This summer I will have the privilege of facilitating a workshop with new teachers in my board at a New Teacher’s Conference. The topic is one that I know has stymied many teachers for a long time, including myself: how do you support newcomer students in acquiring English in the mainstream classroom?
Answering this question is a challenge – even with all the policy documents and resources out there, the reality is always more nuanced and complex than it seems.
In my own conversations with teachers, I have noticed a trend where there is decreasing support for English Language Learners (ELLs) in schools, as ESL support staff are being utilized all too often to cover classes in schools where there is a supply teacher shortage. Support for ELLs is critical, especially for newcomer students who need accelerated instruction in English to build vocabulary, speaking, and listening skills.
Another element that makes teaching ELLs a challenge in Ontario is the fact that ESL programming in elementary school is based on accommodations and modifications to the curriculum. Yes, accommodations and modifications are essential to adapting the learning environment to ELLs. These adaptations create an entry point for ELLs and make equitable assessment and evaluation possible for teachers. But there is still a missing piece: how do we actually do the work of teaching the essential, oral foundations of English?
Additional or Foreign Language classes are typically focused on teaching students the basics of the target language: how to greet others, to interact in practical situations, build vocabulary, or how to use different verb tenses. While the secondary curriculum offers specific courses that address the usage and mechanics of English, there is no specific ministry resource that provides a scope of learning expectations that address the unique needs of elementary English language learners. Sure, we have the STEP continua – but this document is more of a list of look for we might see as ELLs acquire English, and not a comprehensive list of learning expectations.
What I often see in schools is the expectation that newcomer students will acquire the oral foundations of English from interacting with other students or being immersed in the English saturated world of Canada. And for the most part, this is largely what happens. For younger children in Kindergarten and the primary grades, English acquisition happens through structured play, the explicit teaching of foundational literacy skills, and texts and lessons that are highly visual and graphic. Teachers may incorporate practices like language experience approach and picture word inductive model that support academic vocabulary acquisition for English learners.
Older students in the intermediate grades are in a much different position. Older ESL students may have completed the majority of their learning in another language, not to mention in another school system with a curriculum different from the Ontario’s. Entering a new classroom can be exciting for newcomer students, but also difficult if they perceive that their prior learning and language skills have no place in their new learning environment. Many students go through “silent phases”, or appear disconnected or disengaged from classroom activities. As a result, many classroom teachers often feel at a loss of what to do, especially if they are unused to working with newcomer students. In my discussions with many classroom teachers, they are often wondering:
- How do I teach them to start speaking and understanding English?
- Are they bored?
- What more can I do for the student?
While I wish there was more specificity to ESL programming beyond modifications and accommodations, there are many strategies teachers can use to make the work of teaching ELLs feel more purposeful and intentional without adding additional weight to the current workload. In the next blog, I will focus on unpacking some ways educators can integrate English language instruction into their regular classroom teaching.