6 Tips for Teaching ELLs in a Mainstream English Classroom

6 Tips for Teaching ELLs in a Mainstream English Classroom

About 1 in every 10 students in the United States is currently learning English as a second language.

School is already challenging for many students, and English Language Learners (ELLs) face additional obstacles. They’re learning subjects like chemistry, history, and algebra in a language that isn’t their first. Many have only recently moved to the United States and are adjusting to a new school, country, and culture. Some have parents who don’t speak much English and can’t provide help with difficult homework.

Naturally, English class can also be a challenge. Not only do ELLs have to read and comprehend English texts—but they must analyze and write about them too. They’re expected to speak, listen, and use appropriate English grammar.

Many teachers have little training in teaching ELL students and are unsure how to meet their unique needs. But by following the 6 tips below, you can support your language learners and help them feel at ease in your mainstream English classroom.

1. Incorporate Group Work

ELL students may feel intimidated sharing their ideas or asking questions in a whole-class setting. Incorporate low-pressure, more personal group or partner work.

You can also make use of “shoulder partners.” Before having students answer a question for the whole class, you can ask them to turn to their partners to discuss. This gives language learners a chance to process the question and practice their answers with a peer before sharing with the class.    

Strategies like group work, partner work, and processing time aren’t only for ELLs either. These practices are engaging and effective for all students.

2. Use Visuals

If you’ve learned a language before, you know that spoken language is the most difficult to process. Help your ELL students by displaying important information and directions in writing. You can also use pictures and diagrams to help language learners visualize complicated concepts.

When you’re teaching new information, provide examples or model the skill for your students. Visuals and examples give ELL students (and their peers) another way to process information.

3. Preview Material

One way to build your ELL students’ confidence is to let them preview material ahead of time. It understandably takes your language learners more time to comprehend information. Having access to it ahead of time gives them the chance to grasp the material the same day it’s presented to the rest of your students.

Previewing the material doesn’t have to be a “special privilege” reserved only for your ELL students. If you have a class website or use a learning management system, you can post PowerPoints, YouTube videos, or articles a day or two before you use them in class. They can be accessed by all students who want to preview the material, but this may be especially helpful for your ELLs.

4. Utilize Your Resources

Get to know your ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher or teachers, as well as any ESL support personnel. They can give you the best advice on teaching ELLs, particularly the individuals you have in your classroom.

You can also collaborate with your ESL teacher. For instance, if you’re going to be teaching a complicated Shakespeare text, you can let the ESL teacher know in advance. He or she may be able to teach useful vocabulary or provide additional support in the ESL classroom.

5. Provide Sentence Frames

All students—especially ELL students—can benefit from sentence frames. Sentence frames are like training wheels. They teach students how to appropriately structure academic language.

For instance, you might provide a sentence frame that says, “I agree/disagree with this statement because _____________________,” or, “This evidence supports my claim because _______________.”

You can include sentence frames with the directions for specific assignments, or you can post more general sentence frames around the classroom.

Of course, you won’t want your students to write formulaically forever, but sentence frames are the perfect stepping stone to more advanced writing.

6. Be Understanding

Help your ELL students feel welcome and understood by taking the time to learn about their home countries and cultures. Provide opportunities for them to write about their unique background and experiences.

At the same time, don’t put them on the spot by asking them to “represent” or “speak for” their entire country in class. This will likely make your ELL students feel anxious and uncomfortable.

Understand that language learners who struggle in your class aren’t unintelligent. They simply can’t express their abilities in English yet. Provide as much support as you can without making your ELL students feel “different” or out of place.

Lastly, allow your ELLs to occasionally speak their native language in class. Many language learners don’t want to speak if they think it won’t come out perfectly. If possible, pair your ELLs with other students with the same native language. Allowing your ELLs to explain things or ask questions in their native language first can help them feel much more comfortable and confident. 

Quick Recap

Being an English Language Learner presents many challenges, but you can make your English class a supportive and welcoming place for your ELL students.

Simple tools like visuals, group work, and sentence frames are extremely beneficial for ELLs, and they don’t consume much time. Even better, these strategies can help all of your students learn effectively.


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