Colorin Colorado: Helping children read... and succeed!
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Common Questions About English Language Learners

By: Colorín Colorado (2007)

Here are some common questions that teachers have about English language learners (ELLs).

Who are the ELLs in my classroom?

The ELLs in your classroom speak another language at home and often speak very little or no English. ELLs in the U.S. come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but the majority come from Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America, often but not always from working-class backgrounds. The parents of ELLs may not know much English, either. They may rely on their children to translate for them.

Learn more about where your ELL students come from.

Does it help if my ELLs know how to read in Spanish?

It helps immensely if your students know how to read in Spanish and have content area knowledge in Spanish. Several skills can easily transfer from one language to the other. Research tells us that when your students are fully literate in Spanish, they will learn how to read in English more quickly and will transfer some of their literacy skills from Spanish to English.

ELLs do this particularly at the beginning stages of English proficiency; they lean on their Spanish knowledge to analyze patterns in English. It is very important to allow ELLs to transfer these skills and express themselves in the language they know best. They will rely less on this transfer as they become proficient and comfortable in English.

ELLs who are not literate in Spanish take longer to learn to read in English. There are a number of factors that can help speed up their process of learning to read in English. These factors include how much time you spend on daily reading, the reading strategies you use to teach ELLs, how much reading is done at home, and how much help you receive from the ELLs' parents or guardians.

Learn new ways to help your students learn to read in English

How can non-English speaking parents help their children learn to read in English?

Parents who read in Spanish can be very helpful in the development of their children's literacy skills. Their Spanish literacy becomes the foundation that will help your ELLs learn to read in English. Through Spanish reading, ELLs are developing their background knowledge and key vocabulary and literacy skills that will enable them to become excellent readers in English. There are even ways that parents who cannot read in any language can help their children learn to read.

Find out how parents can help their children at home with reading.

What are the important differences between the English and Spanish languages?

There are important differences between English and Spanish. Your awareness of these differences will help you to better teach English to your ELLs. For example: Spanish-speaking ELLs may have difficulty distinguishing one English sound from another when they listen, speak, read, or write – especially the sounds that don't exist in Spanish. They may have trouble learning the 15 English vowel sounds because Spanish only has five. Beginning ELLs may not hear the difference between cat and cut, call and cold, or tin and ten. They need to hear the vowel distinctions from you before they are able to produce them on their own.

For more Spanish-English tips to help your ELL capitalize on the connections they can make between the two languages.

How should I respond to their errors in English?

Usually at the beginning and intermediate stages, your ELLs are going to make mistakes when trying to speak, read or write in English. Language errors are a good sign that they are learning English and that you are teaching strategies that are working at these stages. Errors are part of the normal process of language acquisition. Try to provide a classroom environment in which, ELLs feel comfortable experimenting with English, even though they may not be able to say, read or write everything perfectly in English yet.

It is okay when you find ELLs explaining an assignment to each other in Spanish; it shows that they are trying to understand the assignment and to do it well. They are learning! Sometimes they code-switch (alternating English and Spanish words in a phrase or sentence) or even use Spanglish (combining both languages within one word). These attempts are all part of the process of learning a foreign language. Your knowledge and appreciation of these language development signs are helpful as ELLs strive to become fully proficient.

Where can I get more help?

In addition to reading this website, be sure to browse through Web Resources for additional resources. But don't forget that the ESL and other teachers at your school and in your district may be the best resources of all! Make it a point to work with them and learn from them. You can also join professional organizations such as TESOL and/or take graduate or in-service classes on teaching ELLs.