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Virginia Journal of Education

It’s a Small World, After All—and It’s Coming to Your Classroom

A Virginia teacher offers some advice on helping English Language Learners succeed in school.

By Edgardo “Gary” Castro

With students whose native language is anything from Albanian or Arabic to Urdu or Vietnamese, our educators are working in classrooms with already staggering—and still growing—numbers of English Language Learners (ELLs). Right now, Virginia is one of 14 states with an ELL public school enrollment of between 6 and 9.9 percent. (For specific information on your school division, visit

Some hard questions for both new and veteran teachers: What do we need to do to succeed with these students? How can we engage each and every ELL? How can we differentiate for them? Let’s begin with these five recommendations, drawn from research-based teaching strategies:

1. Learn as much as you can about your students. ELLs come from with a myriad of background skills, experiences, or even local and regional languages. There are free websites that could be helpful, like, where you can create your own questions based on grade level, subject, specific skills/talents and more. In my experience, the first few days back to school are a great time to begin a survey.

2. Foster ongoing relationships. Knowing each of your ELLs and making an effort to foster that relationship will significantly affect learning. We all know time can be our greatest enemy, but small opportunities such as an informal chat when an ELL student goes to the cafeteria, playground or even walking in the hallways can build a personal connection between you and the student. I always ask a follow-up question, look back and reflect on what the student likes or dislikes based on the survey I gave.

3. Connect with home, family and the community. Knowing the family is as important as knowing the ELL student. Making home and family connections helps an ELL student feel a sense of welcoming from you. At Kiptopeke Elementary School, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, we send postcards to students’ families at least once every nine weeks, letting parents know of their children’s strengths. Also, a positive phone call is a good way to start an upbeat relationship with parents. In addition, I try to connect with the community in ways as simple as grocery shopping, attending church or even walking my dog.

4. Collaborate with colleagues. More than ever, our job as a teacher is to collaborate. We dissect student data; we plan together; we adjust instruction based on colleagues’ suggestions and recommendations; we continually learn, train and attend professional development sessions during the school year and summer months. Strong collaboration with colleagues is the new norm. My advice: accept it with open mind, heart and soul. At the end of the day, it is for the good of all students.

5. Learn, explore, and try new teaching strategies. There are hundreds of teaching strategies for ELLs. However, they all boil down to identifying targeted needs for each and every student, based on his or her academic strengths and challenges. Check out some of the many resources available. One example is, which is a bilingual site for the families and educators of ELL students.

Differentiation. Differentiating instruction means to teach so that each individual student in your classroom, despite varying abilities and backgrounds, has the tools and support he or she needs to succeed. That’s exactly what you must do if you’ve got ELL students, so some of the general principles of differentiated instruction strongly apply. A few examples:

• Variety. Successful teachers understand the value of having a variety of research-based teaching strategies in their portfolio. “One size fits all” really fits very few.

• Assessment. Getting and giving feedback through ongoing, informal assessments is essential to bringing together student needs and your instruction. As with instruction, multiple methods of assessment are helpful, too.

• Homework. A little flexibility in homework assignments goes a long way. If all students are doing the same work, some will breeze through it without learning much, while others will find it too difficult to complete.

• Grouping. Having students work in small groups enables them to work together and to have access to the same content, and mixing up the groups allows you to match up students with different strengths for different activities.

• Make it clear. Giving your ELL students different ways to understand, like charts, material written in their first language, simplified instructions you create, and classroom discussion gives them the chance to keep learning at the pace of their peers as they also work on their English skills.

That last point was the focus of my presentation at the VEA’s Instruction and Professional Development conference last fall, which I entitled “Making Content Comprehensible to All ELLs.” As researcher Anne Upczak-Garcia says, “Making all communication as clear as possible is key. As we teach for enduring understanding, we must keep in mind whether we're presenting information in a way that's comprehensible for English Language Learners. Keeping this concept of comprehensible input in mind helps me understand the kinds of language development and scaffolding a student needs.”

As I begin my 15th year of teaching, I understand more than ever that only good teaching strategies yield good student results. Some of the targeted methods I’ve had success using with ELLs include think-pair-share, manipulatives, the discovery approach, ongoing student assessment and data-gathering, hands-on activities and, at the end of the day, spending some time reflecting on the lesson and considering what adjustments might be needed for the next time.

Another very effective strategy for me has been the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP), made up of eight major components, spelled out on the SIOP website at, which I invite you to explore:

1. Lesson/teacher preparation
2. Building background
3. Comprehensible input
4. Strategies
5. Interaction
6. Practice and application
7. Lesson delivery
8. Review and assessment

At the website, you’ll find information, including instructional videos, on each component, along with tools and resources to help you make the most of SIOP, which is designed for all students but is particularly helpful to ELLs.

As we begin the journey of a new school year, let me close with these two quotes:

• “If you honor growth, you will consistently do what is best for all kids." - Linda Foote

• “If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow." - John Dewey

Castro (, a member of the Northampton County Education Association, teaches ELL students at Kiptopeke Elementary School. He’s a former Northampton County Teacher of the Year and a 2014 candidate for certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.


Five Tips for Teaching

Kathleen Fay, co-author of Becoming One Community: Reading and Writing with English Language Learners, offers five ways to help bring students up to speed:

1. Create opportunities for conversation. For example, pause during read-aloud, after solving a math problem, or before a writing exercise, and encourage students to talk about the lesson or assignment. If other students in the class speak the same native language, they may choose to pair off and speak in either language. This gives children the opportunity to check understanding or share thoughts with less risk than speaking out to the whole group. Buddy reading provides another great way to encourage productive chatter between peers.

2. Honor the languages represented in your classroom. Ask students to teach greetings to the class and incorporate them into your morning rituals. Have the class learn how to count to five or say “Happy Birthday.” When students feel their native languages are valued, and you have taken the risk to learn a little about their culture, it establishes trust.

3. Find opportunities to use English authentically. Students could write a letter to the principal asking about a school rule, read a book aloud to younger students, or figure out how many school lunches need to be ordered for the third-grade field trip. Practicing the English language in a meaningful context will make it easier for students to understand you during lessons.

4. Post your class schedule each day. A predictable routine is easier to follow. When students know what is coming—every day they’ll write stories at 2 p.m.—they will be better prepared to participate. You might also add photographs or sketches next to tasks on the schedule to aid comprehension.

5. Don’t feel you must correct every grammatical mistake. Students could become discouraged if they are constantly corrected. Accept approximations and respond to the meaning behind the comment. It takes time to become fluent in a second language, and approximations are a natural part of language development.


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