Fifteen Things Teachers Can Do to Support ELL Success in the New Year

A notebook, coffee cup, pencils, and an apple on a wood table.

As you look ahead to the New Year, here are some specific and measurable actions you can take to support your English language learners' success.

During the New Year, we reflect on past joys and concerns from the previous year and take the opportunity to look ahead. During these difficult times and uncertain times, it is especially important to take time for reflection, identify our strengths and challenges, and consider where our efforts will be most effective.

In this article, I will recommend some specific and measurable actions you can implement to support the success of your English language learners (ELLs). You may wish to focus on just one of these strategies so you can work on it consistently, or try different strategies at different times through the year.

I also suggest teachers employ the "support group" method and use the chosen strategy as a topic for a professional learning community. Sharing strategies, achievements, and challenges with colleagues will help you all grow professionally, and more students will benefit academically. It will also provide the team with much-needed support and you can use some of these ideas to jumpstart collaboration.

Note: We have added some ideas around advocacy and collaboration to this article due to the additional responsibilities and uncertainties educators are currently facing.

Connecting with Students

1. Look for ways to build relationships with your ELLs.

Specific and measurable goal: I will try one new strategy that can boost my connections with students.

When asked for their top piece of advice for working with ELLs, veteran ELL educators often talk about the importance of building relationships with their ELLs and how the time invested in those relationships pays dividends in the future. There are lots of ways to support those connections by learning more about students' interests, strengths, and talents, as well as by making sure students have information about extra-curricular activities.

You can learn more strategies such as those in the article below, which also includes many tech tools that can be used online or in-person with students.

Recommended resources

Videos: Building relationships with ELLs

2. Look for ways to welcome your students' language and cultures.

Specific and measurable goal: I will find a new way to incorporate students' languages and cultures into my classroom and instruction.

There are many ways to welcome students' languages and cultures in your classroom. These include:

  • posting signs in students' languages
  • bringing in books in students' languages
  • inviting students' to teach the class some phrases from their languages
  • learning a few phrases of students' languages
  • inviting students to share information about their culture and traditions
  • looking for ways to connect content to students' experiences
  • incorporating students' languages in instruction through bilingual glossaries, peer work, and bilingual materials

Recommended resources

Video: Using students' first language as a resource

Dearborn Public Schools ELD Director Rose Aldubaily discusses the value of using students' home language as a resource. You can see more from Dearborn in our award-winning video project from Dearborn, MI.


3. Ensure that ELLs are included in social and emotional learning (SEL).

Specific and measurable goal: I will review our SEL and classroom routines, activities, and instruction with an eye on ELLs' full access and participation.

When you take a closer look at what SEL looks like in your classroom, you might find that ELLs aren't accessing the same tools, strategies, and supports to the extent that their peers are. You can increase their access through the following:

  • Make any routines and expectations explicit through visuals and repetition.
  • Encourage students to express themselves in their home language as needed.
  • Ensure students know the vocabulary and language needed to participate in activities.
  • Be prepared to make adjustments in order to accommodate students who are still acclimating to a new culture and language by looking for ways to make students comfortable in the classroom.

Recommended resources

4. Make sure students know what supports are available for them.

Specific and measurable goal: I will share information about 3 types of school supports that students may not be familiar with.


I will connect with one community organization on behalf of my students and families.

Students and families may not be aware of the kinds of support that are available within your school and community, including in the areas of health and wellness, mental health, social services, academic support and tutoring, college credits, college applications, financial aid, scholarships, enrichment activities, and much more. Take some time to think about what kinds of services and supports would be most beneficial to your students; you can start by asking for their input and even turn this into a research project so that the whole class can learn from each other. Avoid making assumptions about what students do or don't need and remember that students can benefit from different kinds of support even if they haven't asked for any help or shared information about their private situations. In addition, you may wish to reach out to organizations in the community that can provide further support and resources to your families.

