How to Find ELL Material in This Spotlight
Under the list of practices for each section, an ELL Overview provides linguistic and cultural information helpful to teachers who want to be more responsive to the needs and assets of English language learners (ELLs). In the What Is It section under each practice, there is a specific discussion of the practice's Implications for ELLs and suggested Strategies for Supporting ELLs in the classroom. Even if you do not currently have any students identified as ELLs in your classroom or school, please review this material for the useful general information it provides on teaching and learning.
It has been said that effective teachers don't think about teaching all of their students, they think about teaching each of their students. What is the subtle difference between these two ways of thinking? It seems to reside in whether the class is seen as a single entity or as being composed of individuals. The word each reminds us that our students differ from each other in many ways and that our teaching should be responsive to those differences.
It is also important to note that differences are not the same as deficits. English language learners (ELLs) come to us with much more than a desire to learn English. They come with knowledge of other places, languages, literacies, customs, and cultures. They come with optimism, energy, and unique perspectives. Through interactions with ELLs, teachers and classmates learn many things that enrich their lives and that help prepare all students for increasingly diverse workplaces and communities. As bilingual individuals who can function well across languages and cultures, today's ELLs will become valued members of tomorrow's global economy.
ELLs are a growing population in the nation's schools. Since 1991 the general school-aged population has increased only 12%, but the number of ELLs has increased by 105%. It is estimated that by 2015, 30% of the school population will be children of immigrants. In urban school districts, ELLs account for 21% of students on average; in large cities such as Los Angeles the number is close to 40%. Not only are the numbers of ELLs in urban and port-of-entry cities increasing, but also more and more suburban and rural districts now have ELLs (e.g., from Kansas to Georgia to Maine). In 1998 41% of the nation's teachers reported having ELLs in their classes.
These statistics do not tell the whole story. Many ELLs are never identified as such and receive no supportive services. Others receive only minimal help. Some ELLs have been exited from special programs that failed to help them attain proficiency in academic English across the content areas or grade-level English literacy skills. Clearly, the quality of education available to today's school-age ELLs will greatly impact our society in the years to come.
Given national demographic changes, your school may soon have more multilingual students whose awareness of languages can support their English literacy development. The following material provides a general overview of the characteristics, literacy challenges, and developmental patterns of ELLs to assist you in meeting their needs.
Who Are English Language Learners?
Definition of English Language Learner (ELL)
Other terms used to refer to English language learners include:
As noted in The Education Alliance's Teaching Culturally Diverse Learners Web site, "The U.S. Government mandates that ELLs must be identified and that students who have been identified as ELLs must be offered a program designed to help them succeed in school." ELLs are identified through a home language survey and language proficiency testing (see http://www.lab.brown.edu/tdl/assessment/initassess.shtml).
Characteristics of English Language Learners
English language learners are a diverse group. They differ from one another in many ways:
Length of residence
Some ELLs are newly arrived in the United States.
Many ELLs were born in the U.S. or have been living in the U.S. for many years in households where family members and caretakers speak a language other than English. Although English may be these children's dominant (strongest) language, they may not have developed the oral and written language skills or the vocabulary needed to function successfully at grade level in English academic settings.
Literacy skills and previous schooling
Young ELLs in the primary grades of schools in the U.S. frequently face an enormous challenge: They must acquire the initial concepts and skills of literacy through the medium of English, a language they have not mastered orally.
Some ELLs have already acquired and developed literacy and academic skills in their home language(s). It is often said that "We only have to learn to read once." Once we know how to read, we can transfer our reading skills to other languages that we learn. Some ELLs have not experienced consistent schooling or appropriate instruction. This compounds the difficulties they face reading and writing English.
Some ELLs already know some English when they arrive in the U.S., while others are having their first encounter with English.
Some ELLs have a primary language that resembles English in word order, sound system, and word formation patterns. Other students' languages may be very different from English in these respects. Spanish, French, and Portuguese have more in common with English than do Swahili or Vietnamese.
Some ELLs have a primary language that shares commonalties with English such as the use of Roman alphabet and left-to-right print directionality (e.g., Italian and Polish). Other students' languages differ greatly from English with different alphabets (e.g., Hebrew and Russian), directionalities (e.g., Hebrew), or nonalphabetic writing systems (e.g., Chinese).
Some ELLs have a primary language that shares cognate or sister words with English. For example, the following pairs of English and Spanish words are cognates: observe/observar, anniversary/aniversario, stomach/estómago.
