Essential ELL Teaching Strategies

Michael T. Coleman
Michael T. Coleman
Elementary school principal; M.A. in K-12 Educational Leadership
A young girl studies and writes in her notebook.

English language learners (ELLs) bring rich culture and experiences to their schools. They also have unique needs when learning a new language and content simultaneously. Teachers of English language learners have a challenging job because so many factors can affect (both negatively or positively) how an ELL engages in the language and the school. There are several best practices and ELL teaching strategies that ELL teachers can follow to create the best learning environment for their students.

Culturally Responsive Teaching

It is extremely important to know the students sitting in your class. This is especially important with ELLs. An ELL teacher may have 25 students from nine different countries in their class. By being culturally responsive, that teacher will make sure they are educated on their different cultures. An action or saying may be accepted in one culture but can be very offensive in another. By knowing these ahead of time, a teacher will not insult or make any of their students uncomfortable.

Additionally, a culturally responsive teacher will also make it a point to vary the different texts used in class. They will find authors from other countries or themes from different cultures and use them in the curriculum. When students can relate to those in a story, they will be able to understand it better and want to interact with the text.

ELL teachers need also to acknowledge other cultures; be aware of the celebrations, artwork, happenings of a country, and talk about them in class. Embrace cultures by encouraging students to teach their classmates and the teachers about important times for them and their families. Bringing students’ cultures into the class helps create a welcoming environment that is very conducive to language learning.

Building Relationships with Students

Names

Nothing is more important to a person’s identity than their name. It is a travesty when teachers do not take the time to learn how to pronounce all their students’ names correctly. ELL teachers can make this as part of their first-day assignment encouraging all their students to introduce themselves to the class. The ELL teacher should write it down phonetically in their role book if she does not think she will remember. Pronouncing a student’s name incorrectly over and over again can destroy the child’s confidence and desire to come to the class.

Family Connections

Family connections are also essential to building relationships, especially with families of ELL students. Calling families and welcoming them into the school for various events (with translators on hand) will increase student performance in school. Families who can know about their child’s education will encourage them to do well in school and interact with the language and content. ELL teachers will see more engagement from students whose family they know.

ELL teachers ought to create projects and assignments that allow them to get to know who their students are, what their likes and dislikes are, and where their strengths and weaknesses lie. By knowing all of these, you can make connections with content and the students by bringing their likes into the lessons. They will be interested and, most importantly, use the language.

Differentiation

ELL teachers may have varying proficiency levels in their classrooms. Because of this, the teachers need to be able to differentiate their lesson so that all of their students can access the content at their English proficiency level.

ELL teachers can differentiate activities based on the different English proficiency domains: reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

Essential ELL teaching strategies consist of providing multiple means of engagement. For example, following the principles of Universal Design of Learning (UDL) can greatly benefit English language learners.

There are additional ways to differentiate within an assignment or lesson:

  • Chunk reading passages
  • Read-aloud directions on tests or assignments
  • Focus on essentialized vocabulary and reduce answer choices on tests and quizzes
  • Use sentence starters or guides to help newcomer writers

Simplifying directions, using repetition, and modeling are all great ways to ensure that different proficiency level students can understand what is being asked of them.

Use of Native Language

In the past, many schools and ELL teachers thought “English-Only” was the only way ELLs could learn the language. We know now that is not true. By allowing L1 (first language) in the classroom, students can learn complex ideas or thoughts quicker. Additionally, L1 use can help when building or assessing background knowledge.

Allowing a student to respond in L1 can open the doors to more learning, because they won’t get stuck on a word or phrase and give up. It is also beneficial to provide outside resources in L1. If you are reading a novel and you find it in your students’ languages, encourage them to read it at home. They will find a deeper understanding of the text while interacting with it in English in your class and in their native language.

Comprehensible Input

ELL teachers must reflect on the language they use in their classrooms.

  • Be sure not to use figurative language or idioms
  • Do not use slang or colloquial terms (they may go right over your students’ heads and confuse them)
  • Teachers should use a slow rate of speech
  • Be careful not to drop parts of words
  • Using non-verbal communication also can increase comprehensible input

These are great ELL teaching strategies to use as an ELL teacher and for teachers who have ELLs in their content classes. Creating a welcoming environment and opportunities for ELLs to share who they are will allow them to interact with the language and be successful academically.

Are you a teacher interested in further education, or interested in stepping into ELL education in general? Check out our dual language graduate programs and get started today!

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