Video: How a Community School Helps ELLs Succeed

Visit Wolfe Street Academy in Baltimore, MD, a school with more than 76% ELLs, to see how this community school is supporting its students and families through programs and services that include dental screenings, food giveaways, after-school activities, and much, much more!


Strategies for Instruction

5. Increase ELL students' English language production and peer interaction.

Specific and measurable goal: I will use one or two key strategies that can support oral language in my instruction and share ideas that work with my colleagues.

There are two key items students need in order to further develop skills in a new language — time and practice. There is nothing teachers can do to rush language acquisition, but there are many ways to provide opportunities to practice their skills in the classroom. If activities are structured to support student-to-student or group interaction, ELLs will need to use their oral language skills to explain concepts and contribute to the work. This gives teachers an opportunity to gauge what the student has learned, and it demonstrates student progress in language development.

Teachers can also informally assess for correct use of language structures and academic vocabulary. If ELLs are having difficulty with phrases or vocabulary, the teacher will be able to offer guidance or further instruction to support language development.

Recommended resources

Video: Writing a cooperative paragraph

Albuquerque teacher Ali Nava walks her students through a cooperative paragraph summarizing the beginning, middle, and end the children's book Burro's Tortillas and uses the exercise as an opportunity to practice their writing skills.


6. Explicitly teach academic language vocabulary and structures.

Specific and measurable resolution: I will identify one key area where my students need more practice in academic language and look for ways to support their language development.

In, "What Teachers Need to Know about Language" by Lily Wong Fillmore and Catherine Snow, the authors state that:

Teachers play a critical role in supporting language development. Beyond teaching children to read and write in school, they need to help children learn and use aspects of language associated with the academic discourse of the various school subjects. They need to help them become more aware of how language functions in various modes of communication across the curriculum. They need to understand how language works well enough to select materials that will help expand their students' linguistic horizons and to plan instructional activities that give students opportunities to use the new forms and modes of expression to which they are being exposed. Teachers need to understand how to design the classroom language environment so as to optimize language and literacy learning and to avoid linguistic obstacles to content area learning (Wong Fillmore & Snow, p. 7).

The need to understand academic language structures and language acquisition theory is increasingly important as the number of ELLs increases in classrooms. However, very few teachers have had the formal training required to be prepared to identify and teach the English vocabulary and structures found in specific content areas. When I first started teaching ESL, my students knew way more about grammar than I did. I joked with them, "I don't know English; I just speak it."

Content teachers can begin by collaborating with ESL teachers to learn how to identify the academic language demands of content-area lessons and how to scaffold academic language and vocabulary instruction. With practice, it will become easier to review a content-area lesson and identify not just the vocabulary that every student needs to know, but other vocabulary words and grammar structures that ELL students may not be familiar with.

Recommended resources

Video: What are sentence frames?

ESOL specialist Sheila Majdi explains what a sentence frame is and how she might use this strategy with ELLs.

7. Build on ELLs' background knowledge to support comprehension.

Specific and measurable goal: I will elicit background knowledge from ELLs in one content area through a variety of activities, including questioning and graphic organizers.

Learning something new is like stacking building blocks. The more you have, the higher you can go. ELLs come with many building blocks, but it takes practice learning how to identify what they are. That is where the teacher's skill at drawing on background knowledge becomes so important.

Teachers can work creatively to elicit background knowledge from students on content topics in order to increase comprehension of the material. This may be as simple as taking the time to do a "K/W/L" (Know, Want to Know, Learned) chart, or as individualized as asking questions about the topic: "Has anyone ever visited the jungle? A jungle is like a rainforest. What do you see in a jungle?" Students can share their knowledge and see how it is connected to new academic information.

Recommended resources

Videos: ELL educators speak about background knowledge

8. Increase opportunities for writing.

Specific and measurable goal: I will choose one targeted activity that focuses on developing a certain skill such as creative vocabulary use, the correct format of an essay or the peer editing process.

