ELL Students: From Beginner to Fluent

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Achievement of fluency is the key concern of educators working with English language learners
Most English learners achieve full proficiency within 4 to 7 years (Thompson, 2015)
Some students take longer than 9 years (Thompson, 2015)
Students who have not developed fluency by the end of elementary school are less likely to ever become fluent (Thompson, 2015)
Initial language proficiency in English and the student’s native language impacts the outcomes (Thompson, 2015)
Improving ESL instruction may help students to develop full proficiency faster

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Language fluency is necessary for students to excel academically, so it is among the main concerns of educators working with English language learners. Research shows that most students achieve fluency within four to seven years, but in some cases, it can take over 9 years. There is also data indicating that it is harder for students to develop fluency after elementary school and that initial language fluency in both languages affects the time required to reach proficiency in the second language. Improving ESL instruction is crucial to helping students become fluent in English.

Five Stages to Fluency

ELLs usually go through five stages before they reach proficiency in English
The first stage is called the silent or receptive phase (Crumlish, 2018)
At the silent stage, students focus on learning vocabulary
They often hesitate to speak in the new language
Alternatively, they may limit their speech to small, simple words
The second stage is early production (Crumlish, 2018)
Students begin to practice speaking in a safe environment
They might start repeating new words or saying short phrases
Many students also start to comprehend simple written material

Theoretical approaches to ELL teaching show that students usually go through five stages before reaching proficiency. Firstly, during the silent phase, students focus on learning vocabulary and often hesitate to speak, limiting expression to small and simple words. Secondly, the early production stage is when students begin to practice speaking in a safe environment. For example, they might start repeating new words or saying short phrases. At this point, they also develop initial comprehension of written material.

The third stage is speech emergence or production (Crumlish, 2018)
By this time, there are several thousands of words in the student’s vocabulary
Students start forming sentences more confidently and communicating with others more
Reading and writing abilities also increase
The fourth stage is characterized as intermediate fluency (Crumlish, 2018)
Students begin using complex sentences in speech and writing
Some thinking processes occur in the second language
Finally, students reach continued language development or fluency (Crumlish, 2018)
This is often the longest stage
Students perfect their knowledge of the second language
Complexity, accuracy, and social pragmatics increase until full fluency is achieved

Thirdly, the emergence of production begins when students have several thousands of words in their vocabulary. This allows them to form sentences more confidently, leading to increased communication, reading, and writing skills. Then, students reach intermediate fluency, which is characterized by the use of complex sentences in speech and writing, as well as thinking in the second language. The final stage is called continued language development or fluency, and it is often the longest phase of language acquisition. During this period, students perfect their knowledge to increase complexity, accuracy, and the appreciation of social pragmatics until they are fully fluent.

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Common Barriers to Language Development and Academic Success

Foreign language anxiety influences ELLs’ academic and language learning outcomes (Dewaele & MacIntyre, 2014)
Inadequate school support decreases achievement of ELLs (Niehaus & Adelson, 2014)
Negative beliefs about academic abilities affect performance in the ESL classroom and academic outcomes (Niehaus & Adelson, 2014)
Poor socialization and stress associated with the new environment influence academic performance (Niehaus & Adelson, 2014)
Weak instruction in ESL decreases achievement levels of ELLs

There are many barriers to language development and academic success among ELLs. Foreign language anxiety is among the fundamental problems, since it influences ELLs’ academic and language learning outcomes. Additionally, inadequate school control and negative beliefs about personal academic abilities affect performance of ELLs in the ESL classroom and beyond. Poor socialization and stress are inevitable problems in the new environment that might also hurt students’ academic performance. Finally, weak instruction in ESL decreases achievement levels of ELLs by impairing language acquisition.

Cultural Shock

Cultural shock is a common problem among new ELLs
It is “the psychological disorientation experienced by people who suddenly enter radically different cultural environments to live and work” (Peter, 2014, p. 109)
The inability to speak in the native language and homesickness contribute to cultural shock
Cultural shock manifests in frustration, absent-mindedness, irrational fears, and other symptoms (Peter, 2014)
People experiencing cultural shock want to strengthen the connection to native culture
ELLs with cultural shock might avoid learning English and exhibit undesirable behaviors
This affects their language acquisition and academic outcomes

Cultural shock is a common issue among ELLs, particularly those who have recently moved into an English-speaking environment. It is defined as “the psychological disorientation experienced by people who suddenly enter radically different cultural environments to live and work” (Peter, 2014, p. 109). Factors contributing to cultural shock include the inability to speak in the native language and homesickness. Cultural shock usually manifests in frustration, absent-mindedness, and irrational fears, and is thus stressful for the ELL. The desire to strengthen the connection to native culture is evident in many people experiencing cultural shock, and thus it might cause ELLs to avoid learning English or exhibit undesirable behaviors in the classroom. Consequently, ELLs with cultural shock have a decreased rate of language acquisition and poor academic outcomes.

