Building Student Ownership and Engagement for Language Learners

by Abbey Algiers

One school year. This is how long I spent trying to get my 7th grade English Learner (EL) students to truly engage in their daily writing assignments. The class was small, with four students of varying language and academic levels. Three of the four had been in the US from other countries for several years, and the fourth had arrived a year earlier due to the hurricanes in Puerto Rico. Each student needed work on their writing, and my goal was to use a portion of the 45 minute (EL academic support) class I had with them to do so. 

However, as well all know, getting students to “buy in” to daily writing can be tough, especially with our English learners. This group was no different, and they’d politely yet directly let me know they weren’t fond of writing. It wasn’t until the final assignment of the year that something changed, and the students actually appeared to enjoy writing. (gasp!)

Their assignment was to create a presentation of their home countries from the point of view of a tourist. I designed the presentation based on the fact that one of the students would be traveling to his home country over the summer. After I presented the assignment, I noticed something different in the group. First, the students started to talk to each other. Normally a quiet group, they weren’t quiet now - during their research time, they were sharing fun facts they were learning and adding personal anecdotes. Students conferenced with me daily, and accepted (and followed) feedback regarding their writing. The day they presented their projects, each student was clearly proud of their work, and their country.   

In hindsight, the success of this project wasn’t a surprise. After all, I had a small group of students who were comfortable with each other, in a safe space, talking about their home countries. It was the perfect scenario for students to take ownership of their learning, and experience success.

But as we all know, this perfect setting and seemingly perfectly targeted assignment doesn’t always exist in the “real world.” Both in ESL classes and content area classes, students are presented with materials that they don’t connect with, for one reason or another. There are a multitude of factors that can interfere with our EL students’ ability to engage in their class and school communities. The content might be too difficult, culturally inappropriate, or uninteresting to the student. Or, the student might have difficulties understanding or connecting with the teacher or students in the room. 

The challenge for educators is determining how to build ownership and engagement for our EL students as they navigate their way through our schools. While many strategies for building EL student engagement exist, I learned an important lesson in the scenario above. My students were given complete ownership of their projects, and in turn, became completely engaged. The assignment was 100% designed for them - their countries, their research, their comments. The students responded with quality work and 100% effort. 

Perhaps the key to engagement lies in giving students ownership of their learning, in all areas of their education. Below are a few suggestions on how to build this ownership and engagement for great student success.

  1. Help students take ownership of their own learning. 

We all know how overwhelming it is for newcomers when they arrive in a new country and new school. If you are an EL educator, you may have many resources to help our newcomers.   Students may quickly learn to feel at home in with the ESL teacher, as it is likely their safe place where they’re understood, with easy access to the resources they need. However, in mainstream or content  classrooms this isn’t always the case, and confusion and overwhelm can cause EL students to “check out” during instruction that is too difficult.  

This is why it is important to have work available to students that is modified for their language level, but it’s important that the work be interesting and understandable. It’s one thing to have a newcomer folder ready full of student activities. However, a folder full of activities isn’t always the most attractive thing for an 8 year old.  Instead, present the folder with a schedule and system of expectations/rewards. Let the student know that when the class is working on X, the student will work on Y, which is provided for him or her in the folder. As much as possible, have these activities tie in closely with the regular lessons and ask the student to show feedback in the form of visuals created for then class. For example, he or she could be working on drawing a diagram of a plant with labels while students in your class area reading or taking notes. The student could then share that with the class afterwards.  The bottom line, student engagement is much more likely when a student understands the work assigned and the timeline and expectations associated with it, and most importantly has a part in his or her daily education.

  1. Allow students to create ownership in the classroom. 

When Newcomer students arrive, make them fully aware of the daily routines of the classroom and school. Better yet, give them a job in that routine, something that will allow them to feel as if they are a part of the experience. Ask a student to help you put up a bulletin board, arrange books, or a similar activity that gives the student a sense of ownership.  When labeling objects around the room, consider asking the student to label them, first in their language, then English, giving the student an active role in their own learning. Newcomers, seasoned EL students and non-EL students can help create a bulletin board in the room that celebrates the cultures of all students. Here, students can have a place to share photos, flags, or interesting facts about their heritage countries and home languages. Other students can contribute as well, using family heritage information. All of these activities show EL students that you care about their background, and that you’re interested…which in turn may spark more engagement and ownership in their learning and environment.

  1. Take that ownership to the school community.  

Look for places around the school where students can share information about their countries, such as bulletin boards, display cases, or specific areas of the cafeteria or gym. Students can also be featured on the school website or in social media posts. Flags, country information, language information, or facts about foods eaten around the world are great topics to share.  Ask your EL students to share their favorite foods and see if the cafeteria staff can find a way to incorporate it into the school lunch. Then have the student on hand to talk about it with their class. 

  1. Show students how to take ownership of their futures. 

As students become more comfortable in school, remind them that being bilingual has many benefits.  Use this fact to fuel discussions with your EL students and class as a whole. This can lead to discussions about future careers available to bilingual workers. Ask students to investigate areas of interest and point out how their linguistic abilities are an asset. This is a win-win -- your EL students will realize how beneficial their language abilities are, and other students will see why studying a second language is important.  As a bonus your EL students will feel more “special” than “different” as they learn English and adapt.

  1. Create a strong connection with families so that everyone can take ownership in the education of EL students. 

When families are informed and educated about what’s happening at school, they are much more able to help them at home and reinforce school expectations. Plus, when students see the school reaching out to their parents in a positive way, they are also likely to feel more connected to the school community. Invite parents to visit your classroom or volunteer in the school. Ask them to come in and share food from their country. Since language is often a barrier to this happening, the use of interpreters whenever possible is a welcomed addition. Also, take a look at the number of communications sent home on a daily basis. Try to get important letters translated, or have an interpreter contact the family regarding special events or projects.   

I realize that none of the above ideas are new concepts.  As educators of language learners, we employ these methods and encourage our colleagues working with our EL students to do the same.  Regardless of which method we choose for our students, there is one important word to remember - connection. Connection could be the key to getting our students to take ownership of their education. By inviting our students to connect with us, our schools, and our society, we are sending the message that we care and want them to be a part of our world.  The more this message is relayed to our students and their families, the more likely it is that they will want to connect with us in return. The result? Engaged students and families who know that we are all in this together. 

Photo Courtesy of Confianza partner district, Needham Public Schools, MA 

To Further Your Learning: 

Colorin’ Colorado: Five Things Teachers Can Do to Improve Learning for ELLs in the New Year

Jimmy ESL: Setting Classroom Expectations The 3 Most Effective Expectations in Any ESL Classroom

Lightspeed: Increase ELL Student Engagement with these 3 Tips

Middleweb: 3 Ways to Encourage Ownership of Learning 


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