Turning Students into Teachers

shutterstock_84936313In my third period class of 28 students, we speak 14 different native languages and represent 17 countries from five continents. Maybe this sounds exceptional, but in our school, it is the norm for ELL classes. Approximately 25% of our student body takes courses in our ELL program, and these courses include not just language courses but multiple ELL sections of all core subjects. I start with this snapshot of our high school in my first post so that you will have an idea of the scope of our ELL program and the specific perspective from which I write.

I teach Level 3 (WIDA Developing/Expanding equivalent) content courses in Language Arts, so our primary curriculum in those classes is aligned first with Common Core and WIDA Language Arts standards before pure language acquisition. I also teach our Level 1 (WIDA Entering) class, which is a double period that primarily addresses social/instructional language acquisition and then language arts standards. Students in Levels 2-4 take these as two separate English classes.

The breakdown in language and cultural diversity illustrated by my third period is roughly the same across all content and language courses in the ELL program. These differences coupled with the varying levels of English language proficiency in any given class can be quite challenging to navigate on any given day. There are so many factors to consider. In my opinion, the best place to begin is with the overall classroom climate. Clearly, this is a huge, critical piece of every teacher’s puzzle; but in an ELL class extra attention must be given to any measures that might increase inhibition to speak because without speaking there is no language learning.  

Therefore, while language remains our common goal, the social/emotional organizing force must be a celebration of our differences, especially in classes with so much diversity. There is one simple technique that I frequently use when we are learning key vocabulary for a new chapter which simultaneously hits both of these objectives. The students truly enjoy it too. I always encourage my students to write translations of new words in their own language alongside the definition and example sentences in their notebooks. I do this for all levels, and it first helps to ensure a firmer understanding of the vocabulary word.

Next comes the part that the students really get into. For certain words, we’ll go around the class and students will “teach” the rest of the class how to say the word in their native language. In my Level 1 class, I’ll even sometimes project a Google translation for particularly challenging or more abstract terms and then have the students model pronunciation. On one hand, this is great for visual learners; and on the other, students are always fascinated by the different scripts of world languages.

In addition to demonstrating and validating worth, this easy trick of students’ becoming teachers works wonders in getting reluctant voices involved in the conversation as well. Some ELLs can be painfully shy, so we cannot afford to miss any opportunity to increase student agency. The students become very engaged with trying out the words in other languages, but what they really LOVE is hearing the rest of the class (especially the teacher!) attempting to speak their language.  

Of course, we don’t actually learn our vocabulary words in 14 different languages (nor do we spend an exceeding amount of time doing this,) but we do keep part of our classroom wall posted with common words and phrases–such as “hello,” “thank you,” and “how are you”–in all of our languages for daily use. As a teacher, I am delighted when I hear my students use these phrases with each other: like one of my Malaysian students who is always trying to speak Spanish with a young lady from Columbia or a student from Ukraine speaking Chinese, Tanzania speaking Hindi, or Iraq trying out Vietnamese. It’s easy to forget the things that divide us in so many other ways when you hear these sincere, cordial exchanges.

All in all, this somewhat effortless activity contributes an extraordinary amount to fostering a productive climate in a diverse classroom. It is certainly not the only piece, but it’s a simple task that adds so much. On the surface, it might appear a small celebration of language diversity, but what it truly does is contribute to an environment of respect, rapport, and safety that is absolutely vital in making students feel comfortable speaking in front of a large group and making mistakes too. This atmosphere is necessary for ELLs not only to apply their new language skills freely and authentically but also to stretch meaningfully to the next level.

Bryan Peters received his BA from New York University and then taught ELLs in Southeast Asia for the next four years. After returning to New York, Bryan realized how much he missed teaching. He moved back to the Midwest, went to the University of Illinois at Chicago, and earned his MA in English Education. He began working for CPS in 2013 and now teaches at Mather High School on the northwest side of Chicago.

Category: Education, Lessons, Tips and Tricks