15 Strategies for English Language Learners


English Language Learner (ELL) students do not necessarily learn differently than other students. However, they can have specific educational needs. The term, ELL, refers to a student who does not speak English as a first language.  They typically come from non-English-speaking homes and may need modified instruction and additional support in English and other subject areas at school.

Various resources and strategies can be utilized to provide a positive learning experience for ELL students. While many of these strategies for English Language Learners below are helpful for all students, they can be particularly effective when teaching students that have a native language other than English.

ELL Strategy 1 – Build Relationships & Create a Welcoming Environment

It’s important that ELL students feel welcome when they come into the classroom. Learning a language can be intimidating. Knowing they are learning in a safe and welcoming space can make a big difference. While they are still learning to speak and read English, relationships can be built through:

  • Smiles
  • Gestures
  • Body language
  • Games

Using a daily check-in activity is a great way to start building trusting relationships with your ELL students. I recommend having them draw pictures of how they are feeling that day, or give a thumbs up or down on “yes/no” questions.

2 – Use Positive Gestures and Tone of Voice

Using positive gestures and tone of voice can help ELL learners feel at ease. This can help them feel comfortable and safe in their learning environment. A start for this is to simply smile and keep a calm and relaxed body.  Incorporating play-based learning is also an opportunity to model positive gestures.  Throughout the day, model acceptance of others to encourage this welcoming atmosphere.

3 – Incorporate Language Skills Throughout the Curriculum

ELL students will benefit from explicit language instruction. However, it is also important to include language skills throughout the curriculum. By incorporating these skills throughout all lessons, language exposure is increased. This will have a positive impact on student learning.

Utilizing the Listen and Color printable from the Kindergarten Monthly Activities allows students to engage with both vocabulary and position words. The activity can be completed using a teacher model to provide additional support for students. This is an opportunity to hear and visualize positional words such as above, between, or next to.

ELL Strategy 4 – Speak Slowly and Increase Wait Time

Speaking too quickly can make it difficult for ELL students to process the new language, so slowing down your words can be helpful. This can allow students additional time to listen and process the information. I also always try and model, point to, or visually show while I am verbally giving directions.

Consider that students might need the extra time to answer a question or might need a question to be restated or rephrased. Be patient and encourage students to become comfortable with asking for more time or asking a teacher to repeat a question. Teaching students to ask for help can benefit them in many ways as they learn the English language.

5 – Differentiate

ELL students have a variety of academic needs. It’s important that your instruction is designed to meet students’ individual needs. This can be accomplished by getting to know as much as possible about your students, using a variety of research-based instructional strategies, and using ongoing assessments. The Premium Membership from Education to the Core provides you access to a variety of differentiated resources at your fingertips, ready to print and use.

ELL Strategy 6  – Incorporate Technology

Technology may or may not be something that ELL students are comfortable using. However, don’t be afraid to give it a try and incorporate helpful websites into your daily routine. The fact that most of these sites will read and speak to your students while they work on tasks is an added bonus. There are numerous sites and apps that students can use individually or that can be modeled and used in a whole group environment. A few suggestions are:

  • Starfall – A learning website with interactive games, songs and activities.
  • Kahoot! – A game-based learning program for creating, playing, and sharing learning games.
  • Quizlet – This program uses digital flashcards for learning vocabulary.
  • National Geographic Kids – The site has numerous educational videos that allow for closed captions to be turned on which can be helpful for ELL students.
  • Duolingo – A website and app that targets specific skills to practice vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation.

7 – Utilize Cooperative Activities

Encouraging teamwork and cooperation can build language skills quickly. Cooperative activities allow students to be inquisitive, curious, and learn from each other. Activities that lend themselves well to cooperation are STEM Challenge Stories. These challenges give students opportunities to have discussions and share ideas while completing hands-on learning activities.

8 – Offer Choices

Ensure that students know they have options. For example, if students don’t know the answer to a question, it’s important to have resources they can use for help. They also should know they have the choice to say they don’t know or aren’t sure. Having resources in the classroom for students to refer to can be a big confidence booster. Having a Sound Wall in your classroom is a great student reference tool to have.

ELL Strategy 9 – Build on Background Knowledge

Although students are learning a new language,  they have many personal experiences that can help support learning. Consider students’ background knowledge. How can you help activate that background knowledge in order to make learning more meaningful and impactful?

Even if you don’t have any background knowledge to build upon, you can create shared experiences for your students. Read a book on the topic, watch a short instructional video, or create a “being there” experience in your classroom. By incorporating these strategies into your instruction, your students, both ELL, and non, will have prior information they can link new knowledge to.

10 – Use Visuals and Add Images

As often as possible, try to use visuals and add images in daily activities and work. The Monthly Mini-Books resource provides visual support for learners. In each monthly activity, there are vocabulary words with pictures that can be used in a variety of ways. These vocabulary words can then be found in the coordinating mini-books. Each month, there is a themed sight word activity for students. These comprehensive monthly activities can be a good place to start building vocabulary with the use of visuals.

11 – Pair your ELL Students with a Buddy

This is always a student favorite! Pairing ELL students with a buddy who can encourage, and model language skills is very beneficial. Be mindful of student skill level as well as cooperation skills when selecting a buddy. The buddy can help answer questions, work on activities, and provide support for your ELL student.

12 – Use a microphone or amplification device

Using a device such as a microphone or amplification device can allow students to clearly hear some of the sounds of words. While this might not always be an option, it is something to consider adding to your daily classroom routine.

13 –  Give both Verbal and Written Directions

Written directions are important so that students can practice reading skills they are working on. However, written directions might not be accessible for ELL students. Including verbal directions as well as written, gives students the opportunity to ask questions if they do not understand. Verbal directions can also prevent mistakes that might occur from lack of understanding of a written direction. Preventing these mistakes and providing students clarification through verbal directions can boost  students’ self-confidence.

ELL Strategy 14 – Model

Providing students with a model when doing activities can give them the reassurance they need to keep going. You might find that you can slowly take the models away or use them less frequently. However, starting with models is important for ELL students to become comfortable with learning the English language. Projecting the activities onto a large whiteboard or Promethean board with a document camera can easily provide students with a viewable model.

15 – Teach Vocabulary

Vocabulary can be added to daily lessons, but can also be taught in isolation. Pre-teaching vocabulary can be helpful for ELL students.  An idea for teaching vocabulary is through the use of Write the Room activities. These activities provide colorful clip art images and incorporate various academic skills. These cards allow your students to associate an image with a vocabulary word. This is an engaging way for students to build vocabulary.

Being consistent with these strategies and practices will make your lessons more effective and meaningful for your students. However, it is also important to be flexible and make modifications based on your students’ needs. Utilize these tips and strategies to begin building your toolbox of resources to support ELL students.

Written By –  Sarah Cason

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