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7 Strategies for Supporting ELLs in the Mainstream Classroom

Monday, January 30, 2017 -- Regina Waddell

During my career as a classroom teacher, there was never a time that I did not have English Language Learners (ELLs) in my class. Whether teaching ELA and SLA in a dual language English/Spanish classroom, or teaching math in a mainstream classroom, I always had the opportunity to teach students for whom English was not their native language. In a bilingual classroom, this is to be expected, but as targeted ESL pull-out programs are becoming less and less common, teachers are often required to meet the needs of ELLs within the mainstream classroom too. 

Here are some instructional and practice strategies that will help to provide ELLs at any level with the support they need to be successful (and benefit your native English speakers as well!).

Instructional Strategies

1. Shorten your lectures 

For English Language Learners, keep lectures to 5 to 7 minutes in length. ELLs are not only processing the content, they are also trying to make sense of the language at the same time. This requires a lot of cognitive effort, so they need frequent opportunities to pause, reflect, and apply what they have learned. Longer lectures can deny students those opportunities, making it harder for them to understand or retain the content and causing frustration and mental fatigue.

2. Simplify your language 

It's important to make sure that the language you use doesn't hinder your ELLs’ ability to access the content presented. Avoid idiomatic expressions and overly complex sentence structures.

3. Incorporate multiple modalities 

As you plan your lessons, think about different ways that you can present information to your students. Incorporate images, videos, and actions to help students draw on background knowledge and make sense of new concepts or vocabulary that they are learning. For example, if you are teaching students about a battle in the civil war, show them a video clip that depicts the action.

4. Pre-teach Academic Language 

Conversational language—what students need to know to communicate with others—develops rather quickly when students are immersed in a language. However, academic language, which is needed by students to learn effectively in school, often takes much longer and requires deliberate practice in order to master. To help ELLs master content more quickly and improve their academic language skills, pre-teach certain vocabulary words and concepts before you use them in your lessons. This will provide your ELLs the additional scaffolding they need to have the same opportunity to be successful as your native English speakers.

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In addition to supporting your English Language Learners during instruction, it's also important to incorporate regular practice strategies that promote language development and broader learning skills in English Language Learners.

Practice Strategies

5. Allow students to work in pairs or in groups 

Working in pairs or groups is not only more fun for students, it also promotes learning. When ELLs work with other students, they have the opportunity to practice and improve their listening and speaking skills while developing academic language and content knowledge. ELLs can also be intimidated by the possibility of getting things wrong in front of the teacher, so allowing students to work together can relieve some of that anxiety.

6. Chunk large assignments into bite-sized pieces with clear instructions 

Projects that involve multiple steps are a great way to give your students additional responsibility and allow them to apply what they have learned at a more complex level. For ELLs, however, big projects can feel overwhelming. To help your ELLs tackle projects, divide the work into smaller, more manageable pieces and provide clear instructions on how to complete each step. Guide your students to create a checklist for the entire project so that they can track their progress and celebrate milestones toward completion.

7. Provide time for self-selected reading and writing every day

Having time for self-selected reading and writing is important to the literacy development of all students, and for ELLs, daily practice is crucial for language development as well. English Language Learners spend the majority of their days working through the language barrier to master content.  Spending time reading self-selected books at the correct reading level, and writing on topics that are of interest to them gives students the opportunity to practice what they are learning in a context that they enjoy. While reading, students will be exposed to a variety of vocabulary words, grammar uses, and sentence structures, and while writing, students can try out their new language skills while expressing themselves.

The language acquisition journey of every ELL is different, but incorporating these strategies into your daily lessons will help you promote achievement and minimize frustration for both you and your English Language Learners. Looking for more tips to support your ELLS? Check out this blog for an in-depth look at six effective classroom strategies!