How can I support ELLs in my classroom?

Provide a welcoming classroom environment

Creating a positive learning environment is important for supporting the growth of all students. Most elementary teachers try to establish a sense of community in their classrooms and provide structures such as predictable routines, procedures, and expectations. Because beginning ELLs may not initially understand verbal cues, predictable structures are even more significant in order to reduce anxiety, foster feelings of safety and comfort, and orient them to classroom expectations. Classroom patterns and predictable structures also aid language development. Here are a few examples:

  • Post the daily schedule and keep it as constant as possible.
  • Use specific morning routines, such as lunch count, turning in homework, putting things away, morning greetings, ect.
  • Use predictable signals for getting student attention, transitions, lining up, ect.
  • Use predictable procedures for passing out materials.

In addition to helping a new student feel comfortable through pattern and predictability, it is important to help other students to welcome the ELL into the classroom. Talk to students about the challenges of learning a new language. Help them see that mistakes in English will not mean that the new student is unintelligent. After all, the new student already speaks another language very well. Help the class to look for

ways to include the new student in classroom and playground activities.

Know and include the student

It is beneficial for elementary teachers to get to know all the students in their classes as much as possible, but there may be extra factors to explore for an ELL or student from other cultural backgrounds. Get to know as much of the students’ cultures as possible through reading about their culture, speaking with the ESL specialist or parents, and from observation of the students themselves. Though definitely not an exhaustive list, here are a few initial questions to consider:

  • What kind of prior schooling has the child had? Is the student literate in the home language?
  • What is the cultural orientation towards personal space? Eye contact when an authority figure is speaking to a student? Touch? Timeliness?
  • What is the cultural orientation towards work and leisure?
  • Is the culture more oriented towards competition or cooperation?

Though it would be inappropriate to draw unnecessary attention a beginning ELL in front of the entire class, it is equally inappropriate to ignore the child just assuming he or she will naturally catch on to classroom expectations. Seating the student near the front of the classroom or near the teacher’s desk can help incorporate the child into the classroom community. Additionally, frequent eye contact with the student can communicate care and inclusiveness. Encourage the student to participate in any way that child feels comfortable, but do not force verbal participation. Assigning the student a buddy, especially a buddy from the same home language, can help an ELL adjust to a new school environment. Though learning and practicing English is beneficial, allowing the child to communicate with others in the home language can help clarify classroom expectations and content knowledge.

Modify your speech

Though it will not guarantee perfect communication, using appropriate speech will help ELLs to comprehend both directions and content.

  • Speak more slowly, enunciating carefully while still using a natural tone and rhythm.
  • Use gestures with your speech. Hold up one, two, and three fingers as you list three attributes or give three steps to follow. Use facial expressions to indicate emotion and other kinds of body language or miming.
  • Provide visual aids in the form of pictures or realia (concrete objects or models) or point to sections of text or materials to be used as you mention them.
  • Model directions or processes.
  • Adjust questioning techniques so that students can respond in a way that is appropriate for their stage of English proficiency. The following chart provides some sample question starters appropriate to various stages of English proficiency:
StageAppropriate ExpectationQuestion Starter
PreproductionNodding, pointing, demonstrating.“Show me…””Which of these…”
Early productionOne or two word responses; make a choice between given options.“Is it the ____ one or the ____ one?”Questions with answers of one or two words.
Emergent speechPhrase or short sentence with likely grammatical errors.“What happened next?””Where did you find the answer?”
Intermediate fluencyLonger sentences with fewer grammatical errors.“How did you…?””What was this character trying to do?”

