How Do We Better Support Our English Language Learners?

When I started teaching 15 years ago, I taught Kindergarten. In my first couple of years of teaching Kindergarten, I remember going to some inservices about teaching E.S.L. (English as a Second Language) students. I still remember the advice that we were given: “We don’t do withdrawal programs in JK/SK because the Kindergarten learning environment, with a strong focus on oral language, is the ideal environment for children that are just learning English.” At the time, I don’t think that I agreed with this advice. In fact, for years, I fought for more support for E.S.L. students in Kindergarten. Now though, I’m questioning what I thought back then. Maybe I struggled with the advice back then for a reason that makes me feel “uncomfortable” now: I hadn’t created this ideal learning environment. 

Look at all of these boxes that came out of my basement three years ago.

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These boxes were full of worksheets. Children traced, copied, and coloured … and at the time, I didn’t know that there was a better option. While at these inservices, we spoke about the strong oral language skills developed in Kindergarten, these boxes told another story about at least my Kindergarten classroom. Maybe it was because I didn’t spend enough time developing oral language skills that I struggled with supporting E.S.L. students in a classroom environment without additional support. 

Fast forward 13-15 years, and I now teach a large number of students that have English as their second language. In fact, this year, for the first time ever, we’ve had the privilege of teaching a couple of different students that recently arrived in Ontario and are just beginning to learn English. I have definitely been forced to work on my one word goal of listening/hearing. I learn a lot by watching these children interact with each other, as well as with other students in the class.

  • Non-verbal communication is huge. Students communicate a lot through gestures, actions, and drawings. It’s amazing to see how even children that don’t speak the same language can communicate so well with each other. We just have to give them the opportunity for this to happen.
  • Never underestimate the value in music. Up in the cupboard near the sensory bin, we have an iPad that is constantly on and playing an album of nursery rhymes on repeat. It’s just loud enough that the students over by the bin and the sink can hear the words, but the rest of the class, can’t. Many of our students are learning nursery rhymes and how to play with words (orally), and these songs, get students to develop these skills almost without them realizing that they are doing so. As a couple of our students just begin to learn English, it’s amazing to see the number of songs that make up their first English words. Both students started singing The Alphabet Song really quickly, and the other day, as one child was singing it, she went and grabbed a paper with the alphabet on it, and even pointed along to the letters. Children in our class also regularly make play dough cakes for each other and sing, Happy Birthday, and now these two students are doing the same. I almost wonder if a new language becomes easier to learn when it has a musical beat accompanying the words.

  • We can learn a lot from each other. This year has been a good reminder to me that there’s a lot of value in families bringing their first language into the classroom. This idea is addressed in our current Full-Day Early Learning Kindergarten Program document, and I hope that it will be addressed in our new one. We are all learning new words to communicate with each other, and while my partner, Nayer, and I will often use these words in the classroom, the students are starting to use them too. I even think back to Family Literacy Day, when Nayer brought in some books in her first language, and we invited parents to do the same. All children should feel safe and comfortable in a classroom, and I think that language plays an important part in creating this environment.

Yes, as students are learning a new language, maybe we need to reconsider some of the things that we’ve done in the past and even some of the things that we’re currently doing. For a while, we really tried to get all students to join us on the carpet — even for just a few minutes — to sing some songs, listen to a short story, or play some phonemic awareness games during transitional times. Watching our students though, we’re starting to wonder if this routine works well for everyone. Do we need to add more visuals? Is the speed at which the language is spoken in our songs and games too fast for some students? Is there a way to slow this speed down? Are there better options for a few of our students (e.g., even some quiet playing/talking time) during these transitional times? We continue to think and make changes.

In the meantime though, we stand back and see what the children have learnt in a short period of time.

  • Language/vocabulary through different songs.
  • The names of almost all of the students in the class.
  • “Hi,” “Bye,” and the phrase, “How are you?”
  • “High Five,” with the action of course. (I think that we must model this a lot! 🙂 )
  • “Yes” and “No,” and both words used correctly in context.
  • “Come” and “come with me.” Both phrases are often uttered as the children grab our hands and lead us to see something and/or to help solve a problem.
  • “No delicious,” as we are given back a snack that one of the children did not like. This may be my favourite phrase yet!

In an environment rich in oral language, maybe a withdrawal system is not the best option for English Language Learners. Children can then learn a new language in a meaningful context, teach others their first language, and develop social skills within a classroom context. I think that the Kindergarten Program Document supports this kind of learning environment. 

  • What about in other grades?
  • Even if withdrawal is an option (possibly in grades past Kindergarten), what changes could be made to a classroom environment to better support our beginner English Language Learners?
  • As reading and writing become bigger areas of focus as children move up in the grades, how can we still create a program rich in oral language?
  • What benefit(s) might this have for all kids? 

My experiences from this year are making me think.


7 thoughts on “How Do We Better Support Our English Language Learners?