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Other Issues

ELL students may also experience isolation and loneliness
Depression is a prominent problem among children who immigrated recently (Dimitrova, Chasiotis, & van de Vijver, 2016)
Adjustment to the new way of life may cause new ELLs to be distracted and perform worse in at school
ELLs may also experience bullying and harassment from native English students (McCloud, 2015)
ELLs with disabilities face more problems in language development and academics

Other issues experienced by ELL students are mainly associated with social-emotional outcomes. For example, ELLs often experience isolation, loneliness, and even depression. Adjustment to the new way of life may distract them from school work, leading to poor academic outcomes. Research also shows that many ELLs face bullying and harassment. Lastly, ELLs with disabilities face additional problems in school settings that affect their language development and academic performance.

ELL Specialist’s Role

ELL specialists are trained to respond to the needs of ELLs
They can provide knowledge and information to educators working in diverse classrooms
They help to identify institutional barriers to achievement among ELL
ELL specialists facilitate partnerships between ELLs, their parents, and educators
They also promote evidence-based instructional approaches
Partnerships between ELL specialists and educators help to enhance ELLs’ wellbeing and achievement

The primary role of ELL specialists is to respond to the needs of ELLs through sharing knowledge and information with other educators, identifying and overcoming institutional barriers affecting ELLs, and supporting evidence-based practice. ELL specialists also have a central role in promoting collaborative partnerships between students, families, and educators in the school setting.

Strategies for Adapting Instruction

  • Apply an individual approach to gain more information about students and their needs (Ford, 2019). Use information about previous learning experiences, language proficiency, family situation, and learning preferences
  • Set clear goals that take into account language proficiency
  • Apply a variety of evidence-based instructional methods to match the needs of every student (Ford, 2019)
  • Increase the use of informal assessments (Ford, 2019)

Many ELLs experience anxiety with formal testing, so informal assessments help to put them at ease.

There is a great variety of strategies for adapting instruction to the needs of ELLs. Applying an individual approach to learn more about students and using this information to set goals for development are the two foundational strategies to help both ELL and content teachers. Utilizing various evidence-based instructional methods and increasing the use of informal assessments also improves ELLs’ experiences and academic achievements.

  • Use various assessment types (Ford, 2019). ELLs perform worse in certain types of assessments. Using various methods (e.g. essays, tests, presentations) can help to assess knowledge adequately.
  • Utilize different methods of information delivery. Lectures may be difficult to understand for low-proficiency ELLs. Provide visual support to increase comprehension (e.g., videos, charts, graphs).
  • Differentiate homework for different English proficiency levels (Ford, 2019).
  • Assignments tailored to native English speakers lead to underperformance
  • Creating homework for students with various English proficiency levels promotes compression and reduces anxiety

In addition, it is recommended that teachers use various assessment types and methods of information delivery to promote comprehension and adequate evaluation of ELL students with different proficiency levels. Consequently, teachers should also differentiate homework for students with varying English proficiency levels.

  • Increase the share of group work (Ford, 2019). ELLs may feel alienated and in need of socialization. Working in close groups develops English skills. It also helps to contextualize knowledge and promote understanding.
  • Respect the silent period (Gonzalez, 2014). Many new ELLs go through silent period, which affects their participation. Pressuring them to speak may worsen the issue and result in stress. Offering assignments that do not involve speaking prevents negative outcomes and establishes trust.
  • Integrate students’ culture to facilitate learning (Gonzalez, 2014). Home culture is crucial to ELLs going through acculturation. Integrating cultural knowledge into class work can help to improve participation. Essays or presentations about native cultures also increase students’ and teachers’ cultural awareness

Increasing the share of group work in the classroom is also useful because it encourages socialization and contextualizing of knowledge. However, group work may not be appropriate for students during the silent period. Respecting this stage and adjusting assignments or tasks to accommodate students experiencing it is necessary to reduce stress and establish trust. Finally, teachers should integrate students’ home cultures in instruction to enhance participation, cultural awareness, and acculturation.