Provide opportunities for interaction

Children cannot learn to speak English without opportunities to practice speaking English. Providing students with opportunities to interact with other students will naturally enhance English language development while also providing the scaffolding needed to help ELLs achieve in the content areas. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Use adequate wait time to help an ELL formulate a response in a large group context.
  • Use a think, pair, share strategy where students first think about a question for themselves, then talk about the question with a partner, and finally share their thoughts with the larger group.
  • Try conversational role plays in pairs or small groups. Topics could include using polite language (please, thank you, excuse me…), interviewing someone, how to use I-messages, resolving conflict, and others.
  • Provide time for buddy reading of texts that are a little beyond the ELLs independent comprehension level.
  • Use learning centers for literacy, math, science, or social studies investigations.
  • Use cooperative learning projects. Have teams work together to create an artistic display of their names, create an “assembly-line” style craft project where each team member contributes to the final product, have groups work together to complete a puzzle or word search, or do a jigsaw reading activity where each member reads a different text and reports back important information to the group.

Support literacy development

Literacy instruction is one area in which knowledge of the individual student is especially helpful. Depending on culture and life history, an ELL may have solid literacy skills in a language similar to English, in a language that is completely different from English, or very little prior literacy skills at all. The more fully a child’s literacy skills in the home language have developed, the better foundation there is for literacy skills in English; and the more similar the two languages, the easier it is to transfer literacy from one to another.

Good instruction in reading and writing looks the same whether you are teaching native-English speakers or ELLs. This section highlights a few areas of best practice that are especially important to keep in mind when working with ELLs.

Reading Instruction

Helping students learn to decode words is important, but helping them make meaning of text is essential. Instruction in phonics and high frequency words is best done in the context of meaningful text. Reading texts multiple times can build fluency in word recognition while concurrently providing an opportunity to focus on comprehension strategies, such as the following examples:

  • Previewing: Paging through a text ahead of time to look at pictures or headings can begin to activate prior knowledge that helps a reader to both decode words and make meaning of text. ELLs may not bring the same kinds of background knowledge to a text as other students. For example, they may not be familiar with the “once upon a time… and they lived happily ever after” story structure for a fairy tale. They may know a lot about tortillas, but nothing about crackers. Taking time to help students build background knowledge is essential.
  • Predicting: Making predictions during reading about what will come next is both an effective comprehension strategy and a motivator. It builds anticipation, motivating students to keep reading to check and see if predictions are correct.
  • Monitoring and Questioning: Help students learn to think about what they are reading to monitor their own comprehension. When a “red flag” pops up during reading, help students ask questions like, “What does this word mean?” “How could that have happened?” or “What are they talking about now?” It is helpful if the teacher models this strategy and then helps direct students to where to find answers: reread, keep reading to see if there is clarification provided in the text, or asking someone for help.
  • Making connections: Connecting text to personal experience, other texts, or prior knowledge aids comprehension and helps students to internalize a text. Phrases like, “this reminds me of…” are useful for helping students to make connections.
  • Summarizing and retelling: Putting text into more general words is a great strategy for monitoring comprehension. Summarizing can occur during reading with a technique like GIST (Generating Interaction between Schemata and Text). In this technique, students work in cooperative groups and read sections of text silently. After each section the members of the group work collaboratively to generate one sentence that summarizes the “gist” of the passage. Each member writes the sentence down so that by the end each member of the group has a summary of the text. Summarizing can also occur after reading an entire text. Students can retell a story in a beginning, middle, and end chart or dramatize it.
  • Text Structures: ELLs do not always bring the same prior knowledge of story or informational structures to reading since different cultures may commonly use different structures for texts. Using graphic organizers before or after reading to cue students in on these structures can be especially helpful.

Development of Writing Skills

There are three factors that help determine the ease with which beginning ELLs learn to write in English: (1) whether or not they already know how to read in their first language, (2) the extent to which the home language alphabet is similar to the English alphabet, and (3) the number of opportunities they are given to practice reading and writing in English from the beginning.

Supporting students in developing and communicating ideas first and worrying about correct grammar and spelling later is becoming more common as the writing process guides writing instruction in an increasing number of classrooms (Prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, publishing). Process writing is commonly used in ESL classrooms as well. The interactive process of conferencing provides opportunity for authentic conversation practice in addition to helping to develop a piece of written work. However, full participation in the process may not be possible until an intermediate or advanced level of English proficiency is acquired.

