Embracing Culture and Background When Teaching Young English-Language Learners

Classrooms in the United States today are becoming increasingly diverse. They are made up of students of various ethnicities, backgrounds and language speaking abilities, including young English-language learners (ELLs) — students who are developing proficiency in the English language.

A February 2020 report from the U.S. Department of Education found that there are an estimated 4.9 million children in U.S. public schools learning the English language, an increase of more than 1 million ELL students in K–12 schools since 2000. Given this increase, teachers may need additional support to effectively teach these students. Although there are unknowns and variables in every classroom, there are several basic strategies teachers of young ELLs can use in in-person and online learning environments.

Understanding the student

First there needs to be an awareness that young ELLs are far from a homogenous group.

“It is important to keep in mind that there are strong individual differences between young ELLs in terms of age, cognitive, social and emotional development and language proficiency — both in their home language and English— as well as diverse experiences in terms of formal education,” noted ETS English language learning Research Scientist, Veronika Timpe-Laughlin.

It’s imperative to embrace what ELLs bring to the table, taking note that cultural and linguistic sensitivity are key.

“To better understand their needs and challenges, teachers should really understand who the ELL students are,” noted Alexis Lopez, English language learning Research Scientist at ETS. “Teachers should also be knowledgeable about the key English skills that young ELLs need to develop in order to be successful in school and beyond. They should provide a variety of teaching approaches, allowing opportunities for ELLs to practice and develop their English skills; tap into their background knowledge, making connections between what they already know and what they are learning; as well as tap into their home language, making sure instruction is culturally and linguistically relevant.”

To better understand their needs and challenges, teachers should really understand who the ELL students are.

~ Alexis Lopez, English language learning research scientist at ETS

Determining where to begin

Deciding what skills and concepts need to be taught, and the best way to teach them, starts with assessing the current level of content knowledge. In the instance of young ELLs, the best approach is to design assessments that recognize and value the knowledge and experience that ELL students bring to their education. This includes allowing them to use all their language resources — English, home language or both — through a process known as translanguaging to demonstrate what they know and can do in different subject areas. It allows students to use language practices that they already possess and is essential to providing an important confidence.

Whether taught as part of the mainstream classroom or as a separate group, for them to be successful, an inclusive learning environment needs to be provided. One way to do this is by following the principles of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a framework of instruction that is intended to guide the design and development of curricula and lessons to make learning environments inclusive and effective for all learners. The UDL framework is rooted in three distinct principles: (1) provide multiple means of representation, (2) provide multiple means of action and expression, and (3) provide multiple means of engagement. The framework is a reminder for teachers to offer variety in their instruction and to exercise flexibility, so ELL students are able to demonstrate what they know and are able to do.

Keeping families involved

Learning doesn’t stop at the end of the school day. Parental support is also a key factor in children’s academic success. Regular, open communication between a teacher and parents can make a big difference in getting parents of young ELLs to participate more actively. Teachers may find it helpful to be proactive in seeking and establishing good communication. Even when teachers do not speak the student’s home language, using resources such as interpreters, school-community liaisons, or translated materials may be helpful to establish communication. The better-informed parents are, the more likely it is that the student will get support to succeed academically.

“Families of young ELLs should be integrated into the learning process from the beginning — early and often. Work with the parents from an assets-based perspective to recognize the knowledge they possess and pass on to their children. Also, as parents may have varying levels of language and literacy skills, even in their home language, using multimodal information — such as a written letter with an electronic audio component to read the letter aloud — is important to ensure effective communication,” said Danielle Guzman-Orth, English language learning Research Scientist at ETS.

For ELL teaching to be effective, it can’t be approached in a silo. Collaboration between teachers and parents is critical to leverage synergies across students’ language and content learning opportunities. Teachers need to be prepared to teach ELLs with effective, evidence-based strategies that take into consideration the students’ background and knowledge in order to help educate them for a successful future.