The Necessity of Collaboration
ELL teachers have unique knowledge of language acquisition patterns
Content teachers may fail to adapt the instruction on their own
Inadequate instruction and assessment limits students’ opportunities to achieve high grades
Collaboration between ELL and content teachers helps to establish meaningful instructional schedules
This would allow students with various proficiency levels to succeed academically
It would also improve language acquisition and reduce anxiety in classroom settings

Collaboration between ELL and content teachers is necessary because ELL teachers have knowledge and experience that can help mainstream teachers to enhance instruction. Without this support, the quality of instruction may decrease, causing ELLs to struggle in various academic areas.

Developing Instructional Schedules

Collecting information about current instructional methods is necessary to adjust them.
Establishing connections with students’ families would help to improve the support system (Stanford University, 2017).
Assessing English proficiency of students in the key domains is essential to understand each student’s needs (Stanford University, 2017).
Analyzing components of current instructional methods that create barriers for ELLs shows where adjustments are needed.
Identifying evidence-based strategies that could be used helps to ensure that the changes are effective.

To develop instructional schedules, ELL and content teachers need to collect data about current instructional methods, establish connections with students’ families, and assess students’ English proficiency first. Analyzing the gaps in current instruction and determining possible evidence-based adjustments is the necessary second step.

Teachers also need to identify ways of supporting comprehension in content classrooms (e.g. visual aids and materials in native language).
Setting challenging, but realistic goals for ELL students improves motivation and promotes achievement (Stanford University, 2017).
Goals should integrate language and content learning based on the student’s current level.
Evaluating students’ progress across disciplines improves assessment (Stanford University, 2017).
Instructional schedules should be assessed regularly to reflect on the outcomes and apply corrections as needed.

Additionally, teachers need to identify ways of supporting comprehension in content classrooms, such as through visual aids and materials in native language. Goal-setting is a powerful tool when it comes to ELL instruction because it helps to integrate language and content learning based on the student’s current level. Once the goals are set, they can be used to evaluate students’ progress across disciplines. Instructional schedules also need to be evaluated regularly to determine their effectiveness and apply corrections as needed.

The Integration of ELL Instruction

ELL teachers need to collaborate with general education or content teachers continuously.
Reviewing the curricula used for various subjects helps to understand language requirements.
Group planning sessions involving both teachers assist in determining integrated teaching approaches.
Teachers should maintain constant communication to track students’ progress.
ELL teachers should encourage content teachers to share any issues.

Collaboration between ELL and general education teachers is essential to promote positive outcomes. ELL teachers can teach and plan collaboratively by reviewing the curricula for various subjects, participating in group planning sessions, and maintaining constant communication. If content teachers experience problems, ELL teachers can help to analyses and solve them.

Approaching students individually to discuss their problems or concerns may help to identify gaps in content instruction.
Engaging students’ families in ELL and content work assists in improving the support system.
ELL teachers should negotiate a regular teaching role in content classroom to support students who struggle.
They also need to research evidence-based ELL instruction approaches and share them with content teachers.
If any institutional barriers exist, ELL teachers need to lead change and engage other teachers.

It is also beneficial to approach students individually to discuss their experiences or issues and to engage students’ families in ELL and content work. Negotiating a regular teaching role in content classrooms and promoting evidence-based ELL instruction approaches is essential for tracking progress and addressing problems. Finally, ELL teachers should support organizational change if there are any institutional barriers to ELLs’ academic achievement and engage other teachers in the process.

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ChalkyPapers. (2022) 'ELL Students: From Beginner to Fluent'. 15 September.

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ChalkyPapers. 2022. "ELL Students: From Beginner to Fluent." September 15, 2022. https://chalkypapers.com/ell-students-from-beginner-to-fluent/.

1. ChalkyPapers. "ELL Students: From Beginner to Fluent." September 15, 2022. https://chalkypapers.com/ell-students-from-beginner-to-fluent/.


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ChalkyPapers. "ELL Students: From Beginner to Fluent." September 15, 2022. https://chalkypapers.com/ell-students-from-beginner-to-fluent/.