If you are a classroom or content-area educator trying to figure out how to teach English language learners (ELLs), you are not alone! You are off to a good start by looking for ways to support your students!
There are many things you can do that will make a big difference to ELLs, and they often prove helpful for other students in the class as well.
Here are some ideas to help you begin. Look for a few ideas you can try and one or two topics where you would like to learn more information.
Note: This article also includes some research-based recommendations offered by Dr. Diane August in her 2018 American Educator article, Educating English Language Learners: A Review of the Latest Research.
1. Get to know your students.
ELLs are a tremendously diverse student group. In order to serve your students effectively, it will be helpful to:
- build relationships with students
- get to know their strengths and interests
- look for ways to make students feel welcome and comfortable in the classroom.
In addition, it's helpful to know more about their home language, literacy skills in that language, prior schooling, and current levels of English proficiency (keeping in mind that students' levels may have changed during the pandemic since the last time they were assessed).
You don't have to do this all at once and it's best not to overwhelm students or families with a lot of questions at the beginning, but taking some small steps early on can make a big difference throughout the year. Learn more from the following:
Videos: Why building relationships with ELLs matters
2. Be mindful of your communication.
- Speak clearly and naturally, without going too quickly or slowly.
- Simplify language without "dumbing it down."
- Be mindful of your body language.
- Encourage your students through positive body language and expressions, especially when they make mistakes.
- Be patient and encourage classmates to do the same if needed.
- Encourage students to raise their hand if they don't understand a word.
- Avoid slang and idiomatic expressions.
Video: Why positive body language matters when working with ELLs
3. Create a language-rich environment.
ELLs will benefit from increased exposure to print and language. A print-rich environment will include access to books and reference materials, labels (in students' languages and English) and posters, and student work on bulletin boards. Word walls are also a great support for ELLs, and may be organized around a number of concepts, including:
- the alphabet and phonetic sounds
- new vocabulary words
- sight words
- grammar rules
- conversational phrases
- writing structures.
Video: Using sentence frames with ELLs
4. Learn how to plan lessons that incorporate best practices for ELLs.
Take a look at our article on lesson planning for ELLs for ideas on how to:
- identify background knowledge needed to understand the lesson
- connect content to students' experience
- identify content and language objectives
- identify key vocabulary and academic language needed for the lesson
- scaffold and differentiate instruction
- incorporate peer learning into your instruction.
Video: Teaching ELLs the names of all 50 states
Language and Literacy Instruction
5. Learn some basic information about how students acquire a new language.
A good place to start is a basic overview of the process and stages of language acquisition. It's also important to learn about the four key domains, or skill areas, of language: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Students need instruction and practice all four of these domains.
Drs. Andrea Honigsfeld and Maria Dove include "interaction" in that list for the helpful acronym SWIRL:
Image credit: Input and output in language development. WelchEducation.com. Used with permission.
Keep in mind the following:
- Students are assessed in the four language domains each year through their English language proficiency (ELP) assessment, although that assessment may have been disrupted or done under difficult circumstances during the pandemic. Your ESL colleagues should have access to that data and you can check your students' proficiency levels across different domains.
- Students may be stronger in one domain than another. For example, a student may be more proficient in speaking than writing.
- ELLs need explicit language instruction, scaffolding, and modeling in across all four domains.
- Teaching ELLs Online: How to Develop Students' Language Skills
- 10 Things You Need to Learn About Your English Language Learners
6. Teach academic oral language skills.
Oral language skills are an essential part of a student's language and literacy development. Students will need guided practice and modeling to develop the academic language needed for classroom discussions and presentations. You can see more ideas for how to do so in the resources below:
- Oral Language Development and ELLs: 5 Challenges and Solutions
- How to Stop Ourselves from Doing All of the Talking (ELL blogger Valentina Gonzalez)
- Wait Time Can Make or Break Your Lesson (ELL blogger Valentina Gonzalez)
- 12 Fun Speaking Games for Language Learners (Edutopia)
- Video Series: Engaging ELLs in Academic Conversations (Teaching Channel)
7. Expand ELLs' access to grade-level literacy instruction.
In order for ELLs to access grade-level content, they may need additional literacy support and instruction. Here are a few initial steps to take; much more information is available in the links below.
- Learn more about students' literacy skills in their home language and in English. If students need to develop their foundational skills, work with an ESL teacher and reading specialist together to identify some helpful strategies and resources to use.
- Provide students with opportunities to engage more deeply with grade-level text. Some strategies for doing so are available in the resources below, but you may wish to request additional training for staff in this area since it takes some practice.
- Give students numerous opportunities to write across content areas and for a variety of audiences. Ideas for scaffolding ELLs' writing follow below.
To see some related strategies in action, take a look at our Classroom Video library. Many of these videos and classroom materials were developed as part of our Common Core and ELLs project developed with Dr. August.
- Reading 101 for English Language Learners
- Reading Comprehension for ELLs: Skills and Strategies
- Increasing the level of text complexity with ELLs (video and discussion questions)
- Supporting ELs with Close Reading (American Institutes for Research Webinar Series)
- Literacy Foundations for English Learners by Dr. Elsa Cárdenas-Hagan (book study videos are available online!)
