History Assignments for ELLs

Last Friday I was assigning a group presentation to one of my classes on the responsibility for the First World War.  I was a bit nervous as the previous class had been less than thrilled at the prospect, and this class was full of ELLs, so I thought they would be even more resistant.

Instead, they were thrilled by the assignment and began asking me if they could include videos, slides, all types of multimedia – essentially asking to do much more work than I intended.

At that point it hit me that this assignment was much more in their comfort zone then the short readings that I assign.  Those readings are intended to stimulate conversation and further the narrative of the class, but they often lead to long vocabulary lessons as we tackle some of the more difficult words for the foreign students (which, as you know, are not the same words that are difficult for the students who have English as their mother tongue).  They had control over the content and were thrilled that they could do research and present their findings to the class.

Teaching non-native speakers is tricky because we want to help them scaffold up to the next level of comprehension and often think about achieving this in a linear fashion – easier, shorter readings transition into difficult and more lengthy readings.  This ignores learning plateaus and the daily frustration of having to look up every 3rd or 5th word as a 20-minute assignment turns into an hour, or more.

Giving them control allows them to work in their own language, to an extent, even if they present in English.  And group work allows them to hide a little bit behind those whose English is better.  It is not cheating – it is helping them increase their understanding.  They get to do small-group discussions, and some of the quieter students are more likely to participate in that situation than in the full class.

As a teacher, the assignment has to be designed well.  We can’t simply send them off and tell them to produce something.  We need to be very directive – how many minutes of video maximum, how many slides, how much verbiage on the slides.  Although the students grumble a little, they are glad to have a clear roadmap of the requirements – it clarifies expectations, it does not limit the students.  And, we have to patient with the product – listening to 1st year IB students can be a bit trying.  But teaching information is the best way to learn it, so integrating more of that into the classroom is a good thing.

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