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Virginia Journal of Education

Help! He Doesn't Speak English!

Some tips for helping English Language Learner (ELL) students.

by Tanya Gray
As the U.S. population changes, your chances of having a non-English-speaking student in your classroom are increasing. What should you do when you’re faced with a new student who can barely introduce himself or herself in English?

First, don’t panic! Create a calm and welcoming environment. With verbal skills limited, non-verbal skills are heightened, so a non-English-speaking student can easily pick up on your anxiety. Students are more likely to take necessary risks to grow their language in an environment where they feel safe. Additionally, use their heightened non-verbal awareness to your advantage by including gestures in your teaching.
Knowledge Truly is Power
Instead of panicking, arm yourself with knowledge. The more you learn about a student’s background the better able you are to select a teaching technique to meet his or her abilities. The ELL (English Language Learner) specialist at your school can help you gain insights. You’ll want to find out what the student’s educational background is. Some students may never have entered a school before and therefore aren’t literate in their first language or in the climate of a school. This poses an extra challenge because studies show that students who are literate in their first language are able to transfer literacy skills to the new language. Research has found that those with no schooling in their first language take 7-10 years or more to reach the grade-level norms of their native English-speaking peers while those who have had 2-3 years of schooling in their home country take at least 5-7 years to do so. Other students may come from war-torn countries where schools were closed for extended periods, resulting in gaps in education. These students may need some one-on-one, short-term tutoring to catch up in the areas they have missed.

Knowledge of the student’s home country and language can be another helpful key. A student who speaks a non-romance language, such as Arabic or Japanese, has to tackle reading and writing a new alphabet, including cursive writing. The direction of writing can be different as well: For example, Arabic characters are written and read from right to left. An Arabic student needs time to adjust to the reversal. The culture of the student’s home country can also have an impact on behavior. Students from male-dominated cultures where male teachers teach males and female teachers teach females may have trouble in the American classroom, where a female teacher can teach males and females. Sometimes a male student may be defiant toward a female teacher. Also, students may be adjusting to being in mixed-gender classes. A large shock for non-native English-speaking students is the freedom that American students have in the classroom. Sitting on desks in some cultures is considered a sign of disrespect. In Asian cultures, students are taught to not ask questions for fear of embarrassment, but to remain silent and respectful. School discipline is different. Speaking out of turn may result in a slap in the face. Your new student will learn what is appropriate in your classroom through observation of other students. Let the student know your rules and expectations and be sure to enforce them.
Also, find out from your ELL specialist whether your student is an immigrant, migrant or refugee. Students may even be American-born but because they live in a family that speaks another language, they may need English language support, particularly in reading and writing. A student from a migrant family frequently moves in order for the parents to find work. Such a student will likely have gaps in education due to moving in the middle of the school year and may be grade levels behind other non-native English-speaking students whose residence is stable. An immigrant family may be here temporarily for two or three years because of a parent’s job transfer or they may be here permanently. Refugees had to leave their country because they can no longer live there, perhaps because of religious or political persecution. Refugees usually reside in camps before being moved to America. These camps have a unique culture where privacy can be limited and food supplies may be low. However, some camps offer school where English is taught. Once in America, refugee service organizations assist the refugee families in finding jobs, settling in their new homes, and connecting with English tutors and classes.
A Period of Adjustment
Regardless of the country of origin, you can expect students to go through a silent period upon arrival. During this time, students are quiet and perhaps reluctant to try to use even basic English phrases; they’re observing and learning the climate. The length of the silent period depends on the individual.  A more outgoing student may have a short silent period of a few weeks or a month; a shy student’s silent period can last much longer. Throughout the silent period, continue to encourage the student to participate at his or her language abilities and comfort level while giving positive feedback when appropriate. Create opportunities for comfort in the classroom by having the student form relationships with peers through pair work. With group work, give the student a task that he or she can handle. Don’t create an environment where the student is disconnected from the rest of the class: This not only conveys a message of separation for the non-English speaking student, but it also sends a non-verbal message to the other students to stay away from the student.

Moving to another country produces culture shock, but your student may also be dealing with psychological trauma. He or she may have lost family members, been raped, been a victim of violence, or had to leave family behind in order to come to America. Perhaps the student is being reunited with family members who came earlier to America. Consider the following scenario: a student who has been living with grandparents in Mexico finally reunites 10 years later with her parents. However, she arrives in America and learns that her parents have divorced and her father has remarried and has two new children. Now she has to adjust to a new and unexpected family in addition to a new language and culture. Such a student may need extra support or counseling. At the very least, creating a safe and supportive classroom will help the student to adjust.

Additionally, students from other countries are certainly not immune from learning disabilities. If their disability had not already been identified in their previous country, discovering the underlying issue can be a challenge due to the language barrier. Keeping records and evidence to support the student’s progress or lack thereof will be vital to uncovering disabilities. Also, find out if there are any disabilities in the student’s family.

