11 Experts Share Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners

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4.3 million students across the country are English Language Learners
illustration of student being bullied

Classrooms across America are more diverse than ever: the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics found that 14% of students in U.S. cities and over 4.3 million students across the country are English Language Learners.

Teachers work incredibly hard to differentiate material so that ELL students can access lessons and take advantage of their education. But most classroom teachers are not trained to teach the English language, and differentiating effectively to support English Language Learners is no easy task.

We asked experts from across the English language teaching community:

"What are the key strategies that teachers of all subjects can use to help English Language Learners access the material in their lessons?"

Read on for some great advice from highly experienced professionals on how to help English Language Learners thrive in your classroom.

Use the same set phrases and language cues during instruction, so students can understand them quickly and focus on classroom language related to content

David Deubelbeiss
Professor in TESOL, author and teacher trainer with over 30 years experience in English language teaching. Find him at eflclassroom.com/david

The best thing that classroom teachers can do is make the material practical and relevant

One of the biggest obstacles English Language Learners face in their journey to acquire and remember English is that quite often the material they are given is not related directly to their lives. Thus, the best thing that classroom teachers can do is make the material practical and relevant.

If a social studies lesson is focused on holidays, have ELLs talk or write about an important or favorite holiday in their country or culture. In a science class learning about weather or climate, have them talk or write about the usual climate in their country, or their favorite kind of weather.

In addition, vocabulary is a key issue for many ELLs, so providing a handout with key vocabulary will also facilitate the learning process. It’s important to remember that ELLs may not know basic English terms related to your lesson. For example, in a math class, a worksheet that shows how to write the digits and symbols in English (6 + 2 = 8. Six plus two equals eight) would be helpful.

Michael DiGiacomo
Teacher at Happy English. Michael has been teaching English to international students since 1994

Prediction tasks are also a useful way to help learners build context when it comes to a reading text

ELLs may find that lack of vocabulary is a barrier to comprehension; providing ELLs with a glossary can help them to access the text. This glossary could form part of a homework task prior to reading. It might be worthwhile building study sets of target vocabulary using a digital flashcard tool such as Quizlet. This would make self-study easier for the learners, and also lends itself to long-term practice and spaced repetition.

Prediction tasks are also a useful way to help learners build context when it comes to a reading text. Providing learners with the general topic of a text and encouraging them to guess what information might appear can make a text less daunting. Pairing learners with non-ELL students for such tasks is recommended, as it acts as a support for learners to generate ideas.

Pete Clements
EFL teacher, materials writer, and award-winning blogger at eltplanning.com

Include more collaborative learning. Small group work allows ELLs to be involved, yet gives less pressure than individual work

David Weller
Teacher trainer with fifteen years of experience teaching around the world. David blogs regularly at barefootteflteacher.com

Use engaging activities, such as playing games, role playing, singing, making books, etc. It is fun, it is motivating, and it helps our ELLs feel connected to the learning

Jill Richardson
ESL teacher with over 30 years of experience

One thing that I've seen in classrooms is a tendency to overthink, vacillate, and be a prisoner to 'being correct'.

We want to build a culture of exploration and adventure. A culture where the student is not crippled by self doubt and perfectionism.

Here are some things that have worked for me:

Phillip Pound
Phillip Pound lives in Tokyo and is the founder of EFL Magazine, and a co-founder of EdYOUfest, an annual festival for ELT teachers.

We want repetitions that lead to creative automaticity, the ability to formulate new and meaningful sentences in a flash

The central insight from Applied Linguistics that can guide teachers is this: languages are best learned by maximizing the repeated exchange of meaningful messages.

Learners need repetition because repetition helps us remember. Teachers should, therefore, do their very best to maximize opportunities to repeat. But the repetitions must be meaningful. Getting students to drill sentences like "the bread is on the table, the bread is on the chair, the bread is on the floor" is not very helpful. The words soon become hypnotic and meaningless.

Instead, we want repetitions that lead to creative automaticity, the ability to formulate new and meaningful sentences in a flash. We can do that by repeatedly getting students to engage in spoken or written exchanges with as many people on as many topics in as many situations as possible.

Nicholas Walker
Award-winning author of the Actively Engaged Series and winner of the Sesquicentennial Pin for Leadership in Education; find his work at virtualwritingtutor.com

All students should have an opportunity to collaborate, innovate, imagine, design and think creatively about real-world problems

Jennifer Jones
K-12 Reading Specialist. ELA Staff Developer, Curriculum Writer & Blogger at Hello Literacy, Inc. Founder of #HelloLitCon fresh, inspiring PD for K-6 teachers

Rigging some tasks for success enables such students to realize that studying pays off

One significant problem that many ELLs face is limited vocabulary, which creates huge difficulties with reading comprehension tasks. Some students get discouraged and become overly stressed when presented with texts in English, opting to give up on the text altogether. Rigging some tasks for success enables such students to realize that studying pays off. One of the strategies I use to ensure that students feel empowered is disappearing texts.

I create very simple texts on the board from some "tale" a student in class shares. I write the tale in English, even if the student tells it almost completely in mother-tongue (eliciting words from the other students as much as possible). I focus on expressing a sincere interest in what happened to the student. Like this text, for example:

What Happened to Sara This Morning?

Sara got up at 06:15.

She left the house at 07:15.

Sara didn't take an umbrella.

When Sara arrived at school it was raining hard.

Sara got wet.

Sara wants to call her Dad.

By erasing word and having students fill in the relevant missing words on the board in response to basic "WH" questions, I get the students to focus on the text and the words. They know the answers because they were involved in the process of creating the text. I finally erase the entire text and ask "WH" questions about it.

Answering in complete sentences is not the point! If students can answer a "when" question with "07:15" and a "who" question with "Dad" then I have a good reason to praise them. The students are reading and answering questions!

Naomi Epstein
Teacher and national counselor for teaching EFL to deaf & hard of hearing pupils in Israel

There is no need to talk super slow, but if you want a student who has just begun to study English to understand you, simple is better

Ieva Grauslys
ESL teacher of 12 years, teaching consultant, and owner of simplyieva.com, which provides help and coaching to ESL and mainstream teachers

If a student does not seem to be comprehending key concepts, reach out to ELL professionals who can work with you

Before teaching a new unit or chapter

While teaching

After teaching

Julie Vorholt
ESL, EFL, and English teacher, author, and editor
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