Core Strategies for Teaching ELL Students

  • Teaching English Language Learner (ELL) students is not an easy task in the realm of the regular classroom.

    Incorporating the needs of English learners while trying to keep the classroom pace going and classroom management in control requires skill and patience.

    English Language Learners are students for whom English is not their primary language. Their first language is generally not used in instruction and the instructor need not know the students’ native languages. Instructional methods of teaching language skills vary, depending on the district or school mandates.

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    As a teacher with English Language Learners in your class, you need to ensure that you are implementing activities that foster language acquisition at the same time as subject content and concepts.

    Statistics show that, on average, 9 percent of students in U.S. classrooms are English learners. In large cities that number is closer to 14 percent. Most of these students – not all — start off in high-intensity, whole-day English programs. But most are integrated into mainstream classrooms within a year.

    By using a variety of research-based literacy techniques, however, you can create a welcoming classroom environment rich in learning activities that are reflective of each student’s level of language proficiency and learning style.

    Understanding the needs of ELL students

    Most teachers are not trained to teach English Language Learners. So what do you do?

    Mainstream teachers need to learn about the language and academic backgrounds of the ELLs in their classes. Without this knowledge, teachers cannot anticipate the aspects of learning that are likely to be too difficult for their ELLs to handle without instructional supports.

    It is essential to gather data about your students’ English language proficiency using assessment tools ranging from standardized formal language assessment testing to ongoing informal assessments made through your observation of everyday activities.

    Teachers must learn to identify and understand the needs of English Language Learners; implement strategies for modifying academic content for better understanding; and then put their new skills into practice.

    Some classes focus on literature to better prepare students for the exit exams and their transition into mainstream English Language Arts (ELA), while others require that the ELL teacher collaborate with subject area teachers to reinforce content and concepts.

    Another effective model is called the sheltered instruction approach, a class structure wherein content mastery and academic language skills are developed concurrently.

    Educators should use both standardized scores and ongoing monitoring to help determine which instructional standards to focus on, and also to evaluate students’ progress.

    8 recommended strategies for teaching ELL

    Here are some recommended strategies for teaching ELL students, courtesy of Jennifer Gonzalez of Cult of Pedagogy. 

    • Make it visual — Challenging concepts should be diagrammed or supported with pictures
    • More group work — less teacher-led, whole-class instruction, and more small groups, where students can practice language with their peers
    • Collaborate with ESL teachers — ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers could regularly get copies of lesson plans or collaborate with regular classroom teachers to build solid back-and-forth support
    • Honor silence — Many new language learners go through a silent period, during which they will speak very little, if at all
    • Allow some native language — When a student is still very new to a language, it’s okay to pair him with other students who speak his native language
    • Look out for culturally unique vocabulary — It’s important to directly teach certain Western vocabulary words
    • Use sentence frames for academic language — Show students how to structure language in a formal way
    • Learn about the cultural backgrounds of your students — Taking the time to learn the basics of where a child comes from will go far

    Professional development courses

    A professional development course – or several — in teaching with ELL students is almost a necessity.

    Strategies for teaching ELL usually go in three phases.

    Phase 1: Participants will be able to: Identify and understand the needs of English Language Learners, assess student’s proficiency levels, recognize cultural perspectives and address the teaching of language skills.

    Phase 2:  Participants will be able to implement strategies for modifying academic content for English Language Learners.

    Phase 3:  Participants will be able to put skills into practice and employ multiple methods of assessment.

    Professional development courses are designed so that participants will learn to identify and understand the needs of English Language Learners; implement strategies for modifying academic content for better understanding, and then put their new skills into practice.

    Participants will be able to differentiate instruction to address the diverse needs of learners in the classroom. This particular course is based on the framework provided by Universal Design for Learning (UDL): the development of adjustable materials, varied instructional approaches, and relevant assessment methods. Participants will learn to recognize potential barriers to learning, and subsequently identify possible solutions.