How to Push our ELLs to Independence



Often I talk about the dance we must do as teachers of ELLs. This dance consists of knowing when to support and when to push, when to reteach and let them fail, when to provide more scaffolds and when to remove some.

It is tricky and will take our lifetime to continue to learn how to support our ELLs, but with time and experience, it will get easier.

What we want to make sure to prevent is our students becoming long-term ELLs and not progressing forward. One of the best ways to avoid that is consistently incorporating appropriate language activities for ELLs to do independently.

Before we jump into what kind of activities, let’s talk about a few things to consider about your teaching style personally:

  1. Do you have a case of “pobrecito syndrome?”

“Pobrecito syndrome” is when we look at our ELLs with bleeding hearts because of their situation and the trials they face when learning in an environment that is not their native language. Still, instead of scaffolding to unlock the language, we water and dumb down the material. This does a massive disservice to our students and can be a significant reason your students struggle to work independently.

Why? Because if they know they aren’t being challenged and much isn't being expected of them, they will check out and tune out to their learning responsibility.

  1. Are you over scaffolding?

Do your intermediate ELLs still expect you to create a word bank or sentence stem for them? That might be appropriate for new content that they are unfamiliar with, but most of the time, they have moved on that scaffold, and a new one is needed to be used, or none used at all. We do not want our students to become dependent on us to scaffold for them to don’t have to think. Instead of you creating a word bank, give your students a highlighter and search for 3-4 keywords that would help a word bank.

  1. Are you providing enough support during the “I do” and “we do” lessons, so they can work independently?

On the reverse, you need to provide enough language support before expecting them to work independently. Suppose you are sending your students to work alone, and they are coming back with a lot of questions, blank stares, or getting easily distracted. In that case, it is possible they did not comprehend the lesson and need a quick reteaching to work independently.

This is where to have scaffolded lessons is super helpful to grab your anchor chart or the vocabulary cards you were using, do a quick reteach, and then let your students take them to their seats to use as independent support.

5 tips to promote independent learners:

  1. Provide visual support when working independently. Something as easy as a step-by-step process on a bookmark can keep them on track.

  2. Make the expected outcome clear. This could be as simple as writing on a sticky note what the student needs to do (or even better, have your students write their reminder before you send them to work independently.)

  3. Use exemplars to show what is expected visually. Any time you can provide different visual levels of the expectation is a great tool to increase student motivation and quality of work.

  4. Provide a self rubric to reflect on and critique their own work before they turn it in. (Check out the free bookmark below!)

  5. Reward and praise work they have done independently. Maybe you have a sticker chart for each activity that is turned in and finished well, or as a class, they can work on extra recess when they earn letters for working quietly and staying on task.

3 appropriate independent activities to do with ELLs:

  1. An extension activity from the lesson you’ve worked on (even better if you allow them to choose the activity from a choice board.)

  2. An activity of technology where they get to respond and share their insights into what they learned. (Flipgrid is a great tool to do this!)

  3. An activity with a QR that supports their comprehension so they can work on language skills (check out these already done for you activities!)

In the first few years of my teaching, I would spend the majority of the time “teaching” and would leave my students with a few minutes at the end to “apply” what I taught before we hurried on to the next lesson. This is a terrible model and one we need to move away from.

Here are some action steps for this week as you think about implementing the gradual release of responsibility model:

  1. How much time are you spending talking?

  2. What scaffolds are you using, or what scaffold do you want to try? (If you don’t know what scaffolds to use, check out my course ELL Strategy Academy which is filled with over 25 tools and strategies for all levels of ELLs.)

  3. How much quality time do you give your students to think and apply new skills independently?

Want this FREE independent check in bookmark? Grab your copy here!



I would love to continue to help maximize your lessons with your ELLs. Please reach out if I can help with anything else!


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