Here’s an essential point, when it comes to working with English Learners (ELs): “Children cannot learn to speak English without opportunities to practice speaking English.”
This insight comes from a post on the Penn State College of Education website that offers tips about how best to engage with EL students in the classroom. While there are a range of ideas offered, including the importance of setting up and maintaining a clear schedule, one of the key strategies mentioned is the reminder to “know and include the student.”
Such advice is a good rule of thumb for all teachers, but it may be of special importance for those who work with ELs. These students likely come from a variety of backgrounds, and often bring unique experiences and cultural vibrance to the classroom. Taking extra steps to make sure ELs feel welcome can go a long way towards building an inclusive, collaborative learning environment.
One clear way to “know and include the student” is by emphasizing speaking and listening skills. This is not only an approach that can create a strong classroom community, it is also a sound language and literacy development strategy.
Many EL experts agree on this point, so let’s take a closer look at how to prioritize these skills in the classroom.
Why is speaking and listening in English valuable for ELs?
First and foremost, speaking and listening are considered “productive language skills,” and should form the core of classroom instruction, according to education professor Andrea Honigsfeld.
Honigsfeld’s insights are included in an article written by Emily Kaplan and published by the education resource site Edutopia. Kaplan’s piece focuses on key strategies teachers can put to use while working with ELs, and an emphasis on helping students attain productive language skills is part of this.
In order to increase ELs grasp of practical language skills, Honigsfeld “suggests that all lessons touch on every letter of the acronym SWIRL, which stands for Speak, Write, Interact, Read, Listen.” Kaplan asserts that educators she has spoken to agree on the importance of promoting these “hard-to-master dimensions of language fluency” as soon as possible.
These challenging aspects of language fluency, including speaking and listening, are also what can help ELs become full participants in conversations and classroom exchanges, and so it’s worth putting them at the center of everything, as Honigsfeld states.
But how? Here are some ideas to consider.
How to Emphasize Speaking and Listening
Experienced teachers such as Larry Ferlazzo, who writes often about working with ELs, know that having to speak in another language before fluency has been achieved can be scary for students.
Still, he notes, there are ways to help make this happen. One method is to provide structure in the form of a script. In a blog post for the Teaching English website, Ferlazzo notes that he introduces ELs to the concept of dialogues, and then provides adaptable ones to them.
This can give students a helpful framework for learning how to express themselves in English. Another EL teacher, Tan Huynh, also uses this strategy with “sentence frames” that offer context and structure. These can “provide clues” for students, Huynh says, and may work especially well in content classes such as science, where the vocabulary is highly specific.
Ferlazzo similarly believes that teachers should pay attention to academic as well as conversational English. Feeling confident speaking, writing, and otherwise communicating in both are important for ELs, he argues, and his Teaching English post offers tips on how teachers can help students get comfortable with content-based, academic English.
A central idea is to just charge forward, using explicit instruction and repetition among other instructional strategies.
There are also many innovative, student-centered ways to prioritize listening skills, which—like speaking—fall under the oral language umbrella. The EL-focused website Colorin Colorado has a list of suggestions, with links to lesson plans that are designed to get students listening, talking, and sharing their ideas in English.
One idea shared on Colorin Colorado is that of the Reader’s Theater concept. Kristina Robinson, an EL teacher and administrator, describes the theater approach this way: “In a Reader’s Theater activity, students read stories that have been scripted like a play, and they act out the story together.”
Doing this work together provides a great opportunity for ELs to practice their emerging language skills, primarily through speaking and listening. Even students who are not yet in the speaking phase of development can be “assigned a non-speaking role such as an animal character,” Robertson suggests.
Robertson’s post offers clear guidance on how to get a Reader’s Theater going with EL students, along with further clarification about the many ways it can help them improve their comprehension, fluency, and oral language skills. Other strategies exist as well, of course, including resources such as Listenwise that compile stories for teachers to share with students.
Listenwise also offers ways to evaluate students’ listening skills. The site provides a list of what students should be able to accomplish through active listening, such as the ability to track and analyze a speaker’s main point, and there are quizzes available for assessment purposes.
The bottom line here is to apply multiple strategies in order to boost students’ productive language skills. This is also likely to help them feel known and included in the classroom.
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