FAQ: Teaching English Learners
English learners are a growing portion (currently 9.5 percent) of the state's student body and are spread unevenly across Massachusetts public schools, with English learners being the majority of the student body at some schools and not present at all yet in others. Thousands of teachers have completed Rethinking Equity and Teaching for English Language Learners (RETELL) training to better serve the English learners in their classroom, but don't forget that our Office of English Language Acquisition and Academic Achievement continues to provide resources and support teachers in this area.
The office's website includes links to resources from WIDA, including WIDA's "Can Do Descriptors," which outline what language learners can do at various stages of language development and at different grade levels. The descriptors can be a useful tool for planning ways to make lessons accessible to English learners.
More generally, as you seek to support English learners, you might consider the practice of translanguaging, which puts the focus on communication instead of the exclusive use of a single language. Two English learners collaborating on a project might move in and out of English as they speak to each other in order to get a message across, for instance. The approach can be effective in many settings, including English-only classrooms.
Principal Reflection: Embedding Social and Emotional Learning
Michelle Costa is principal of the Bancroft School in Andover and is a former principal and first and second grade teacher in Topsfield. One of four finalists for Massachusetts Teacher of the Year in 2007, she is passionate about differentiating social-emotional supports for individual students and has presented on social-emotional learning at the Massachusetts Elementary School Principals' Association conference.
As a school leader with a passion for building safe and positive learning environments, I have discovered that embedding strategies and routines to support social-emotional learning throughout the school community can improve culture, build students' problem-solving confidence, and strengthen communication between home and school. Here are a few strategies that have worked for my team:
Common silent signals - To increase attention during whole school assemblies or large group gatherings, we teach hand signals for sit, stand, listen, and look. We also use a clap response for recess, the cafeteria, and assemblies.
Common Cool-Downs - We teach the following four possible de-escalation strategies and post them school-wide:
- 1-2-3 breathe
- Walk away
- Hand hug (Children squeeze their hands until their frustration becomes more manageable.)
- Compliment curveball (When hearing something hurtful, a child can give a compliment and combat the situation with kindness.)
Sharing Ideas with Staff and Families - We provide staff and families with a weekly newsletter that contains videos, articles, or other social and emotional learning resources to complement our efforts. For example, our weekly staff newsletter has a section that highlights teachers who have a creative way of connecting with their students.
"Bancroft School 101" - We hold an information night for families to educate them on topics not covered at curriculum night. That could include common vocabulary, safety protocols, and approaches to reporting unexpected behavior.
The Round Up - Throughout the week, school leaders collect information related to students' behavioral challenges in one common folder, including office referrals, emails, and teacher documentation. Social workers and school administrators review the folder in a weekly meeting to identify patterns and necessary interventions.
Emphasize Logical Consequences - By brainstorming and generating lists of creative logical consequences with staff and students, the "discipline" process is seen more as a teaching opportunity. For example, if a child has been excluding others, a logical consequence could be to write a script teaching inclusion through role play to be presented at the next whole-school assembly.
Model - School leaders can model strategies that keep students engaged and motivated to learn, which naturally decreases student inattention and unexpected behavior. One example could be simulating a bus and having students role-play problem situations in an effort to improve bus conduct. Another could be administrators using sticky notes or a Google form filled out by every staff member with one-word responses or feedback at a staff meeting to model strategies that would support widespread student participation in a classroom.
While it is hard work to implement these strategies, I've seen them make a difference when students know what to expect, choose one of the de-escalation strategies, or think carefully about the consequences of their actions.
For more information on social and emotional learning or to sign up to receive occasional updates on social and emotional learning in Massachusetts, visit ESE's social and emotional learning website.