Language Learning, Teaching Resources

Language Acquisition: Building Meaningful ELL Experiences

During my time teaching, I had an open door policy. Before the day began, during lunch and after school, my ELL students and their families would visit the library in my room, small though it was, because they knew there would be something for them. I made a point of keeping books that reflected their experiences-culturally and linguistically-and this was a unique experience for them. My students, most of whom seldom saw themselves in the books they read at school or found in the public library, found a safe space in my room and library, which created a stronger learning community.

Creating a community that is comfortable and accessible is one key part of a differentiated approach to language instruction. This approach, which aims to mimic the first language acquisition process, gives students tools to become more confident and fluent in English, making learning more accessible and equitable.

We sometimes think about ELL language learning in very traditional terms, and translate this into classroom practice through formal language instruction (like grammar and vocabulary exercises).

Language learning and language acquisition

It’s important to note the difference between language learning and language acquisition, as outlined by Stephen Krashen:

  • Language acquisition emphasizes natural language development and occurs when the target language is used in meaningful interactions with native speakers. Under this approach, grammar rules and forms are not a focus.
  • Language learning occurs in a more formal way. Grammar, vocabulary and language functions are taught explicitly.

Language acquisition forms the foundation of Krashen’s five hypotheses on language acquisition, which detail additional ways to support ELLs in language development. The fifth of these, the Affective Filter Hypothesis, is critical and too often overlooked.

In order for meaningful language acquisition to occur, learners are most successful when:

  • They can learn in a low-anxiety learning environment
  • Students are highly motivated to learn
  • Students’ self-confidence and self-esteem are supported

The existence of these factors lowers a student’s affective filter, enabling them to learn. If the opposite occurs and a student’s affective filter is high, they are less likely to retain concepts.

Lowering affective filters

This concept was central to the work I did with ELL students and their families in my own classroom. A few specific approaches were most successful in lowering my students’ affective filters:

  • Taking the time to build community. This is one of the most worthwhile uses of time, particularly at the beginning of the school year. A strong classroom community eases anxieties for students and prepares them to feel confident and take risks in their learning year round.
  • Incorporating culturally relevant and responsive approaches into instruction. When students saw their own experiences reflected and valued in our work, they felt more confident, motivated and at ease with the content we were learning.
  • Not forcing students to speak. Acquiring a new language is a daunting task, and for some ELLs, this challenge may present as a silent period as they build confidence in listening and understanding. When I allowed my students to produce language as they were ready, they were able to approach oral speech production with more confidence.
  • Establishing predictable routines. As my students became comfortable with our classroom norms and basic classroom expectations, introducing new and potentially challenging content became less stressful and daunting.

The ideas don’t have to be big ones, but by supporting ELLs’ capacity to build language competence that lower their affective filter, we enable them to grow confidently.

For more resources that you can use to support English Language Learners, visit our global education resources page.