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Strategies for English Language Learners

By Kristy Nerstheimer

Walk into most classrooms these days and you are more than likely to find English Language Learners. This demographic continues to rise nationwide, and it is up to us, educators, to know how to best serve them. It can be challenging having an ELL in your classroom among all your other students’ needs. But here are a few ideas to help support the English language learner in your classroom.


Build a Relationship: As with any student, it is important to build a relationship from day one. Yet it may be more difficult if your student doesn’t speak English. Reach out to your community to try to find someone who speaks your student’s language. Often times, high school language programs have students who could assist. Next, try to connect by getting to know your student’s background and interests. Show empathy and encourage acceptance within your classroom. Students are more likely to perform when they feel safe and connected.


Classroom Set-Up: Make sure your classroom shows diversity with posters and reading material. It is also important to have as many visuals as possible for your English language learners. Having predictable routines and procedures is also very helpful. Consider videoing some of your procedures so students can watch them a few times to become acclimated to your classroom and school. Seat your ELL in close proximity to you and alongside a positive peer model or a cooperative group. Provide access to Google translate or another language app so your student can communicate with you and his classmates. Using hand gestures is another great way to try to communicate with an ELL.


Modifications: Your English language learner will mostly have a plan in place for you to follow. Check with your district or school to find out where these plans are located. Most likely, you will need to provide some modifications. It is important to think of the “bullseye” approach to instruction. Focus on those standards that students must know verses should know or nice to know. Keep sentences simple and allow students to use visuals or draw pictures to demonstrate understanding. Teach organizational and study skills. Allow more time for certain assignments or chunk larger assignments with clear due dates. Provide a word bank or guided notes to help students focus on important topics.


Vocabulary Instruction: One of our major goals with English language learners is to increase their vocabulary. It is critical to explicitly teach vocabulary words. Use realia whenever possible: being able to actually show the real object(s) builds connections. Play fun vocabulary games like Pictionary or charades. Preteach key vocabulary words whenever possible and try to provide graphic organizers to facilitate learning.


Reading Instruction: It is necessary to teach phonics skills and rules. Depending on what grade level you teach, your English language learner may have gaps with these basic foundational skills. Assess your student and try to fill those gaps as needed. Allow partner reading as much as possible, this will help with fluency as well. If possible, frontload instruction so your student can become more engaged with your lesson. Use the “I do,” “We do,” “You do” approach. Model for your student first, next have your ELL participate with you, and then allow your student to work independently to show mastery.


Writing Instruction: In order to improve writing skills with your English language learner, you may need to start by having your student copy sentences directly from the board. Allow your student to draw pictures, if needed. Slowly start to provide sentence starters or story frames. Have your ELL write about personal experiences or feelings. This will allow the writing to be more meaningful and, in the end, you will see faster results. Creating a cooperative paragraph with groups of students can also be a great way to improve writing skills with your ELL.


Oral Skills: It is also important to provide opportunities for your English language learner to engage in speaking and listening skills. Peer models or “talking buddies” are a great way to allow your ELL to communicate with others. It is necessary to increase student output and decrease teacher output. In other words, let your students talk. Student interviews, skits, reader’s theaters, book club discussions, student recordings, speeches and debates can all be wonderful ways to engage your English language learner in conversation.


Time: It can take a long time to learn a language, years in fact. This can be very frustrating when we only have one academic year with our English language learner. After all, we teachers are used to being superheroes: able to perform amazing educational lessons with outstanding results. Yet, our English language learner just may need more time than we have to give. But fear not, dear superhero, put on your cape, implement these strategies, and you will see growth with your ELL. So, celebrate each and every moment of this growth and know that you are an instrumental part of your student becoming bilingual.

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