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On-Site Staff / Program Design, Development, and Quality / Sustainability

Translating Is Not Modifying: Tips for Teaching English Learners

Editor’s Note: Welcome first-time BOOST Blogger Lesley Morgan.  Lesley is an English Learning Specialist in West Virginia.  She works with students (K-12) and has been teaching for seventeen years. Lesley is also an Adjunct Faculty for Marshall University.  


As I stood in front of the classroom of 40 Japanese boys and girls, I paused. Inside I was terrified and my thoughts were racing: What had I done?  Why had I left my family to live in a foreign land? Was this even going to work? How was I going to teach them English when I do not know Japanese? HOW?

The room was sweltering and the breeze softly blew the translucent, white curtains. I can still see their expectant faces looking up at me while the Japanese Teacher of English, Kiyoko Sensei, waited patiently for me to begin the lesson—my obligatory, self-introduction lesson. 

I would like to tell you that it was brilliant and ended with students standing on their desks and saying, “O Captain, my Captain!” as I exited the room. However, I am far enough removed to know that in reality my lesson was good, but was it great?

As I reflect on those early teaching days in that Japanese high school, I learned many lessons about teaching English Learners (ELs). Three that are at the forefront of my mind today are:

1.      Translating is not modifying

2.      Set high expectations

3.      Advocate for your students

I still reflect on those early teaching days and my own experiences being a Japanese Language Learner as I strive to teach my English Learners in rural West Virginia.

A refrain I have heard throughout my time of working with English Learners (except in the early days, pre-small devices) is, “Let’s just let them translate everything until they learn enough English.  Let’s give them a table, computer, smartphone, (insert any device name you can think of) and they can translate everything.”

Translating is not modifying.

Translating is NOT modifying.

Translating is NOT MODIFYING.

Translating is one tool from a toolbox of strategies, actions, and modifications to utilize with English learners. As a professional working with EL students, are you checking often for understanding? Are you providing language experiences? Have you allowed the student access to picture dictionaries and visual materials? What are you doing to provide speaking opportunities in your classroom?

This is a snapshot of the classroom modifications form we complete yearly for each EL student in our district. I coach teachers that they can use any of these strategies to help the EL student in their classroom. Language acquisition is fluid. A strategy a student may need in September, they may no longer need by April.


Where are your students in their language acquisition journey? If you aren’t sure, ask your EL specialist. They will have their most recent scores and can articulate what it will take for your student to be reclassified. You may be surprised when they share with you. Perhaps the student is very close to reclassification. They may tell you, “Andrew only needs to improve his writing score and he will exit EL services.”

This type of information is critical as you move forward. It helps you push Andrew to his full capacity while remembering that every writing opportunity you can provide Andrew will push him further in his English Language Development (ELD).


As a teacher of ELs, you are an advocate for them. Working with ELs is something that your colleagues or district may not be familiar with—it may be a very new territory. In 2018? Yes! Just a few years ago, I know a school district in a state nearby received over 400 refugees in their district overnight. Can you imagine the shock for everyone? Just the fact that you are reading about ELs tells me that you care about them and their success.

Remember that your students may be working against cultural norms where they do not question the classroom or school policies and rules. They think “school always knows best.” When I worked with a family from Egypt, we continually had issues with his Kindergarten Folder not getting cleaned out. After numerous phone call and efforts, we were at our wit’s end. I reached out to a colleague who shared what she had learned from the families she has worked with. Early education (in their country) was an option, not a guarantee. The school does everything:  homework, folders, etc. Therefore, it was a cultural difference that the parents weren’t cleaning my student’s folder out. They didn’t KNOW to do it. Advocate to find answers. Push to protect your students and families.

This year marks 20 years since I went to Japan. Though I only spent two years there, it forever impacted my life. Every day, I hope the experiences I had as a language learner still impress upon me as I seek to instruct my students.

Today, look for new ways to advocate for EL students in your program. What challenges do you think your EL students and their families face?

In closing, for breakfast this morning, I savored a wonderful cup of coffee over a fresh omelet and fruit. Not really! I wish. Truthfully, I drained my second cup of coffee while eating my frozen breakfast burrito while driving to school in the pouring rain (with my three children riding with me)! Not glamorous, but it’s my reality some days.  

Author: @nagromyelsel

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