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When Navigating The EL Labyrinth, Routines Make All The Difference

Posted by 
Mitch Weathers
February 22, 2021

One day after class, just before lunch, I overheard a colleague consoling a very distraught student. She was sobbing and as the tears raced down her cheeks, I could understand a little of what she shared. My colleague was her Primary Language Biology teacher, which was taught entirely in Spanish. From their conversation it was obvious that she trusted him enough to share what was bothering her. They spoke for a few minutes before he walked with her across the quad toward another classroom.

On our lunch break I asked about the student. He shared that he had been perplexed by her for a while. She was excelling in his class but rarely attended her English class, which was the class after Biology in her schedule. Her English class was her last class of the day and although it was a sheltered language class for English Learners (EL), it was taught primarily in English. That day she told my colleague the two reasons she was cutting her English class. The first reason I will explain in tomorrow’s article, but it has to do with being bullied. The second reason was because she felt lost in the class. Her assigned seat was in the back of the classroom. She struggled to keep up with her classmates and overtime, she was falling further and further behind.

Navigating Instead of Engaging

If you have had the pleasure of teaching students for whom English is a second language, or students with learning differences, you may have observed a fatigue they carry towards the end of the school day. My hunch is that this fatigue is not the result of learning so much content! Instead, it is the result of simply trying to get through the school day.

Let’s take a walk in the shoes of this student. She was fortunate enough to attend a school that offers some classes in Spanish. These classes, and the classrooms in which they are taught, are an oasis. Oftentimes you will find groups of Spanish speaking students eating lunch together in these classrooms. However, she must attend all of her other classes, and those may not feel as safe. Typically, classes have different starting routines, they end differently, and the expectations in general are usually different from class to class. To make matters worse, in these classes, she comprehends about 60% of what she is hearing and reading.

The point I am trying to make is that just getting through the day takes a lot of concentration! A significant amount of her cognitive energy is expended simply navigating the school day. This puts her at an unfair disadvantage compared to her English speaking peers. Her goal is to “learn” the content in each class but from the start she is already fatigued. Where does she find the mental bandwidth to navigate and learn at the same time, all day, day after day?

The EL Labyrinth

I call this the EL Labyrinth. The maze that is the school day for many EL (and many SPED) students. This is the reason EL students have a noticeable fatigue toward the end of the school day that most “traditional” students don’t have to manage. For these students school is exhausting.

How can we help? How do teachers guide students through this maze? Can we adjust what we do to give students back a few units of their cognitive energy to apply to the content in their classes?

We can. You can. I hope you will.

Rhythm and Routine

The key lies in our learning routines — what I like to call rituals. When students find themselves in predictable learning environments they are more successful. Predictable learning routines create safer spaces where students know what is expected of them and what they need to do to succeed. In these spaces students spend less time navigating and more time engaging in their learning.

My own children attend a public Waldorf k-8 school. What I love about Waldorf pedagogy is their “rhythm and routine”. Every single day starts the same, with a circle, when students sing the same song and greet one another. The same is true for the end of the day — the same rhythm each day. Students as young as 4 to 5 years (pre-k) can predict what is expected of them by the color of the gown the teacher is wearing. Each day has its own color to signify student jobs, the day’s snack, and who is on snack or clear up duty. Once students learn the rhythm it all becomes routine! I have seen it in action and it works! Students don’t think, they just engage, because they know the predictable routine. And here is the kicker — it is safe. Predictable learning environments are safer learning environments.

Be Predictable

To help students navigate the EL Labyrinth we must implement predictable learning routines! A rhythm and routine to guide the school day. If students need less cognitive energy to navigate the school day we liberate them to focus on learning. Whether it is a traditional k-12 classroom, a homeschool environment, community college, or a tutoring session, students are more successful when they can predict and engage in their learning.

Be well,


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One comment on “When Navigating The EL Labyrinth, Routines Make All The Difference”

  1. Yes! This goes right back to neuroscience. If a person is in an environment that they perceive as unsafe they can not engage in learning. Period. Predictable routines create a safe, brave space for students that permits them to activate parts of the brain responsible for learning.

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