6 Classroom Strategies for English Language Learners

Monday, November 10, 2014 -- Shari Rios

In the United States, school districts are required to provide English as a Second Language (ESL) classroom instruction to any and all enrolled students whose primary language is not English. However, studies indicate that it takes approximately five to seven years to read and write in a new language. Therein lies the question, how do we make curriculum accessible for English language learners (ELLs)? Here, we have explored effective strategies for teaching ELLs and provided practical ways to implement them in your classroom.

1.     Scaffold Learning of New Vocabulary Terms 

When acquiring a second language, learning and understanding new vocabulary are key. As we first begin learning a new language, we start with basic vocabulary—common words and phrases. Even though we aren’t fluent yet, we are able to communicate the main idea to convey meaning to a native speaker of the language. As an educator, differentiating instruction using effective strategies for ELL students can help to scaffold this learning process for your students and ease delivery of complex material.

Classroom Application

Mr. Boyd is an 8th grade science teacher. In his classroom, students use a textbook to read and learn about topics, work on experiments to test theories, and record their findings in a lab notebook. Mr. Boyd has various types of students in his class, including English language learners. He is struggling with how to help these students comprehend the material on the level needed to contribute to discussions in class and master the objectives being taught.

Mr. Boyd begins by breaking up the chapter into digestible chunks and highlighting key vocabulary his ELL students need to know. He provides these terms, with accessible definitions, contextual examples, and even pictures to illustrate the meaning of the words, prior to instruction. By providing a preview of information, Mr. Boyd gives his students time to develop a basic understanding of the meaning.

Depending on where students are in their language-acquisition process, Mr. Boyd may also provide native-language support by including the word in the student’s native language, and the same term in English. This allows for students to try decoding; understanding terms first in their native language, and then transferring meaning to the new language.

Now, as Mr. Boyd’s class engages in these lessons and his ELL students hear the vocabulary reiterated, it is no longer a mystery to them. By scaffolding difficult vocabulary in this way, Mr. Boyd is able to help reinforce understanding and enrich comprehension.

2.     Connect Concepts to Background Knowledge 

Tying new information to something familiar can be an important step in understanding complex material. For English language learners, providing background information, sometimes with native-language support creates a foundation of familiarity. This helps students as they are decoding information—first trying to comprehend in their native language, and then transferring that understanding into English.

Classroom Application

Meet Isaac, an intermediate-level English language learner, sitting in a Texas history class. Because Isaac is an ELL, his teacher, Ms. Finch, allows him additional time to complete assignments and come to tutoring. Isaac struggles with understanding the material, gets frustrated, and often gives up.

Ms. Finch needs to find additional avenues to help Isaac connect with the information in order to further his understanding. She decides to provide background information, prior to introducing a new chapter or topic. Ms. Finch finds a story in Isaac’s native language that is similar to the topic they will soon learn about in class. She gives Isaac this story ahead of time and then takes time after reading to discuss how the events in the story affected the country and impacted the lives of its citizens. She is now confident that he has relevant background information that will bridge his understanding in the lesson ahead.

In Ms. Finch’s class the next day, she begins by passing out some articles and current events for the class to read. Ms. Finch then leads them in a discussion on how the events impacted our state and country. In order to make this information culturally relevant, she relates these events to those Isaac read about and the class discusses similarities and differences.

Ms. Finch’s class next starts reading the chapter in the textbook, and as they read and discuss, she continues to relate concepts back to the prior readings, reinforce main ideas, and help students make connections between all of the material. By providing background information, Ms. Finch was able to give Isaac a frame of reference and better prepare him to comprehend the information.

3.     Provide Audio and Visual Support 

Differentiating instruction by utilizing audio and visual tools is yet another effective strategy to engage your learners. Just as you take into account the many different learning styles of your larger class population, care must be taken to ensure that your ELL students receive similar treatment. Providing specific auditory and visual support increases fluency, communicates meaning by demonstrating accurate intonation, and aids in vocabulary development for ELLs.

Classroom Application

Meet Mr. Greer, an ESL teacher who supports students in 5th and 6th grade. His students come to his class for 45 minutes a day, and he is their English teacher of record. Mr. Greer is frequently sought out for assistance from his colleagues, and recommends that they provide audio and visual support for their ELL students across all subjects.

For reading, Mr. Greer provides a downloadable audiobook to partner with the printed text. He allows ELL students to listen to the text read aloud, while they follow along in their printed copy. Audio support allows his students to access texts that are at a higher reading level in an uninterrupted environment. This practice aids in their fluency building and allows students to grasp the information without getting tripped up by unfamiliar words.

For other content areas, Mr. Greer recommends providing audio support by allowing ELL students to follow along while text is read aloud in a group or one-on-one setting. If feasible, he recommends that teachers record themselves reading the text and provide the recording to ELL students so that they can access it during homework and review, thus allowing students to work at their own pace.

