10 Ways to Support English Language Learners in Your Classroom


My career in teaching started in a less traditional way as after I collected by degree, I immediately set off from my very small town to Beijing China to teach at a Canadian international school.  Although many educators who go abroad to teach focus on language instruction, I was teaching regular language arts curriculum, but with the unique challenge of all of my students' language abilities being vastly different.  Some students were native English speakers, for some English was their fourth or fifth language, and for others, they were relatively new to the language. With students being from different countries and possessing varying abilities, I quickly had to develop and implement strategies that would accommodate that complex dynamic. 

Upon returning to Canada, I continued teaching a language support class for ELL students, and also worked in conjunction with classroom teachers to support ELL instruction of their regular curriculum. Although my experience teaching in China was vastly different from my experience in Canada, it provided valuable insight on how to address the frustrations some of the teachers I worked with felt. They would come to me stressed and overwhelmed by the task of teaching English, science, or math to those who lacked foundational English language skills. Having navigated these waters before, I was able to empathize and also share the strategies that had been successful for me. 

An added benefit is that many of these strategies are not only beneficial to English language learners, but for all your students. 

1. Classroom Environment / Positive Outlook

One of the most important things for teachers to do is to approach having ELL students in your classroom with a positive attitude.  While experiencing that feeling of, "How am I going to get this student to meet all the outcomes?" is totally normal, it's better to focus on how you can support this student, learn about them, and help them improve in your subject and develop the skills they need to be successful in your domain at their level.  Half the battle is remaining optimistic about the students' growth, but also realistic that the student isn't going to learn the English language in a semester.  You need to focus on helping that student learn, grow, and improve.  Accept that the learning of students with less advanced English language skills is going to be commensurate with where they are, and that’s ok. 

2. Trust Factor

English learners in the classroom need to feel safe.  Whether or not an ELL student will be successful in your classroom is dependent on whether or not they feel safe to take risks and make mistakes.  If you have ever been in a country where you don’t speak the language (or even just amongst a group of people) you might know how uncomfortable, vulnerable and uneasy this scenario can make you feel. Draw upon this feeling if you need to, and try to have empathy for your students who are working hard at developing their skills. Make an intentional effort to build relationships with your students, and those relationships will in turn build trust. 

You'll also want to build trust between the ELL student and other students in your class as well. One way to do this is to use team-builders in your classroom that allow students to work with small groups.  I've bundled by favorite team builders together that work really well with ELL students (classroom escape rooms, sports mash-up, wonder day, maker activity, and mystery).  You can grab them here: CLASSROOM TEAM-BUILDERS

3. Learn About and Respect the Students’ Culture

Make an effort to get to know where the student is from and learn about their background.  When you find out where they are from, make sure you know where it is and have at least a basic understanding of the country. You may also want to consider the students' cultural or religious background and make informed decisions about what you are celebrating in your classroom.  Celebrating holidays can have their place, but being inclusive is important.  Find out what holidays your ELL students celebrate, and use it as an opportunity to have the class learn about the traditions that come with those celebrations as well.

Although it seems like a simple task, you'll also want to learn how to say the students' name properly (before they arrive if you can).  Some students will have an English name that has been given to them.  You may want to ask the student if they would prefer to be called their real name and put the effort into learning how to say it properly even if it takes some time (but, of course, use whatever name they prefer).   

4. Use Predictable Routines

In the same way that children excel at home when there are routines in place and established boundaries, so do students in the classroom. With predictable routines, ELL students know exactly what to expect, which in turn helps them thrive. Something as simple as using bell-ringers at the start of each class gives students something to look forward to and channel their energy into the moment they walk in the door (you can try a free week of bell-ringers here and read about how I implement this daily routine here).  They will be calmer, more focused, and less stressed knowing what is expected of them.   If you think the bell-ringers might be too hard for your ELL student to complete independently, allow them to work with a partner.   Whatever routines you choose to implement, be sure to explain the process in detail from beginning to end, and repeat as often as is necessary until it becomes second nature for everyone in the class.

