8 Tips for Supporting ELL Students

Spanish student at school
Cross Country Education
February 05, 2021 10:11 AM (GMT-05:00)
About one in ten K-12 students in the U.S. is an English language learner (someone in the process of learning to be fluent in English). This proportion may be even higher in certain areas. English language learners do not fundamentally learn differently from their native English-speaking peers, but they benefit from strategies and supports designed to bridge the language gap, allowing them equitable access to academic content while becoming bilingual. These strategies may also help build a stronger, more successful classroom for all students.

Strategies for ELL Students

  1. Create a Safe Learning Environment 
    In order to take on academic challenges, all students must feel comfortable taking intellectual risks without fear of being mocked or teased. Creating a safe learning environment also helps make sure not to compound any possible effects of migration-based trauma. Some ways educators can help ELL students feel comfortable include: 
    • Establish a regular, predictable routine in your classroom.
    • Sensitize native English speakers to the needs and experiences of English learners.
    • ​Consider seating the English learner next to someone who speaks their native language and/or assigning a “buddy” they feel comfortable with.
    • Offer quick and easy ways to ask for something they need: e.g., simple “packaged” phrases they can use, a tap on the shoulder to use the bathroom, two fingers up to get water, etc.
    • Normalize mistakes in your classroom culture as opportunities for learning.
    • Incorporate cultural responsiveness (see below).
  2. Be Culturally Responsive 
    Differences in culture and language should be acknowledged and celebrated at every opportunity. Students who feel known, appreciated, and valued are more able to build relationships and draw upon their strengths, which are key components of the most successful classrooms. 
    • Make the commitment to be accurate and precise when referring to students’ countries of origin, the pronunciation of names, and other cultural identifiers they have specified.
    • Do not pressure any child to represent or speak on behalf of their entire culture/background. 
    • Orient newcomers to the regional culture where you are located as well: Show videos or pictures of various cultural norms and events alongside accompanying vocabulary terms. These tools help your students to name, navigate and feel comfortable in their new surroundings. 
    • Cultivate an appreciation for diversity in the physical environment as well as the curriculum. Include books, art, and music that reflect the cultural backgrounds and identities of the students in your classroom. 
  3. Provide Opportunities for Interaction 
    Interaction allows for students to practice oral language skills, which is key to language acquisition. Ensure that students are receiving time in class to practice language skills while building relationships.

    Use the QSSSA tool (Question, Signal, Stem, Share, Assess) to scaffold classroom discussions and encourage interaction:  
    • Question: Teacher poses a question, then gives ample think time. Example: “What about this project excites you, or not?”
    • Signal: Teacher makes a designated motion like a raised hand or thumbs-up – something that lets students indicate that they’re ready to answer.
    • Stem: The teacher provides a sentence starter for the question; for example, for “What about this project excites you, or not?” the stem might be, “Some things about this project that excite me are _____. Some things about this project that do not excite me are _____.”
    • Share: Think Pair Share, or small group discussion.
    • Assess: Demonstrate understanding through written, illustrated, or verbal response.
  4. Make Connections to the Material
    Students are most engaged when they feel a personal connection to the lesson, so make sure the lesson materials are inviting and reach them on a relatable level. 
    • Draw upon the relationships you build with your students to further establish connections between them and the lessons.
    • Help solidify language skills by repeating language relevant to the student’s daily activities and coursework. Use call-and-response, allowing the class to answer in unison, thus allowing English learners to solidify language in a low-risk situation. 
    • Encourage English learners to incorporate their developing language skills into rich social and academic interactions throughout the day. English language learners should not be learning the fundamentals of English in isolation.
    • Where necessary, condense information so it’s more approachable at the appropriate linguistic level.
  5. Design Instruction Based on Student Strengths
    Building on students’ strengths (what the student already can do well) provides an important foundation for success and offers opportunities to build upon these strengths.
    • Allow ELLs some use of their native language. Pre-writing or brainstorming in one’s native language allows them a comfortable starting point needed to begin grasping concepts and building upon areas in which they are struggling.
    • Offer positive praise for any risk-taking outside of their comfort zone.
    • Show appreciation for their knowledge of their own language to build confidence in language skills. Remember, the goal is bilingualism, not replacement of the non-English language.
    • Differentiate: Enunciate very clearly in English multiple times, write on the board, provide a visual, etc. Ask students to verbalize, draw, or write aspects of the lesson themselves.
    • Provide advance notice of coursework to give EL students ample time to prepare or preview materials.
  6. Provide Linguistic Supports
    Specific and readily available linguistic supports go a long way in offering tools to ELLs to bridge the language barrier in any given learning moment.
    • Make sure to teach vocabulary words necessary to comprehend the particular subject matter. For example, provide the vocabulary translations for terms such as addition, subtraction, solve, sum, etc., along with the mathematical skills in question. 
    • Show students how to structure language in a formal way. Provide a standard sentence structure “form key” for building sentences.
    • Provide sentence starters, such as the sentence stems in tip #3.
    • Post these tools in a highly visible spot in your classroom. Remind students to refer to this during problem-solving, discussions and while writing.
  7. Encourage Productive Language Skills: 
    The first language skills ELL students develop are receptive: listening, processing, following instructions, etc. This doesn't mean they have mastered productive language skills such as writing and speaking. Educators must emphasize productive language skill acquisition to promote fluency. Some strategies:
    • Remember SWIRL: Speak, Write, Interact, Read, Listen. This puts productive language skills at the forefront since receptive language skills happen more spontaneously. 
    • Do not pressure the student if they exhibit social anxiety to speak or write on the spot. Remember, the first rule for ELL support is to make sure your students feel comfortable and socially/emotionally safe. 
    • Offer prompts which give clues and build upon current knowledge. See table below:
      Receptive Skills Only Nodding, Pointing, Demonstrating “Show me…” “Point to…”
      Early Productive Skills One- or two-word responses to select from limited options Clear with a choice between two or three things, with one- or two-word answers.
      Emergent Speech Phrase or short sentence* “What happened next?” *expect grammatical errors, provide positive reinforcement while correcting
      Intermediate Fluency Longer sentences Provide/refer to formal sentence guide and vocab words
  8. Be Patient:
    For English language learners in a new and sometimes completely unfamiliar setting, it may take twice the work for only half the results. A student’s level of English proficiency does not reflect overall intellect, scholastic potential, or maturity. Treat ELL students with dignity and take their efforts seriously.
    • Speak slowly and enunciate clearly, and repeat prompts or phrases.
    • Increase your wait time for a response: Add in an extra three to five seconds after posing a question. English learners need time to translate, process their thinking, translate back into English, and develop the courage to answer.
    • Emphasize quality over speed of answers.
    • Offer ample time during group work with any peers ELs seem especially comfortable with.
You are your students’ guide on each of their scholastic journeys. We hope these 8 Tips for English learners can help you build successful classrooms which illuminate your students’ learning paths and maximize opportunities for the future. 
Eager to help kids strengthen their English-speaking skills? Explore our teaching jobs

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