Those of us who work with diverse populations know a little something about the stages of second language acquisition. Aside from teaching English language learners (ELLs), I have also added to my toolbox by receiving an endorsement in English language development instruction. If you work with this population of students then I highly recommend more professional development in this area. It paid off immensely for all of my students and challenged preconceived notions I had about the learning process as a white educator who speaks English only. However, I really had not stepped out of my comfort zone by teaching and learning about how to provide excellent instruction for Ells. Yes, I applied new techniques and ways to help all students receive comprehensible input, but that is simply applying great practices and my reward for trying new things was in the student outcomes. It was natural to continue because I desperately needed to keep all students engaged and involved or I would be focusing only on classroom management.
So, what did I do to come closer to understanding what it is like to be a language learner? I lived outside my comfort zone as I was learning a language very foreign to me- HTMLand CSS. I did not voluntarily choose this path and with all the great ready-made website platforms like wordpress, it was easy for me not to place value on learning to build a website from the ground up.
Enter, graduate school.
I am in the process of working on a Masters degree in Educational Technology. One of the core requirements is knowing how to build your own website. Despite the fact that it is course two in the entire series, I had been avoiding it hoping they would drop it from the list of required courses! One can dream. Frustrated by my slow progress of taking one class at a time, I decided to take two courses this summer and bite the bullet and fully immerse myself in this web design class that lasts seven weeks instead of an entire quarter. While it is highly unlikely that I will ever be a professional web designer, this learning experience has caused me to empathize in a whole new way with the smart and curious Ells in our classrooms who often present quite opposite at first glance. Here are a few personal things I have experienced as a language learner:
- I started out needing to copy from those more advanced than me. I was not cheating. I was learning by example and tons of repetition.
- Extra reading or video tutorials did not help me learn any faster. I was inundated with new vocabulary.
- I could only focus on learning this new vocabulary in very small chunks with more practice at applying those chunks through even more copying from advanced learners.
- I needed an extraordinary amount of time for trial and error. Fortunately, I was prompted about where to find my errors in the code I wrote and then I asked for peer support or viewed video tutorials in the moment.
- I received immediate feedback from my instructor. He was patient with me until he discovered in week two that I was doing a lot of copying rather than writing my own HTML and CSS. I wrote an email explaining that I was putting in the expected time for this course. I was fine with him taking points away, but this was where I was at developmentally. The standard remained the same, but he now understood me better as a learner.
- My instructor thanked me for the email, and being an ELL himself, appreciated the reminder of what it can be like to learn outside your comfort zone.
- Since I am taking my coursework online, we collaborate through sharing our work in discussion forums. This means we have to expose our failings in order to receive help and in turn help those who might be experiencing the same thing. This is a blessing and a curse. There were times I needed so much help that it was humiliating to be forced to speak publicly. Be mindful of this with your Ells.
I still have two weeks to go, but gradually I am building more confidence. Each week I have to address new fears as we continue to add on to our learning at a pace that is faster than what is right for me. This experience has helped me step away from theory and truly see the English language learners in front of me.
When you click on this link to see my current website development skills it is likely the errors will jump out at you. Just remember: Behind every error you see, there are hundreds of ways learning was applied successfully. May this be true about how you see students in your classroom.