Getting to Know Your ELLs' Literacy and Language Background

Young girl reading book about Aztecs

Learn about strategies you can use to get to know your English learners, their literacy background, and why it matters. This article is part of Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners.

Image credit: Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

When working with English language learners (ELLs), a critical first step is getting to know your students. Doing so can build community in the classroom, engage students, and inform your instruction and support depending on students' home languages and prior educational experiences. Here's how to get started!


Build relationships with students

The first step is to get to know your students, which veteran ELL educators often cite as their most important piece of advice when working with ELLs. Learn more about your students' talents and interests — which can also help inform instruction! These connections will also foster a positive classroom environment where students feel more confident about trying new things and taking risks. In addition, learning about students' lives, languages, and cultures is a first step in making instruction more culturally and linguistically responsive.

Learn about students' prior educational and literacy experiences

Some students will have had regular, uninterrupted schooling, and as a result they will have strong literacy skills in their first language. Others will have interrupted or limited schooling experiences with little literacy experience. You can learn more about your students' background by asking families questions such as:

  • How many years of schooling has your child completed?
  • Has your child learned to read in [insert the family’s first language here]?
  • Has the child had access to books in [insert the family’s first language here]?

It's important not to overwhelm families with too many direct questions at first, but you can introduce your questions by explaining that this information will help you plan instruction for students. We also recommend that you take a look at our sections on special populations of ELLs, including refugees, students with interrupted formal education (SIFEs), and unaccompanied minors.

Find students' current English language proficiency (ELP) levels in reading, writing, speaking, and listening

Keep in mind that students ELP levels may vary across different skill areas. If you aren't sure how to find this information, ask your ELL colleagues or administrators how to proceed. ELL specialist Becky Corr recommends the following:

"Think about a particular lesson and what the student is being asked to do with language. Teachers should consider which activities they might incorporate to promote language development as these activities would be beneficial for all students. For example, if a lesson focuses on writing, a teacher may incorporate a speaking activity to elicit the vocabulary needed for the writing lesson. Considering which scaffolds might be useful, such as graphic organizers and visuals, to name a couple, is also necessary."

Note: Having concrete data about students' language and literacy background can also help guide your decisions if students need additional support.

Related resources

Learn more from the following articles and resource sections:

You Are Welcome Here: Supporting the Social and Emotional Health of Newcomer Immigrants

You Are Welcome Here (#DearbornWelcome) is an award-winning 20-minute film from Colorín Colorado highlighting how the Dearborn, MI public school district is helping its immigrant students succeed. The film features Salina Elementary School and Salina Intermediate School in the South End of Dearborn, which serve large populations of families from Yemen.


You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact [email protected].

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