Top Ten Tips for New Teachers of English Language Learners

Top Ten Tips for New Teachers of English Language Learners

Whether or not you graduated from college with an emphasis in teaching English language learners, chances are you will have ELLs in your classroom. According to the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition, from the decade ending with the 2008–9 school year, the population of English language learners attending public schools grew from 3.5 million to 5.3 million students, or by an incredible 51 percent. Yet many teachers have received little or no training in teaching ELL, and are not equipped to teach students in this changing demographic (Batt 41). Teachers need tools to help ELLs to be successful in the classroom. “Teachers are the most important school-based influence in improving student achievement, especially for immigrant students and English language learners“ (Teacher Voices 3). What can be done from day one to help ELL students be successful in the classroom? All teachers need to be equipped to help all of their students succeed. Here’s my list of top ten tips for new teachers of English language learners.

1. Value Community: Get To Know Students

ELL students in classrooms come in with a variety of needs, abilities, and levels of English proficiency. Some will have the support of brothers, sisters, and parents learning English. One may be the sole English language learner in her household. Another may be attempting to make sense of a culture very different from his native culture, reeling from trauma of his past, and mourning the loss of loved ones, while trying to understand a new language. Some may sound proficient with oral language but be struggling with reading and writing comprehension. Each student will be unique. The important key is that the teacher knows each student (Kozleski, Mulligan, and Hernandez-Seda 3). See students as unique individuals. Make a point of getting to know their personal stories, likes, and dislikes. Effective teachers see their students as assets in the classroom. It is important to establish routines in the classroom to give a sense of security and belonging. Keeping seating charts the same for longer periods of time help ELL students get to know their classmates. Be watchful for the social and emotional needs of ELL students. Value each student every day (Peregoy and Boyle).

2. Understand and Respect Other Cultures

Each student brings culture into the classroom. By learning about a student’s religion, customs, traditions, family life, celebrations, clothing, and food (Flynn and Hill), teachers are better equipped to teach effectively, better able to understand behaviors and struggles, and share in joys and special celebrations. Teachers have the opportunity to help students appreciate each other’s diversity. Encouraging students to share about their past or to celebrate things that are important to them gives students a sense of belonging. It allows them to be thankful for who they are. It empowers them.

It is also important for teachers to realize that a child’s culture can influence the effectiveness of certain strategies or instruction formats. It is important to use a variety of strategies and instructional methods to ensure that teaching is effective (Peregoy and Boyle).

3. Meet Students at Their Level

It is important that teachers understand a student’s zone of proximal development (Vygotsky). Students learning a second language move through predictable stages of language acquisition, and when teachers are able to identify the stage students are in, they are able to scaffold instruction more accurately, giving appropriate assistance and adjusting goals when necessary (Flynn and Hill 16). In early stages, students are learning through listening and responding to teacher prompts; they may be unable to produce the language themselves. As they have more exposure, their understanding of English increases, and their ability to produce words and express themselves continues to develop. Teachers promote this growth by adjusting questions they ask from simple (during the early stages) to higher-level questions (as students become more fluent in English). Students in the early stages of second-language acquisition may benefit from answering questions orally. Those in the intermediate and advanced stages may benefit from being required to write their responses.

4. Make Vocabulary Learning Real, Relevant, and Meaningful

English language learners need to develop a large English vocabulary. A good place to start is using the high-frequency vocabulary list. Other meaningful instruction includes using words from content-area instruction and words connected to daily routines.

One highly important strategy to use with ELLs is total physical response (TPR). This strategy pairs words with actions to help students understand their meaning. The teacher begins by saying a word and demonstrating its meaning: “Stand up!” After this, the teacher uses it in a command: “Stand up!” and the students stand up. Other actions are introduced following this pattern and as students become more proficient, the lesson increases in difficulty, incorporating more directions and mixing up the order in which they are given. Students may also take the lead as they become more proficient. This strategy allows students to connect actions and words, pushes them to comprehend, and does not require speaking on their part, which may make them feel safe (Peregoy and Boyle).

