Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Dr. Danny Brassell on English Language Learners

Lessons Learned from Teaching English Language Learners

            Learning English ain’t easy. It is not easy to teach, either. Think of all the parents in America who may not speak English as a first language. Can you imagine working on even the most basic homework with your child if English is not your first language? It can be overwhelming, to say the least!

photo of: Dr. Danny Brassell: Teaching English Language Learners at PreK+K Sharing

            When I first began teaching my English Language Learner (ELL) students, I felt like Charlie Chaplin. Put simply, I was gesturing like a madman. Often I would repeat myself louder, as if I were teaching deaf students rather than ELL students. I quickly learned, too, that having students copy down information or repeat it back to me served little purpose when I provided little or no context based on my students’ own experiences. It quickly became apparent to me that I needed to let my students guide my instruction, not vice versa. The same advice holds true for parents.
ELL students are some of the most patient and forgiving people I have ever known. I have classes endure my rapid speech, tendency to talk off-topic and a variety of other personal failings. They teach me just as much as I teach them, if not more. Along the way I have picked up a variety of strategies as a teacher that I believe parents may use to help their children understand. One of the blessings I encountered as an ELL teacher was the discovery that what works for ELL students works for all students, so try keeping these ELL tips in mind when working with your child:
photo of: SLOW DOWN when teaching English Language Learners

  • Slow down! The faster you talk, the more likely you’re going to stare at a blank face (or faces, if you have multiple children).
  • Try to use high-frequency vocabulary rather than technical terms.
  • Remember that communication is the major goal of language. Encourage children whenever they successfully communicate a concept (e.g., I once had a student say airplane driver. While pilot may be a more specific term, did that student communicate his point to me? Of course! In many ways learning a second language is one of the best mental creativity exercises we can practice.).
  • Pause often. It gives you a chance to catch your breath and children a chance to translate.
  • Enunciate of: Enunciate when working with those learning English
  • Use lots of gestures, facial expressions and manipulatives (realia, like toys, brochures, household items, etc.) to provide further context for children.
  • Check for understanding throughout your lessons. Don’t wait for the end, and fall into the “Does everybody understand?” trap, as more often than not your children will nod their heads without demonstrating any comprehension of your lesson.
  • Use nouns rather than pronouns. It makes it easier for listeners to understand who, what or where you are specifically talking about, rather than getting lost in “pronoun world.” See how this is a good habit to get all children (and adults) into, not just English language learners?
  • Vary your styles of delivery, remembering that children learn in different ways. Some prefer information to be presented visually, while others like to listen to lessons. Still others prefer to move while they learn. Accommodate accordingly.
  • Avoid idiomatic expressions as much as possible, as the English language is loaded with expressions that may pile unnecessary stress and confusion on children. Of course, make sure to review idiomatic expressions (my classes always play a variety of idiom games to familiarize themselves with our often kooky American sayings).
  • Provide as many opportunities for your children to interact with other children as possible. The best teacher is usually not the person standing in the front of the class. Rather, children tend to do a better job teaching one another.
  • Encourage children like a coach. Coaches constantly provide their players feedback. We need to do a lot less assessing and labeling of children and a lot more coaching.
  • Remember: learning and fun do not have to be mutually exclusive.
photo of: "Rome Wasn't Built in a Day"

  • Keep it simple, silly! Rome wasn’t built in a day.
  • Repeat and reinforce.
  • Repeat and reinforce.
  • Repeat and reinforce.
A wise professor from Harvard once said that, “We hear a book a day. Speak a book a week. Read a book a month. And write a book a year.” What he means by that is that typical Americans hear the equivalent of an adult novel in everyday situations. To accomplish the same feat, it takes most Americans approximately a week to speak an adult novel, a month to read one and a year to write one. Translation: while there are four elements of language acquisition (listening, speaking, reading, writing), listening plays the most prominent role. That is why parents should not freak out if their children choose not to speak. Everyone goes through a “silent period” when acquiring language.

photo of: Offering Encouragement as Parents

Parenting is not easy. Believe me, I get it! My three children have tried my patience is ways I never thought imaginable. They have also taught me how different they all are, and it is my job to adapt to how they learn, not vice versa. Keep that is mind, and I am confident you and your children will be a lot more successful.

Danny Brassell, Ph.D., is “America’s Leading Reading Ambassador,” helping parents and educators inspire kids to love reading and achieve more. He is the author of 12 books, including Understanding the English Language Learner: Practical Tips to Boost Student Achievement. A father of three and professor in the Teacher Education Department at California State University-Dominguez Hills, he is the founder of The Lazy Readers’ Book Club,, Google’s #1-ranked site for cool, “short book recommendations” for all ages. Watch video tips and learn more from Danny at, and check out his TEDx-Village Gate talk The Reading Makeover at

1 comment:

  1. Pinned! This is wonderful information, thanks again. I pinned it to my ELL Pinterest board.


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