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April 19, 2021

Supporting English Learners in the Primary Classroom

Common Core Standards ask students to construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others in math; ask and answer questions about key details in a text; and participate in collaborative conversations about topics and texts. Students are expected to explain their thinking and build on others’ talk in conversation.

But what if your students don’t speak English?

When teachers shift into Common Core Standards mode this fall, we must remember that although the standards are common, the students we teach are not.

As a former English learner (EL) and a teacher of ELs, I know the challenges our EL students face. And the stakes are higher today then they have ever been. How do we ensure that our EL students not only gain access to the core curriculum but also succeed in meeting standards like their native-speaker counterparts?

Many teachers working with ELs have experienced little or no preparation or professional development for this challenging task. Here’s a quick guide to classroom elements that matter in supporting EL achievement:

Safe Learning Community

Students learn best in an environment where there is a “low-affective filter.” “Affective filter” refers to the emotional filter inside us that can either cause anxiety and stress (when it is high) or facilitate risk-taking and self-confidence (when it is low). These are ways to create a classroom that lowers the affective filter:

  • Get to know students and families
  • Build positive rapport, establishing a relationship with each student
  • Celebrate diversity, using literature, photos, and examples reflecting students’ ethnicity
  • Avoid overemphasizing language mistakes and praise attempts
  • Promote collaboration and mutual respect


ELs may go through a silent-listening period before they are ready to speak publicly. This is not a sign of disrespect. Students must be immersed in the new language, hearing and practicing the sounds and rhythms of it before they are ready to attempt it.

Allow extra wait time for ELs to respond in class. I use the term “think time” with students, and model what it looks like when we provide our classmates with extra time to gather thoughts and words before they speak. Always encourage and praise effort.

Opportunities to Speak While Doing

Provide students with many opportunities during the day to practice and use their new language in a natural and safe learning environment.

To help ELs connect their actions with words, use hands-on learning activities. Language acquired through their own experiences holds more meaning for students. Use gestures, varied intonation, and simple sentences with actions to help ELs comprehend the spoken word.

Physical movement during games and outdoor activities offer ELs opportunities to listen and respond in a less stressful environment. They are not singled out and can look to peers when unsure about what to do.

Vocabulary and Language Development Activities

In addition to the regular language arts class, ELs may need time for specific instruction in acquiring vocabulary and oral language development. Here are some strategies you can use in providing this additional support:

  • Using illustrations, pictures, visuals, graphic organizers
  • Singing, chanting, or rhyming to learn new vocabulary
  • Creating simple charts with students
  • Selecting nonfiction texts that build academic vocabulary and content knowledge
  • Providing explicit instruction, modeling, and guided practice
  • Demonstrating gestures connected to the written word and to phrases
  • Adjusting speech, speaking slowly, and enunciating clearly
  • Gradually adding on longer and extended phrases and sentences
  • Teaching words in context of topic, literature, or activity— not in isolation
  • Introducing and practicing high-frequency words
  • Clarifying meaning when needed
  • Modeling simple sentence structure and providing opportunities to practice
  • Providing informal settings and activities to practice conversational speech
  • Using guided reading books at students’ reading level
  • Creating opportunities to collaborate with native-speaking peers

Allowing different ways to participate in reading activities in class (see chart).

Literacy Development Activities

To help ELs develop reading comprehension and writing skills, consider some of the following strategies:

  • Using a graphic organizer to retell a story and describe its elements
  • Practicing oral retelling while using visuals from text (when ready)
  • Sequencing pictures from the story
  • Dramatizing the story using action and words (when ready)
  • Writing frames and sentence starters
  • Charting and displaying student responses
  • Interactive writing (when teacher and student write together)

Authentic Assessments

Standardized tests use specific language that can be challenging for English learners. Use a variety of measures to get a more accurate picture of students’ understanding. Open-ended tasks allow students to draw, write, and show their learning, thinking, and understanding of concepts and skills.

What activities or strategies do you find most effective when helping ELs to succeed academically while mastering a new language? Please share! Center for Teaching Quality is writing a series of blogs in partnership with Teaching Channel. CTQ is transforming the teaching profession through the bold ideas and expert practices of teacher leaders.


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