5. Engaging and Compelling Activities and Content

Although it seems obvious, when you deliver content that is compelling, students tend to be intrinsically motivated to learn and participate. Try to avoid over-lecturing as ELL students will tune out and instead incorporate as many unique activities to appeal to as many different learning styles as you can. Use group work and paired work as often as possible, as it tends to incite more engagement with ELL students, as they know they might be called upon to share.

6. Check in with your Students and Foster a Question-Asking Environment

Some cultures do not see asking authority figures questions as appropriate - so make sure you make a specific effort to check in with those students. Without your encouragement, they might never speak up, even if they are falling behind.  They may even say that they do understand something when they do not because they don’t want to bother you or openly admit that they are lost. If they do say they understand something, have them explain it back to you.  If you continue to encourage them to speak up and ask questions, it will eventually become commonplace within the walls of your classroom.

7. Watch your Language (Idioms)

For many of us, idiomatic expressions are a piece of cake, but ELL students often can't make heads of tails of them (do you think a language learner would have understood that sentence? 😉).  Idioms are such a part of our daily communication that we aren’t even aware that we are using them. However, for someone learning the English language, idioms can be extremely confusing. While “he has a chip on his shoulder”, “she really went the extra mile”, “it’s a toss up”, or “back to the drawing board” might be expressions we often use without giving a second thought, consider how perplexing these might be to someone unfamiliar with the English language. Watch your language, and when you use an expression, take the time to explain its meaning.  Rather than avoiding using idioms,  include resources for teaching idioms, as sometimes even first-language English speakers struggle with them.  Use idiom discussion or writing prompts, share an idiom of the week, or even give students idiom awards

Try a free sample of my idiom discussion prompts by clicking here.

8. Preview Resources and Give Context

Let your English language learners in on what is coming up in your classroom.  Give students the texts/short stories/videos that you will be reading or watching in class the day before. This will allow them to go home, read over the material and get a head start, which will make them feel far more comfortable. Also consider what background information students may need for the lesson at hand. Not everyone comes to the table with the same experiences, and there are many factors to consider from nationality and religion to culture, and economics. 

9. Scaffold and Repeat

Get comfortable with repeating yourself in a variety of ways.  When issuing an assignment, give clear instructions, use visuals, and provide student samples of work. Explain it clearly and use gestures, pictures, or written directions to make it clear for the students.  You will also want the student to explain it back to you prior to starting. It is important to remember that nodding, does not necessarily mean understanding. 

You might also want to schedule time at the end of each class to review and repeat important information from that day, and answer any questions. Have students turn to each other to share the content they learned that day and share any instructions they need going forward.

It is also important to break tasks down into manageable chunks for ELL students.  Instead of giving them the entire assignment like the rest of the class, give them one task at a time to focus their attention on one part at a time.  

10. Use TONS of Visuals

Most people are visual learners, so incorporating more visual elements into your classroom will help all of your students.  Here are a few ways that you can incorporate more visual aspects to support ELL students: 

- You can have word walls set up to provide vocabulary support; figurative language walls set up for quick reference; essay words and their definitions posted to help with research essays. 

- Write all directions on the board in clear language.

- Share examples of other students’ work as a model of a strong response. 

- If you are lecturing, use and refer to the related visuals in your presentations and print out the presentation slides for ELL students so they can follow along and also look at the slides later. 

- Use sentence frames to ignite conversations like: “I agree with so and so because…” or “I disagree with so and so because…” 

- Use graphic novels or comic book representations.  For example, the short story The Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury has a comic interpretation that is nearly identical in text to the original dialogue.  This is an can be an excellent way to stimulate the senses and bridge the language gap. 

- Use diagrams or visual representations to help explain complicated ideas. If you are reading a story or a novel, you could do this to show how the characters are related or connected.  You could also look up a setting that is similar to the story to show the student.

Having an ELL student in your class is a privilege.   You will often get to learn about a new culture or country, you will use strategies that will benefit all of your students, and you will get to see measurable growth in their language and understanding of your content. 

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