What’s the Best ELL Approach?

When I first started teaching at my current school, I had no idea how to help and support the international students in attendance.  How do I teach high-level English skills to a student who can barely speak the language?  I certainly can’t teach grade-level novels to ELL students.  What do I do, I thought.  How can I best support those students?  I wasn’t equipped for the challenges I faced.  I did the best I could, but I still feel as though I did not appropriately help or support many of my ELL students over the years.  My school’s program is based on the full-immersion concept.  If non-English speakers are forced to live and speak English, they will eventually learn and adapt.  Is this the best approach?  Does it help all students?

In the February issue of Educational Leadership magazine, several articles cited the bilingual approach to educating ELL students as the most effective method of supporting non-native speakers.  They claim that teachers who are fluent in English and the common native language of their students can more effectively explain new English concepts.  This allows those teachers to better empathize with their students and build a stronger relationship amongst the students in the class, the articles stated.  After reading these articles, it made total sense to me.  I thought I had found the magic cure to the challenges I faced in the classroom.  I even contemplated learning a new language over the summer so that I could become bilingual and better support my students.  I shared this new information with colleagues and they agreed that bilingualism would make us more effective educators.  So, now what?

Then, Friday came and my perspective changed.  Yesterday was the start of my school’s Parents’ Weekend, during which parents visited classes and attended conferences with the teachers.  As we utilize the student-lead conference format for these meetings, the boys did most of the talking yesterday.  They owned their learning and explained what they need to do to grow and develop as a student over the course of the final weeks of the academic year.  It was great.

At the start of the academic year, one international student really struggled speaking English.  His English comprehension, processing, and vocabulary were very weak.  He was reading at a second grade level and rarely participated in class discussions because he was so nervous about mispeaking in English.  However, he put forth much effort over the first half of the academic year and thus has made much progress.  Because he was forced to learn English in order to survive at our school, he had to adapt quickly.  Yesterday, his student-lead conference totally highlighted the growth he has made in the area of English.

While he had lots of reflections already typed out in his e-portfolio on his iPad, he chose to wing it and complete his conference without the aide of technology or rehearsal.  When I saw that this was what he was doing, I grew nervous.  What if he has nothing to say?  Is he going to be clear and concise?  Will what he says make sense to his parents?  Will he cover all of the details?  I said nothing and trusted the student to make effective choices.  Wow, is about all I can say to summarize his performance.  He used difficult vocabulary words to accurately explain and describe his performance in class.  He explained how he has grown as a student in all of his classes, cited goals he has set for himself, and described examples to support his claims.  My co-teacher and I were blown away by how well he did.  He didn’t read from the script he had written or typed, he just talked about himself as a student.  It was amazing.  Clearly, this student has grown as an English speaker, writer, reader, and thinker since September.  He was concise and clear.  Is our full-immersion program the reason for this growth?

Every year we see students follow this same trajectory in the sixth grade.  A few students begin the year with very few English skills and end the year almost fluent in English.  Does being forced to survive in an English environment cause the great influx in fluency we’re seeing in the classroom?  Is the full-immersion approach really the more effective method for our international population?  Would the bilingual method increase their fluency more than what we’re seeing now?  All great questions, but with the results I’ve seen over the years and especially yesterday during that one student’s student-lead conference, I’m inclined to think that my school’s full-immersion approach to teaching ELL students is the most effective method for teaching English to non-native speakers.


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