Depending on when they begin learning English, their needs will differ. For example, an ELL who begins learning English in Kindergarten or Grade 1 is fortunate that his or her peers will also be developing their literacy skills along with them. They'll probably be a little bit delalyed compared to their peers who show up at school with spoken English skills, but these young ELLs are at a distict advantage compared to their older siblings.
Picture a newcomer with limited English instruction in her home country arriving in a grade 6 class at an English speaking school in Ontario. That student is at a disadvantage because all of her English speaking peers have had literacy instruction in school for years. The good news is that the ELL has had literacy instruction in her first language for the same amount of time. She has strong literacy skills in her first language, which means she has a strong framework on which she can build her English language skills.
Unfortunately, you can't rely on all ELLs to fall into the categories I illustrated above. Sometimes they show up with disabilities, learning disabilities, or behaviour issues. Sometimes they come from traumatic situations where they had little or no regular education. ELLs are all different, and they arrive with their own set of strengths and needs. The trick is to find out what they're good at and start building on that.
Here are a few tips for ensuring that the needs of your ELLs are being met as you teach them to read in English:
- Support the acquisition of new vocabulary with the use of repetition, visuals, and real life situations. Post words on a word wall. Post anchor charts with pictures. Say the words over and over again and use them in authentic sentences. Show some found objects. Pass around some manipulatives.
- Because a student's schema is based on his or her own experiences, don't expect a newcomer to have the same background information on certain topics that a Canadian might have. You will likely be surprised by the amount of time you have to spend building schema before you can teach what you had planned in your lesson. Plan for lots of explicit teaching.
- Your ELL will want to fit in and feel like part of the the community you build in your classroom. Help the students in your class get to know each other by giving them opportunities to share things about themselves, such as interests, previous experiences, family traditions, and favourite books and movies.
- If an ELL needs his or her teachers to lighten up the workload while language acquisition happens, it's okay to provide accommodations or program modifications. Taking the expectations down a notch for a while will enable the student to focus on learning the language without having to worry so much about the minutia of the curriculum.
- Encourage your ELL to read in his or her first language. Introduce them (and their family members) to dual language books. Send home a list of comprehension questions to use when discussing books read at home, and encourage the ELL to have the conversation in either language. It's all about building literacy skills, and it doesn't matter which language the ideas are bouncing around in. Also, encourage the ELL to use dictionaries and translators as needed. I am a big fan of Oxford Picture Dictionaries. There are lots of options, depending on the needs of the student.