Differentiation for English Language Learners

In today’s reality of standards-based instruction, it has become increasingly challenging to ensure that all students receive high quality and equitable access to a culturally relevant education. For English language learners (ELLs), the challenge is even greater. ELLs are faced with the task of acquiring content knowledge while learning a second language. As the number of ELLs throughout the United States continues to increase, it is critical that teachers, both mainstream and ELL specific, consider how best to enhance ELLs language proficiency in order to increase understanding of academic content. This article seeks to equip teachers with different ways to support and engage English language learners in the mainstream classroom.

Differentiation: Instructional vs. Linguistic Accommodations
Differentiation is the process by which the content, process or product of instruction is modified to meet students’ need. It operates under the assumption that all students are individuals and should be afforded multiple ways to take in new information, create meaning and express how they learn. According to Carol Tomlinson, the “guru” of differentiated instruction, it is, at the most basic level, simply the teacher’s response to the individual needs of a student or small group of students.

Educators across the country rely on providing accommodations during academic instruction in order to rise to the challenge of addressing student needs. An accommodation is generally viewed as a modification or intervention that target specific skills of struggling learners. They alter how information is accessed, understood and assessed.

Instructional accommodations specifically manipulate curricular knowledge as it applies within a content domain such as English, Math, Science, and Social Studies and are planned strategically but with the assumption that the students are proficient speakers of the English language. An example of these types of accommodations would be the use of purposeful cooperative learning, such as the use of a think-pair-share to review vocabulary or a jigsaw style activity to introduce students to new characters within a story.

However, linguistic accommodations are those that specifically manipulate language in order to incorporate theories of second language acquisition into instructional practice. While instructional accommodations consider the generic learning differences of all students, linguistic accommodations provide the essential language supports that consider the linguistic differences among ELL students. Translating directions into the ELL’s native language or using simplified English when explaining academic content would be examples of linguistic accommodations.

Because of the magnitude of the challenge that ELLs face in the mainstream classroom, it is important that teachers address both sides of the learning process; content as well as language. A truly effective accommodation is one that levels the instructional playing field without providing an advantage to English Language Learners. By providing both types of accommodations, educators will ensure that the high demands for content understanding are met while embedding language in context that will alleviate some of the linguistic barriers ELLs often face.

Eight Strategies for English Language Learners

Because ELL students arrive to the classroom with a varied range of abilities, differentiated approaches to instruction that include support for language understanding and acquisition is essential. Below are eight strategies support language acquisition for English language learners.

1. Use Cognates
Cognates are words in two languages that have common etymological origins, similar meanings and pronunciations, such as educar in Spanish and educate in English. Other Spanish/English cognates include informacion/information, evaluar/evaluate, illustar/illustrate, manipular/manipulate as well as many others. Although English may not have many cognates with languages that have a different writing system, latin based language systems share many more commonalities. Thirty to forty percent of the Spanish language has a related word in English. For Spanish speaking ELL’s this becomes a remarkable bridge to the English language. As both language systems use the Roman alphabet, students from Spanish speaking backgrounds can utilize this to build phonetic awareness.

2. Individualized Word Libraries/Walls
All students can benefit from word walls when implemented effectively. This is particularly true for English Language Learners. While general word walls often include unit as well as content specific vocabulary, personal word walls or word libraries include words that enhance an individual’s language acquisition by containing words that are specific to them for their language development. This can take many forms, from a book ring of high frequency sight/vocabulary words to an ongoing vocabulary list on google docs developed and maintained by the student. Allowing students opportunities to interact with their word libraries, both in speech and writing, further enhances their understanding of linguistic use and syntactical development. Using visuals in conjunction with essential vocabulary is especially useful in allowing ELL’s to make connections between their native and second language.

