Coakley Middle School ELL: Overcoming the language barrier


School can be intimidating for students who don’t speak the English language. Coakley Middle School is helping English language learners overcome the language barrier by perfecting several different strategies that in effect stand to benefit all students.

Brittney Mata, a sixth-grade math teacher at Coakley, is constantly trying to find ways to help ELL students on her campus in any way she can.

One of her preferred approaches is kinesthetic learning. Rather than just sitting in the classroom listening to a lecture, students use different hand signals to help them remember the concepts they are being taught.

“I pick a couple of key vocabulary words that are main concepts in sixth-grade math,” said Mata. “For example, ratio or equation. I look up hand signs for them. Sometimes it’s American sign language, and sometimes it’s stuff that I just make up. I create a sign for the word and a sign for the definition. It helps jog their [students’] memory.”

Other strategies being utilized include going over objectives, providing wait time, giving students the opportunity to discuss with their classmates what they don’t understand, and sentence stems.

What teachers have quickly discovered is that by implementing these strategies they are also seeing improvement across the board.

“In this past benchmark we had an 89 percent passing rate with all my ELL and Sped (Special Education) students passing,” said sixth-grade teacher Stephanie Huerta. “So, this doesn’t only work for ELL. It works for all your range of students.”

“In class, our teacher makes up these little hand signals,” said sixth-grade student Katy Quellhorst. Although Quellhorst isn’t an ELL student, she recognizes that by using these strategies she can better understand the subject matter because of it. “It helps us memorize the concepts because we are having fun while also learning.”

The ELL program at Coakley helps create a supportive environment where students can develop their language skills along with the confidence they need to become successful in all their classes.

“In the beginning of the year we see these shy, timid students,” said Huerta. “As they go through the program, a lot of our students are wanting to share their ideas and communicate. They don’t see their language barrier as a problem anymore. They just see themselves as any other student and are willing to participate.”

Sergio Dominguez, a sixth-grade student, is an enthusiastic learner but has had difficulty at times understanding the meaning of some words. With the support of his teachers and classmates, he is learning quickly and is appreciating the power of knowing two languages.

“I have to ask the teacher or students in my class for help because sometimes I don’t understand the words in English,” said Dominguez. “But knowing Spanish helps me communicate with my mom, and as I continue learning English I can help her learn as well. In class, I can help my classmates who are learning to speak English. It makes me feel good to know that we can all support each other in this way.”

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