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March 1, 2022
Vol. 79
No. 6

Ask an ASCD Expert / Engaging English Learners

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Q: Do you have suggestions as to the best practices one can use to engage disengaged ESOL students in high school classrooms?
Motivated to Motivate in South Carolina
A: I am often asked this question by teachers regarding their English language learners. As a former ELL myself, this question always puts a smile on my face because it means that you care for your students. I clearly remember the names of my teachers in high school who provided that welcoming environment for me. Although I had been in the United States for four years at that time, my academic language was not yet fully developed, and I was still getting used to a new culture and country that looked very different from where I came from.
Disengaged is defined as "to separate from someone or something; to stop being involved with a person or group; to stop taking part in something." So how do we make sure we engage the ELLs in our classrooms?
1. Get to know your students.
Building relationships with ELL students is highly important. Take the time to get to know their culture, family, and country, and when possible, bring that knowledge into your teaching. Even today, when I walk into a school and see my country's flag being displayed, I already feel welcome. Creating conditions where students feel safe will lead them to be more engaged and feel like they belong in your class. ELLs may pass through several stages of cultural accommodation—euphoria, culture shock, acceptance, assimilation/adaptation—and being aware of these may help you understand your student's behaviors at times. It's also important to note that they might have a "silent period"—a time where they are listening and absorbing the language. This can often be mistaken for disengagement.
2. Allow students to collaborate.
Engage ELLs by allowing them to collaborate with peers. Preferably, if possible, allow them to work with others who speak the same language. Research has shown that many ELLs thrive when allowed to use their native language to understand concepts. For many years when I was a student, all my thinking was in Spanish. Allowing me to speak Spanish in school would have helped me understand concepts better and relate with my classmates.
3. Be clear and concise with your language.
To help students understand the language better, speak clearly, use repetition and gestures, stress words, use intonation, and pause. Write down concept words relating to the topic you are teaching so the students can hear them and see them. It is also important to avoid talking fast or using idioms, slang, or vowel reduction. There are also various resources to support written text by adding visuals or audio, such as using videos, closed captions, websites such as Ed Puzzle, translators, and any other technology that supports students understanding.
The definition of engagement is to take part in something, and ELLs can certainly do that in your classroom with the right strategies.

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Maria Gonzalez provides professional development to teachers and leaders in diverse districts in both urban and rural areas as an education consultant. As a member of ASCD's Differentiated Instruction and FIT Teaching® (Framework for Intentional and Targeted Teaching®) Cadres, she works on building the capacity of teacher leaders, school-based coaches, and administrators nationwide.

Gonzalez has a passion for reaching all students' potential and is an expert in working with multicultural student and school community populations. She has worked extensively in inner-city schools with teachers who have both struggling and gifted students, guiding them through various frameworks in curriculum and design in order to provide them with rigorous instruction.

Her skill set includes educational technology, instructional design, curriculum development, public speaking, and teacher training. She has presented at various ASCD conferences on topics related to differentiated instruction, meeting the needs of English language learners, and research-based best practices in curriculum, instruction, assessment, gradual release of responsibility, and capacity building.


ASCD Faculty Expertise:

  • Differentiated Instruction Cadre Member

  • FIT Teaching Cadre Member

  • Working with English Language Learners

  • Coaching/Capacity Building

  • Formative Assessment

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