A Blended Model for Teaching ELL Students in the Classroom


First and foremost, teaching ELL students requires that teachers establish positive relationships with their ELL students.  A positive relationship is needed for funneling instruction that students will openly receive.  If a student does not like a teacher, the student builds a mental barrier between him or her and the teacher.   The negative relationship makes receiving information from the teacher challenging.  Have you ever talked with someone you were upset with and found yourself ignoring them?  Erin O’ Connor and Kathleen McCartney conducted a case study that examined teacher-student relationships. They quoted Pianta (1999) and other researches in their paper, reaching the conclusion that positive caring teacher-student relationships support social, emotional, and cognitive development in the classroom, academic motivation, academic interest (Wentzel, 1998), problem behaviors (Myers & Pianta, 2008), well as influence peer interactions and confidence in their academic abilities (Barber & Olsen, 2004).”  At the conclusion of their study, O’Connor and McCartney (2007) found that the data suggests that there is a relationship that associates the teacher-child relationship with achievement.  The research also suggests that strong teacher relationships impact performance in the classroom and may serve as a segregate relationship for students that have weak relationships with parents.  The fulfillment of a missing relationship, rather a segregate relationship that supplements the parent-relationship, helps students to meet the third-level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, thus leaving emotional room for students to embrace learning.    Weatherbee and Mills ( 2015) stated “ the five needs listed in the Maslow’s hierarchy that we see today were merely used to identify needs for what Maslow deemed “unhealthy people”.  It is a reasonable statement to say that being an unhealthy person, or unhealthy student in this case, is not is not conducive for learning.  It is the teacher’s responsibility is to organize the classroom environment in ways that best attend to a student’s developmental needs, including their need to feel connected to others in the classroom (Doll, Song, & Siemers, 2004; Hamre & Pianta, 2010; Skinner & Belmont, 1993; Wentzel, 2010; Linton, 2016).

 Image the unhealthiness of an ELL student.  They cannot speak the language being used in the classroom.  He or she can feel welcomed by a teacher but being able to communicate is a key aspect of building relationships.  Relationships were noted as the most significant barrier to self-determination.   So, ELL students face unique challenges connecting with the teacher and other student, a situation that can erode self-determination. 

     In addition to meeting the psychological needs of students through maintaining positive relationships, it is necessary that teachers understand that maintaining positive relationships with students can also motivate students academically.  Success in anything that we do requires endurance.  Teachers can help their ELL students to build endurance when facing academic challenges.  Relationships between students and teachers and the climate in the classroom are positively associated with levels of student engagement and academic competence. Similarly, meaningful and challenging learning environments have been linked to both engagement and perceived competence. When students are authentically engaged in meaningful, quality work, the likelihood increases that they will learn something new and remember what they learned (Akey, 2006).    Eccles and Roeser (2009) stated that climate was optimal when teachers who trust, are respectful to students, care about students, and care specifically about students’ learning provided the social–emotional and intellectual background that students need to engage with, approach and persist in academic learning tasks and to develop achievement related self-perceptions (see also Deci and Ryan 2002; Wigfield et al. 2006; Gavin, Hattie, and Winhellar, 2013).

    There are barriers to a teacher building meaningful relationships with students.  Research provides literature that poses the question do you teach students with cultural, socioeconomic, and ethnicity influences in mind or do you ignore the cultural, socioeconomic, and ethnicity piece, and just teach students the same. Teachers are entering the teaching profession inadequately prepared to address students with diverse backgrounds.  Programs do not focus on multicultural issues that could help teachers gain knowledge and empathy for working with diverse backgrounds. Because of this, many teachers practice cultural encapsulation, which is the promotion of their culture and an inability to advance others (Silvis, 2016).  This lack of synchronization between teachers and ELL students can drive a wedge between the two and make forming culturally responsive, authentic connections difficult and will prevent teachers from achieving both levels of care that Noddings explained is critical between teachers and students (Silvis, 2016).  Researchers uncovered several boundaries that need to be manipulated in order to create authentic teacher-student relationships. The identified boundaries include the following: 1) Cultural Boundaries 2) Emotional Boundaries 3) Personal Boundaries 4) Temporal Boundaries and 5) Power Boundaries. 

The biggest issue of course with teaching ELL students is the language barrier.  Corey Mitchell (2018) writes that some research has shown that while the number of English-as-a-second-language speakers in schools is on the rise, the quality of education those students receive in the nation's K-12 schools is not (Mitchell, 2018).  How can you improve the quality of education for a student when you cannot communicate with the student?  When a student is actively learning a language, learning content taught in the language that the student is learning, and learning in an environment set up for another culture; the quality of the education is going to suffer.  This occurs for obvious reasons. 

- Many teachers are not bilingual.
- Many teachers have not had the necessary training that prepares them to teach students that do not speak English
- Many teachers do not believe that they can teach ELL students
- Many teachers confuse a student’s inability to speak English with their intelligence
- Many teachers are not aware of the tools available to them to teach ELL students
- The language barrier that exists between teacher and student is a demotivator for both the  teacher and the student
- It requires a great deal of effort from the teacher to meet the needs of all students when ELL students are mainstreamed with English speaking students
- It takes up to 3 years or more for a students to learn a second language well enough to be considered academically competent in the language (Curtin, 2005)
- Teachers have biases towards ELL students

There are two ways to teach ESL and ELL students.  You can teach them as English speakers or you can teach them in a way that embraces their native language. When English is considered to be “the language,” Spanish proficiency is discounted.  In one study the researcher found that teachers position Mexican immigrant students arriving at their school as being in the worst position because of what the teachers perceived as the student's limited linguistic and cultural knowledge (Gallo, Link, Allard, Wortham, & Mortimer, 2014).  Teaching a fish to climb a tree is an incredible challenge, but if you put the tree in water, the fish can easily climb, rather swim, to the top.  What I am saying is that teachers should incorporate the native language into their teaching.  There are ways that teachers can incorporate the native language into their teaching. Teaching ELL students using an English-proficient model is problematic from the start.  Teaching ELL students using a blended model provides a better start for ELL students.  This teaching model also gives attention, although it might not fully address, to the needs and wishes of ELL students.  According to Gallo (2014) and her peer ELL and ESL students expressed a desire to have:

  • The use of more technology (movies, CD, etc.) in the classroom
  • To engage in more in-class conversation
  • More interesting classes
  • More real-life content
  • Classes taught in the native language
  • Desire more feedback from the teacher

The list represents the classic opposite of what many students that do not speak English are getting in mainstreamed classes.  Many ELL students are not being engaged in their mainstream class. If you have ever observed a non-speaking Spanish student in a mainstreamed classroom you are familiar with the daydreaming, the napping, and the blank stares.  Is it possible to move ELL students beyond this?  The answer is yes. You can have great success in teaching ELL students. If you have comments please share them.

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