Teacher Gives Secret for Unlocking English for ELLs

A teacher of ELLs in Arkansas recently offered his “secret sauce” for unlocking English for ELLs in his school.

Justin Minkel is a first-grade teacher at Jones Elementary in northwest Arkansas. It’s a public school and his experience is a case study in how to “unlock” English for ELLs.

85 percent of his students speak English as a second language.
Minkel Students - English Language Learners
As he recently wrote in EdWeek, most of his students show up in kindergarten “without knowing the English words for ‘pencil’ or ‘butter.’ But by the time they leave us in 5th grade, they’re talking confidently about cytoplasm, the associative property of multiplication, and key features of informational texts”

What’s the “secret sauce?”

Minkel says it comes down to a few simple tips:

• Explicit language instruction in the structure of English
• High expectations coupled with individualized instruction
• Every teacher is trained in ESL instruction and where everyone who works in the school – from custodian to superintendent – respects the child’s cultural background

As Minkel writes, “When I think back on the teaching techniques that made the biggest difference for that class, two come to mind: Using the gradual release of responsibility instructional model; and providing more time for students to talk.”

One of Minkel’s ingredients in the secret sauce is teaching his students the “invisible language.” What’s that?

He says that, he teaches invisible language by using ‘mortar words’ like articles and prepositions, not just ‘brick words’ like nouns and verbs. Nouns are easy to teach through visuals like the illustrations and diagrams in books. Verbs are easy, too, because students can act them out. What’s harder for English-learners to pick up are ‘mortar words’ used to connect the nouns and verbs in sentences. Prepositions like under vs. behind or in vs. on…I often say or write these ‘invisible words’ in Spanish so students can connect their home language with English. I also provide a chart with key question words (Why, Who, How, etc.) in both English and Spanish.”

Learn more by following Minkel on his blog, Career Teacher.