Social studies academic language and English language learners make for an interesting combination and challenge for social studies teachers with little experience working with English language learners. Teaching social studies to ELLs requires content area teachers to incorporate as much hands-on learning as possible in the classroom.
Connect ELL students’ cultures with what you are teaching. If you are discussing the different ways a culture manifests itself, such as dancing and artwork, encourage ELL students to talk about dancing or artwork in their culture. Have students work in small monolingual groups to produce a product in English, such as a poster or report to encourage them to think more about the content of the lesson than their English language usage. Incorporate strategies for test taking, note taking and study skills into lessons. For example, encourage students to look up synonyms of new social studies vocabulary or to analyze the words by understanding their roots, prefixes and suffixes. You might connect the root of a word with a student’s native language as well. For example, the term “patriarch” might be easier to understand if the student is a native Spanish speaker and can draw a connection between “padre” for father and the concept of “patriarch.”
Use as many hands-on activities and visual aids in your explanations in class as possible. Social studies are full of abstract concepts that are best described in diagrams, pictures, globes and maps, for example. Also, create digestible texts for your social studies classes that contain all of the essential information for the lesson in bulleted lists to make it easier for ELL students to get the information they need without the extra unknown words.
Give students a copy of a simplified version of the story of the Pilgrims. You might find one in a children’s encyclopedia. Have students pick out events that happened in the winter of 1620, the spring of 1621, the summer of 1621 and the fall of 1621. Tell students to highlight those events. Have students work in small groups to write down the events that transpired in each season on a time line. Students can also identify the modern states that were in each of the original 13 colonies and connect experiences they have of the former colonies with the history they are learning.
Create a list of vocabulary that involves holidays. For example, you might include feast, celebration, family, dancing, music and party in the list. Have students discuss holidays in their country in class. Write the vocabulary list of words on the board and discuss what they mean in class. Have students develop a list of questions about holidays they can answer about holidays. For example, they might ask, “What does the holiday mean?”; “What is the history of the holiday?”; or “How do you celebrate the holiday?” Pair each student with students from another country. Each student asks the other about their holiday using the questions from the list. Students can then tell the class about their partners’ holidays. They could also create a poster or write a few paragraphs about what they learned from their partner.
International Day of Peace
September 21st is the United Nation’s International Day of Peace. Ask your students to brainstorm ways they can be the change they wish to see in the world. Create a list of vocabulary from the discussion using words like peace, war, violence, forgiveness, treaty, causes and solutions. How can something they do have a positive impact on where they live? Ask them how they can contribute to peace in the world in a personal way. Students can write their answers down, share their answers in an oral presentation or perhaps create a poster to hang up that describes ways they can be positive forces for peace in the world. Students can work individually, in pairs or in small groups. This is more appropriate for older ELL students with intermediate to advanced English skills.
Use these tips and ideas to help you engage both social studies academic language and English language learners in your classroom. Teaching social studies to ELLs is a process that you will develop and refine as you try different activities with your classes. Each activity and social studies lesson you do can be adapted to fit the English language and content learning needs of your ELLs.
Your Dictionary: ESL Social Studies Unit
College and University Faculty Assembly: English Language Learners and a Reconceptualization of Citizenship in the Social Studies Classroom
Everything ESL: Multicultural Holidays
University of South Carolina, Aiken: Making Social Studies Meaningful for ELL Students
Everything ESL: Settling the Plymouth Colony