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Innovative strategies for teaching English language learners

teaching English language learners

If you’ve ever tried to master another language, you know just how challenging it can be. Perhaps you’ve ordered a meal at a restaurant and felt your face flush as you fumble over a simple phrase, sighing in relief when the server nods and doesn’t ask a follow-up question.

Now imagine feeling like this all day, Monday through Friday, while trying to adapt to a new culture, make friends and learn the fundamentals of science, math, social studies, art and literature. This is the reality for millions of K–12 English language learners (ELLs) in the United States.

According to the National Education Association, ELL students will make up about 25 percent of the children in American classrooms by 2025. Teachers are tasked with helping these students develop English proficiency and meet the grade-level content requirements, in addition to all their other duties. Thankfully, there are many practical strategies for teaching English language learners that benefit the entire class.

To help you enhance your lessons, we created this guide based on a recent webinar presented by Dr. Nicole Schneider, associate professor at UMass Global. Keep reading to learn how to tailor instruction and ensure accessibility for English as a Second Language (ESL) scholars.

What is ESL/ESOL?

While the term “ESL” was the standard for years, many educators today prefer “ESOL”, which stands for English for Speakers of Other Languages. This phrase is more inclusive and accurately represents the fact that for many ELLs, English is their third or even fourth language.

ESL and ESOL classes are designed to develop language and comprehension skills for non-native English speakers. In practice, this is very different from teaching students who grew up hearing and communicating English from the moment they were born.

Some ESL programs teach students separately until they reach a certain proficiency level and can join mainstream classes, while other schools integrate ELL into classrooms from the get-go. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that Spanish is by far the most common home language, representing 75 percent of all K–12 ELL students. Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese and Portuguese round out the top five languages spoken in American public schools.

5 effective ELL strategies teachers should consider

While there are many ways for educators to tailor classroom instruction and support toward English language learners, Dr. Schneider recommends starting with the following five tips.

1. Focus on academic language, literacy and vocabulary

Reading, writing and vocabulary exercises are essential building blocks for developing language fluency, but it is only part of what is needed. Students who appear fully fluent in English may nonetheless struggle to express themselves effectively in academic settings, as they lack the words and phrases needed to connect their ideas and discuss them with others.

Dr. Schneider emphasizes the importance of teaching students how to talk about what they know. This is called “academic language,” and while some learners adopt this naturally over time, many students — native English speakers included — need reinforcement to develop this skill. She points out that,


If we teach our students the content but never provide them with the language scaffolding that they need to share about it, it’s like we’re giving them the bricks but we’re not giving them the mortar to hold it all together.

This extra help could come in the form of semi-structured small group discussions, adding visuals to a lesson, having students keep a journal and providing instruction in their native language, when possible.

2. Link background knowledge and culture to learning

Numerous studies show that students perform better when their home culture and background knowledge are incorporated into the academic environment. When children and their families are represented and respected in the classroom, they are much more likely to be engaged and successful.

Allowing students to express themselves in a safe environment and learn from one another is also a wonderful social-emotional learning opportunity that benefits the entire class, especially students of color.

Educators should consider implementing the following tactics in their practice:

  • Become familiar with your students’ backgrounds
  • Use examples that connect to their lives
  • Represent students’ cultures with art, music and literature
  • Encourage students to tell stories in a variety of mediums: drawing, poetry, visual art, drama, essays, etc.
  • Ask students to speak and write about their lives regularly in casual, low-stress ways without forcing them to share
  • Allow students to use their native language and/or translation apps

Dr. Schneider acknowledges that some instructors, particularly high school teachers, may not have enough wiggle room in their schedule to allow for daily sharing in this way. “Think about maybe doing this once a week for 15 minutes,” she suggests. “Even though it takes away instructional time, you get so much more from it, that I think it’s worth it in the long run.”

3. Increase comprehensible input and language output

English language learners learn both through the language they encounter (input) and the language they produce (output). Students should also be given ample opportunities to produce language, and they should receive direct feedback to increase their comprehension and improve their language skills.

Dr. Schneider remarks that the increased use of digital technology in education has opened up many additional opportunities for teachers to supplement lesson plans. Strategies for increasing comprehensible input include:

  • Read out loud or play audio versions of texts
  • Front load vocabulary and key concepts before reading
  • Provide a similar text in the student’s first language
  • Go beyond the textbook and include artwork, videos, guest speakers, stories
  • Slow down your speech
  • Use graphs and visuals when presenting
  • Give students an outline of the information
  • Use closed captioning for videos
  • 10/2 rule: For every 10 minutes of lecture, stop for 2 minutes of student engagement

In order for students to deepen their understanding, and clarify and negotiate for meaning, they must talk about what they are learning. Strategies for increasing language output include:

  • Provide multiple opportunities for structured and unstructured talk
  • Opportunities for students to collaborate with each other
  • Include open-ended questions in your lessons
  • Provide daily low-stakes writing opportunities in all content areas

4. Promote classroom interaction

When teaching English language learners, keep in mind that vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation develop faster when there are opportunities for interaction in the classroom using the language being learned. But many new teachers make the mistake of simply presenting a lesson and then pairing students up to discuss without providing guidance, as was the case for Dr. Schneider.

She recommends that teachers explicitly model and practice academic language so that students can more fully engage with one another. This could take the form of question prompts, such as:

  • Can you tell me more about …?
  • Let me see if I understand you …
  • Following up on ___’s idea …

Teachers should also provide ample opportunities for more structured classroom interactions with a clear purpose and goal. There are hundreds of activities to consider, but here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Think-pair-share
  • Carousel or gallery walk
  • Book clubs
  • Student interviews
  • Pick a Side:
    • What do you think/believe about…? Why?
    • How would you convince someone to…?

5. Stimulate higher-order thinking skills and use of learning strategies

Higher-order thinking skills (HOTS) are essentially critical-thinking abilities that go beyond rote memorization, concept formation and reading comprehension. Mastering HOTS is the ultimate goal of the learning process, as these competencies are needed to become an independent and creative thinker.

Teachers can encourage the development of HOTS in their students by modeling and providing language scaffolding such as:

  • What do you observe?
  • “In this picture, I notice …”
  • “I noticed that, too, and I want to add …

An example of a high school-level lesson plan that emphasizes HOTS might be having students learn about garment factory work in Cambodia, and then pairing them up to do the following:

  • Discuss what it might be like to sew their own clothes
  • Review a video about the experience of a Cambodian garment worker
  • Compose a list of the advantages and disadvantages based on the video

Embrace ELL strategies to maximize student achievement

As an educator, you work hard to make sure everyone in your class has what they need to learn and thrive. Implementing some of these innovative strategies for teaching English language learners is a great way to make content accessible for all students, regardless of language ability.

Looking for more information on how to make your classroom more welcoming for all students? Read our article “How to foster an inclusive classroom environment: Advice for educators.

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