A Word about Homework
Parents of non-English speaking students may work late hours, causing the student to take on some adult responsibilities. The student may be expected to take care of younger siblings, cook dinner and clean the house. High school students may feel pressure to help the family economically and may take on a part-time job. With such responsibilities, the student may be left with little time for studies. Of course, this may not be the case for all of your non-English speaking students, but it can affect a student’s classroom performance. Keep in mind that non-English speaking students rarely have someone at home to help them with their studies. When assigning homework, go over directions and do an example together in order to ensure that the student knows what to do.
WIDA Levels
You’re extremely busy and may not have time to track down your ELL specialist in order to find out more (or your ELL specialist may be hard to track down, particularly if he or she is responsible for multiple schools). At the very least, find out your new student’s English language proficiency level. Upon enrollment at your school, the ELL specialist will assess the student’s language abilities through a test. Virginia has adopted the World Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) standards and assessments. The WIDA test evaluates the student in English speaking, listening, reading and writing abilities and then assigns one of eight English language levels, based on language abilities and limitations. Keep in mind that this is one test given on one day and tests do have their limitations, but having a level is a good starting point. In the spring, the WIDA test is administered again to determine the student’s progress.

A level 15 student is an entering language or preproduction stage student. This student does not understand or speak English except for a few words or phrases. When working with these students pictures and graphic representations of the content area should be used. Be careful not to have overly complicated graphics. Matching activities where words are matched to pictures are effective. These students struggle with reading basic sentences, so condense materials and information when possible. Also, use one step commands and directions on assignments. Remember to teach the student the academic words necessary to perform your tasks and use those words repeatedly on assignments. For example, explain multiple-choice tests where answers include none of the above and all of the above options.  Writing assignments should be reduced to manageable tasks. Instead of writing a paragraph have the student look up words pertaining to a topic and draw pictures to define those words or events. Have the student write simple sentences or create comic strips as an alternative assignment.

At level 16 the student is in the beginning stages of language production and can understand parts of lessons and simple directions. He or she is able to understand and speak conversational and some academic English with some difficulty. These students are able to ask questions if they do not understand, but they may be reluctant to because they fear embarrassment. Instead, to ensure comprehension, have them explain things back to you. Open-ended questions with some support are effective.  Pictures and graphic representations are still helpful. A level 16 student will be able to read and write in simple sentences below grade level, so alternative assignments and reduced, manageable assignments are helpful.

The student moves to intermediate or developing language ability at level 17. Such a student has general language and specific content area language. However, vocabulary-building activities such as using flash cards and word search should still be used. Assist the student by modeling good reading strategies, particularly using context clues to understand new words. At this level, the student is able to write sentences and paragraphs, with some syntactic or semantic errors. Encourage the student to experiment with different sentence structures.

At level 18 the student has reached the advanced intermediate or expanding stage. This student understands conversational English and can speak pretty fluently, and can also speak and understand academic English with a bit of fluency, though there is still difficulty and hesitancy. In fact, at both the level 17 and level 18 stages it’s easy to assume that because students can speak English they can read and write with no problem. But don’t assume such because these students still need assistance.  A level 18 student should be able to write a variety of sentence lengths and paragraphs. These students should use complex sentence structures.  Summarization activities work well for both level 17 and 18 students and such activities can help you gauge comprehension.

The student becomes an advanced English student at level 19. This student understands and speaks conversational and academic English well and is near proficient in reading, writing and content area skills. These students are able to write essays, stories and reports and are almost comparable to their English-speaking peers. This level is called the bridging or monitoring phase because it is at this point where students will begin to transition away from ELL services.
The final level is 20.  At this level the student’s English abilities are comparable to their English-speaking peers. The student can read, write, speak, and comprehend English in the academic setting. The student is now considered fully-English proficient and does not receive language assistance.  There are two additional levels of monitoring of an exited ELL student which are called 21 and 22—these are mostly for testing purposes, not servicing.
Reaching level 20 and then exiting the ELL program should be the goal of all ELL students. Ideally, the student should move up a language level each year. However, some students may take longer than others. Some students may make great language progress in one year and jump two levels. Others may be slower. It’s easy for many students to make gains in their listening and speaking skills because that is what they use most often. You may have a level 16 student who speaks very well but still has  basic reading skills. Reading and writing take time and effort to develop because outside of the school setting, the student may not have an opportunity to practice. These skills also require assistance which some parents can’t provide because of their own language limitations. Students can also regress in their language abilities, particularly if they are not encouraged to continue to develop vocabulary or vary their sentence structures. They may even plateau and remain at the same level. Summers or extended trips back to their home country can lead to a regression because the student is out of the English environment.
Remember that each ELL student is unique. Just like your English-speaking students, they’ll have subjects that they enjoy working in and others that they don’t. They may be interested in school or not. Enjoy getting to know them. I think you will find your moments working with these students to be some of your most memorable and rewarding.
For more information, I encourage you to talk to your ELL specialist or visit the VATESOL (Virginia Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) website at or the TESOL website at  These sites have links to helpful websites, current research and lists of upcoming conferences and classes to expand your knowledge skills and build your confidence.

Gray, a member of the Roanoke City Education Association, is past president of the Virginia Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.   



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