In 2000, 8.1 percent of students enrolled in U.S. public schools were English language learners (ELLs), according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By 2016, that percentage had jumped to 9.6 percent — equaling nearly 5 million students. And the number continues to grow.
The Evolution of ELL Education
Historically, ELLs spent the school day largely separated from English-speaking students. Instruction in the ELL classrooms prioritized English instruction, oftentimes over academic content. In recent decades, though, it’s become increasingly common for ELLs to be educated in mainstream classrooms. Also common is for ELLs to be pulled out of the classroom to meet with an English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor or for the instructor to join the student in the classroom.
Yet according to Face the Facts USA, a Project of George Washington University, less than 1 percent of public school teachers are English as a Second Language (ESL) instructors. That’s approximately one ESL instructor for every 150 ELLs.
An Important Role of the Classroom Teacher
The load of responsibility oftentimes falls on classroom teachers to help their ELLs master subject matter content and become more proficient in English — in tandem with teachers working to address the diverse needs of their entire class.
As more and more ELLs enter U.S. classrooms, a question continues to surface: what strategies and practices can teachers include in their instruction right now — without a major investment in advanced ESL training for themselves or an entirely new curriculum — to help make their classroom more conducive to ELLs and provide a learning environment where ELLs are set up for success? This article will help guide school leaders and teachers on how to do this — with specific strategies, TpT resources, and tips from educators in the TpT community.
Make use of visuals.
ELLs often struggle to process auditory information at the speed it’s delivered, so visual cues such as graphs, photos, drawings, real-life objects, and gestures from the teacher can help students follow along. In addition, incorporating some of these visuals into definitions, directions, and reading passages can serve as a supplement for unfamiliar vocabulary words and concepts.
| Sample Strategy: Get graphic organizers going.
Graphic organizers are a great option to use when working with ELLs because the visual illustrations of key terms, vocabulary, ideas, and the relationships among them can help ELLs better comprehend the material. You may want to consider using graphic organizers during small group activities when ELLs can benefit from working cooperatively. There are various types of graphic organizers, each with different purposes and structures. Word clusters, for example, are ideal for brainstorming while venn diagrams help teach students to compare and contrast. Sequence charts are useful in describing a sequence of events or steps in a process, and a triangle/inverted triangle helps students understand a specific topic to a broader topic (triangle) or a broader topic to a more specific topic (inverted triangle).
TpT Teacher-Author Tip
“Visuals are great not just for ELLs at lower levels of language proficiency but also more advanced levels. When using images of people, try to select ones depicting diverse people and places; if you can find images of people and settings that represent your students, all the better. Visuals aren’t just pictures or photos but also maps and charts — teach students how to interpret them as that will help them with learning academic content. Visuals are a great springboard for speaking, listening, and writing tasks.”
— Susan Schwartz of The ESL Nexus
Chunk directions into small segments.
When many directions are presented at one time or there are multi-step directions, it can be easy for students to lose track of the specific to-dos. Your ELLs (and likely your other students, too) will be more successful at following directions if the steps are chunked into smaller segments. This way, students have time to complete the first part of the assignment before receiving additional directions.
| Sample Strategy: Break down projects into manageable pieces.
While projects involving multiple steps are a great way to give students additional responsibility and allow them to apply what they’ve learned at a more complex level, they may feel overwhelming to ELLs. To help your ELLs tackle projects, consider dividing the work into smaller, more manageable pieces and providing clear instructions on how to complete each step. You may want to guide them in creating a checklist for the entire project so they can track their progress and celebrate milestones toward completion.
TpT Teacher-Author Tip
“Even though I’m an SLP, about half of my caseload are ELLs. I break information down into simpler parts so it is easier to comprehend and use.”
— Hallie Sherman of Speech Time Fun
Give students time to process their thoughts.
