When you teach English Language Learners (ELLs) at the elementary level, every day is a little bit different. For Gretchen Webster, who transitioned into the role of an ELL educator after a decade as a literacy tutor, one constant is making students feel comfortable, because learning another language can be overwhelming at times.
“It can be a daunting thing to learn a new language, because you need to take risks,” says Webster. “I really try to keep things light and comprehensible with the students. We laugh a lot.”
Webster has worked with English learners in Grafton and Westborough and is starting a new position in the Acton-Boxborough school district this year, where she will be working with k-6 students. She says ELLs enroll with such a variety of backgrounds and skills (some migrants are arriving with limited or interrupted schooling), it takes collaboration to understand how to meet their needs.
“Getting to know the parents and their cultural background is really key and it often takes a meeting of the minds with teachers to figure out how to get students what they need,” Webster says. “We’re accountable to the standards, so that’s what drives instruction. But we also want to provide language objectives so we can open a pathway to the content.”
Webster says she tries to find different ways to make learning visual, which not only benefits ELLs, but all students. This might include acting out concepts using a strategy called total physical response, or using other visuals.
“To meet the content and language objectives, I’ll create Google Slides that have the vocabulary and pictures and embedded videos,” she says. “I might bring in some realia – some things for them to touch and play with to get them talking back and forth. The more that you can get them talking, the more you can identify what they need to work on.”
Webster says preparing her lessons with Google Slides keeps her accountable for identifying the target goal, following through and then evaluating and assessing at the end of a unit. Some of her other favorite tools are Google Translate, an app called Say Hi, as well as BrainPOP Jr and YouTube. Webster uses different strategies to teach with video, including slowing the video down, using closed captioning or printing a transcript and pulling out vocabulary words.
“There are so many ways to use technology to give kids that repeated exposure to the content,” she says.
BookCreator is another tool that’s really engaging for students because they can create something that they can share with their peers, but also with their family – even if they don’t speak English.
“I think it accelerates their learning,” Webster says. “When they share with their family, it’s an opportunity to translate into their home language what they’ve been learning about. They create their own visual representation of the content.. It gives them all these 21st Century skills that they need.”
Her biggest piece of advice for fellow ELL teachers? Take advantage of networks. “We’re standing on the shoulders of giants who have provided us with so many examples of best practices,” Webster says. “We have access to the best and the brightest through book clubs, multilingual summits, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Lean in to that, because it’s there for you to use.”
Webster points to the MassCUE Fall Conference as another source of expert information. She says she attended when she was a new teacher and thought the sessions and keynote speakers were incredible. Moving into the future, she looks forward to seeing the expertise that comes from new technology such as AI and ChatGPT.
“The goal is to get every student engaged and motivated to reach for the next level of English language development. Using ed tech in its best form can help accomplish that,” Webster says.
Gretchen Webster is an English Language Teacher with the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District. She previously was an ELL Teacher in Westborough and Grafton schools districts. Prior to her journey working with multilingual learners, she was a Title 1 Reading Tutor with Littleton Public Schools. Gretchen also volunteers as a Conversation Partner with the ELL Program at Great Road Church in Acton.Print this post