In addition to audio support, Mr. Greer recommends providing illustrations and graphics for ELL students to support their understanding of the concepts and material being introduced. In one such example, Mr. Greer provides imagery for assigned vocabulary and challenges his students to produce a picture of their own to illustrate meaning.

4.     “Chunk” Material for Easy Digestion 

Breaking down instruction into manageable pieces is not a new concept. We all are familiar with the typical design of textbooks. They are divided into units and chapters, and the chapters are broken down into topics or sections. This example of “chunking” material is a critical concept that should also be applied to ELL instruction with specific scaffolding in mind.

Classroom Application

Meet Ms. Rios, an 8th grade math teacher—who frequently finds her ELL students caught up by confusing vocabulary, difficult word problems, and instructions during independent practice and assessments. She has begun “chunking” her lessons in order to help her ELL students digest the material one piece at a time and remain on track towards academic success.

Recommendations to “chunk” material include:

  • Anticipate points of confusion by providing an overview of key vocabulary, including multiple-meaning words and figurative language.
  • Supply text selections that are accessible to ELLs to establish a solid foundation of central concepts.
  • Provide ongoing formative assessment throughout instruction to ensure that ELLs comprehend the material before moving on.
  • Review key concepts and ask ELLs to summarize the information in one to two sentences as an exit ticket.
  • Collect exit slips and assess to identify areas of struggle and possible opportunities for remediation.
  • Review the previous material for additional reinforcement and to support connections to new topics.

5.     Offer Multiple Learning Opportunities

It is important to provide multiple ways for students to express their understanding of the material and increase their level of inquiry. If you are active in the field of ESL, it is probably clear to you already that this is one of the most frequently discussed strategies to reinforce concepts. As the rigor of assessments continues to increase, so does the need to support learning in a variety of contexts. 

Classroom Application

Meet Mr. Padilla, a 10th grade English teacher preparing his students for high-stakes exams in the coming months. His students have trouble applying their knowledge of basic concepts in more rigorous settings. Mr. Padilla recently received some great ideas to provide multiple learning opportunities in his classroom. After reflecting on his current practices, Mr. Padilla quickly recognized that he was already using several of these strategies, but not consistently or in combination for teaching a single topic. 

Ideas to provide multiple learning opportunities include:

  • Multiple-Choice Questions: Use this type of questioning for more than just recall—engage higher-order thinking skills as well.
  • Cloze Activities: Challenge students to complete the missing terms as they hear the material read to them, increasing the rigor as their proficiency increases.
  • Formative Assessment: Include more comprehension checks in context throughout lessons to ensure that students understand before moving on.
  • Drag-and-Drop and Matching: These activities are effective for teaching concepts such as antonyms/synonyms, rhyming words, and definitions.
  • True/False: Proven useful if taken a step further to show students how to break down a true/false question and also support their answers.
  • Open-Ended Questions: Provide assistance for ELL students to understand what the question is asking. Engage in a think-aloud activity to model for students how to think through a question to arrive at the answer.
  • Group Activities: Clearly define expectations by writing instructions in a list format. Assign roles that match student proficiencies to ensure they will be contributing members in their group.

After incorporating many of these strategies in combination, Mr. Padilla notices that his students are more confident in their understanding, and less intimidated by critical thinking and inquiry-based activities.

6.     Utilize Effective Online Programs 

When incorporating technology, it is important to ensure that the programs support instructional practices to further academic success.  In this information age, it is becoming more commonplace to incorporate technology in the classroom, but many ESL professionals are forced to use multiple programs to try to piece together something that furthers language acquisition skills for ELLs. Seek out a program that supports best practices and allows students to work independently.

Classroom Application

Ms. Beacham has experienced the frustration and confusion of her students when trying to “Frankenstein” together a digital classroom solution. As she began her search for an effective online program, she put together a series of questions that were important in guiding her evaluation. This helped her to focus on the “nuts and bolts” to ensure that the programs she put in front of her students were academically sound.

When evaluating online programs for ELLs, Ms. Beacham asked the following questions:

  • Does this program provide data that I can access to help guide my students?
  • Does this program provide a placement test to assess where students are and then place them at a level appropriate for their language proficiency?
  • Does this program have material that is age appropriate for my ELL students, regardless of their proficiency level?
  • Does this program offer activities to support the four language processes: listening, speaking, reading, and writing?
  • Does this program align to standards?
  • Does this program offer both rigor and accessibility for my students?
  • Does this program engage students?
  • Does this program offer activities to reinforce concepts in various contexts?
  • Does this program provide visual and audio support?
  • Does this program offer tools for teachers to extend lessons and offer additional support for struggling students?
  • Is this program web-based, allowing 24/7 access for students?

By answering these questions during her online program search, Ms. Beacham was able to identify a solution that meets all of the needs of her English language learners.

By utilizing these six strategies and tips, you can ensure that your ELLs have the appropriate support they need to access academic material, while also building their language-acquisition skills. Put theory into practice starting today to support academic achievement for your English language learners and guarantee that your students have the tools for success.