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Engaging ELL students in middle school

Imagine being suddenly transported into a classroom in a foreign country. You are expected to solve math problems that the teacher just introduced, yet you don’t speak the language. Did you pick up on anything she said? Abran sus libros de matemáticas en la página 49 y tomen sus lápices y cuadernos. Comiencen trabajando en los problemas 1 a 9. You only recognize the numbers 1, 9, and 49. As you look around the room you see that other students are opening their math texts and getting out pencils and notebooks. You do the same, but by the time you’ve gotten yourself set up, the teacher has already worked out one problem on the board and is explaining a second. You are now behind, you can’t understand what is being said, and although you understand math, you can’t seem to get acclimated.

This scenario occurs in classrooms across the country every day, and teachers face the challenge of helping these ELL students learn at the same rate as their English-speaking students, but with the added obstacle of a language barrier. And to heighten the complexity, the range of ability level varies dramatically between ELL students. A few of the factors include that some students:

  • have only a few years of schooling (or no formal education) in their home country, while other students are on or above grade level in their native language
  • have oral English skills that far surpass their written English skills
  • cannot speak and/or write English at all

 I’ve always struggled with helping ELL students feel more comfortable in the classroom while making sure they are being productive and successful at the same time. As a starting point, I treat all students equally. I hold everyone to the same high standards but also work behind the scenes to make sure the ELL students have the necessary accommodations to be able to rise to these standards. I also work very closely with the school’s ELL teacher to make sure she has the assignments in advance. This is as easy as putting a copy of the material in her box when I run it off. I also provide her with a copy of the class notes. She in turn provides modifications to the assignments if needed.

There are a wide variety of changes you can make in your classroom to engage ELL students. Some easy accommodations include providing dual-language dictionaries, worksheets in native languages, and assigning a dual-language class partner. Other accommodations involve creating multi-language word walls, using visuals, visuals, and more visuals, and modifying assignments based on native language and ability level.

Let’s discuss another strategy that is more outside of the box. Recording yourself explaining class notes and posting the recordings online—referred to as flipping a classroom—is becoming increasingly popular with education professionals around the nation. I understand that some teachers are not comfortable being in front of a camera, and there are alternatives such as using the ShowMe app on the iPad. The ShowMe app allows you to record voice-over whiteboard tutorials that display class notes or show your pen working out problems while you describe what is being done. You can post these recordings on your class website, where they provide another visual of the work and give ELL students more time to hear the explanations and see the examples worked out without having to worry about keeping up in class.

Like any student in your class, if your ELL students can connect with you, they will try their best, begin to ask questions, and even start taking risks like answering questions. They may require a little more than the average student, but they are also facing more obstacles. A supportive, engaging environment can help ease anxiety and promote the can-do attitude we look for in all of our students.


Check out DreamBox Learning’s infographic on Latino ELLs and Math: Six Gap-Closing Classroom Math Strategies here:

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