Make it Meaningful: Engaging ELLs with their Own Experiences

We know that our most memorable learning experiences as students ourselves was when our teachers made a lesson personally meaningful to us - it connected to our lives outside of or even inside of school.  Based on this, one of the things we try to do as educators is make our teaching meaningful to our students. Making concepts and language meaningful to students is great for all students but absolutely essential for ELLs.  As ELLs are gaining language, they are trying to make sense of the language all around them - what the teacher is saying, what the book or text says, what their peers are saying.  One way to cut through all of that linguisitic noise is to draw student’s attention to how the lesson connects to their lives.  Long-time teachers of language learners always do this.  What are some ways to think about making your curriculum and instruction more meaningful?  Ask yourself and your students, What is meaningful to my students?  What do my students know about from home and family experiences?  What do students know about from their school experience?  What do students know about from their world experience (many of our language learners are world travelers and have deep experiences in political global politics)?  

Then ask, What formal/school knowledge and activities could each of these examples support? Think: simulations, surveys, letter-writing, constructing models, investigations about topics that matter to students, mock debates, popular culture etc. Mine for “funds of knowledge” (Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti, 2005) that our students have.  One example from my experience teaching is homeopathy and a study of herbal remedies and treatments for illness that my Mexican-American students were familiar with.  We connected this knowledge with scientific method and chemical compounds. Think about letter writing, civic action, etc.  Whenever you can, make meaningful connections to students lives to help them understand the content and language that you are teaching.

Tricia Gallagher-Geurtsen
Tricia Gallagher-Geurtsen


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