Common Challenges for ELL Students & What Teachers Can Do to Help
The "Language Ego"
As we described in the Social & Environmental Factors section, ELL students commonly have problems with motivation, especially during the pubescent years. The need to be accepted is more prominent than ever and the desire to avoid embarrassment due to language comprehension difficulties is more present. For this reason, many ELL students will develop a "language ego"-- behaviors of defensiveness or inhibition that characterize the ELL student's attitude during moments that they must communicate in their non-native language. Not only do these behaviors make it difficult for teachers to work with them, but they rob the student of opportunities for further growth, all for the sake of avoiding discomfort.
Solution: Honor the Mistake
When it comes to language acquisition, mistakes are valuable. Recognize the courage it took your student to attempt a response and offer them more than an instantaneous correction. Foster an environment where your students can make many mistakes without negative consequences, such as anonymous submissions or non-graded oral exercises. Encourage support and empathy among student groups or allow students to work in smaller pairings.
Problems in Content Area Learning
Being able to read words does not mean they understand their readings. Much of content learning can come from cultural or social norms, such as thought processes regarding problem solving, the scientific method or analytic approaches. In literature, genres have characteristic "rules" that ELL students may not be aware of, such as when authors are being literal or figurative. Additionally, the use of homophones or English dialects and colloquial terms in reading or other materials are confusing to non-native speakers.
Solution: Spend time giving thorough background information and review readings or assignment instructions.
Background information gives ELL students the cultural and social context they might need to understand what is happening in a reading or what is being asked of them in an assignment.
Lack of Social & Cultural Context
ELL Students aren't living in a language vacuum, and yet they are often taught in one. If the goal of language is communication and the goal of English language learning is full functionality in an English speaking society, then instruction in formal grammatical structure does not suffice.
From the Experience of an English Language Learner
"The major function of language is communication in real life. If a person learnt English, but cannot speak anything, English is not meaningful to this person. However, actually, many English language learners cannot communicate in English in daily life. So do I. I have studied English in school since I was 9-year-old, however, it is difficult to me to communicate in English in daily life. I have spent much time on learning grammar and the structures of sentences, not how to communicate in real-life situations. Though I memorized many vocabularies, it is hard to use those words authentically. Even though the most important function of language is communication, most content of English class consists of grammar, vocabulary and reading while not considering sociocultural context. Therefore, quite a few learners, who have knowledge of English, cannot communicate in English authentically well. In other words, many people can correct the grammatical errors, but they have trouble in buying something at a shop in English-speaking society. When teachers give learners English lecture without considering sociocultural context, learners can get just impractical knowledge of English which cannot be used authentically."
Solution: Limit Merit Based Segregation & Encourage Open Discussion
A language learner's best resource is a native speaker. Human babies seem to learn through osmosis (But, they don't. For an in-depth explanation of language acquisition, see our The Brain & Language Learning section). However, their social context is constantly bringing them information about language: the way it sounds, the way it is used and even the way it is structured. Rote learning and memorization of grammar and vocabulary won't mean a thing if your students can't put them to use. Give them a chance to actively listen to native speakers speak both formally and informally. Seek to understand; let them try to express their thoughts fully before offering corrections. Rephrasing their answers or comments and offering context can help them orient their language learning to specific situations.