Tips for Educators of ELLs: What To Do First in Grades 4-12

These strategies for vocabulary development are targeted towards students in grades 4-12.

Before you begin to work with your ELLs, these preparation strategies will make your reading instruction more productive and effective.

Find out about your newcomers' literacy backgrounds in their primary language if possible

If students have developed literacy skills in their primary language, you can build upon those skills in developing English literacy. Use the assessment tools that your school or district provides to evaluate reading and writing skills, but keep in mind that literacy assessments in a student's second language (English) may not provide accurate results. If an assessment is not available in the student's primary language, discuss an alternative plan with your principal and/or school district.

Determine the relationship between home language and English

Does your student's home language share cognates with English? Does it share roots with English? Does the home language use a different alphabet? Are there speakers/resources of your student's home language available in your school or community?

Get authentic assessment on students' literacy skills

This is different than formal, diagnostic assessments that determine broad literacy skills. Appropriate authentic assessment would focus on specific literacy skills in English and include decoding and comprehension as well as written skills. Authentic assessments can be completed by listening to students read (running records, etc), asking open-ended questions, asking for text re-tellings, and having students complete writing prompts.

Create a safe, non-threatening classroom environment

Create some ground rules for classroom interaction, and brief your students beforehand about new incoming students. Create a 'welcoming committee' and ask your current students what would make them feel comfortable if they were going to a new environment, etc. Students are much more willing to take a chance in an environment in which they feel welcome and it's ok to make a mistake.

Create a language-rich environment

Provide plenty of supplemental texts, and create "word walls" by categories (academic words, words specific to content, words to facilitate writing, 'help' words, words used often in your classroom, new words students have come across and love, etc.). Be sure to have plenty of dictionaries in English and your students' home language on hand, and encourage the creation of personal dictionaries. In addition, provide plenty of opportunities for students to speak, read, and write all these words.

Build on background knowledge

Discover what students already know on the subject so that they can further develop their language and content acquisition. Also remember that students may know the concept, but may not know the English label.

Always remember reading level

Target texts that students can read with at least 90% accuracy. If a student misses more than 10 out of every 100 words, his/her fluency and comprehension will certainly suffer. Note that newcomer students without prior formal education will need an introduction to the structure and organization of the text. If so, introduce different parts of the text such as the table of contents and the glossary. Show students how to use clues for text organization such as bold print, chapter headings, and chapter summaries.

Use texts with strong graphic support to build content vocabulary

Richly illustrated information books can help ELLs learn the vocabulary they need in science, social studies, and other content area classes. Newcomers will need even more support, and more concrete definitions and visual aids. (ELLs who have been in the country for some time will be more familiar with certain concepts, holidays, idiomatic expressions, etc. than someone who has just arrived.)

Find reading material in your newcomers' primary language

Continuing to develop reading skills in their first language will help students develop those same skills in English. Include first-language books, magazines, and other reading level-appropriate materials in your classroom library.

Recognize that newcomers may experience a "silent period"

Initially, newcomers may listen much more than they talk. This is a natural phase in which they are building their early understanding about how English works. In the meantime, however, do not let this "silent period" go unchecked — focus on providing rich language input through talk or read-alouds, modeling, and gestures. Provide sentence structures (show how most sentences are constructed in English) for students to practice beginning English skills.

Provide frequent opportunities for peer-assisted learning

Pairing newcomers with other students who are more proficient in English supports vocabulary development, comprehension, and social interaction.

Collaborate with colleagues

Develop collaborative relationships between ESOL teachers, reading specialists, classroom teachers, bilingual educators, and other school personnel to ensure that newcomers receive the best possible instruction.

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Other formats

These tips are available as a one-page handout to download and print.


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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