3. Meaningful Collaborations
Many educators around the country utilize purposeful collaborations and groupings to allow students to discuss content and practice collaborative problem solving. In short, meaningful partnerships are an important component of social-emotional learning as well as linguistic development. Although all students benefit from meaningful partnerships, arranging for peer support is particularly critical for ELLs in order to ensure long term success. Allowing opportunities for ELL’s to practice language with a partner naturally enhances language development while providing the scaffolding they need in order to achieve academically. Some factors to consider when establishing ELL partnership is to choose students that have strong interpersonal skills, a relaxed or easy-going demeanor, and has demonstrated patience when working in collaborative activities. When appropriate, meaningful partnerships are established, research also shows that opportunities such as small group activities, think-pair-shares, and collaborative projects allow them to practice speech in a nonthreatening way. This over time will support ELL’s in building confidence in language use and thereby, when nurtured appropriately by the classroom teacher, encourage them to take greater academic risks in the future.

4. Teach Rhyming
Rhyming has an important value in early literacy. It teaches students how language works and increases awareness of phonology within the English language. Melodic repetition of sound is an engaging, motivational way to encourage phonetic manipulation. It allows ELLs to learn the mechanics of the English language while forming relationships between words with similar sounds.

Phonetic awareness is especially important in second language acquisition. However, in order to be taught meaningfully and effectively, it must be implemented strategically, with knowledge of the differences in phonemes between English and the student’s native language. For example, native Spanish speakers use approximately half of the number of phenomes English speakers use. Because of this, context, vocabulary, pronunciation (including mouth positioning) must be taught explicitly for rhyming to be productive.

Using poems and source texts with predictable rhyme patterns encourages reluctant readers to explore and manipulate sounds. In primary grades activities that encourage students to create rhyming word families or “fill in the blank” style activities where students supply a missing rhyming word in a sentence are especially effective. In older grades, creating a rhyming dictionary that ELLs can use to enhance their writing and speaking skills can be especially useful.
Educators must consider the fact that learning English can be an intimidating task and serve as a can source of frustration for the student who does not see enough notable evidence of progress in the short term. Therefore, rhyming practice allows for simple, fast language acquisition while heightening student confidence by fostering a sense of accomplishment.

5. Avoid Idioms
Idioms pose a special challenge for English Language Learners. An idiom is a phrase that cannot be understood by the words that constitute but rather has a meaning all its own, such as “put on your thinking cap”. This can be confusing for ELLs that rely primarily on direct word-to-word translations in order to form meaning. Additionally, the sheer number of idioms, at least 25,000 within the English language, make it virtually impossible to learn all of them without years of immersion and study. As such, it is critical that the educator is cognizant of how they use idioms in their own speech during instruction and provide more literal explanations or simplified language for concepts should misconceptions in understanding arise.

6. Language “Free Space” Activities
Language “free space” activities are those that do not require students to “know English” in order to complete the task and often comes in the form of a sensory play station or dramatic play centers. Nonprescriptive activities often provide ELLs opportunities to communicate and collaborate with their English-speaking peers in an informal way. This encourages necessary life skills and fosters appropriate social emotional development.

7. Word Drama
Drama is a valuable tool in English language instruction. Acting out words and stories, often in an exaggerated manner, allows students to see words in action and provides additional support for ELLs to connect words with visual representation. Acting also provides a way for ELLs to communicate nonverbally thereby eliminating the language barriers that often prevent them from communicating with their English-speaking peers. Additionally, by acting out vocabulary frequently over time, students begin intuitively discriminating between the subtle differences between word meanings.

For older students, role play promotes interaction and movement (helpful for kinesthetic learners) while also teaching language pragmatics and appropriate use. Drama contextualizes language making real what was previously only accessible in two-dimensional print.

8. Reading Chorus
Choral reading through short predictable text (on the student’s instructional level) is an excellent way to practice fluency and phonetic pronunciation. As they listen to how words are read, it provides a model for fluent reading and improves recognition of high frequency sight words. For English language learners it also allows opportunities to practice speaking with support from their peers and teachers before being required to read independently or out loud. Having ELLs point to the text as they recite enhances the visual auditory connection between words and helps the teacher observe whether the students are making these connections rather than reciting in compliance.

Closing comments: 
English language learners face a daunting task. In order to ensure academic growth and proficiency, it is essential that educators reflect on how they both instructionally and linguistically support their ELL students. By developing instructional activities and utilizing strategies that account for the linguistic needs of their students, teachers can maximize the potential of ELL students while hindering the language barriers that often impede academic growth. 

Optimize the impact of your English Learner strategies and close the English Learner achievement gap through approaches that promote equity and excellence.