Modifying Language without Simplification in ELL Classrooms

Instructor: Matthew Hamel

Matt has degrees in Journalism and Business and has taught a variety of courses at high schools and universities around the world.

Students have varying English language abilities. Therefore, how can a teacher effectively modify language without over simplification? This lesson explores strategies teachers can use to modify language in English language learner (ELL) classrooms.

Modifying Without Simplicity

Being able to adjust your language to fit a classroom full of English language learners (ELLs) with diverse language abilities can be challenging. One great way to counteract this challenge is to modify the language you use in class. However, it's important that you modify language without simplification.

The primary reason for this is that simplifying the words you use in class can hinder the language development of your students. If students are constantly given easier vocabulary words as part of educational instruction, they are less likely to develop the language skills required for successful academic growth. Additionally, English language proficiency is necessary for a large range of professions and social situations. Basically, the better you can modify the language you use in class without simplification, the better prepared your learners may become.

To be successful, it can be helpful to employ a variety of scaffolding strategies to ensure ELL comprehension without hampering their academic growth.

Modifying Vocabulary

Perhaps the most natural strategy that comes to mind is the use of synonyms. Try to use synonyms that are of a similar vocabulary level of the word you are replacing. If you simplify the synonyms you use too much, students may begin to assume that you'll always supplement an advanced vocabulary word with a simpler one. For example:

  • Contribute
    • Appropriate synonym: subsidize
    • Inappropriate synonym: pay
  • Exceptional
    • Appropriate synonym: extraordinary
    • Inappropriate synonym: very good

Pay careful attention to the connotation of the synonyms you use. If the synonyms alter the meaning of the original language, your students may become confused or misunderstand the intended communication. For instance:

  • Original language: This species of dog is very aggressive and temperamental.
  • Simplified language: This type of dog is very angry and unreliable.

While unreliable is a synonym of temperamental, how can a dog be considered unreliable? Be sure to keep the meaning and connotation of the synonyms in mind when using this language altering technique.

Paraphrasing and Repetition

Two other strategies that can help you avoid using simplification are paraphrasing and repetition.

Paraphrasing, in which different words are used to describe something, can be particularly helpful if students are involved. For example, periodically throughout a lesson, put students into small discussion groups and ask them to review the information you have given them by translating your words into their own words. Encourage students to use a dictionary during this process to increase understanding and expand their knowledge of vocabulary.

When you teach ELLs, repetition can be very effective for language learning. However, this does not mean that you simply repeat everything you've said multiple times. Rather, try to employ a variety of ways to repeat information in ways that will keep students engaged. This can be accomplished using:

  • Lectures
  • Worksheets
  • Reading activities
  • Writing activities
  • Team games

Try to regularly vary these activities so that students can engage with words and phrases in different settings that necessitate different types of uses.

Speed, Stress and Intonation

Sometimes the way you speak can be the most effective way to modify language without simplification. There are three primary techniques you can use in this area.

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