10 Simple Strategies to Help English Language Learners in the Classroom

Updated on July 19, 2019
gerimcclym profile image

Geri McClymont is passionate about education. She holds an MEd and has taught English language learners for over ten years.

Many teachers feel frustrated with English language students in their classroom. They want to help them succeed but don't know how.

Here are some easy strategies that will support your English learners of all ages and at all grade levels. These approaches can be used in classes composed of only English learners and in classes in which you have a mix of English learners and non-English learners.

Be intentional about using effective strategies to help your English language learners succeed.
Be intentional about using effective strategies to help your English language learners succeed. | Source

Ways to Help English Learners in Class

1. Speak slowly and clearly.

2. Use fewer words.

3. Allow more wait time.

4. Model what you teach.

5. Use many visuals.

6. Use graphic organizers.

7. Teach vocabulary.

8. Build on background knowledge.

9. Use student-friendly handouts.

10. Implement cooperative learning activities.

Speaking slowly and clearly is one of the most underrated yet most effective strategies teachers can use to help English language learners succeed in school.

This is what you sound like to English language learners when you say too much or speak too fast.
This is what you sound like to English language learners when you say too much or speak too fast. | Source

1. Speak Slowly and Clearly

Because many of your English language learners are not exposed to spoken English in their homes, you are a primary model of the English language for them!

Take full advantage of this opportunity to model appropriate grammar and pronunciation in the classroom.

Just as important is that you not speak too fast. Since English isn't their first language, English language learners need more time to process what they hear in English in order to make sense of it. The faster you talk, the harder it is for them to process and make sense of what you say.

Make sure you enunciate clearly and if you're a fast talker, slow down!

Examples of How to Use Fewer Words

Too Many Words
Fewer Words
"Today you're going to work on your advertisement posters so we need our class helpers to please hand out everybody's posters." (word count: 21)
"Today you'll work on your advertisement posters. Class helpers: please hand out the posters." (word count: 14)
"What do you think is a good way to get your readers' attention when you begin your story so that they want to keep reading your story?" (word count: 27)
"What is a good way to get your readers' attention when you begin your story?" (word count: 15)
"There are three different kinds of sentences we're going to talk about today. We have statements, we have questions, and we have exclamations." (word count: 23)
"Today we'll look at three kinds of sentences: statements, questions, and exclamations." (word count: 12)

2. Use Fewer Words

Along with speaking more slowly and clearly, just as important is that you not over-saturate your English language learners with auditory input.

Say what you need to say as concisely as possible, using just the words necessary to convey your message. Leave out the "fluff"—words that are superfluous and don't add any value to your message.

Less is more, so speak in chunks. If you have a lot to say, use several short sentences with pauses in between, rather than one long, drawn out sentence.

Speaking concisely and in chunks facilitates comprehension and decreases stress for your English language learners because they have fewer words to process at a time.

As their English proficiency increases, you can begin to gradually incorporate more words as well as richer vocabulary into your speech.

English language learners need more time to process what they hear in English, so allow sufficient wait time after you ask a question.
English language learners need more time to process what they hear in English, so allow sufficient wait time after you ask a question. | Source

3. Allow More Wait Time

Not only do English language learners need more time to process what they hear in English, they also need more time to formulate a response in English when asked a question.

This means you need to allow sufficient wait time after you pose a question.

Be patient. Pose the question to the whole class. Pause. Glance around the classroom at all of your students so you’re not singling anybody out. Then call on a specific student to answer the question.

When your English language learners know you’re offering everybody in the class extended wait time, they’ll feel more at ease raising their hand to volunteer a verbal response.

Modeling is a critical part of the teaching process, and is especially important for English language learners.
Modeling is a critical part of the teaching process, and is especially important for English language learners. | Source

4. Model What You Teach

Show your English language learners what you want them to do.

Use actions and gestures to accompany your words as much as possible, such as when you explain the process for class routines.

Physically walk around the room and demonstrate exactly what they should do each step of the way.

Use your hands, facial expressions, and your whole body to make your words meaningful to your English language learners.