Similarities between learners' home languages and English tend to make initial learning of English easier, whereas differences make the process more difficult.
Like all children, ELLs vary in their nutrition and care histories, family structure and stability, household composition, parental education and socioeconomic status, neighborhood and community resources, exposure to literacy, life experiences, knowledge, cultural norms, abilities, and dispositions.
ELLs bring with them varied cultural experiences that have shaped their notions of appropriate adult-child interaction. For example, children from some cultures may ask questions of adults and display knowledge by volunteering answers, whereas children from other cultures may have learned to show respect for adults by listening quietly. Some children may demonstrate the desire for closeness with the teacher through physical proximity and hugs, while others may expect to have a more formal or distant relationship with their teacher. Some ELLs seem independent and mature beyond their years, having developed high levels of social and linguistic competence through helping their families, caring for younger children, and interpreting for their parents.
ELLs differ from each other in their previous literacy experiences. Some may be familiar with literature genres, informational text, and the analytic activities prevalent in U.S. classrooms. Others may be more familiar with religious texts or functional uses of literacy such as recordkeeping and letter writing. Styles of narration and writing vary across cultures. For example, a chronological narration of events is highly valued in U.S. schools, while in other settings narratives are judged on imagery, poetics, word play, contextual details, or other criteria.
Attaining age-appropriate English literacy skills poses many challenges to English language learners (ELLs). ELLs must make progress in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. As English-proficient students make progress in developing literacy skills, ELLs must make even faster progress in order to catch up and close the achievement gap.
Advanced levels of literacy require many types of linguistic, cultural, and world knowledge. According to the National Reading Panel, research indicates that basic reading and writing require competence in the following five areas:
(Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read. April 2000. Available: http://www.nationalreadingpanel.org/)
Each of these areas has specific implications for ELLs.
1. Phonemic Awareness
In order to learn to read and write English, a learner must be able to perceive the small units of sound called phonemes that make up spoken words.
To those of us who can already read and write English, it is apparent that a word like boat has three component sounds, or phonemes: /b/ /o/ /t/. However, there is evidence that the ability to perceive a spoken word as a sequence of phonemes varies from individual to individual.
In addition to individual differences, phonemic segmentation of English words is particularly difficult for those with little prior experience listening to English speech sounds. Phonemic segmentation of English words is also particularly difficult for those with little experience in English rhyme, alliteration, or other word play.
ELLs may find it difficult to differentiate certain phonemes of English. For example, /v/ and /b/ may sound alike to some Spanish speakers, and /l/ and /r/ may be indistinguishable to some Japanese speakers. Similarly, while English speakers would identify pot and spot as both containing the phoneme /p/, Hindi speakers might perceive the /p/ in pot and the /p/ in spot as two distinct phonemes differentiated by the presence or absence of an initial puff of air (aspiration).
To read and write in English, a learner must have phonics skills, the ability to match sounds to letters and letters to sounds. That is, they must connect particular letters and letter combinations with the component sounds (phonemes) of familiar spoken words.
In order to read English, an English language learner must
In order to write English, an English language learner must also be able to
3. Vocabulary Development
In order to truly read and write in English, ELLs must understand English word meanings. Some ELLs may be able to repeat or pronounce English words and phrases without really understanding them. They may be able to decode words and produce the appropriate sounds without extracting or constructing meaning.
ELLs initially learn word meanings best through explicit instruction and rich opportunities to listen, observe, participate, and interact. They link word sounds to meanings through the context provided by predictable routines, concrete objects, pictures, gestures, physical movements, and experiential activities. ELLs also learn word meanings through listening to repeated readings, explicit explanations, and discussions of picture books on a variety of topics in fiction and nonfiction.
In addition to learning word definitions, ELLs need multiple exposures to new words in different contexts. They also need opportunities to use the words in meaningful contexts. For example, two ways to help ELLs achieve deeper understanding are (1) choosing which of two newly learned words best applies to a given situation and (2) ranking words according to meaningful criteria.
ELLs may learn a single meaning for some words, such as fair, kid, log, will, and mean, and then fail to make sense of spoken or written language where these words represent alternative meanings. Homophones, such as to, too, two and due, dew, do, require explicit explanation, as do homographs, such as wind (noun) and wind (verb). ELLs may need explicit help in matching pronunciations with print forms of words (e.g., debris, chaos).
