I was recently in a classroom of language learners who were learning a language that I also did not know. I was again reminded how difficult it is to understand a language for which you have no background knowledge or experience. As I sat behind the group of students seated at the rug taking notes, I could only understand about 10% of what the teacher was saying, doing, and asking the students to do. Luckily, any frustration I might have felt was tempered by my interest in identifying what the teacher was doing that was making sense. Admittedly, I was not required nor expected to understand; if I were a student my frustration level likely would have been through the roof. The students were mostly off-task and needed individual reteaching to complete the independent task after the whole group instruction. After the lesson, the teacher clarified what she had been doing and saying. The teacher had forgotten basic rule #1, you have to make sure you are making sense to your students.
I have been teaching language learners or teachers of language learners for nearly 20 years now. If I were to give the simplest and single most powerful piece of advice for teaching another language to students, it would be this: Make sure you make sense to your students. I know this seems so incredibly obvious, but in all of my years observing teachers teach language learners, this is the easiest idea to forget. Why do we forget to make sure we are making sense? Oh, let me count the reasons - there are many:
rushing to “get through” the lesson;
1) not being familiar with the content and strategies so we are learning as we teach;
2) no time to prepare the lesson (let alone take a bathroom break!);
3) unfamiliar with sheltering strategies;
4) our students that are struggling to understand us do not tell us so;
5) it takes more effort to shelter instruction (make it make sense);
6) no time;
7) oh, and did I mention no time?
Despite the many reasons that contribute to our forgetting to make sure we make sense to our students, this is something that we must do to the best of our ability every day and every lesson. Let me give you 5 ways that you can efficiently and effectively make sure you are making sense more often:
1) Sketch as you talk and write (use a small whiteboard, the large whiteboard, a sketchpad when you are moving among desks) using draw stick figures and symbols to help students understand your speech and writing. This might be awkward at first, but you will become surprisingly good at this with practice. A great resource for sketching ideas is: Chalk Talks (it has simple sketches and over 500 easy to copy symbols organized by content area);
2) Gesture! Use body language. For some of us, gesturing as we talk does not come naturally, but it is a MUST if you want your students to understand you. The more meaningfully you can gesture for all of your speech, the better! A great resource for gesturing ideas is: TPR Is More Than Commands which will show you how to use Total Physical Response (TPR) to teach language.
3) Constantly check in with students! Otherwise known as constant assessment. There are so many ways to check in every couple of minutes to see if students are comprehending you. Have them write a word, sketch, do a problem, or answer a question on individual whiteboards and hold them up so you can see if they are with you; circulate as you teach, looking at student work or notes and stop to reteach; ask students to give you a thumbs-up/down throughout the lesson; direct students to share the most important thing they are learning/understanding with a partner and listen in to what they say. The idea is that you are checking in so that “no child is left behind”. We all know how that feels, and more importantly, we know the results of being left behind long-term.
Everyday ELL is now Every Language Learner.