The use of short read-alouds is also an important tool to use with ELLs of all ages. Students will gain exposure to different genres and hear the rhythm and sounds of fluent English reading. Remember to choose selections that are meaningful and short, with pictures and text working together. Teachers should be aware of the difficulty of listening to oral language with limited understanding (Peregoy and Boyle)

Word walls and word cards can make leaning vocabulary a more active experience. Students can pair vocabulary that they need to know with pictures they make themselves (or find). Students can use these cards to aid writing, to do word sorts, and to play games. As they work with the cards in meaningful activities, students’ English vocabulary will increase. Students may want to make more than one set of cards, leaving one at school, and taking the other set home to use with parents (Peregoy and Boyle).

5. Encourage Students to Work Together Cooperative learning strategies allow students to learn with and from peers while increasing opportunities to use language in meaningful ways (Hill and Flynn). Small groups are best, usually including three to four children. When strategies are used frequently and with order, students benefit. Using cooperative learning groups provides opportunities for ELLs to practice their oral-language skills and to listen to peers using English. It also provides a safe atmosphere for asking questions and seeking clarity about difficult concepts. ELLs will have many more opportunities to practice English in a meaningful way in a cooperative learning group rather than using a strategy alone.

A great technique to use with students learning English is reciprocal teaching. This strategy teaches students to predict, question, clarify, and summarize their reading while working in a cooperative group. When used regularly, it improves reading comprehension (Hill and Flynn).

6. Take Time to Build Background Knowledge

Students learn new information more effectively when it is connected to information they already know. In most cases, a student who is learning English as a second language has a different set of background experiences than a native speaker. It is important for teachers to take time to help ELLs make connections using cues and hints. By setting the stage for the learning that is coming next, teachers are helping students to connect the new information they will encounter to their prior knowledge (Hill and Flynn, Peregoy and Boyle).

One framework that is useful for planning and implementing appropriate lessons for ELLs is the scaffolded reading experience (SRE). The SRE is a framework for planning that encourages teachers to plan lessons considering the needs of students, the content to be covered, and the purpose of reading. It then moves into the implementation phase, which should vary according to students’ needs, but includes pre-reading, during-reading, and post-reading activities. Pre-reading activities may include motivating students to read, introducing new vocabulary and concepts, and connecting new information to students’ prior knowledge. During-reading activities include reading aloud to students, guided reading, modifying the text for students, and silent reading. Post reading activities include discussions, drama or written responses, artistic activities, and/or re-teaching (Graves & Graves).

7. Help Students Transfer Skills

Another key way to help students is to transfer skills they already possess in their native language to the acquisition of the English language. Teachers need to have an understanding of the similarities between a student’s native language and English in order to help them; for example, many consonants in English and Spanish have similar sounds. If students have a background that includes reading instruction in their native language, they may already have an understanding of some sounds in English. However, they will need direct instruction regarding vowel sounds and other consonants. A good handbook for teachers is the book Learner English by Swan and Smith. This reference guide is a practical resource for teachers because it compares English to twenty-two other languages, examining phonology, fluency, grammar, and word order. Teachers can use it to help identify similarities and differences between English and other languages students may know.

Many words in English have etymological roots in other languages. Words that have similar meaning and spelling in two or more languages are called cognates. When students see these related words in English, the will be able to decipher their meaning and gain understanding. It is also important to teach exceptions, because there are words that are false cognates and are not related (Carlo).

8. Present Information Non-linguistically

Many students learn information through their various senses including sound, touch, smell, sight, movement, and taste. When teachers incorporate real objects, experiences, and pictures into their lessons, their teaching will be more effective. Using demonstrations and hands-on activities makes learning more memorable for students and helps them to make connections to prior knowledge (Hill and Flynn). For example, when studying measurement in math, it may be helpful to do some simple baking using recipes (possibly from a country being studied in social studies), where students have to practice the measurement skills while learning vocabulary. Students will also have opportunities to taste what they have made and may be asked to write a response to their baking experience. This is a great opportunity to teach holistically and make learning real and relevant for students.

