As an elementary ESL teacher, I often hear from classroom teachers that they don’t always know where to begin when it comes to working in small groups with beginning English language learners (ELLs). In this post I’ll share with you a typical “small group instruction” lesson that I would give to my beginning ELLs, a.k.a. “newcomers”, as well as a glance at what a typical week looks like.
Let me begin by sharing what I do before I start instructing. First, I assess how many alphabet letter names and sounds they know. Then, I assess their reading level. Since most don’t have English literacy skills yet, their reading level typically starts at level “A” (emergent). It’s also helpful to know if the students have literacy skills in their native language…can they read and write? In my experience, most do have literacy skills in their home language, and often times, many know some letter names and sounds. So now I’ve got my starting point!
When I first begin working with my newcomers, I typically focus on 1- vocabulary, 2- phonological awareness/phonics and 3- sight words. So during a typical week, my targeted lessons will encompass all three of these components. Down the road I will add comprehension skills, but they are not quite ready for that yet.
So let’s get started…
Step 1 – Choose an appropriate book. I carefully select books that have relevant vocabulary. For the most part, my main focus is building their vocabulary. The literacy skills in their native language will transfer to their new language, however, they have an extremely limited vocabulary, so… vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary!
I chose this book because I wanted to teach my students the word “big.” It’s also about animals, and I know that most kids are interested in reading about animals! I used gestures to SHOW them what “big” means.
It’s important to be mindful of your students’ age when picking out books. You don’t want to give 4th-6th graders books about bunnies or teddy bears. Try to pick age appropriate books so that your students don’t feel embarrassed.
Step 2 – Preview the book. Point to and say each animal’s name and have the students repeat the names back to you, keeping in mind to speak clearly and to enunciate the sounds in each word. It’s important for them to hear how to pronounce the names.
One of the first skills we teach beginning readers is how to use picture cues, but beginning ELLs don’t have the vocabulary yet to know what the object in the picture is called. We support them by front loading that vocabulary before reading.
Step 3 – Choral reading! In my experience, newcomers feel more comfortable starting out in a choral reading setting. They need help pronouncing the words. They need to hear YOU pronounce the words. Choral reading helps to keep anxiety levels low. In a few weeks, the scaffold of choral reading decreases and I will start to focus on decoding.
Step 4 – After reading, review the animal names. Point to an animal and see if they can remember the name. Perhaps make a matching activity with animal pictures and names. Support as needed. Encourage a LOT!
Step 5 – I always provide a guided writing activity based off of the book we just read. I use sentence frames to support their thinking and writing. Sometimes I create my own, like the picture below, and other times I’ll use a graphic organizer as a follow up activity. On this day I wanted them to understand the meaning of “big,” so their writing supported this goal.
As they finish their activity, I’ll ask each student to read some of their writing to me. Then they’ll draw a quick picture, which I always ask them to label. My students will keep this “Big Animals in the Sea” book in their reading folder to reread at the beginning of our next lesson.
I know that my newcomers don’t understand every word in the book, and that’s OK! They are being exposed to new words and ideas in a repeating format. I want them to get used to the structure of our lessons so that they know what’s expected.
So, here is what a typical week of small group work entails for my newcomers. Knowing what the focus is each day helps me to zone in on their learning goals. The variety keeps it fun and interesting for students, yet it’s consistent so that they know what’s expected.
As you can see, on Tuesdays I include direct vocabulary instruction, either using the vocabulary from the book, like the animals, or monthly themed vocabulary, or even vocabulary from another content area.
One activity I have my students do with their vocabulary is use the K.I.M. Strategy. In their notebook they write the key word (K), important information (I), sketch a memory clue (M) and write a sentence (S). For my newcomers though, I leave out the (I) portion because they are not ready yet for adding “information.” Right now the goal is for them to learn the names of things AND simple sentence structure. My higher ELLs definitely include all components of the K.I.M. Strategy in their notebooks.
This is what the K.I.M. Strategy looks like.
And this is how it looks modified for my newcomers…
On Thursdays, I focus on building sight words. When teaching ELLs sight words, it’s so important to teach the words in context. Your beginning ELLs need context in order to make meaning of the words. I pull a sight word from our book and I include an extension activity with that word.
I do teach sight words throughout the week, but on Thursdays we always have an extension activity for one of them. As an “exit ticket” I have them orally use the sight word. Today, I asked each student, “What can you do?” And they responded with “I can _____.” Then they get a high five, a sticker (big kids like stickers too!), or some encouraging praise.
I also include Word Study activities in my small group work. I like using the sorts from Words Their Way. Each Monday they receive a new spelling pattern. Remember, I assessed my students to see what they already knew. Most of them already knew many initial sounds, so I started them with word families. If they did not know initial sounds, I would’ve started there. I do have one student in this group who does not know many initials sounds, so I spend a little extra focus with him on that.
My newcomers use this activity to learn spelling patterns AND vocabulary. They are introduced to their new word list on Mondays, then they have independent activities to do with their word list throughout the week. (It’s so important to set up newcomers with meaningful activities that they can do independently during Reader’s Workshop.) Below is their Word Study Activities list. It gets glued into their Reading Notebook. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays they work on their independent activities. Friday is Word Study Quiz day!
And that’s what small group instruction looks like with my newcomers.
To recap, assess what students can do to evaluate your starting point. Focus on building vocabulary, sight words in context, word spelling patterns and choral reading to start. My guided reading lessons usually looks like… preview the book, front load main vocabulary, choral read (for the first several weeks), and end with a guided writing activity with sentence frames.
Here’s a TIP: Many times I make my own guided writing activity based on what I want the students to learn from the book. I’ll write the activity in my notebook, make copies, cut them to size, then have students glue it into their notebooks. Keep this notebook! You may get a newcomer next year, and when you do, many of your guided writing activities will already be made. You’ll just need to find the book that goes with the activity.
My notebook where I write out the guided writing activities.
I know that many school districts lack ESL resources and often times the classroom teacher is the only one providing instruction. Knowing where to start with beginning ELLs is probably the biggest challenge. I hope that this post gives you some ideas about where to start and what to focus on with your new students.
Kristen Vibas has been working with elementary English Language Learners since 2005. She enjoys the challenge of differentiating and modifying her instruction to meet the diverse needs of her ELLs, and creating resources that support ELLs in the mainstream classroom. Most of all, she loves watching her students’ confidence grow as they succeed in their new language.