We really know something when we can teach it, right? English learners (ELs) at the beginning level of English proficiency struggle to explain their thinking in an academic setting. After all, they are trying to activate prior knowledge in language one (L1), learn new academic content, and develop proficiency in English at the same time.
This is a difficult transition, and often ELs with emerging English skills still just don’t know where to start. Incorporating rich language activities like these can provide your English learners with a safe place to practice their writing and speaking.
Reading something out loud in class can be intimidating for a beginner EL. For example, it can be stressful or embarrassing to stumble over a pronunciation. When teachers chorally read aloud with their students in class, an EL might speak a little louder and more confidently, knowing that any mistakes they might make will be lost in the noise of all the voices reading.
Choral reading also provides a place to listen to pronunciation, rhythm, and inflection modeled by the teacher and classmates. This helps to build fluency and word recognition because as they speak and listen, they also get to see each word. ELs may hear a word they have heard many times before, and yet have the realization of what that word looks like.
Providing Sentence Stems
As teachers, sometimes it feels like our students know and understand content, but are unable to speak or write about it. In fact, often English learners have plenty to say about a topic, they just need a place to start.
Sentence Stems give students the beginning of the sentence, and are open-ended. They give students direction, or a push into constructing their thoughts. Providing students with sentence stems is an effective strategy to build both writing and speaking skills.
Note: Beginning ELs might need some translation support and additional coaching on what words might complete the sentence stem.
Structured Speaking Activities
Speaking exercises like Think-Pair-Share and Turn and Talk provide quality opportunities for our students to verbally share their ideas. However, these activities can be stressful for English learners if they are too open ended.
For example, an EL may struggle if the instruction was to “turn and talk with your partner about your thoughts on the book cover.” Providing extra structure might sound more like “Look at the map on your table top. Raise your hand if you are a #1. Raise your hand if you are a #2. #1, you are the speaker. #2 you are the listener. #1 look back at the sentence stems you completed. I want you to read your sentences about the book cover to #2. When #1 is finished, switch rolls. Ready go!”
With the visual table map, the sentence stems, and the clear instructions, the English learner can feel much more confident about understanding the expectations of the activity.
Journaling provides a place to process our thoughts, but for ELs it can also act as a place to explore using new vocabulary and improve the quality of their writing. Some types of journaling might include: Learning Logs, Dialogue Journals, Reflective, or Simulated (Role-Playing).
In addition, journals are a great place to build rapport with students as well, since teachers can read their students’ writing and provide feedback.
Note: for beginner ELs, this might be a safe place to practice writing in English, and it could also provide a place to write in their first language. If the journal entry is designed to reflect on learning, then what language a student writes in to reflect shouldn’t matter, especially for beginner ELs.
Investing the time and energy to make speaking and writing activities like these part of your classroom routines and procedures goes a long way toward developing the English language proficiency of ELs.
Daniel Schaetz is an education specialist for ESL/Bilingual working at the Education Service Center Region 13.