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A strengths-based approach to teaching English

Alabama’s Teacher of the Year shares how to create a safe environment for students to learn English.

6 min read


A strengths-based approach to teaching English

Carol Behel

When I first came to the US at 17 years old, my English was intermediate. I could read and write for the most part, but I had limited confidence in my oral skills. I had a hard time expressing my ideas, and overcoming the fear of speaking was one of the hardest things for me. Now that I’m a teacher, I try to make sure my students have a safe place to experiment with language.

After working with a diverse population of students through my 24 years of teaching, mostly in the K-4 setting, I hope that I’ve had a small part in getting my students to fall in love with learning and push through the obstacles that come with learning a new language. Though I know students want to make me proud right away, I try to reassure them that in order to fully master another language, there will be some struggle involved. Here are a few methods I use in my class to build trust and help my students reach their goals.

Celebrating Their Strengths

Many of my students might not know English, but if they come into class knowing how to read in another language, the first thing I do is celebrate that. I like to use a strengths-based approach to teaching. It honors what they do know, and inspires them to grow. I encourage them to continue reading in their native languages as they make the transition to English.

Some parents and educators, with the best intentions, think that having students abandon their native languages is a good way for them to advance in English. I don’t believe this is the case! Children need to develop a strong foundation in their native languages. Keeping their languages alive by having conversations at home, developing a wide vocabulary, and gaining familiarity with reading will transfer to learning English sooner or later.

Being a Trustworthy Support System

I try to develop intrinsically motivated learners. When I let kids experience a little bit of success, they lose a lot of fear. When a student does not know how to speak English very well, I still give them opportunities to express themselves orally in class. The students first have to understand that this room is a safe place to learn and grow. We can’t make fun of one another, mistakes are expected and all abilities are welcome. We’re all going to school each day to learn.

I think my students will stay above water if they know and trust that they have a good support system. I let them know that I’m available if they get stuck. We use a phonics-based literacy program, and when my students come to me to get one-on-one assistance, that’s an opportunity to provide them additional support they may not have visited yet. There are videos where a speaker shows you how to make certain sounds as well as a built-in dictionary within the program. That can be a good next step in moving them toward discussing out loud to fully grasp the language.

I view giving feedback to students as an art. I can’t just tell them they’re wrong, because that can defeat a lot of students. Some students do better with positive reinforcement. A lot of people use extrinsic rewards, but I don’t believe in that. Students aren’t going to be afraid to fail if they know you will provide them with guidance that doesn’t come off as demeaning or intimidating.

Making Learning Exciting

One of the things that has helped me the most is getting my students excited about learning. I learned that I had to make my class fun.  In my classroom, students get to move around the classroom and interact with their peers in pairs and small groups and work together to discuss ideas and concepts.

One of their favorite oral activities is the Hot Onion, an engaging activity that works well to activate students’ prior knowledge about a topic, build new vocabulary, or review previously taught material. The activity requires no special materials or supplies except for carefully selected quality questions that I have previously printed on regular 8 x 11 paper. Prior to class, I crumple the first sheet of paper and keep wrapping additional sheets of paper around the crumpled paper in layers until forming an onion-like paper ball. The students enjoy throwing and catching the “hot onion” back and forth. The person who catches the onion gets to peel a layer, reads the question printed on it, and provides an oral answer. For intermediate level students, I expect extended oral answers. When students are not sure how to respond, they get to “phone a friend” for additional support. This enables students with higher levels of English proficiency to scaffold the language for the students with lower levels of English proficiency.

It is so much fun to watch the students who are normally hesitant to speak aloud begin to take more risks with the language as they know that everyone in the classroom will help them learn. In my classroom, I try to build a culture in which students know that it’s okay if they’re not at the highest level yet, but they’ll need to work at it in order to get to where they want to go. Then I give them the resources they need, such as access to high quality and culturally relevant books and reading apps which get them interested in reading and learning on their own, at the same time that they get the opportunity to practice their newly learned skills in new contexts so that they can be leaders of their own learning.

To keep their students engaged, teachers have to develop a growth mindset and be open to learning new things, too. Even when my school district first introduced the new reading program to us, for example, some people were initially resistant to yet another tech change in the classroom. But if you know the resource will help you and your class, it’s worth it. Teachers need to be open to change and work hard to transform their instruction to meet their students’ needs.

We need to remember that any time our students learn something, it’s because they didn’t know it before. It’s okay for them to not be successful at first. However, we have to give our students the confidence in themselves that it’s okay to try a different method, to try again, and learn.

Carol Behel teaches English language development at Weeden Elementary School in Florence and won Alabama’s Teacher of the Year in 2019. Behel uses Reading Horizons Discovery to teach her English language learners a phonics-based approach to literacy.


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