5 Ways to Re-Engage Long-Term ELs

I was discouraged today. And bored.  I sat in an ELA classroom of 11th graders, and was bored.  So were the kids.  They weren’t challenged.  They didn’t learn.  They weren’t disruptive.  But they were bored.  They were on their phones.  They were sleeping.  They were copying.  But they weren’t learning.

And then there was Jose.  He was the only English Learner in the class, and he was bored.  And unmotivated.  And copying. And listening to music on his headphones.  And the gap in his learning, both in language and academics, was growing.  I watched him shut down.  Then I watched him copy the notes off of his neighbor’s paper, turn it in, and probably earn a 100 for doing and learning NOTHING.

How do we stop this?

First, it’s important to know how this problem originates. When students don’t build language at the appropriate pace, they can plateau. When a language plateau occurs, their ability to acquire new language gets drastically harder. This occurs for a number of reasons, but I believe one of the primary reasons it happens goes back to our previous article – remember BICS and CALP? If you missed that one, click here!

Remember that BICS is social language and CALP is academic language. It typically takes about 1-3 years to develop BICS, and 5-7 (some say even 10) to fully develop academic language. So let’s take our example of Jose mentioned above. Let’s say Jose came to the US when he was in 2nd grade. By the time he finishes 5th grade, it’s a pretty good assumption that Jose is fluent in social language. Because he began learning English at such a young age, he may not even have much of an accent. But even if Jose is on track liguistically, as he moves into 6th grade (which may be middle school in a lot of districts), will his academic language be on grade level? Probably not.

If the teacher is not familiar with language acquisition or is not using Jose’s data to plan instruction for him, it may seem like Jose is fluent in English (so accommodations or scaffolds are not given), but he is not able to do grade level work. So what happens next? In many cases, Jose shuts down, gives up, or acts out. And I hear all the time “It’s not language – he can speak English, he just doesn’t care“.

But it is language. And unfortunately, because Jose seems fluent, Jose’s 6th grade teachers may stop intentionally building language, which not only hurts Jose linguistically, but it will affect him academically as well. This is where the plateau starts.

While this problem runs deep, here are 3 ways to hit this problem head on…

1.) Engage – The learning must be on the student.  In a student-centered classroom, students carry the cognitive load.  The students are expected to inquire, struggle, and ultimately – learn!

2.) Be culturally responsive – Recognize where the English learner is coming from.  Know that each person was created with a brain to problem solve, but also created with a brain that avoids danger and uncomfortable situations at all cost.  If ELs are shutting down, acting out, or copying, they have moved into survival mode.  Teachers must create a culturally aware environment, focused on learning, and built on genuine relationships, in order to lower the affective filter of these students who have struggled for so long, and open up their brains to more learning –it’s what they’re made to do!

3.) Keep rigor high – when we understand that our brains are made to problem solve, and think on a higher level, we can design lessons that take students to that point. Although academic language still needs to be addressed through language accommodations and strategies that continue to build language, the cognitive level of rigor needs to remain high.  Students cannot fill their academic gaps if they are not required to think or learn.

4) Provide linguistic accommodations and scaffolds – chunk the reading, provide visuals, pre-teach vocabulary, have a word wall, use total physical response (putting a hand motion with a meaning), use repetition, choral reading, post instructions…there are so many ways to do this.

5) Intentionally build language – Remember that fluency means the student can speak, listen, read and write. The more we build lessons where the students are required and encouraged to speak, listen, read and write about content, the more language will build and academic gaps will be filled!

For information about Pressing Onward partnering with your campus or district, go to http://www.pressing-onward.org.

Jenn Kleiber

Founder, Pressing Onward, LLC

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