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Teaching ESL Students in Mainstream Classrooms

Instructor: Sarah Mills

Sarah is an educational freelance writer and has taught English and ESL in grades k-12 and college. She has a bachelor's degree in English Education from the University of Delaware, and a master's in TESOL Literacy from Wilmington University.

In this lesson, teachers will learn how to use instructional strategies to support all students. These strategies will meet the needs of English as a Second Language (ESL) learners in mainstream content classrooms.

Mainstream Classrooms

A typical content-area classroom, such as math, science, social studies, or language arts, consists of a variety of learners. Many times, English as a Second Language (ESL) students are included in the regular education classroom along with their native-speaking peers. Some of these students have recently arrived in the United States and speak little to no English, while others are even more advanced than their classmates. With such a diverse classroom, how can you ensure that you are meeting the needs of all students?

Let's look at some strategies that can help you differentiate instruction in your mainstream classroom.

Activate Prior Knowledge

Many students who are new to the U.S. will not understand American cultural, geographical, and historical references found in lessons, books, and other resources. For example, if you are reading a book in class that references Mount Rushmore, the Boston Tea Party, or the Chicago Cubs, ESL students may be confused.

Try to preview books and resources before teaching so you can determine what topics need to be pre-taught. You can help motivate all learners by asking them questions about their opinions, ideas, and experiences as they relate to the subject. ESL students will be able to learn from their classmates, and regular education students will be engaging in a pre-reading strategy to enhance their comprehension.

You can even give students books about the topic in their native language so they can prepare.

Pre-Teach Vocabulary

Pre-teaching vocabulary is a strategy that can benefit all students. Preview books and instructional materials for vocabulary words that are essential to understanding the text.

Rating Words

Go over the words with students and ask them to rate each word according to how well they know it. You can use the following system:

  • Holding one finger up means the student has never seen or heard the word before.
  • Holding two fingers up means the student has heard or seen the word, but is not sure what it means.
  • Holding three fingers up means the student knows the meaning of the word well enough to teach it to a classmate.

Since this activity relies on physical gestures rather than oral communication, ESL students will be able to participate.

Sorting Words

After discussing the new vocabulary words, have students participate in collaborative word sorts. A word sort is an activity where students arrange words into different categories to make sense of them.

An open sort means students determine their own categories. For example, you might ask students to create categories for the following set of words about geographical landforms: island, volcano, mountain, lake, pond, reef, waterfall, river, canyon, valley, desert, sand, grass, water, and algae. Students might create the following categories: wet landforms, dry landforms, and characteristics of landforms.

A closed sort means that the categories are pre-determined. For example, you might provide students with a chart that has several categories already listed and ask them to place each word under one of the columns.

Use Cooperative Learning

Give ESL students opportunities to interact and collaborate with their peers to help them develop oral language skills in a low-risk setting. Have students work together on worksheets, writing assignments, paired reading, projects, and small group discussions.

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