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Breaking Language Barriers: An Effective ELL Approach

Breaking Language Barriers: An Effective ELL Approach

By Matthew Lynch on August 24, 2015

In one of the most ethnically diverse regions in California, Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) serves thousands of students, many of whom do not speak English as their first language. Educators within the district's schools are charged with supporting students speaking nearly 30 different languages. How is it possible to ensure these young learners receive the education they deserve if they are not able to communicate or understand what is being said?

The educators at one of OUSD's campuses, Manzanita Community School, have worked tirelessly to ensure they are able to reach, engage and excite English Language Learners (ELLs), like never before. Through their efforts, teachers at Manzanita have seen double digit Lexile growth in more than 90% of their students, much larger gains in their ELL population.

Over the course of the last year, one student realized an enormous 308-point jump in Lexile level, while another went from 0-219 while eight 3rd grade ELL students gained an average of 167 Lexile points. The school credits these large gains to their effective blend of emotional support and encouragement, providing a safe learning environment for students, and the right mix of technology to reinforce and extend instruction.

What does an ELL classroom at Manzanita look like?

In any given classroom at Manzanita, one may find a student with an extremely high reading level and near fluency in English, while the student sitting next to them may have never heard English before, or had no formal schooling. Creating a classroom environment that fosters respect and encouragement for these students is key to their growth in proficiency. Teachers create a place where students feel safe to take risks without fear of being ostracized or teased, full of praise and constructive feedback when trying and learning new concepts.

Manzanita teachers have found integrating social skills with academic content is an extremely effective way to reach all students. Simple things like learning manners and greetings are at the core of everyday classroom interaction, affording a comfortable way for each child to communicate and emphasizes oral practice. As each student is asked to greet one another it allows them not only to hear themselves speak in English, but their peers as well.  Additionally, starting lessons this way allows each student to feel included in classroom activities and gain confidence while participating.

To begin class for the day, ELL students, who are kept within a typical classroom as often as possible, are assigned small groups or work 1:1 with the teacher who takes time to 'pre-teach' or introduce a new topic or concept. During these small groups, time is dedicated to reinforcing phonics skills, guided reading instruction as well as working directly with students who may need additional help in certain areas. Teachers are able to accurately assess how each student is improving and easily identify which concepts need to be revisited. With the right amount of positive reinforcement and direction, teachers have found a full-inclusion model is the absolute best way for their ELL students to learn.

First grade ELL teacher Jennifer Kim addresses many foundational skills that don't need much simplification. She rarely separates her ELL students from the rest of the class, recognizing the importance of cross-cultural socialization while working in a diverse classroom.  Giving students the chance to learn from each other builds self-confidence and allows them to speak English in a social setting.

If you were to visit Manzanita, don't be surprised if you hear students singing in classrooms or walking down the hallways, as learning through song and music has become one of their most powerful approaches. Along with the English Alphabet song, students sing about animals, shapes, numbers and colors. As students recall the tune, they develop cognitive memory skills while learning a new language, and it's fun.

Effective Tools and Approach

Finding the right resources to integrate with their approach was incredibly important.  One particularly valuable resource is a standards-based math and ELA curriculum from Learning Upgrade, which seamlessly incorporates song, music, and games in each of its lessons. The platform allows for self-paced practice and differentiates instruction for each student. Additionally, students receive immediate feedback and intervention support should a student need additional help mastering a concept.

Teachers use numerous strategies from an instructional model, Project G.L.A.D. (Guided Language Acquisition Design). The model offers teachers the use of charts, pictures, guided oral practice, and experiments to help students understand concepts such as math and literacy.

Often times vocabulary lessons include props, student drawings or pictures of words rather than the drill and kill approach. Both help students of any language relate new words to their immediate world or surroundings.

Second grade teacher Sara Elbeck has students create their own books. Advanced students write stories with complete sentences and punctuation, while newcomers' books may include listing English words they know along with drawings.

Many ELLs are smart, but struggle to learn effectively due to language barriers. One very bright second grader Jamal, a recent immigrant from Iraq, struggled when arriving at Manzanita.  While working in the computer lab he was unable to focus, so the teacher directed him to the Britannica School website which brings the entire encyclopedia to life using photos, age-appropriate text, and videos. The teacher pulled up a photo and article about a lion, clicked on "translate to Arabic", and immediately the text was rendered in his native language, creating that ever sought after "aha" moment for the student.  In certain instances, students of the same native language are grouped together to help each other, an extremely effective approach and valuable confidence builder.  

Additionally, OCR (Open Court Reading) Phonics and have shown to be useful as they tap in to students' multiple intelligences while learning to read through the use of visual, oral, linguistic, interpersonal, and kinetic styles of learning.

Collaboration Meets Success

The gains in reading and language proficiency that the students of Manzanita have realized are impressive to say the least.  These dedicated educators have found the right combination of support: tools, approach, and care to ensure each of their students are set up for success and have the confidence to achieve it.