hELLth- Supporting English language learners in General Health Education Classes

I have always struggled most with teaching my English Language Learners (ELLs). Through degrees in health, PE and literacy I did not have any classes that addressed the specific needs of ELLs. We face some particular challenges as health educators with ELLs. In most classes, students have a teacher certified in TESOL to support their literacy- not so much in health. Students also come into our class often with high anxiety. In many of their other classes, ELLs are surrounded with peers that are also in the ENL program, with teachers who are there to scaffold content to their specific needs, and often in a smaller class setting. When they come to my class, they can be the only student who is an English Language Learner, and are in a class of 30 students of all different academic abilities. I realized that I needed education, and am currently enrolled in a certificate program to be certified in TESOL.

As health teachers, we already know the necessity of creating a safe and comfortable learning environment- I know how awesome you all are! I wanted to share some tips that can be use to support literacy for English Language Learners in their general education health class. I am certainly not an expert, but I have learned a few things that have been super helpful to me and my students.

Word Walls. Make word walls for each of your skill areas. Having constant language support in your classroom gives students the ability to comprehend more of the information in class, and participate better in discussions. I also provide the word walls digitally to students on Google Classroom.

My students helped me create our word walls in the beginning of the class. I gave students a list of all the content and academic words I thought were most necessary to the course. I asked students to choose a word, find the dictionary definition, write it in their own words, then include a picture that represents the meaning of the word best. Remember to include more than just content specific words. Academic vocabulary is not always known, particularly to English Language Learners. Keep them up for the whole semester! Here are some of my word walls:

Give students sentence starters for discussions. I love to have students talking; my favorite lessons are often with students in conversation. It can be difficult for ELLs to effectively participate in discussions if we don’t give them the support they need. One way to help ELLs is to give sentence starters to students. I do a lesson similar to the popular Lifeboat activity, where students have to decide which characters stay or go based on the information given. I put these sentence starters on the SMART Board in my classroom during the entire activity. Here are some examples of sentence starters so ELLs can effectively participate.

You should save me because______________________________.

You should pick me over ____________ because_______________.

I am a good choice because I can ____________________________.

They are not a good choice because _________________________.

Visuals. When in doubt, add more visuals. My lessons that need more visuals are my kinesthetic lessons. I often have students at stations of some kind, and I realized that adding visuals of what they should be doing created less “down time” when rotating, and also less “What are we doing at station ____?” Here’s an example of a visual I use for my version of Tom Jackson’s Ball Toss from Activities that Teach. Mine is a frog toss with bean bag frogs. 

Try the tea party activity. If you are using any reading with your students, this tea party activity is a fun way to activate prior knowledge. 

  • Take your reading and pull out 15 sentences or parts of sentences.
  • Write them each twice on index cards. (I have classes of 30 typically)
  • Ask students if they know what a tea party is (use a visual!) and what happens there. (Usually it starts with “we drink tea and eat snacks” and eventually we get to “we mingle and chit chat”)
  • Give each student 1 card with the sentence from your reading.
  • Give them time (5-10 minutes)  to “mingle and chit chat” with as many students as they can. They should each share what their card says, and then try to connect their cards together. 
  • Split them into groups or 4-5 and have them predict what the reading will be about. Have them share with the class.
  • Then read the actual reading- see if they were able to predict correctly.

This activity is especially engaging with fictional stories. I use this poem “A Pizza, a Party, and a Moonlight Ride” to start a discussion about decision making with students. 

I still have a long way to go,  but I’m hoping some of these ideas will help you on your journey to effectively supporting ELLs in your classroom.

This microblog post was a featured post in #slowchathealth’s #microblogmonth event. You can search for all of the featured posts here. Please do follow each of the outstanding contributors on social media (including Kathleen Peterson, the author of this post) and consider writing a microblog post of your own to be shared with the global audience of slowchathealth.com

Pair this blog post with the following:

Getting Started with English Language Learners: How Educators Can Meet the Challenge by Judie Haynes

The ELL Teacher’s Toolbox: Hundreds of Practical Ideas to Support Your Students by Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull Sypnieski 

One thought on “hELLth- Supporting English language learners in General Health Education Classes

  1. Makaylin Martinez

    Hi there,

    I teach in a district that has a high percentage of ELLs. I always struggle with how I can help support them in my classroom. I love the vocab walls as a lot of the time my students know the answer to the question but are having a hard time understanding the options of answers due to vocabulary. I also love the sentence starters as this would be great to use for our daily journals. Thank you for the great ideas!


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