Beginning writers may simply draw pictures and label things. Over time they may begin to write one or two short sentences, though there may be problems with word order and they are likely to write only in present tense. There are a few strategies that can help support beginning ELLs in writing:

  • Allow the student to talk with someone about an idea before writing to activate needed ideas and vocabulary.
  • Provide writing scaffolds: Have students write the story for a wordless book; create pattern books modeled after a classroom book in groups; create concept books for a color, shape, or adjective like tall or short; write pattern poems.
  • Use personal journals, buddy journals (between two students), or dialogue journals (between teacher and student or parent and student) to help promote fluency.
  • Encourage the use of inventive spelling, but also provide personal dictionaries to record correct spellings for frequently used words.

Intermediate writers will be able to write a number of sentences in a fairly organized sequence. They may be able to express all their ideas comfortable, but still lack the diverse vocabulary needed for fine shades of meaning. They can usually use several tenses in their writing, but may often make minor grammatical errors, such as leaving off the –s for third person singular verbs. Here are a few strategies that may help support intermediate ELLs in writing:

  • Help students learn to combine two short sentences into one longer sentence to add sentence variety.
  • Do mini-lessons focused on using precise vocabulary. Have students create class books on color words, strong verbs, emotions, or other lists of synonyms that can be used as resources during writer’s workshop.
  • Allow students to use computers for their writing. The spelling and grammar functions of word processing programs can help students identify and correct their own errors more autonomously.

Support ELLS in the content areas: Math, Social Studies, Science

According to current educational policy, ELLs must be given full access to all academic content and must prove they can achieve at high levels on state testing. This means that teachers must adapt their instruction to support the language development of ELLs without watering down the content in any way. To make sure that language needs are addressed, all lessons in the content areas should have both content and language objectives. To determine the language objective, teachers should think about what kind of language support ELLs need to successfully meet the content objective. Lessons can be adapted to develop vocabulary, build background knowledge, modify texts, or provide a framework for understanding so that ELLs can access content objectives.

Vocabulary Development

There are four major categories of language support that might be necessary in content areas. (1) All content areas have specialized technical vocabulary that is not a part of everyday spoken English that all students must learn, such as isosceles triangle. (2) There is also language in each content area that English proficient students have mastered, but beginning ELLs have not yet learned, for example, microscope, thermometer, or ruler. (3) Often common English words may be used in a different specialized way in a content area, for example, table as a way to represent data. (4) Students may need a scaffold for everyday language structures or frameworks for reporting their learning, for example “The ____ is __ inches long.”

Vocabulary activities can build background knowledge by introducing new terms, review terms that have been introduced previously, or help to organize or classify terms in a conceptual framework.

  • Word Walls: Content vocabulary of the greatest importance is hung in relevant groupings on a wall of the classroom. Students can each add an illustration to one word for the class wall. This way the wall provides connections to meanings.
  • Word Sorts: Content vocabulary words are written on index cards and students are asked to sort the words by category. For example, Length: inches, feet, yards, centimeters, meters; Weight: ounces, pounds, grams, kilograms
  • Concept Definition Map:
    What is it? What is it like? What are some examples?
  • Dramatization: Have students act out content words, either the word itself or a situation in which the word would be used.

Since the focus of content area instruction is learning the content, it is important to provide opportunities for the students to talk about the content in both English and their home language if there are other students who speak the same home language in the class. This will allow students to engage more deeply with the content, clarify any questions they have, and correct any misconceptions that might arise as a result of misunderstandings of English.

Build or Connect to Background Knowledge

  • Use visuals, realia, and manipulatives whenever possible so that abstract ideas can be made as concrete as possible.
  • Go on field trips to build background knowledge for a new topic.
  • Some videos, computer software, and websites are resources that can be used to build background knowledge through their visual or interactive nature.