The ability to write effectively and accurately to convey a message is a critical skill for a college student and in most careers. Students need to have many positive opportunities to develop writing skills in a variety of formats in order to strengthen their communication skills, and for ELLs, this is particularly important. Depending on their writing skill level in their first language and their English language abilities, writing may be frustrating. Students need to engage in a variety of writing to develop an understanding of different types of writing and to identify their strengths and weaknesses as a writer.

I want to underscore the importance of interacting with writing in a positive way by examining creativity and word usage, in addition to the mechanics of writing. Many ELLs will focus negatively on problems with mechanics and miss the strengths they display in their writing. We write the way we think and speak, and by analyzing our writing we begin to analyze our thoughts and speech as well. When students discuss their writing, they are able to see their thoughts and statements from someone else's perspective and they gain awareness of their own language development. In this age of technology where a lot of communication is done electronically, it is more important than ever that students develop the ability to state their thoughts clearly and accurately in writing — as well as to know the difference between texting a message to buddies and sending an email to the boss.

Recommended resources

Video: Brainstorming a journal assignment with high school ELLs

Learn how high school ELL teacher Michelle Lawrence guides her ELLs through the brainstorming process as they prepare to write a journal.

Strategies: ELL Family Engagement

Multilingual families are legally entitled to information in their home language. Here are some ideas to improve and expand outreach and partnerships with ELL families.

9. Start positive, strengths-based conversations with families.

Specific and measurable goal: I will contact one family each week to share a success story about their child.

No matter what language they speak, ELL families want their children to succeed as much as any other family. Regular, open and friendly communication from the teacher can make a big difference in ELL parent engagement, especially if families are intimidated by the U.S. school system.

It can also feel daunting to call an ELL family, but often there is someone in the family who speaks enough English to interpret the message for the parent, or the parent speaks enough English to understand a simple message. It may also be possible to get help from a bilingual school staff member to assist in making a quick phone call.

ELL families will be very pleased and excited to hear positive news about their child and will feel more comfortable asking questions and visiting the school in the future. The more informed the families are, the more likely it is that the student will get support at home and families will have the information they need to help their child be successful.

Recommended resources

Video: Our parents value education and their children's teachers

ELD Specialist Diana Alqadhi explains how the fact that teachers are held in high esteem in Yemeni culture helps strengthen family partnerships at her middle school.

10. Try a new tool to support family engagement.

Specific and measurable goal: I will try a new way to reach out to a multilingual family.

There are more tools than ever before to support multilingual family outreach. These include the app TalkingPoints, as well as innovative ways to use social media and video conferences with families. The more you know about resources and staffing your district has in this area, the more effective your outreach will be!

Recommended resources

Video: Partnering with families in the service industry

This video features Juliana Urtubey, 2021 National Teacher of the Year and the 2021 Nevada Teacher of the Year, sharing her experiences in partnering with families who work in Las Vegas.

Strategies for Collaboration & Advocacy

11. Look for ways to collaborate informally with colleagues.

Specific and measurable goal: I will reach out to one colleague to see if we can increase our collaboration.

There are a lot of ways you can initiate collaboration on behalf of ELLs with very small steps.

If you are a classroom or content-area teacher, you can:

  • send your ELL or bilingual colleagues a question about a student or an area of instruction where you'd like some support
  • ask your ELL colleagues to share some favorite strategies with you.

If you are an ELL/bilingual teacher or specialist, you can:

  • write a letter to colleagues introducing yourself and some of the ways you collaborate with others
  • invite colleagues to share questions about their ELLs with you
  • approach a content-area colleague and ask them how their ELLs are faring.

There are a few different benefits to this kind of collaboration:

  • Students can benefit as more teachers' capacity for ELL instruction increases.
  • Staff get to know each other's areas of expertise better.
  • Colleagues can team up to ask for more support for formal collaboration opportunities for ELLs.
  • Staff can increase the number of voices speaking up for ELLs, which is more critical than ever during COVID-19.

