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September 1, 2016

Teaching English Language Learners (ELLs) in the Elementary Classroom

Having non- or limited-English speaking students in your general education classroom can be a challenge, especially if you have little experience working with English Language Learners.

In the elementary classroom, it is difficult to support the different needs of all of your students, and adding a language barrier to the mix only makes it more challenging. Luckily, there are simple things that you can do that will not only make it easier for you as a teacher, but that will also help your English Language Learners feel comfortable and safe in your classroom.

The Alphabet Soup of Acronyms

First, you may come across many acronyms when working with students for whom English isn’t their first language. Use the list below to help you understand the terminology.

  • ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages): A program designed to integrate non-native English speakers into general education classrooms.
  • ESL (English as a Second Language): A program designed to integrate non-native English speakers into general education classrooms. ESL is a misnomer because English could be a third, etc., language.
  • ELL (English Language Learner): A student who is entitled to accommodations, whether in an ESOL, ESL, or other program.
  • RELL (Reclassified English Language Learner): An ELL who has exited ESOL, but who may still receive limited accommodations for two years after exit.
  • ELP (English Language Proficiency): This is a number (Level 1-5) that indicates a students’ English proficiency. Level 1 refers to students with very limited or no understanding of English, and progresses to Level 5, which indicates advanced English proficiency.
  • LEP (Limited English Proficient): A student who is unable to communicate effectively in English.

Now that you know some of the common acronyms, it’s time to put yourself in the shoes of your students who are at various ELPs.

From the Perspective of ELLs

Picture this: You’re a new student who doesn’t speak English fluently. You’re in a new country that is miles away from home. You’re nervous and afraid to speak up because you don’t want to make a mistake and embarrass yourself in front of your classmates. You wonder, “What if I have to go to the bathroom? What if I don’t understand my teacher’s directions? What if I get called on in class? How will I make friends?”

As the teacher, you have the power to mitigate these stress-inducing feelings. Below is a list of best practices that you can use to make your ELLs feel comfortable, understood, and valued.

Best Practices to Support ELLs

Get to know as much as you can about your students

Some ELLs might possess a strong understanding of basic nouns and verbs while other ELLs might have little to no English proficiency. To better understand your students’ needs, find out as much as you can about their backgrounds, such as which languages are spoken at home, information about their previous schooling, which country they are from, if they have relatives in other classrooms, etc. Check with the school guidance counselor to collect as much information as you can, and set aside one-on-one time to meet with your ELLs individually.

Learn their names

Ask your students to pronounce their names for you. Then, repeat their names and ask if you are saying it correctly. Also, let your students practice saying your name. If they are confident saying your name, they will be more likely to ask questions and to communicate openly with you.

Give them a tour

Show students the nearest bathroom, the cafeteria, the school office, the nurse’s office, etc. Use one or two words to describe each location to make sure your ELLs understand.

Use the buddy system

Seat each ELL with a proficient-speaking student who can help them feel comfortable. This student should be kind, helpful, and familiar with the school building.

Offer one-on-one feedback

Circle the classroom when students are completing activities or participating in group work. This is a great opportunity to check for student understanding, especially with ELLs who may not be comfortable asking questions. Avoid yes/no questions (e.g., Do you understand?), and instead, ask questions that focus on the content/instruction (e.g., Is this list in the correct order? What will you do next?, etc.).

Select your library and resources

Stock your bookshelves with age-appropriate picture books, especially picture dictionaries. Now that you know your students’ backgrounds, it will also be helpful to provide reading materials that refer to their culture and native country. This website has a number of excellent tips to help you select classroom reading materials. You can also create a word wall with important vocabulary and accompanying pictures for your ELLs to reference throughout the day.

Speak Thoughtfully

When working with ELLs, the most important thing to remember is that there is not a one-size-fits-all teaching practice to support your students’ various ELPs. To make it easier for your students to understand, remember to speak slowly, use an active voice, avoid idioms and sarcastic comments, and keep your sentences short. A great motto to live by is: Repeat, restate, demonstrate! Scholastic offers a great list of additional tips for teaching ELLs.

Communicate Effectively

If your ELL’s family doesn’t speak and/or read English, use a free translation tool, like Ginger Software, to convert parent- and guardian-facing documents to their native language.


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