When a teacher asks the class a question, ELLs may need time to search their memory banks for the definition of a word used in the question. When they recall that definition, it’s then time to think about possible answers to the question. They may have the correct answer but feel apprehensive about volunteering, for fear of making a mistake. At this point, if they do decide to go for it, there’s a good chance the teacher has moved on to a new question. Providing opportunities for your ELLs to process what they’re hearing (and also what they want to say) is essential for building language comprehension and confidence.
| Sample Strategy: Engage your students in think-pair-shares.
During think-pair-shares, students are given think time to reflect on a question silently, so they can process it and think of the language needed to convey the answer. They then discuss their answer with a partner, providing an opportunity for increased peer interaction and the teacher to monitor comprehension. After a few minutes, the teacher may call on some of the pairs to share out what they’ve discussed. Think-pair-shares can happen at morning meeting and can be about an easy or comfortable topic — what students like to do after school, or their favorite spot in their house to read. They can serve as great segues for communication during the day before students delve into denser topics with academic language such as “theme” or “geography” or “photosynthesis.”
TpT Teacher-Author Tip
“I like to use anchor questions, which are quick questions that are great for warm-ups, closures, and those extra minutes before the bell rings. Questions can be related to holidays, current events, school subjects…basically anything! If the question is, ‘Would you rather be a hippopotamus or a rhinoceros?’ my students must answer like this: ‘I would rather be a hippo because…’ This opens up the floor for discussion, especially when there are differing opinions.
— Maria of Everyone Deserves to Learn
Optimize for student-to-student and small group time.
ELLs need to be given opportunities to use the academic language they’re learning. Adding more small group instruction into the mix can help ELLs practice language with their peers in a more personal, lower-risk setting. Some ELLs may feel uncomfortable speaking up in front of the entire class, so a smaller group can be less intimidating.
| Sample Strategy: Have your students participate in partner plays.
The primary purpose of partner plays is to help build reading fluency. Instruction in fluency can be particularly beneficial for ELLs because activities designed to enhance fluency in reading can also contribute to oral language development in English. Since students are reading with one other person during partner plays, they’re less likely to get nervous about reading aloud — allowing for plenty of opportunities for them to practice their fluency. They may also feel more comfortable asking their partner questions if they don’t understand a word or phrase than if the whole class was listening. After they’re finished reading the play, partners will often complete a follow-up comprehension worksheet together. This allows for lots of opportunities to have a conversation while using academic vocabulary.
TpT Teacher-Author Tip
“Kids learn another language best when they feel the need to communicate with other kids to do fun things with them. It’s important to make sure they’re with buddies during unstructured times like recess.”
— Retta London of Rainbow City Learning
Be flexible with assessments.
Seeing growth and improvement can be a huge motivator for all students. But if you always depend on the same assessment you use for the native English speakers in your class, you may misunderstand what your ELLs have or haven’t grasped, simply because they might not be able to fully express it. Assessments that are geared to an ELLs’ current level of English proficiency will provide a clearer picture of their comprehension of the content.
| Sample Strategy: Consider non-verbal assessments.
There may be times when a non-verbal assessment may be the most effective assessment of all. For example, if you’re checking how well an ELL understands verbs, you may want to ask them to pick out examples of verbs in a magazine. Pictures can also be used to assess reading comprehension, in which your ELLs read a paragraph and then draw a picture to demonstrate their understanding of the text.
TpT Teacher-Author Tip
“We want to make sure our ELLs understand everything from seemingly simple directions to heavy lesson content throughout the day. Besides more formal testing, you can also use non-verbal cues like thumbs up, thumbs down, or thumbs sideways (for ‘not sure’). It’s important to make sure ELLs know that it’s completely okay to let you know they didn’t understand something. As you consistently check for their understanding, they’ll become more aware of monitoring their learning, too.”
In closing, creating an environment where ELLs are given time to absorb instruction, can practice language skills in a comfortable setting — and where visual learning is weaved throughout their day — will help them become more confident learners. The steps may be small but the rewards — for both students and teachers — will likely be large.
Here are some popular resources that schools can use to help support ELLs in the classroom:
Further Reading List
Want to dive deeper into this topic? Here’s a curated list of the sources that we cited and referred to while writing this piece.