35 ELLs

How Should We Teach English Language Learners?

By: Tatiana Torres

Teaching English Language Learners can be a very difficult task without any understanding of the issue. However, with the proper knowledge of successful methods and approaches to the matter, it can be a very successful and rewarding experience. There are many different ideas of how to make an experience of teaching ELLs (English Language Learners) a positive one. The main idea to keep in mind is that every situation is different and different people respond well to different things, so there is no right or wrong way to handle English Language Learners. There are however, a few main ideas that have been popularly used throughout diverse classrooms and have had successful end results.


Helping ELLs Understand the Teacher

It is very commonly said to keep your ELLs in mind when speaking to the class and making special adjustments to the way you speak to make it a little easier on the ELLs to understand basic directions, along with providing additional assistance where it is needed apart from class lecture. The idea is not to single an English Language Learner out from their group of fellow classmates, but rather, allow them to build relationships with the teacher as well as with their classmates by giving them the help that they need on a more personal level. “Diverse children should be part of a learning community where people acknowledge, help, and support one another”.i Using lots of visual aids when teaching ELLs makes their learning easier because it gets rid of the language barrier. Other helpful strategies include activities that are hands on, giving the students the option of participating when they feel comfortable, and understanding that time is needed to master a new language. vi


“Use visual cues such as posters, overhead pictures, slide shows, videos, and illustrated books. Use active methods of learning such as games, skits, songs, partner interviews and structured conversation with classmates”.ii


When English Language Learners are put into an environment where they are at a disadvantage because of the language barrier along with a serious culture shock with being in a completely different country that has numerous differences in culture norms, ELLs can become very alienated and depressed.i “Many children are made fun of when they try to speak English and also when they speak their native language; so they end up silent and withdraw from participation. This further interferes with their learning and achievement.”iii This problem can be avoided by making all of the students culturally understanding. Another approach to helping this problem is to seat students with similar backgrounds near each other so they can help each other with instructions and understanding. It is also important to make sure that the English Language Learners culturally understand proper classroom behavior such as when it is appropriate to speak and when it is appropriate to sit and listen. Other cultures may have different norms in this environment and could cause the student to be embarrassed in front of their peers if the difference is not properly understood.


Usage of Translators

The aid of translators can be very useful in a classroom with numerous students that speak the same foreign language. This can be used in communication with non-English speaking parents. In a note going home to the parents, the translator can be used to translate the note into the parents’ language so that foreign parents can also be involved in their children’s school lives and are not less involved because of the language barrier. This is an example where it is also important to remember that parents can also feel alienated and depressed from the same struggles that their children have with a language barrier. However, it is not safe to assume that all of the non-English speaking parents always want to speak in their native language, some parents may be offended by this since they are trying to learn how to speak English and want to practice speaking English as much as they can. It is important to get to know each of the parents and know their preference with speaking and adjust to that in proper manner. If a teacher shows the effort to learn the ELLs native language as well that could be a very flattering and rewarding experience for both the ELL student and their parents. It is easier to have a productive and positive environment in a classroom if everyone is happy and comfortable with the each other; this includes parents of the students.

It is very important for teachers of English Language Learners to remember that their students have a different cultural background then the rest of the class. Good ways to make that factor a positive learning opportunity is to allow the students to do learning activities where they learn about different cultures around the world, including the ones of their classmates.


“Plan assignments that bring student’s cultures, families, languages, and experiences front and center”.ii


Cultural Differences

It is recommended that teachers use questions frequently throughout a lesson. Doing this offers ELLs the chance to use English and a chance for the teacher to assess the English Language Learner’s grasp on the information that is being presented to them. “…Teachers must know the stages of language acquisition and be able to determine what stage each ELL is in…By knowing the stages of language acquisition and stage-appropriate questions, a teacher can engage students at the correct level of discourse”.iv It is important as the teacher to make yourself familiar with the students background. Learning about the students culture will not only make you more aware of the student but will also show the student that you care. Because ELL students feel like outcasts this could help stop that feeling of complete isolation. More importantly, “students whose native culture is valued have a greater sense of self-worth and higher academic achievement”. vi

