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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles:
Adjust Your Teaching Styles for English Language Learners (ELL) in ESL/Bilingual Classrooms
Where to Start: Introductory Ideas for Teaching the Non-English Speaker
Tobey Cho Bassoff

Several teachers have contacted me with the same question: I am a classroom teacher and I have no training in ESL, yet a student just arrived from another country and doesn’t speak English, what do I do?

First of all, be comforted by the fact that there are many teachers out there who are just like you. All of the ideas that follow come from fellow ESL teachers who have been in a similar situation.

As your English Language Learner (ELL) starts being immersed in English, vocabulary development will be essential. Your job is to start developing the student’s vocabulary as quickly as possible. I recommend giving weekly vocabulary tests that have him learning no more than 10 words per week. Classroom words are a great place to start (pencil, blackboard, clock, etc.). You can get bilingual picture dictionaries that also provide workbooks to make vocabulary acquisition fun while providing some structure.

If your student finds the classroom words boring, tap into the child’s interests. If you discover he enjoys fishing, then start there. As his vocabulary expands provide him with post-it notes and allow him to label things in the classroom. If this isn't possible (i.e., for middle school and high school teachers), then ask him to keep a notebook which serves as his own personal English dictionary. Each page serves as a letter in the alphabet. Your ELL will write, draw, or cut and paste vocabulary words/pictures that mean something to him into it. (See also Building Your ESL Student’s Vocabulary.)

In addition to starting your ELL with vocabulary, you should start acquiring some basic English kindergarten books. Often times schools will have discretionary funds that are slated for just this type of thing, or there is a Parent/Teacher fund that can offer money. One teacher appealed to the high school Key Club for funds and she received books and volunteers to help read with her ELLs. Ask your principal if the funds are available, or look into local clubs and non-profit organizations who donate funds and resources.

If money is next to impossible to secure, then visit the local library. You are looking for books with pictures, limited vocabulary on each page, and a repetitive pattern. These types of books (also referred to as touchstone texts) will serve as a model for your ELL to write self-authored books featuring his own experiences.

For example, Rebecca Emberley writes very basic books for very young children. They are written in Spanish and English. They have one focal point picture and a word or two at most. Your new student can start writing his own books in this basic style and expand on Emberley's format. Remember, some ELLs will not be familiar with basic grammar rules in English. The more they are exposed to a print rich environment the faster they will learn to apply the rules to their own writing.

The last idea I’ll share with you in this article came from a middle school teacher, Mary, in Kentucky. Mary writes:

One of the best things I've done is to buy a computer program that teaches vocabulary through fun (silly!) games. Kids can choose what topic they want to work on, and the program keeps track of their points. This makes great independent work, and the kids will sit and play it for hours if allowed. As they read, listen, and repeat, they pick up a lot of words.

No matter where you start, applaud yourself for being your student’s first introduction to English. If you’re reading this article, then you’ve already proven to be tenacious enough to be an effective teacher. If you find an idea that works for you, please email me, so we can continue to share our best classroom practices.

As always, if you need more ideas, or if you have ideas to share, please email me at tbassoff@yahoo.com.

Best of luck! Tobey


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