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.
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Many students who are new to the U.S. will not understand American cultural, geographical, and historical references found in lessons, books, and other resources.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-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.
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.
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.
The think-pair-share method is a strategy where each student works with a partner to discuss a topic after thinking about it independently. Then, each pair shares their responses with the rest of the class.
Use Sentence Frames
Sentence frames are a great tool for giving students a model of properly structured sentences. They also reduce some of the stress associated with writing in a second language. With a sentence frame, you provide parts of a sentence but leave blanks for students to fill in.
For example, let's say you want students to write their opinions about a short story you just read in class. You might provide them with the following sentence frames:
- I liked/did not like the story because _____.
- I thought the writer did a good job of _____.
- My favorite part of the story was _____.
- My favorite character was _____ because _____.
It can be challenging for teachers to design instruction that addresses the needs of all students, including ESL learners. This lesson provided the following strategies for differentiating your practices so that all students have access to the curriculum:
- Activating prior knowledge
- Pre-teaching vocabulary
- Rating words
- Doing open and closed word sorts
- Using cooperative learning strategies like think-pair-share
- Providing sentence frames for writing assignments
These strategies will help you differentiate your instruction for ESL students, while also keeping regular education students engaged.
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