When teaching a concept, model several examples of the application of the concept, and gradually involve your students in the process before you ask them to apply the concept independently.

This "I do it, we do it, you do it" approach gives students confidence as it enables them to really grasp the concept you're teaching.

A clear, colorful  image of the water cycle. Visuals are invaluable in helping English learners make sense of new content.
A clear, colorful image of the water cycle. Visuals are invaluable in helping English learners make sense of new content. | Source

5. Use Many Visuals

The value of visual aides in helping English learners comprehend subject matter cannot be overstated. Be sure to use visuals as a regular part of your lessons to help your students understand the concepts you teach.

Your lessons will make significantly more sense to them when they see images connected to what you say.

Specific examples:

  • posters
  • photographs
  • illustrations
  • tangible items
  • short video clips (the internet is loaded with short, educational videos)
  • charts
  • tables
  • graphs
  • maps

Maximize your classroom wall space by hanging posters of concepts you are teaching, and by creating word walls of key vocabulary you are focusing on.

Use graphic organizers to help your English language learners make sense of new information.
Use graphic organizers to help your English language learners make sense of new information. | Source

6. Graphic Organizers

Graphic organizers such as flow charts, concept maps, and Venn diagrams are excellent visual tools for organizing information to facilitate understanding of new content. Display these on a document camera or simply draw them on the board.

As you fill them in, allow your students to fill in their own copies to help them make sense of what they’re learning.

Visual organizers also serve as excellent study guides for English learners. Because the information on them is laid out so clearly, your students can make sense of them independently after they leave your classroom. They can use them to review and study for upcoming quizzes and tests.

Create a presentation of each vocabulary word you introduce.
Create a presentation of each vocabulary word you introduce. | Source

7. Teach Vocabulary

Lack of academic vocabulary is one of the greatest barriers English language learners come up against in school. For this reason, it's critical that teachers be intentional about teaching vocabulary to their English learners.

Because many non-English learners also lack vocabulary skills, they too can benefit from classroom vocabulary instruction!

A significant way to introduce new words to your students is to make it a habit to pre-teach vocabulary before reading new text. Create word presentations on PowerPoint slides, on Word documents, or on posters to include the word, an image for the word, a concise definition of the word, and the word used in a sentence.

Use sites like pixabay.com to download colorful, eye-catching photos to help students understand the meanings of new words.

Keep dry erase markers handy at all times for sketching on the board on the spur of the moment to help clarify word concepts, and teach your students how to complete word maps for new vocabulary introduced.

Providing your English language learners with background knowledge better enables them to understand new content.
Providing your English language learners with background knowledge better enables them to understand new content. | Source

8. Build on Background Knowledge

When you make connections between what your students already know and new concepts you present, lessons become relevant and meaningful to them.

Your English language learners will experience a boost of confidence when they realize what they already know in connection with what they’re currently being taught. This will pump them up to learn new material!

On the other hand, because of their diverse cultural and educational backgrounds, many English learners may lack background knowledge in some academic subject areas .

Before presenting new material, review background knowledge with your entire class to lay the foundation for the new content.

This will refresh your non-English learners' memories while at the same time help fill in the gaps for your English learners.

It’s a win-win for all students.

9. Use Student-Friendly Handouts

English language learners are often overwhelmed by the amount of print on handouts and worksheets they're given. It's no wonder, as many handouts and worksheets are over-saturated with visual input. In modern terms, they're "too busy."

It's very important to ensure that all handouts and worksheets we give our English language learners are student-friendly.

This means:

  • print is legible and not too small
  • sections of the handout are spread out with sufficient space in between
  • there's not an excessive amount of print on the page
  • if there's a word bank, it's enclosed in a box, thereby making it easier for students to locate it
  • all information on the page, including directions, is clear and concise

When it comes to any kind of handout or worksheet, less is more for English language learners.

Students engaged in a cooperative learning activity in class.
Students engaged in a cooperative learning activity in class. | Source

10. Implement Cooperative Learning Activities

Include pair and small group activities in your classroom as a regular part of your lessons to allow your English learners many opportunities to practice their English skills.

