ELLs: Perspectives and Pedagogy

Tch Next Gen Science Squad

Like most teachers across America, I have students that are described as English Language Learners (ELLs). It seems an opportune time to raise awareness among educators about the state of flux in the demography of learners in our classrooms and to offer research-based principles and approaches for their education.

According to the Migrant Policy Institute, in 2013, approximately 61.6 million individuals, foreign and U.S. born, spoke a language other than English at home, and of that number about 41% (25.1 million) were considered Limited English Proficient.

An English Language Learner is a student in the process of attaining proficiency in English as a new, additional language (Wright, W.E., 2015). Under this unifying definition are several diverse groupings based on race, ethnicity, home language, level of schooling, socioeconomic status, parents’ level of education, parents’ proficiency in English, proficiency and literacy in their home language, and proficiency and literacy in English.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that there has been a rapid growth in the ELL population across the United States, bringing about an urgent imperative for all educators and personnel directly involved with ELL education to be trained and certified appropriately.

In Maryland, according to current National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (NCELA) data, my school district, Prince George’s County, with over 17,000 English learners, ranks second to Montgomery County in terms of the population size of ELLs. In the public school where I teach, the current enrollment suggests we have less than 5% of the school’s student population as ELL students — at various levels of English acquisition — and mostly in various content-area classrooms. The population and spread of ELL students suggests that almost all teachers have one. By race and ethnicity, most of our ELLs are Hispanic, with very few Africans and Asians.

We’ve done well thus far. For starters, the flags of every nation on earth adorn our cafeteria. We endeavor to make our ELLs feel welcome and this pluralist outlook recognizes that the ELLs’ home languages and cultures aren’t a problem, but rather a rich resource for helping ELLs learn both English and academic content.

The Prism Model

The pluralist approach adopted by our school is very much in sync with the Prism Model, which holds that the process of second language acquisition has four main interdependent components: sociocultural, linguistic, academic, and cognitive processes (p. 42). According to Thomas and Collier (1997), the sociocultural component is at the heart of the Prism Model and it’s central to the individual student’s acquisition of language.

What Does This Mean for You as an ELL Teacher?

  • It’s imperative that all educators embrace and celebrate diversity in a vivid manner that encourages students’ self-esteem and allays all anxieties about prejudice or any other affective factors that might negatively impact the acquisition of language.

The sociocultural component of the Prism Model asserts that language is a part of students’ identities; if you tell students their language isn’t important, you devalue them. There are several ways an educator or school staff could debase a student’s first (home) language implicitly or explicitly — this ought not to be.

In the same vein of affirming the importance of a student’s first language, the Prism Model’s academic development component asserts that “academic knowledge and conceptual development transfer from the first language to the second language” (p. 43).

  • It’s very instructive to develop academic work through a student’s first language, while teaching a second language through meaningful academic content at other times.

As much as possible, teachers should encourage ELLs to learn academic content in their first language, especially when the teacher is proficient and literate in the language as well.

Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP)

Another instructional model is the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) — a research-based and validated instructional model for teaching ELLs. This model has been adopted by our school district, with professional training scheduled for all teachers and administrators throughout the system; training is crucial to successful implementation. The SIOP Model consists of eight interrelated components:

  • Lesson Preparation
  • Building Background
  • Comprehensible Input
  • Strategies
  • Interaction
  • Practice / Application
  • Lesson Delivery and Review
  • Assessment

Since these SIOP components are all interrelated, certain key elements and pedagogical approaches cut across them.

What Does This Mean for You as an ELL Teacher?

It’s worth restating that attending SIOP professional development training is vital to the successful implementation of the model, especially with regards to lesson preparation. However, there are several simple instructional strategies that connect the SIOP components that you can implement right now.

  • ELLs should be able to give feedback about their learning on the spot to the teacher. Basic learning phrases or sentences should be displayed around the classroom and taught to the students to enhance and prompt feedback from them. Here are a few model statements/questions you can use to reinforce this important skill:
    • — “I don’t understand”
    • — “Is it important for the test?”
    • — “Would you please show me how?”
  • Effective grouping of students is crucial.
    • — Effective grouping allows ELLs to practice language skills and development
    • — Effective grouping helps overcome the usual complaints from teachers that ELLs don’t talk in class
  • Scaffolding (both verbal and procedural) is another worthwhile instructional strategy that will enhance ELLs’ academic achievement and language acquisition.

Students in classrooms all across America, more than ever before, stand to benefit immensely from research-based instructional approaches and informed mindset (principles and beliefs) in the education of our ever-growing ELL population. I believe diversity or variance in student populations is no longer (or should never have been) an outlier, but the norm.

What research-based instructional approaches are you using in your classroom? We’d love to hear what works for you in the comments below.


For more information on perspectives and pedagogy with ELLs, see the following resources:


Olukayode (Olu) Banmeke is a high school AP Environmental Science and Biology teacher at DuVal High School in Lanham, Maryland. He has been teaching for 20 years (15 overseas and 5 in the United States). Olu is a Ph.D. student (with focus on Instructional Leadership for a Changing Population) at Notre Dame of Maryland University. He has served on the NSTA Committee on Multicultural/Equity in Science Education since 2014 and currently serves as curriculum writer (Environmental Science) in his school district. He is a member of Teaching Channel’s NextGen Science Squad. Connect with Olu on Twitter: @kaybanms

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