The use of graphic organizers is another beneficial tool for ELLs. Graphic organizers make it easier for students to understand relationships, provide structure for reading and writing activities, and help students remember the content they are learning. Graphic organizers can be useful tools for all students, and teachers can easily differentiate them to assist ELLs (Hill and Flynn). An example of this is using a graphic organizer to describe the branches of government. A teacher may fill in some of the blanks or definitions for the ELLs, and encourage native speakers to complete the whole chart on their own.

9. Provide Feedback

It is important to know what kind of feedback is most helpful for ELL students. Modeling proper usage is effective feedback when helping students with grammar and articulation errors. It is more effective than overemphasizing grammar (Hill & Flynn). The more feedback is given on written and spoken responses, the more students will improve. It is important for teachers to be aware that too much correction can lead to discouragement and frustration. Teachers should identify essential corrections and focus on them to start, rather than correcting every error. Students also benefit from receiving feedback in a timely manner. Students are more likely to understand and make the correction in the future if they are corrected immediately. It is also important to give students positive feedback regarding their progress, using words rather than just a numerical score. When teachers use rubrics and other evaluation tools that clearly outline expectations, the scoring becomes more objective and the students understand what they need to do to succeed. As students advance, they may benefit from creating rubrics with the teacher, ensuring a better understanding of what is expected (Hill and Flynn).

10. Speak Slowly and Clearly

ELLs are trying to process English, but when those around them speak quickly or use idioms and figures of speech, it is very difficult for them to comprehend. When teachers speak at a slower rate, choose words that have literal meanings, and repeat words and phrases that are unclear, students will comprehend more accurately. If students don’t understand what teachers are explaining, other cues should be used such as pictures, graphs, or acting it out.


English language learners are becoming more prevalent in our classrooms today. They bring knowledge of another culture, a new perspective on the world, and brave enthusiasm for the future. It is our job as educators to help them reach their potential by teaching them effectively. Then we will see the colorful gifts they bring to our classrooms, and we can help them become future leaders.

Works Cited

  • Batt, Ellen G.”Teachers’ Perceptions of ELL Education: Potential Solutions to Overcome the Greatest Challenges.” Multicultural Education (March 2008): 39–43. Electronic version.
  • Carlo, Maria S. “Best Practices for Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners.” In Linda B. Gambrell, Lesley Mandel Morrow, and Michael Pressley (eds.). Best Practices in Literacy Instruction (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford, 2007.
  • Flynn, Kathleen and Jane Hill. English Language Learners: A Growing Population. Denver, CO: Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning Policy Brief, 2005.
  • Graves, Michael F., and Bonnie B. Graves. “What Is a Scaffolded Reading Experience?” Chapter 2 in Scaffolding Reading Experiences: Designs for Student Success, 2003. Retrieved July 28, 2011. <>.
  • Hill, Jane D., & Flynn, Kathleen M. Classroom Instruction That Works with English Language Learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2006.
  • Kozleski, Elizabeth B., Elaine Mulligan, and David Hernandez-Saca. “Language (Policy) Matters!” Equity Alliance (January 2011). Retrieved July 27, 2011. <>.
  • Peregoy, Suzanne F., Owen F. Boyle. Reading, Writing, and Learning in ESL (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson, 2008.
  • Swan, Michael, and Bernard Smith (eds.). Learner English: A Teacher’s Guide to Interference and Other Problems (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition. “The Growing Numbers of English Language Learner Students, 1998/99–2008/09.” February 2011. Accessed 6 August 2012. <>.
  • “Teacher Voices: Immigration, Language, and Culture.” Conceptualized and written by the College Board, the National Writing Project, and Phi Delta Kappa International. 2011. <>.
  • Vygotsky, Lev S. Mind and Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.