Modify Texts

  • Supplemental resources: Find books that cover the same concepts at a lower reading level.
  • Highlighted text: Reserve a few copies of texts specifically for ELLs. Highlight the overriding ideas, key concepts, important vocabulary, and summary statements in these texts and encourage students to first read only the highlighted sections. This reduces the reading demands of the text while helping students pick out the most important ideas.
  • Taped text: Record entire texts or highlighted sections so that students can listen as they follow along in the book. Tapes can be available for both school and home use so that students can listen multiple times.
  • Adapted text: If there are no other resources or adaptations that can be made to give access to ELLs, then adapting a text is appropriate. The teacher rewrites important sections of text in short simple sentences in a step by step manner, defining relevant vocabulary to create an easier read. (“Electrons have negative electric charges and orbit around the core, nucleus, of an atom.” Can be rewritten as, “Electrons have negative charges. They orbit around the center. The center of the atom is called the nucleus.”) Rewritten paragraphs should include a topic sentence and a few details to provide ease in identifying important information.

Provide a Framework for Understanding

Many graphic organizers can serve as advance organizers to build background knowledge or provide a review of a key concept from a lesson. Creating this type of framework during a lesson can also be useful for helping students to develop connections and understandings in their heads.

  • Timeline: A timeline helps students to sequence events and see visually how events are related over time.
  • Venn Diagram: Two things or concepts are compared. Information about each one is written in the designated circle. Any similarities are written in the area of the two circles that overlaps.
  • Attribute Chart: This type of chart helps students to make comparisons across multiple examples. The students should be actively involved in creating the chart, using resources or prior experience to fill the needed information.
AnimalFarmZoo4 Legs2 LegsWingsHairBabies (Live)Babies (Eggs)

Build autonomy by teaching learning strategies

Students can learn in the content areas more effectively and independently if they know the kinds of learning strategies that can help. Some students may naturally use these strategies, while others will need to be explicitly taught to employ them. There are metacognitive strategies which help students to monitor themselves and their own thinking and understanding; cognitive strategies which help students to organize information; and social-affective strategies which help students interact with others or control emotions to enhance their own learning. Many of these strategies are similar to the types of reading comprehension strategies that good readers learn. A few examples of such strategies are:

Metacognitive Strategies

  • Advanced organization: Previewing section headings and bold words of a text, planning how to organize and use materials.
  • Selective attention: Focus on key words in spoken or written language
  • Self-monitoring: Checking one’s comprehension; checking oral and written production as it is taking place.
  • Self-assessment: Judging how well one did a task.

Cognitive Strategies

  • Use available resources: Dictionaries, word walls, encyclopedias, ect.
  • Connecting: Take new information and relate it to prior knowledge or personal experience.
  • Summarizing: Review main ideas in spoken or written language.
  • Rehearsal: Reviewing an idea or concept multiple times or practicing a new skill repeatedly.

Social-affective Strategies

  • Questioning: Ask others for clarification, rephrasing, or more information.
  • Self-talk: Use mental techniques to boost one’s confidence or reduce anxiety about a learning task.
  • Cooperation: Working with peers to solve problems or pool information.

Modify assessments

Creating quality assessments for ELLs can be challenging. Most traditional assessments are very language dependent, requiring students to read and understand both directions and test questions and sometimes to write lengthy responses. Though such tests may provide information about an ELL’s reading comprehension and writing composition skills, they may not give an accurate picture of student progress towards attaining instructional objectives or provide feedback to the teacher about the level of success of instructional strategies. For this reason, it is necessary to adapt tests, use alternate forms of assessment, and use as many different forms of assessments as possible so that language will not be an obstacle to obtaining a clear sense of each student’s

progress in the content areas.

