Breaking the ELL silence

The two English Language Learners (ELLs) at the back of the class say very little. They and their teacher are engaged in a daily conspiracy or collaboration to maintain that academic silence.

Naturally, the student wants to avoid the embarrassment of not speaking English or not speaking it very well. The teacher accommodates that fear, rarely calling on the student in class to spare him or her that awkwardness.

But a student’s silence in class is a treacherous slope. It’s easy for the teacher to misconstrue it. Does the student understand anything that is being said? Is the student learning anything at all about the subject being taught?

Jane D. Hill, a consultant for Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory (McREL)in Denver, says she is often struck by comments she hears from teachers after her workshops on teaching ELLs during which she reviews the 5 stages of language acquisition. The 5 stages of language acquisition are: Preproduction, early production, speech emergence, intermediate fluency and advanced fluency.

English Language Learners are spread all across those 5 levels. However, if they are all silent in the classroom, the teacher does not know which ones are moving from the preproduction to the early production stage or the early production to the speech emergence stage. The teacher does not know just how much students are progressing.

One teacher expressed great relief upon learning about the earliest stages of language acquisition, the silent stages. She told Jane she thought the ELL student in her class was so quiet because she just didn’t like her. Another participant said he was an ELL who flew under the radar for his entire 4 years of high school because not one of his teachers ever asked him a question.  Jane is an advocate of asking ELLs in the classroom tiered questions, questions suitable to the student’s level of language acquisition.

If students are in the preproduction stage, the teacher can ask them to point to an object in a picture or to nod their heads. If they are in the early production stage, they can answer a yes or no question or they can give a one-word answer.  As they move into speech emergence, the teacher can ask a questions that require a phrase to answer.

In later stages of language acquisition, the teacher can challenge the students with “what if” questions. If teachers want to engage their ELLs and check for their comprehension, they have to meet them at their level of verbal output. To challenge them or lift their progress, ask them questions suitable to the very next level of language acquisition, Jane says, but never go backwards.

Related resource:
“Build language development of ELLs and other students with more skillful use of questions and cues in your instruction”, webinar with Jane Hill

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