Things To Remember

There are general standards schools have that can help teachers stay on track of keeping an equal learning environment, which may be forgotten with the challenge of teaching English Language Learners. There must be a supportive, as well as challenging atmosphere in the school. There must be strong instructional leadership in the school. It is necessary to have a special learning environment that tends to the needs of all of the students according to the differences in their needs. There must be a curriculum that balances both basic and higher-order skills. There must be instructional strategies that help understanding of material being learned along with being able to practice those skills. And family involvement to build a strong environment between the home and the school.v

To sum up, teaching English Language Learners is not just a job for ESL (English as a second language) teachers to deal with. Although the aid of ESL teachers and translators can be very helpful when teaching ELLs, a teacher cannot depend on them solely, there are other factors that can and will affect their classroom as well. Therefore, it is key for the teacher to try not just one approach, but several approaches, because each classroom is different as well as each student. What works for most of the classroom may not work for one particular ELL individual, leaving them feeling alienated. Teachers can even get creative and try their own approach they think may work. The idea is to just keep trying until the right one is found and the whole class is happy and able to learn properly.



1. Juana, an ELL student in your class, has suddenly become extremely quiet. When spoken to, she avoids responding, and when she does respond, she talks very quietly. However, it is noticed that this behavior is only in school; her family has not seen any change in her behavior. What is the most likely cause for Juana’s change in behavior in the classroom?
a. Juana does not like the curriculum and is rebelling.

b. Juana doesn’t like the teacher and doesn’t want to talk as a result.

c. Juana has misunderstood the culture and thinks that silence is the appropriate behavior in school.

d. Juana is being made fun of by her peers when she speaks and is feeling alienated as a result.
2. What is a good way to open students’ minds to other cultures?
a. Give them candy each time they ask someone of another culture about their culture.

b. Have them do projects on other cultures.

c. Tell them to go on vacation to another country.

d. Write a letter to their parents asking them to expose them more to other cultures.
3. It is time for parent-teacher night and while half of your class is Hispanic, you don’t know if their parents speak any English. What is the best approach in order to make them comfortable with talking to you, while not offending them by assuming that they don’t know how to speak any English?
a. Hire a translator to translate a letter that is being sent home to the parents asking if any special accommodations need to be made for anyone.

b. Ask the ELL students if their parents speak any English.

c. Tell the ELL students to come with their parents so that they can translate.

d. Just hope that everything goes well.
4. Why are general school standards important to remember when teaching ELLs?
a. It makes learning easier on students coming from different backgrounds.

b. They can keep the teacher on track when a special situation starts taking them in other directions.

c. They keep other teachers on the same level of expertise.

d. They are easy solutions to problems with parents.


5. Why do visual aids help with teaching ELLs?
a. Visuals help with understanding of words they don’t know.

b. Just as with regular students, some ELLs are visual learners, so giving them visuals helps them learn better.

c. Visuals give them some distraction from the language that they do not understand.

d. Visuals help get their minds working.




1. D 2. B 3. A 4. B 5. A



i. Lee, Seungyoun et al. “A Case Study of an Early Childhood Teacher’s Perspective on Working with English Language Learners”. Multicult Educ. Wilson Web.

ii. Peterson, Bob and Dawson Salas, Kelley. “Working Effectively With English Language Learners”. Rethinking Schools, 2002. http://www.rethinkingschools.org/publication/newteacher/NTBilingual.shtml

iii. Pellino, Karen. “Effective Strategies For Teaching English Language Learners”. Teachnology, 2007. http://www.teach-nology.com/tutorials/teaching/esl/print.htm

iv. Hill, Jane and Flynn, Kathleen. “Asking the right questions”. Wilson Web. http://www.NSDC.org

v. Linquanti, Robert. “English language Acquisition and Academic Success: What Do We Know?”. WestEd, 1999. <http://www.wested.org/policy/pubs/fostering/know.htm>

vi. Christy, Janice. “Helping English Language Learners in the Classroom”. Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 2005. <http://www.glencoe.com/sec/teachingtoday/subject/help_ELL.phtml>


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