Adapting Tests

There are a number of different modifications that can be used to create a more approachable testing situation for ELLs, depending on the level of English proficiency:

  • Have the test translated into the student’s home language or allow them to use bilingual dictionaries.
  • Provide the student with extra time for taking the test because thinking and processing takes longer in a new language.
  • Read directions and test questions aloud to the student.
  • Allow oral or pictorial responses.
  • Simplify the language on the test: use short sentences and easy vocabulary.
  • Allow students to make lists instead of writing essays or complete sentences.
  • Provide students with word banks containing relevant vocabulary.
  • Ask students to fill in graphic organizers similar to those used during instruction.

Using Alternate Forms of Assessment

Alternate assessments may provide more useful information about student progress than traditional tests. Often these assessments are less language dependent, more skill based, or more relevant to real life contexts.

  • Observations: Keep anecdotal records or skills checklists about what you notice as students are working or participating in class.
  • Formal Performance Assessments: Have a child demonstrate the mastery of a particular skill. For example, how to solve a math problem or how to read a map.
  • Sorting activities: Ask students to sort objects or word cards to demonstrate ability to understand a concept. For example, sort objects by initial sound, sort number sentences by sum or difference, sort pictures of animal by classification, sequence pictures of the water cycle.
  • Models and visual displays: Students create a model to demonstrate understanding of the characteristics of something or an understanding of how something works. For example, use clay to create an insect and a spider to show their differences; create a shoe box model of a habitat with both plants and animals, create a diagram that shows how the digestive system works.
  • Graphic organizers: Completing a web, comparison chart, or some other type of graphic organizer can uncover student conceptual understanding, especially if the student is already familiar with the uses for the particular graphic organizer.
  • Self-assessments: Ask students to complete a learning log, circle a number on a continuum to show how well they worked with group members, use a rubric to give themselves a score based on specific criteria, complete a K-W-L chart, tell what strategy they used to solve a problem, or write what was easy or hard about a concept.
  • Rubrics: Create rubrics along with students highlighting the different components that will be graded and the criteria for attaining each score. A written rubric along with a visual sample or demonstration helps students to understand and meet expectations. This is especially effective for grading writing, oral presentations, or projects. For example, a rubric for a writing sample might look at correct use of past tense verbs, story idea, the amount of detail included, and sequencing.
  • Differentiated Scoring: When a teacher uses this type of grading, an assignment receives two scores: one that is based on demonstration of content area knowledge and skills and another that is based on demonstration of English language proficiency. In this way progress in both content and English language can be monitored.

Using Multiple Forms of Assessment

To collect the most accurate information about each student’s progress, a variety of assessments are best. Different kinds of assessment give different information about student learning, and some types of assessment might match the purpose or objective better than others. Portfolios are one way to collect and organize multiple forms of data. Portfolios can be collections of work that a student chooses to demonstrate best work or areas that need improvement. They can also be a holding place for all pertinent classwork, tests, checklists, self-assessments, rubrics, and projects. Regardless of how portfolios are put together, their ultimate purpose is the same as that of any assessment: to highlight student achievement and to create goals for continued learning.

Sample Assessments for an Insect Unit:

Original Unit Test

1. Describe the life cycle of the following:



2. How do you know an animal is an insect?

3. What foods do insects eat?

4. Why are insects important?

Unit Test Modified for ELLs: A partially completed graphic organizer

Insect NameLife CycleWhat it eatsHow it looksWhy it’s importantInteresting facts
Monarch butterflyEggLarvaPupa (chrysalis)AdultMilkweed leaves (larva)Nectar from flowers (adult)Head — eyes, antennaThorax — legs and 4 wingsAbdomenHelp to pollinate flowersThey do not fly at night

Alternate Assessments for a Unit Portfolio

  • Keep an observation log of the life cycle of real monarch butterflies in the classroom. Given a diagram of the life cycle of another insect, create one drawing to show the four stages of the butterfly’s life cycle.
  • Create a drawing or clay model of two adult insects including three body parts, legs, wings, eyes, and antenna. Verbally tell how the insects are the same or different.
  • Work with a strong English speaker in a cooperative learning jigsaw reading to learn and share interesting facts about insects and why they are important. Complete a self-assessment on  learning, participation, and contribution to the group.