5 Characteristics of Highly Effective Classroom Teachers of ELs

Classroom teacher practices are key to the success of English learners (ELs) in elementary school. In this blog, I will look at the characteristics of highly skilled classroom teachers of ELs. I am inspired by an article by Christine Coombe in TESOL Connections entitled “10 Characteristics of Highly Effective EF/SL Teachers” and wanted to present an elementary school version geared toward classroom teachers. Here are my five essential characteristics of highly skilled elementary classroom teachers of ELs.

  1. A strong relationship with students
  2. A thriving learning environment
  3. Scaffolds to support EL learning
  4. Flexible grouping of students
  5. The value of diversity in the classroom

1. Teachers demonstrate a strong relationship with students
Highly effective teachers genuinely care about their students, and this concern has a significant impact on their ELs’ motivation to learn. They are concerned about their student’s social and emotional well being as well as their academic progress. It is imperative that classroom teachers of ELs understand the cultures and educational backgrounds of their students. This helps them to connect to their ELs and model empathy to the other students in the class. Highly effective teachers should be able to put themselves into their ELs’ shoes and understand what it is like to come to a strange country with different culture and customs than their home country. Here is a blog that I wrote on “9 Ideas to Support ELs’ Social-Emotional Learning.”

2. A thriving learning environment is evident
Highly effective classroom teachers provide plenty of comprehensible input and know how to help ELs access content area information. They provide a  positive learning environment that lowers the newcomer’s anxiety level, thus allowing them to experience a more rapid integration into the classroom. A highly effective teacher also has reasonable expectations for the ELs in his or her classroom. These expectations need to be high but take into account the ELs’ English language development level. Teachers need to focus on what students bring to the classroom, not what they cannot yet do. They  also make sure that ELs are highly involved in the learning that is taking place in the classroom and are not relegated to the fringes with an aide working on a different curriculum.

3. Scaffolds are used to help ELs acquire new information
Scaffolds, such as linking new information to what ELs already know, preteaching academic vocabulary, using of visuals to support content learning, and modeling think-alouds, help ELs learn content-area materials.

  • Link new learning to what ELs already know. Highly effective teachers provide comprehensible input to students by linking instruction to the students’ personal, cultural, and world experiences.
  • Model think-alouds. Highly effective teachers use think-alouds to help ELs understand the step-by-step thinking process in finding a solution. They help ELs see the strategies and the language that the teacher uses to solve a problem.
  • Use visual representations. Photos, drawings, realia, graphic organizers, charts, graphs, and Venn diagrams are used by highly effective teachers to support EL learning.
  • Preteach essential vocabulary. Highly effective teachers choose essential vocabulary for ELs to learn. New vocabulary is pretaught in context, not through rote memorization. Teachers provide multiple occasions for ELs to practice vocabulary.

4. Flexible grouping of students is evident in the classroom.
The physical layout of the classroom is conducive to small group and pair learning. Desks are arranged in groups of four or five so that so that ELs feel that they are an integral part of the classroom community. ELs are provided with plenty of comprehensible output due to grouping. They have real reasons to communicate with their peers in an academic setting. Observers can see meaning negotiated unceasingly as students work in their groups. ELs have a greater opportunity for practicing their English and learning the content information through repetition. Small group and pair learning provide ELs with an opportunity for sustained dialogues with native speakers of English.

5. Diversity in the classroom is valued.
The diversity in the classroom is viewed as a resource from which all students can learn.
Exemplary teachers view diversity in their classrooms as a positive rather than a negative influence. You will never hear these teachers complain about having ELs in their classes. They know that families with diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds have unique experiences to share with classmates. Students from diverse backgrounds feel that their culture is being validated and feel pride in their heritage when they see their home cultures and languages being studied in the classroom. This is a real self-esteem builder for ELs.

Do you have any other characteristics of classroom teachers of ELs that you would like to share? Please share them by using the comment box below.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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3 Responses to 5 Characteristics of Highly Effective Classroom Teachers of ELs

  1. waltonba says:

    I completely agree that all of the characteristics mentioned in this post are imperative in working with ELLs to make them more comfortable in the classroom and more successful. Another aspect to take into account with ELLs is their native language and how they can use that knowledge to obtain proficiency in English. Part of this can simply involve working with cognates between the native language and English so students are able to transfer knowledge to understand a second language. Along with this strategy of working with cognates is taking in the consideration that a test in English is not only a test of the content material ELLs are expected to know, but it is also a test of their knowledge of the English language. When assessing students, we need to consider if we are testing their content knowledge or their understanding of English. To accommodate this consideration, we can alter assessments in a way that they are more informal or provide scaffolds such as visuals and more simple wording in questions to assure that the students will be tested on content instead of language acquisition.

  2. Tan Huynh says:

    Hi, Judie.

    These principles are similar to the ones that form my EAL instruction. http://www.empoweringells.com/principles/. We both actually identified scaffolds as a strategy of effective EAL instruction.

    THANK YOU for also providing the link to the ways teachers can address ELs’ social-emotional needs!

  3. Sudhashree Parvati says:

    Very true. I agree.

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