a whole. In this article, I will address the importance of identifying a student’s primary needs and addressing them in the context of teaching them a new language.

In his book Effective Mainstreaming: Creating Inclusive Classrooms (Prentice-Hall Publishers, New Jersey, 1998), Spencer J. Salend advises teachers to assess the language skills of the second language learner. While this is certainly necessary, I also see it as an invitation to take stock of the student’s primary needs. I define primary needs as the needs basic to survival and success in school: food, shelter, clothing, and the tools necessary to meet work expectations, affectionately known as supplies.

Not surprisingly, many students, at least at the upper elementary level and above, are quite adept at concealing their home life from educators. For many of them, fear of deportation or a visit from social services outweighs their struggle to learn English in the classroom. An obvious part of teaching students is reaching students. Therefore, we must not only work at building a strong community in the classroom, but we must also get to know our students as individuals. Through this bond, students will more likely implicitly reveal primary needs that are not being met. These needs most certainly impact their ability to learn English, or any other subject.

One of the ways that I have learned about my students’ primary needs that were not being met is by creating “quality time” interactions. These are times that students can interact with me outside of the classroom setting. I have “Tea with Ms. B.” This is a time where we drink tea and eat finger foods and “hang out.” Students can drop in and chat about whatever they want. The setting is relaxed and many former students still come by and take advantage of the connection time. I also host game days. Students come after school and we play games like Scrabble, Uno, or Racko. Another way I connect with students is at their recess, or their extra curricular events. In the beginning, I participate with the students and observe. After a while, students get more comfortable with me being there and I listen to the “little things” that may lead me to follow up with the student or do some investigating of my own.

The more you interact with and/or observe your students outside of class, the more you will learn about who they are and what needs may or may not be met. You will most likely discover that some of your students are living in substandard housing, or that they don’t get enough to eat, or that they just don’t have supplies because they keep moving around from place to place. The next step is to research the intervention programs that your school has in place for supporting these students. If there are none, or if they are inadequate, take a look at your state department of education website. Many sites have current research and guidance available for school staffs dealing with issues like these. If you are dealing with issues of homelessness, call the national Center for Homeless Education at 1-800-308-2145 for guidance.

As you learn and address issues that your students are dealing with, be ready and willing to modify your curriculum to meet their interests. For example, when I found out that several of my students were dealing with issues of poverty, I began to introduce more poetry that spoke to their life experiences. This modification has created students that are more willing to participate and take chances with language, because they want an opportunity to express themselves. Remember, the road to reaching your students is not an easy one, but it is most certainly rewarding.

Have a question or comment? E-mail Tobey


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