Most ELLs acquire the vocabulary involved in daily routines, play, and social interaction before they learn academic and rare words. Inferring the meaning of unknown words from context can be difficult for ELLs who may not fully understand that context.
ELLs need explicit instruction and practice in word analysis. Learning word roots and the meanings of common prefixes and suffixes helps ELLs to understand many unfamiliar words.
Fluency in speaking English is an important factor underlying fluent oral reading. Reading quickly, accurately, and expressively can pose a challenge to ELLs. They need rich opportunities to listen, speak, and internalize the sounds, rhythms, and patterns of English over a period of time.
If the vocabulary or the sentence patterns of a passage are unfamiliar, ELLs will find it difficult to read aloud fluently. With repeated exposure and practice, ELLs can develop the ability to automatically identify English words seen frequently in print.
Even ELLs who are quite proficient in reading comprehension and fluent silent reading in English may feel self-conscious about reading orally, especially in large-group settings. Criticism, ridicule, or public correction is likely to exacerbate anxieties that ELLs may have about having an accent or being different.
Effective teachers provide ELLs with opportunities to listen and follow along during read-alouds. Teachers prepare ELLs to read a text orally on their own by reading it to them a few times. This will help students understand the story better and to hear the sounds and rhythms of its language. Sometimes teachers move their fingers under the text as they read so that students can match what they hear with what they see. Sometimes students move their own fingers under the text as they listen. Such experiences give ELLs the linguistic information and the confidence they need to practice reading and rereading a book until they can read it fluently.
In order to read English with understanding, ELLs must have developed phonemic awareness, phonics skills, word recognition skills, vocabulary knowledge, and the ability to read somewhat fluently.
It is easier for students to comprehend their reading when they can identify with the books. Reading selections that have culturally unfamiliar topics, settings, concepts, and references are more difficult for ELLs to understand. When selecting readings, effective teachers consider the types of prior knowledge that ELLs may or may not possess. In prereading discussions, teachers draw out students' relevant knowledge and help students make explicit connections to the text. When students choose their own reading materials to pursue their personal interests and goals, they are more likely to persist in trying to make sense of difficult texts.
Most readers find it a challenge to read materials containing new concepts and new information to be learned. This is especially true for ELLs. Comprehension is more of a challenge when the style of English in a reading selection is very different from the English spoken in the ELL's daily life. Some excellent ways to prepare ELLs to comprehend unfamiliar material include experiential activities (e.g., science experiments, nature studies, or examination of historic photographs); and rich talk using key vocabulary from the reading material. Other ways to boost reading comprehension are anticipation guides, focus questions, graphic organizers, and conversations about readings.
Many English language learners (ELLs) go through a "silent period" during which they listen and observe more than they speak. During this silent period, ELLs benefit from opportunities to participate and interact with others in activities that use gesture, physical movement, art, experiential activities, and single words or short phrases.
Most ELLs acquire the ability to understand and use the predictable oral language needed for daily routines, play, and social interaction before they develop the ability to understand and use academic and written English. Unfortunately, this discrepancy between Basic Interpersonal Communication Skill (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) is not widely understood. When students who seem to speak and understand English well in daily life do not perform well academically, they are often assumed to have special needs or to lack motivation. In fact, many such ELLs are simply at a developmental stage where they have acquired interpersonal language but they cannot yet fully understand or express more complex thoughts in English. Such students need numerous opportunities to listen, speak, read, and write across the curriculum.
With time and lots of opportunities to listen, observe, participate, and interact, ELLs progress in understanding and are able to produce language that is increasingly understandable, complete, and grammatical.
An experienced first-grade teacher describes her work with English language learners (ELLs) as "packed with challenges."
"It's a lot… and with all that it's packed with, it comes with that much in reward because [their progress] is just amazing!… My [ELL] children can do exactly what the other children can do. However, there are ways I [help them] that are different." (Adapted from Teacher Talk and Writing Development in an Urban, First-Grade, English as a Second Language Classroom, Yedlin, J., 2003. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.)
It is important to remember that ELLs' new learning should honor--not devalue--their home language, family, or culture, all critical sources of self-concept.
ELLs thrive in classrooms where
You will find many different ways to help diverse students achieve literacy throughout this spotlight, especially in the sections labeled ELL Overview, Implications for ELLs, and Strategies for Supporting ELLs. We expect that, like this first-grade teacher, you will find teaching ELLs amazing and rewarding!