  1. When I put away the preplanned centre activities I had spent hours cutting and laminating for “literacy based play with a purpose” and stopped micromanaging kids into 15 minute increments and truly started playing, talking and learning with kids where they are at and using these conversations to move them forward I too noticed how the focus in the class became all oral language. Wow that was a long sentence but it’s a holiday! Oral language is the basis for all learning and I kept hearing that but I didn’t get it until the last 4 years or so. I get it now and I see the growth my ELL friends along with my students struggling in formal literacy make while playing and learning in authentic situations. Now I look back at the contrived activities I used to create in order to get kids to learn and think …..what on earth was I thinking??? I’ve learned that ELL students like all students need real authentic situations that are meaningful in order to become engaged. They need to hear the same stories and songs over and over to develop their own skills. Real life learning such as growing seeds and watching them change without pre-planned activities connected to the process wins out everytime in compared to some of the silly things I used to do to create to make math and literacy experiences. Live and learn!

    • Thanks for your comments, Lori! I totally agree with you, and I’ve found similar things to be true. I thank you for also encouraging me to “let go” even more, and I’ve certainly seen the benefits for all of our students, including the ELL students. Oral language is so key, and I wonder about how quickly, at times, we’ve moved onto reading and writing, without developing these strong oral language skills first. In the long run, what kind of impact does this have on our students?

      As for your question about putting all ELL students into one class, I think about the Alpha classes that we have at our school. These are for junior and intermediate students, and these classes are made up of small groups of Stage 1 (I think) ELL students. I think that the small group environment and targeted instruction helps, but I do wonder how much time is spent on oral language versus reading and writing. What do the teachers notice about this? While students definitely develop their English language skills in this environment, do they develop them faster than they would in a regular classroom environment? Also, all of the Alpha students are integrated into regular classrooms for certain subject areas, so does this integration also help? I’m not sure, but you’ve made me think more about this and made me eager to talk to our Alpha teachers more about their observations. I’m curious to know what others have experienced.


  2. I do wonder if an entire class of ELL students would see the same growth as a class with a mix of ELL and non-ELL students? Do two English speaking teachers provide enough of a role model?

  3. I noticed the Alpha classes in the postings and was unsure what they were as it seemed to have an odd write up about using literacy to close gaps in learning or something. Several colleagues and I have been wondering the same about jumping into reading and writing too quickly. I know the answer as I have seen the difference first hand, but it’s a hard sell to many! Imagine the jump in the all mighty scores on EQAO if we concentrated on oral language K-2? Then the kids would be ready for paragraph writing and other things they need that year! Best thing I ever did was listen to the advice of someone smart. Our job is not to get kids ready for the next year it’s to work with kids where they are at now! I dream of a time when everyone gets on board with oral language and moves past the forced and contrived writing and reading activities in early childhood!

    • Thanks Lori for sharing your thinking on this very important topic! I think that you’ve started an important change, and I know that you’ve made me think differently about oral language. I would be curious to know what others have tried and what they notice. Students definitely seem to benefit when we spend the time on oral language development.


  4. Hi Aviva,
    I am a first year ESL/ISSP teacher but was an ESL teacher for many years prior to that. I am passionate about ESL and have seen many models over the years. We used to have what was called ESL Enriched classes which meant many ESL students with a classroom teacher and an ESL teacher assigned for at least half day. We then went to withdraw and now mainly focus on integration with strategic withdraw. Our issue with the ESL enriched class was that there were not enough “models” for our ESL students but the benefit was that the classes (which included junior grades) were based highly on oral language, very visual and methods of instruction focused on benefitting ELLs such as frontloading vocabulary, open ended tasks, etc. (Which by the way are good strategies for all learners) I have also withdrawn students with a focus on basic literacy which included mostly oral language until I felt they were ready for reading and writing … Students always let me know when they were ready as they gravitated towards books and wanted to write. I have also withdrawn students new to Canada with no language at different points in the day to focus on oral language and getting to know our school. These students, especially if they were in junior grades, benefitted a “reprieve” from the class as sometimes they were on overload as they did not understand what was being said. Our current model is integration with withdraw when necessary. Our school is 80-90% ESL and when new students arrive we try very hard to assign them to a class that has someone who speaks the same language. We also have many teachers who speak different languages which helps. It is so important to focus on oral language with our ELLs before reading and writing. How are they going to write when they don’t have the words to write? How are they going to read when they don’t know the meaning of all those letters on the page? The students will tell you when they are ready to move on. Also we need to focus on the actions of the child. Many teachers tell me that the student is not learning, not talking, not reading or writing. I say what is the student doing? Are they following routines? Are they building friendships? Are they taking turns and sharing material? Are they “looking” at books? Are they communicating their needs using gestures or single phrases? I could go on, but if the answer is yes to any of these questions then they are learning and they will move on to read and write. Just be patient as theses students will amaze you with what they truly know and understand. Never underestimate our ELLs!

    Sorry, could go on. Your reflection is very sincere and I feel it is that reflection of what we do (questioning the what, how and why) that makes us better teachers and ultimately improves the learning and well being of our students. Isn’t that what it’s all about.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your thinking and experiences here. I totally agree with you. Your points in the second paragraph also are so important. They’re a good reminder about the importance of reflection and the need to remember why it is that we teach.


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