Recommended resources

Video: Tips for collaboration from an ESOL specialist

ESOL specialist Katy Padilla shares some of the tips she's learned in her experience collaborating with classroom and content-area colleagues.

12. Identify an area where you'd like to advocate for your ELLs.

Specific and measurable goal: I will choose one topic where I would like to see change for our ELLs and identify some small steps I can take to make a difference.

When you consider how your ELLs are currently doing, you may feel overwhelmed by a constellation of factors that are impacting them. Try identifying one issue that you think could make a difference if it were to improve or change. This might be an area of instruction, family engagement, language access, services and support, or creating a more welcoming environment at the school. For some ideas on first steps you might take to work on that issue, take a look at the following resources.

Recommended resources

13. Help administrators develop their capacity to serve ELLs.

Specific and measurable goal: I will reach out to one administrator to set up a conversation about our ELLs.

Communicating with administrators about ELL instruction, support, and family engagement can make a big difference. Not only can it bring important issues to administrators' attention, it can help them understand the role and value of ELL educators and why collaboration on behalf of ELLs is so valuable.

Try reaching out to an administrator with a question, issue, topic, or resource you'd like to share related to ELLs, such as the issue you identified above. Keep in mind, however, it doesn't have to be a big question to get the conversation started. Even though everyone is working within challenging circumstances right now, shining a light on ELLs' experiences, challenges, and needs can help put some important changes in motion.

Recommended resources

Learn more about the laws and regulations relating to the education of ELLs in the following article:

Video: What administrators need to know about what ESOL specialists do

Dr. Karen Woodson shares an overview of the expertise that ESOL educators bring to their schools and districts.

14. Strengthen your network of support.

Specific and measurable goal: I will take one step to expand my network of support, such as reaching out to another colleague or joining an online community of educators.

There is a lot of wonderful work being done and shared in schools, districts, professional learning communities, and online networks. If you need some ideas, encouragement, or validation, these can be powerful connections to make. There are recommended resources and ideas in the article below to help you get started.

Recommended resources

15. Keep returning to self-care & reflection.

Specific and measurable goal: I will share one self-care goal with a friend or colleague so we can check in about it in the near future.

Even if self-care is the last thing you've been able to think about during COVID-19, it's never to late to bring it back into focus.

  • Keep conversations going with your colleagues about what self-care means to you and what might help support it at the school level.
  • Don't give up on trying to make the self-care you need for your physical and mental health a regular part of your routine.
  • Share your success stories with colleagues to help boost motivation.
  • Take some time for reflection. While the reflection article below focuses on end-of-school-year questions, they could be used at any time during the year.

Together, colleagues can support each other and each other's self-care as part of their important work on behalf of students.

Closing Thoughts

I hope that this list will be helpful as you set goals for the upcoming year. You may find, of course, that if you create your own, they will be more meaningful, and you're more likely to stick with your plan. I hope you will be able to pick at least one thing and give it a try. Baby steps are better than no steps at all. So give it a try and go easy on yourself if it doesn't go as well as planned or if you get busy and don't keep up as well as you'd like.

The most important thing is that you explore an area that you think will support your ELLs' success, and commit yourself to continued improvement in the coming year. All the best in the New Year!

Video: Bonus Tips from Kristina

Here are some bonus tips from Kristina for educators ELLs!

Video: Try one new thing at a time

Video: When a new strategy doesn't work


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Thanks millions for vsluable ideas.

I could learn new strstegies again. Thanks.

This is excellent! Thank you for these tips! I will share them on my own ESL blog.

I have been a teacher for 4 years and have had students who have joined us from other countries. They are learning to speak and understand English. This article has helped me as a new teacher. Thank you.

Thank you, Kristina Robertson! This is both helpful and motivating.

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