Three Tools to Support ELL Students

bblackburnby Barbara R. Blackburn

English Language Learners, students who do not have English as their native language, provide a specific set of challenges for teachers across the content areas. Depending on their lack of knowledge of English, they may be shy or lack confidence, overly reliant on visuals, or resistant to talking in small groups.

However, as they learn the language, their confidence increases, as does their achievement. Let’s look at three specific strategies that help ELLs learn.

Tool One: Use of Visuals

The use of visuals, which can be helpful for all struggling learners, is especially important with English Language Learners. Many teachers use Word Walls, where they post important vocabulary on a wall or bulletin board. I was in an ELL classroom that capitalized on this strategy, but took it to another level.

A piece of paper was folded in half, and the word was written on the outside. Lift up the paper, and you would find a graphic representing the word. Just this little change made a huge difference for the ELL students.

Similarly, if you are asking students to keep a notebook of vocabulary terms, use a three-column form. Adding the visual helps students remember the word.

twinkie-ELLTool Two: Use of Language

Our language as teachers is also important. Whenever possible, simplify your instructions and streamline your questions so that a student’s native language does not interfere as much. Avoid use of idioms (unless you’re teaching about idioms) or other very culture-specific language.

I once observed a math classroom in which the teacher asked students to complete a math problem about a box of Twinkies. Her English Language Learners did not know what Twinkies were, therefore they could not complete the problem successfully.

Additionally, especially for those ELLs who are struggling with English, ask questions that require them to complete a thought, rather than generate a new idea. Beginning with this type of question helps them build confidence and a strong base for future learning.

early-harry-hermioneAs an alternate, rather than a totally open-ended question, ask one with choices, all of which are correct. Instead of asking, who is your favorite character in Harry Potter, ask “Which character did you prefer, Harry or Hermione?” Or in science, ask “Which of the two methods would you use to gather data while observing your experiment?”, giving them two options that are acceptable.

Tool Three: Layering Meaning

When I taught at-risk students, I used a strategy called layering meaning to help them read and understand our social studies textbook. Because my students were reading below grade level, they struggled with our textbook.

So I would find an article or section from another book on the same topic that was easier to read. My students would read that material first, which helped them build background knowledge and learn some of the specialized vocabulary. Then when we read the textbook they were more successful.

As we progressed through the year, some of my students no longer needed the extra step. Others, however, needed the continued support. Layering meaning works especially well with English Language Learners who need the extra support with vocabulary and prior knowledge. NEWSELA is an excellent website to find sources of text after you sign up for a free account.

Also see Larry Ferlazzo’s list of ELL text sources

A Final Thought

English Language Learners bring challenges and strengths to your classroom. Our task is to help them build on their strengths and to adjust our instruction so that they can overcome their challenges to learning.

Barbara Blackburn is a best-selling author of 14 books, including Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word. A nationally recognized expert in the areas of rigor and motivation, she collaborates with schools and districts for professional development. Barbara can be reached through her website or her blog. She’s on Twitter @BarbBlackburn. See her other MiddleWeb posts here. Her latest book is Rigor in Your Classroom: A Toolkit for Teachers (Routledge, 2014). Her next book, Motivating Struggling Learners: 10 Ways to Build Student Success, will be published in July 2015.


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3 Responses

  1. sarahricefox says:

    Thank you for this article! I’m worried, though, that the blurb I read about it in the ACTFL SmartBrief may give some teachers the wrong idea that they should simplify their language all the time for English learners. If I read it correctly, your articles recommends simplifying instructions, not simplifying language in general. As Dr. Aida Walqui says, it is more important to amplify, not simplify! Adding visuals and layering meaning are ways to amplify teacher input so that students have a better chance to comprehend the lesson. Paraphrasing, modeling, and circumlocution are other ways to make input comprehensible.

    An excellent instructional model that helps English learners acquire English while learning grade-level content is available through Project GLAD at the Orange County Department of Education. GLAD also guides teachers to make instruction more comprehensible when it is in a dual language immersion classroom! Dr. Walqui’s ideas in SDAIE (Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English) and QTEL (Quality Teaching for English Learners) are also excellent ways to build teacher expertise and improve language learning and academic achievement for students.

    • MiddleWeb says:

      Thanks, Sarah, for sharing these ideas. The summaries in SmartBriefs other than MiddleWeb SmartBrief are written by their professional editors. We’ll let them know of your concern.

  2. Ruben Moran says:

    A linguistic tool for Latinos learning English: Cognates. These are more than 25,000 easily understandable words not only to Spanish speakers, but also to French, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian speakers, among others. These words are not isolated items, they are part of both cognate collocations and a shared cognate syntax (subject-verb-opbject). Get acquainted with cognates at

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