Strategies for Supporting ELLs in the Mainstream Classroom

Oct 31, 2023
EL Ls Group

As a classroom teacher, it’s likely you’ll always have English Language Learners (ELLs) present in your class. Whether teaching ELA and SLA in a dual language English/Spanish classroom, or teaching math in a mainstream classroom, you’ll always have the opportunity to teach students for whom English is 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 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 language

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

3. Incorporate multiple modalities

When planning lessons, think about different ways information can be presented to students. Just as there are many different learning styles in a larger class population, care must be taken to ensure that ELL students receive similar treatment. Providing specific auditory and visual support increases fluency, communicates meaning by demonstrating accurate intonation, and aids in vocabulary development for ELLs.

Incorporate images, videos, and actions to help students draw on background knowledge and make sense of new concepts or vocabulary that they are learning. Providing specific auditory and visual support increases fluency, communicates meaning by demonstrating accurate intonation, and aids in vocabulary development for ELLs.

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 using them in lessons.

For example, teachers can begin teaching a subject by highlighting key vocabulary the ELL students need to know. Provide them the terms, with accessible definitions, contextual examples, and even pictures to illustrate the meaning of the words, prior to instruction. By giving a preview of information, the teacher gives students time to develop a basic understanding of the meaning, in turn providing ELLs the additional scaffolding they need to have the same opportunity to be successful as native English speakers.

Depending on where students are in their language-acquisition process, teachers could also provide native-language support by including the word in the student’s native language, and the same term in English. This allows for students to try decoding; understanding terms first in their native language, and then transferring meaning to the new language.

In addition to supporting 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.

5. Utilize effective online programs

When incorporating technology, it is important to ensure that the programs support instructional practices to further academic success. In this information age, it is becoming more commonplace to incorporate technology in the classroom, but many ESL professionals are forced to use multiple programs to try to piece together something that furthers language acquisition skills for ELLs. Seek out a program that supports best practices and allows students to work independently.

When evaluating online programs for ELLs, consider asking the following questions:

  • Does this program provide data that I can access to help guide my students?
  • Does this program provide a placement test to assess where students are and then place them at a level appropriate for their language proficiency?
  • Does this program have material that is age appropriate for my ELL students, regardless of their proficiency level?
  • Does this program offer activities to support the four language processes: listening, speaking, reading, and writing?
  • Does this program align to standards?
  • Does this program offer both rigor and accessibility for my students?
  • Does this program engage students?
  • Does this program offer activities to reinforce concepts in various contexts?
  • Does this program provide visual and audio support?
  • Does this program offer tools for teachers to extend lessons and offer additional support for struggling students?
  • Is this program web-based, allowing 24/7 access for students?
6. Connect concepts to background knowledge

Tying new information to something familiar can be an important step in understanding complex material. For English language learners, providing background information, sometimes with native-language support creates a foundation of familiarity. This helps students as they are decoding information—first trying to comprehend in their native language, and then transferring that understanding into English.

Practice Strategies

7. Offer multiple learning opportunities 

It is important to provide multiple ways for students to express their understanding of the material and increase their level of inquiry. As the rigor of assessments continues to increase, so does the need to support learning in a variety of contexts.

Ideas to provide multiple learning opportunities include:

  • Multiple-Choice Questions: Use this type of questioning for more than just recall—engage higher-order thinking skills as well.
  • Cloze Activities: Challenge students to complete the missing terms as they hear the material read to them, increasing the rigor as their proficiency increases.
  • Formative Assessment: Include more comprehension checks in context throughout lessons to ensure that students understand before moving on.
  • Drag-and-Drop and Matching: These activities are effective for teaching concepts such as antonyms/synonyms, rhyming words, and definitions.
  • True/False: Proven useful if taken a step further to show students how to break down a true/false question and also support their answers.
  • Open-Ended Questions: Provide assistance for ELL students to understand what the question is asking. Engage in a think-aloud activity to model for students how to think through a question to arrive at the answer.
  • Group Activities: Clearly define expectations by writing instructions in a list format. Assign roles that match student proficiencies to ensure they will be contributing members in their group.
8. 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.

9. 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.

Additional recommendations to help educators “chunk” material include:

  • Anticipate points of confusion by providing an overview of key vocabulary, including multiple-meaning words and figurative language.
  • Supply text selections that are accessible to ELLs to establish a solid foundation of central concepts.
  • Provide ongoing formative assessment throughout instruction to ensure that ELLs comprehend the material before moving on.
  • Review key concepts and ask ELLs to summarize the information in one to two sentences as an exit ticket.
  • Collect exit slips and assess to identify areas of struggle and possible opportunities for remediation.
  • Review the previous material for additional reinforcement and to support connections to new topics.
10. 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.

Captivate your ELL students' curiosity and accelerate language acquisition. Discover the power of visual aids for enhancing comprehension and engagement.

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