College of Education > News and Publications > News: July - Sept. 2011 > Teaching English Language Learners

Teaching English Language Learners

Youb Kim observed teachers to find out what skills are needed to effectively teach English language learners.

by Sara LaJeunesse (July 2011)

kim_sml.jpgUniversity Park, Pa.--The growth rate of English language learners (ELLs) in U.S. schools is increasing, but the number of teachers trained to teach these children remains small. To meet the needs of this growing group, teachers must build on their existing knowledge about effective instruction and apply it to teaching ELLs.

“The National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2002 that while 42 percent of teachers taught ELL, less than 13 percent of them received any training in ELL instruction,” said Youb Kim, an assistant professor of language and literacy education. “Considering that the number of ELLs continues to grow in U.S. schools, we have a dire need for supporting teachers to learn how to work with this specific group of the student population.”

Kim published a paper in a recent issue of the journal Literacy Teaching and Learning, in which she documented the instructional practices of two seasoned teachers to discover how they helped ELLs to develop ownership in language learning, which, she said, is necessary for students to develop essential English language skills, to learn content, and to participate in classroom activities

Kim observed the teachers’ instructional practices for three years, focusing, in particular, on their questions to students. She was especially interested in documenting how the teachers scaffolded their students’ learning through questions and how the teachers’ questions positively affected the development of student ownership in language learning.

“Scaffolding is the provision of sufficient support to promote learning when concepts and skills are being first introduced to students,” said Kim. “It is an important concept that helps us consider the context of language learning. In classrooms, ESL students need a support structure that provides them with opportunities to learn English and use their emerging English skills in meaningful, prosocial learning contexts.”

According to Kim, a key element of scaffolding in a classroom context is the gradual release of responsibility. “Effective teachers help ELLs gain ownership in their language learning,” she said. “They set instructional goals, design instructional activities accordingly, and engage ELLs meaningfully in the learning process. An important question is how these effective teachers of ELLs use classroom discourse strategies to gradually release their responsibility and help students take ownership in language learning.”

Kim found that the two teachers used coaching, facilitating, and collaborating questions to achieve their instructional goals. The teachers used coaching questions to share their expectations for building classroom community and learning goals with the students; they used facilitating questions to deepen student understanding about English language, text comprehension, and communicating; and they used collaborating questions to have dialogues about personal experiences with students throughout the year as well as to understand students’ views of learning in the class.

“An examination of students’ performances on reading gains as well as student participation and the use of English in classroom activities across the school year shows that the two teachers successfully achieved their instructional goals,” said Kim.

Kim noted that teacher questions are an essential component to teaching ELLs that researchers need to understand more thoughtfully. Ultimately, her goal is to help train teachers to effectively teach ELLs. “I hope in the future to be able to use my findings to prepare strong preservice teachers of ELLs,” she said.