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6 Strategies for Supporting ELLs in the Elementary Classroom

6 Strategies for Supporting ELLs in the Elementary Classroom

According to 2016 data reported by the National Center for Education Statistics, a higher percentage of public school students in elementary grades were English language learner (ELL) students as compared to secondary-aged learners. For example, 16.2 percent of kindergarteners were ELL students, compared with 8.5 percent of 6th graders and 6.9 percent of 8th graders.

Knowing that ELLs represent a growing part of the U.S. student body and that elementary schools are feeling the weight of that impact, it’s critical that K–5 educators are prepared to support these students. Consider implementing these six elementary strategies to give your ELL students the best shot at success.

1. Visual Aids Are Your Friend

When English isn’t a student’s native language, accessing vocabulary both for communication and academics can be difficult. Where possible, reinforce the language with visual aids. Start by labeling common classroom objects, adding pictures to your word wall, and helping students build their own personal picture dictionary as vocabulary is introduced.

In addition to these visual-centric tips, embed visuals into your daily instruction. Consider using imagery in presentations, sketching out models as you instruct, or incorporating short videos where possible. The added reinforcement will help all students pick up new concepts but will particularly benefit those also grappling with language acquisition simultaneously.

2. Pre-Teach, Teach, Review. Repeat.

Whether you’ve experienced the complexities of learning a new language or not, consider a time when you had to learn something that was particularly troublesome for you to grasp. Likely, the more exposure you had to the material through a series of differentiated modes, the more your understanding grew. That’s just what ELLs need (and let’s be honest, all students can benefit).

Before you kick off a new unit, pre-teach key vocabulary to your ELLs in a small group, then when those words are repeated later on, there will already be a baseline understanding. Seek out other opportunities for thoughtful repetition and reinforcement as well. Consider the books you choose to support instruction—do you have the option to choose ones with repeated or predictable phrases that make it easier for ELLs to follow along? And, at the end of a lesson, play review games for additional reinforcement with an added element of fun.

3. Give Directions in the Same Way Every Time

If your ELLs have trouble following directions, consider the fact that it might not be because they’re goofing off or not paying attention. Maybe, they’re just having trouble figuring out exactly what the directions are.

Develop a pattern and predictable sequence that make it easier to keep up. For example, a lot of elementary activities involve additional supplies—so is the expectation for the sequence of steps to label, cut, color, and glue or to cut, glue, color, and label? Give your instructions the same way every time, and leverage common vocabulary that’s easy for ELLs to grasp. And, if you can reinforce instructions with a set of laminated pictures attached to a board in a particular sequence for added reinforcement, even better!

4. Don’t Overlook Classroom Culture

The best thing you can do to support your ELLs is to create a safe classroom environment that encourages them to participate, speak up, and yes, even make mistakes. Focus on developing a growth mindset with your students—one that recognizes that growth doesn’t happen when things are easy; it happens when students persist through challenges.

Take time to set individual goals with students and check in on progress so that they can own their successes, however small those may be in the beginning. Additionally, foster community through shared classroom goals and celebrations that allow students who might otherwise be struggling to experience success as part of a collective.

5. Strive for Cultural Inclusivity

Likely, your ELLs bring with them a rich cultural heritage that might be different from other students in your classroom. Are they feeling represented in your teaching practices? Go the extra mile to pull in real-world examples for applying learning concepts that are also culturally relevant.

Consider looking for read-alouds that represent different cultures, and better yet, find creative ways to stock your classroom library with books from different cultures. Not knowing the language can already make students feel like they are “different.” When your students are seen, they’ll also feel valued for their differences.

6. Supplement Teaching with an Individualized Online Program

Even given your best efforts, the reality is that you likely have in front of you a class of 20-plus students who represent a large range of abilities. Let technology help you meet students where they are with individualized learning paths catered to the specific skills they’re ready for in the moment. Consider two Edmentum programs that have been approved through the WIDA™ PRIME V2™ Correlation process following rigorous, independent reviews.

  • Reading Eggs builds foundational literacy skills for ELLs in pre-K–6th grade and focuses on reinforcing the five pillars of reading: phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency.
  • Exact Path ensures academic growth for your elementary ELLs with assessment-driven learning paths that focus on closing discrete skill gaps in reading and math.

Looking for more ways to support your elementary ELLs? Check out this blog post about why you should be supporting your ELLs with sentence frames!

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Madison Michell

Madison Michell has been a member of the Edmentum team since 2014 and currently serves as a Marketing Manager. As a former Kindergarten and 3rd grade teacher during her time as a Teach For America corps member, she believes education truly has the power to transform lives. She is passionate about connecting educators with online programs, best practices, and research that improve teaching and learning for today's students.