Instruction and Assessment of ESL Learners

As ESL Learners return to school . . . create a safe and caring classroom which promotes learning, demonstrates respect for diversity and challenges all learners.

From the book
Instruction and Assessment of ESL Learners: Promoting Success in Your Classroom
by Faye Brownlie, Catherine Feniak, and Vicki McCarthy

If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

When ESL (English as a second or additional language) learners (also referred to as ELL learners in recognition of more than one prior language) enter school, educators need to consider several variables. For example, ESL students may be:

  • New to the country, and, therefore, excited but also anxious about attending an unfamiliar school, with different expectations and a new language to learn
  • Refugees who bring experiences of loss and trauma with them
  • Entering education for the first time, with limited English or no English
  • Entering a new grade in a familiar school with a range of English language skills
  • Familiar with academic school situations or have limited or no school experiences
  • From a wide range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds with first languages that range from those more similar to English (e.g., French, Italian) to those very different from English (e.g., Cantonese, Farsi)

In this article, we present you with four areas of focus to help you provide your student with a safe and caring environment that is respectful of diversity and promotes and challenges ESL student learning. Further details about these focus areas are found in our book, along with blackline masters and additional activities to help ESL students start their new school year successfully.

Focus area 1: Peer-to-peer mentoring

Peer support is one positive way to align ESL students with other students. Peer-to-peer support groups chosen wisely and mentored well can help ESL students develop new relationships in school. Peer support can take many forms. Here are two examples.

1. Younger learners, new to the school, can be paired with a buddy to work through the “Welcome” blackline master in the appendix of our book. This master is designed to introduce ESL learners to others in the school, and to help them locate and discover important places. If the buddy is bilingual and knows both English and the ESL learner’s other language, this is even better.

2. Older learners and those returning to school can be made part of a peer-support group so that all students have someone they can turn to when they have questions about what the expectations are, what events will take place, who to ask for what, and where to locate both information and personnel.

Additional information about orientation to school is provided in chapter 4 of Instruction and Assessment of ESL Learners, and we provide suggestions for getting beginners and their families started at school in chapter 7.

Focus area 2: Demonstrate respect for diversity

Traditional ways of demonstrating respect for diversity include:

  • School-wide multicultural celebrations to include and welcome families
  • Translated signs and basic school information
  • Library books in languages other than English, or sets of bilingual books
  • Images of role models within cultural communities

Another way to show respect for diversity is to find time on a day-to-day basis to listen to and learn from the students and their families. The diverse languages, cultures, and socioeconomic status of ESL students have an impact on what these students need, how they learn, and what they have access to for learning at home. Here are three questions to think about as the year begins:

1. How are students’ languages similar to and/or different from English, and is there an impact on learning in the English language?

2. How does the cultural diversity of the students influence how they learn – that is, what do they pay attention to and what do they need at school?

3. What activities and resources might students not have access to because of socioeconomic situations? When ESL students come to school, they bring with them a world of experiences of language, of culture, and of the world quite different from students whose first language is English. They are adding English to the language(s) they already know, building on their previous experiences (not losing the experiences? Their languages?, which would be a deficit model). Chapter 1 of our book provides information about effective school-based planning to best support ESL learners.

Focus area 3: Use the diversity in the classroom as a knowledge base from which to promote learning

Diversity in the classroom provides a wealth of opportunity for everyone to learn from one another. Four ways to begin thinking about how to incorporate this diversity into teaching and learning experiences are:

1. Build on prior knowledge – help connect prior to knowledge to current experience

2. Recognize connections between language and thought – scaffold learning to help ESL students think through activities

3. Make sure instruction is culturally and linguistically responsive – connect new learning to students’ cultures and language backgrounds whenever possible

4. Demonstrate an understanding of socioeconomic challenges – try to ensure all learners understand the experiences they are being exposed to and have access to the resources being used in the classroom

In chapter 8 of our book, lessons and unit plans provide ideas for building on prior knowledge, scaffolding activities, and teaching to diversity.

Focus area 4: Keep expectations for student success high and the classroom positive and engaging

ESL students know far more in their own experiences of language, culture, and world than they can communicate to others in English. ESL learners need to be challenged if school is to be relevant, even if they are beginners. Classrooms that hold high expectations for student success compel student interest. Find ways to do the following:

  • Present activities that are engaging and challenging for ESL students
  • Scaffold learning to help students bridge new knowledge gaps and to reflect on learning
  • Help ESL students develop a personal sense of how they are doing
  • Support student understanding of what they need to do at school to grow
  • Engage ESL students meaningfully in their school and community, and
  • Seek the support of families so there is continuity between home and school.

In Instruction and Assessment of ESL Learners: Promoting Success in Your Classroom, we demonstrate how schools can be inclusive of diversity, demonstrate respect for and build upon the knowledge diverse families bring to school, show care for and understanding of socioeconomic challenges, and, as a consequence, provide a safe and challenging learning environment for ESL students.

Guest Contributor
Vicki McCarthy, PhD

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