As a first year teacher at an elementary school with a high population of ESOL students, my greatest challenge in the classroom is creating lessons and learning opportunities that are accessible to each of my students. I’ve found that there are three strategies that make a great deal of impact:
- Utilize at least two modes of communication at all times.
- Create consistent and frequent opportunities for peer talk and peer teaching.
- Maintain a clean, organized, and visually supportive classroom.
Using Different Modes of Communication
When giving directions, introducing a lesson, or presenting the “takeaway” of any lesson, it is important to utilize two or more modes of communication; talk is so important in any classroom, but it is especially important in a classroom with a high population of ESOL or ELL students. Talk should be supported with another mode of communication. For that reason, I try to pair oral communication with either a visual or physical movement (such as a gesture or dance) – sometimes both! Students mirror these movements and begin to elaborate on their oral or written communication with a visual and/or physical movement, which cements their learning and provides you, the teacher, with more information with which to assess their progress. In math, for example, you may associate arm movements with vocabulary terms like “vertical” and “horizontal.” When students are observed during “turn and talk/teach” you can take note of their understanding through physical movements and gestures, even when they may struggle to say the vocabulary terms orally.
Peer talk and peer teaching is a crucial piece of the process, and because it builds upon the first strategy of utilizing two modes of communication at all times. In my classroom, I frequently use the “turn and talk” and “turn and teach” methods throughout a lesson to evaluate how well my message is being received by students. This allows me to identify what opportunities exist for clarification and extension. These “turn and talk/teach” moments are especially important for ESOL/ELL students, as it gives them an opportunity to speak and listen to their peers in an academic context. It also allows them to utilize the visuals and physical movement that I’ve introduced in order to support their oral communication. While students make incredible language gains through talk in non-academic contexts (such as lunch, recess, and before/after school), significant opportunities exists to increase their exposure to vocabulary and content throughout the day via their peers.
Finally, maintaining a clean, organized, and visually supportive classroom is imperative to building a foundation for communication. By following the strategies outlined previously, students will seek out and utilize the visual supports in the classroom. For this reason, it is crucial to strategically use wall-space, and to draw students’ attention to those visuals that will support their learning and communication throughout the year. The largest wall in my classroom – easily viewed by students from any place in the room – is utilized as a color-coded word wall so that students have easy access to their classmates’ names, high-frequency words (color-coded by parts of speech), and content-area vocabulary (color-coded by content-area). The remaining walls, cabinets, and doors feature strategically-placed, rotated frequently, content-area connections. As a practical matter, some of this space is utilized for visual directions – “write first, color second” for instance – and visual cuing, such as hand signals for common classroom needs.
These strategies are a simple and easily-implemented way to meet the needs of all learners, regardless of their linguistic background. While these strategies are targeted supports for ESOL and ELL students, they set up a communication-rich classroom where each student has an access point for learning, and feels comfortable and supported in contributing to whole group, small group, and paired discussions.
About the Author
Sarah Plumitallo is a 3rd grade teacher and 21st Century Grant coordinator in Virginia. She writes curriculum for diverse classrooms and presents professional development on ELLs. Find her at her blog!