Key Instructional Principles to Use with English-Language Learners

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There are two common activities that are ineffective with English-language learners who have learning difficulties:

  • Lengthy whole-class lectures devoid of visual aids or active student participation

  • Lengthy student seatwork

Several key instructional principles apply to English-language learners who have learning difficulties:

  1. Vocabulary instruction is crucial for English-language development and can serve as a cornerstone for content-area learning. Vocabulary instruction does not mean memorizing the definitions of 20 new vocabulary terms each lesson. It refers to a range of instructional strategies that can be used to help English-language learners with learning difficulties acquire vocabulary. Such strategies include:

    • Learning vocabulary in the context of mastering new concepts through literature discussions
    • Student conversations
    • Writing exercises
    • Cooperative group activities
    • Semantic maps

    For example, as in any subject area, knowing science vocabulary involves a complex process of constructing relationships between ideas, terms, and meanings, rather than to simply knowing definitions for a list of terms. Constructing these relationships is complicated by the fact that terms often cannot be translated into another language, or do not exist in a comparable language form such as questioning or analyzing. In other words, some languages may use metaphors in contrast to analysis forms, such as hypothesis, to express complex ideas.

  2. Use of students' native language can be an excellent means of supporting students' learning of concepts, even if the teacher does not speak the students' native language. A student's native language use can be respected and fostered through the availability of books and other materials in the student's native language. The availability of other individuals who speak that language, including teaching assistants, parents, local high school or university students, and peers, is also helpful.

  3. Consistent language use is very important, especially early in second-language learning. Teachers should be particularly thoughtful and consistent in the way they use language in the classroom. For example, synonyms, metaphors, similes, and idioms should be used carefully and purposefully. Verbal checks for student comprehension should be done frequently.

    Teachers should also monitor their pace of introducing language concepts. For example, many fourth-grade teachers of native English speakers may see their role as one of providing models of the richness of the English language. The teachers will therefore use synonyms and metaphors as a means of demonstrating that richness. This same approach can be disastrous for English-language learners with learning difficulties, depending on their level of English proficiency.

    One general rule of thumb is to be extremely careful and consistent in language use when presenting a new concept, and to use synonyms, similes, and metaphors primarily when expanding on or reviewing a concept. As students learn more English, the pace can increase, but this depends on the complexity of the content and other factors.

    Using clear, consistent language does not mean using childish language. Teachers can effectively use quite sophisticated terms such as "character clue" and "migration" with English-language learners with learning difficulties. However, these terms should be visually displayed and clearly defined, with relevant examples provided.

    Many students with academic difficulties receive additional services from a variety of support programs. For example, it is not uncommon for students with academic difficulties to receive language and academic support in regular education programs such as ESL, Title I, or Migrant Tutorial and, if eligible, in special education programs for students with learning disabilities or speech and language impairments. Unless there is a high degree of coordination between these programs, the issue of consistent language use may be compromised, and instruction may in fact be less comprehensible than it might otherwise be.

  4. Opportunities to speak and use language in a fashion that is linked to academic learning constitute one of the most critical indicators of student academic engagement. Opportunities can involve paraphrasing, asking questions, and expressing ideas, and include speaking in both English and the native language. Principles of cognitive science suggest that we learn by doing and receiving feedback on what we do. English-language learners with learning difficulties learn language (and how to use it) by verbalizing and receiving feedback.

    Peers can be excellent mediators in helping to bridge language gaps between classroom teachers and English-language learners with learning difficulties. In essence, they can serve as unofficial teacher assistants. It is important to provide peers (and other helpers) with careful supervision and structure from the teacher. Close teacher supervision and direction help maximize the benefit to both the English-language learner and the peer mediator.

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    Council for Exceptional Children

    Provided in partnership with The Council for Exceptional Children.

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