8. Try only one new thing at a time.
Teaching multiple new things at the same time often doesn't work! When introducing new material, remember the following:
- If you are teaching new language, use old content.
- If you are teaching new content, use old language.
Video: Try one new thing at a time
Students' Home Languages as a Resource
9. Draw upon students' home languages as a resource.
Students' home languages are a valuable resource. Even if you don't speak those languages and are not working in a bilingual setting, there are way to tap into them to support instruction.
For example, Dr. August shares a number of research-based strategies that draw upon the home language such as the following:
- using bilingual glossaries
- providing background information in students' home languages
- peer work in students' home languages
- explicit instruction in how to use cognates or build on their own skills in their home language.
Learn more about what using students' language can look like in this related series from Larry Ferlazzo on Education Week, this resource guide on translanguaging, and these recommendations from Tan Huynh.
Monitoring Student Progress
10. Use informal assessment on a regular basis.
It's important to use informal tools to monitor student progress in addition to more formal measures. That might mean something like quick comprehension checks during a lesson or exit tickets. You may also wish to use tools such as graphic organizers. More ideas are available in the resources below.
Coming up with a correction/feedback policy
While it is difficult to know when to correct students, constructive and effective feedback is essential to student progress. Nevertheless, it is important to balance between encouragement and error correction. One way to do this is to focus on one or two concepts at a time when listening to or reading student work. Let students know what you will be focusing on so that they in turn can focus on those particular concepts in the assignment.
Another strategy is to circle errors in writing assignments, and have students try to figure out what the mistakes were. Most of the time students are able to correct their own writing errors once they focus on the circled area. If they are still stuck, try giving them the answer and asking them to explain why it is correct. If they don't know the answer, ask them to consult with a classmate. If no one else knows the answer, review the structure as a group.
- Using Informal Assessments for ELLs
- Reading Comprehension Strategies for English Language Learners
- Formative Assessment Choice Board (SupportEd)
- EL Formative Assessment Checklist (SupportEd)
Video: Assessment for ELLs
11. If a student is struggling, proceed with care.
If a student is struggling, it's important to proceed carefully and in collaboration with colleagues. Discuss your concerns with an ESL teacher to identify some targeted areas of instruction and ideas for progress monitoring. (Dr. August shares some ideas towards the end of the her research review for this kind of monitoring.) In addition, talk with the student's family to determine whether there is any important information you should know about factors that might impact the student's learning.
Keep in mind the following:
- Nationwide, ELLs are both over-identified and under-identified for special education. Over-correction in one direction can lead to misjudgments in the other.
- There is no single checklist or factor that can determine when a student needs extra support and what kind of support that might be, which is why it is imperative to work in close collaboration with ESL educators, family members, special educators, and reading/speech specialists if you are reviewing a student's situation.
- The types of support that students receive in special education are different than those that students receive in ESL classes. Referral to special education is not a silver bullet where students will "at least get some help." A special education referral is a step that should only be taken after careful progress monitoring and targeted instruction (in the absence of an immediate and obvious need for services) and in consultation with a team that includes ESL educators and the student's family.
- 5 Myths About English Language Learners and Special Education
- A Word Beginning with "T": Maestra
- MTSS and English Language Learners
Video: Having enough data to look at progress over time
Tips for Collaboration
12. Reach out to your ELL colleagues for ideas.
Don't hesitate to reach out to ELL colleagues in your building or district (they may have a wide range of titles). They are experts in supporting ELL instruction. Even if schools have not made formal collaboration time a priority, you can start with small steps. A concrete question or example is often a very good place to start collaboration.
If you find the collaboration helpful, share your successes with colleagues and administrators — you may be able to advocate for more collaboration time in the future! While it may be difficult to find time to meet on a regular basis, increased collaboration among all of the educators working with ELLs will improve their chances for success.
Video: Collaborating to support an ELL with special needs
There is a lot of information here, but remember that it's ok to start with small steps. And when something doesn't work, don't hesitate to go back to the drawing board! Make some adjustments and try again, and if it still doesn't work, move on to a new strategy. You will soon find what works for your students and will come to appreciate the privilege to be a part of their journey.
Video: When new strategies don't work
- What are some strategies that you can try here on your own?
- What are some topics you would like to learn more about in professional development?
- What is an example of a lesson you might teach differently in the future?
- What are some ways you can try collaborating with your other ESOL or bilingual colleagues?
- Video: What to Do First
- Video Interviews: Advice for New Teachers of ELLs
- New to Teaching ELLs?
- Do's and Don'ts for Teaching ELLs (Edutopia)
- HELP! I'm teaching ESL next year. What can I do now to prepare? (Valentina Gonzalez)
- 6 Essential Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners (Edutopia)
- 12 Ways to Support English Learners in the Mainstream Classroom (Cult of Pedagogy)
- 10 Ways to Value ELs’ Language Assets (Tonya Ward Singer)
- 5 Strategies to Position English Learners for Success This Year: Blog Post + Infographic (SupportEd)
- Education English Language Learners: A Review of the Latest Research (American Educator)