If you have students with low English proficiency within a class of fluent or near-fluent English learners, your less proficient students are unlikely to raise their hands or to participate much in whole class activities.

They will be much more comfortable speaking English in pairs or in small groups.

Pair each of your less proficient English language students with a native English speaker or a fluent English language student. This allows English learners to hear correct English modeled to them and to practice their English in a less intimidating setting within the classroom.

Cooperative learning activities have proven to be highly successful for engaging all students in the classroom!

Dr. Spencer Kagan's book, Kagan Cooperative Learning, is an excellent resource for cooperative learning activities. The book also offers ways to designate specific roles to students to help ensure that they all participate equally within groups.

Have you used any of these strategies with your English language learners?

See results

Additional Tips

Modify Assignments

In addition to ensuring that your classroom handouts are student-friendly, it may sometimes also be necessary to slightly alter assignments for some of your English language learners.

Don't worry—it doesn't have to be more work for you as a teacher.

Ways to modify assignments for English learners:

  • Handouts: Ask them to complete only a portion of the handout you assign—for example, only the front side or only the first section. As their English skills develop, you can gradually ask them to complete more sections on the worksheet.
  • Writing: Encourage them to produce one sentence instead of one paragraph, or one paragraph rather than three. Don't place too much emphasis on grammar and spelling at first—remember that writing is usually the last of the language domains to develop (after listening, speaking, and reading).

When you modify assignments for your English learners, it's important to not single them out. This may embarrass them and cause them to shut down. Instead, quietly communicate to them before or during class what you expect them to do. Nobody else needs to know.

Pairing a new English learner with a buddy is a significant way to boost her confidence.
Pairing a new English learner with a buddy is a significant way to boost her confidence. | Source

Assign Buddies

Imagine how some of your English language learners feel when they suddenly find themselves in a new school, while at the same time adapting to a new culture which includes, among many other things, learning a new language.

Many English learners are also survivors of trauma which they experienced in their home country prior to immigrating or in the process of coming to the U.S. This adds a whole new dimension to the stress they are experiencing.

A significant way you can help alleviate some of that stress is by assigning each of your newer or less proficient English language learners a buddy.

How to select a buddy:

  • If possible, choose a student who speaks the same first language as your new English learner.
  • Select a student with a higher English proficiency level than your new English learner.
  • Patience and kindness are important attributes to look for in a buddy.

Seat your newer English learner beside his buddy in your classroom so that the students can work together during class projects and assignments.

This support will give your newer student a sense of reassurance and belonging in your classroom. He will also gradually feel more confident as his new friend assists him in learning English.

Final Thoughts

By practicing these strategies, you're sure to see a gradual, notable improvement in your English language learners’ level of involvement and academic success in your classroom.

Be patient with your English learners but also with yourself as you become accustomed to applying some of these strategies.

Be consistent in using these strategies. Your English language students will appreciate your efforts to help them succeed and you will save yourself a lot of unnecessary frustration in the process.

Creating a Welcoming Classroom Environment for English Language Learners

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Geri McClymont

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      • gerimcclym profile imageAUTHOR

        Geri McClymont 

        2 years ago

        Thanks for your feedback, Paul. It's encouraging to see positive results in our students when we apply strategies that work. Educational games are great too!

      • Paul Kuehn profile image

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        2 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        I used your five strategies for ELL when I was teaching EFL in Thailand. The use of visuals and cooperative learning activities are especially important. My students also did very well learning by playing an educational game. Thanks for sharing an excellent article!

      • gerimcclym profile imageAUTHOR

        Geri McClymont 

        2 years ago

        Thanks for your comments, Ann. It is always so rewarding to see our students progress academically and to see their self-confidence in the classroom increase as well!

      • annart profile image

        Ann Carr 

        2 years ago from SW England

        Presumably some of these students have extra English lessons anyway, outside the classroom. This will obviously boost their learning potential. Your advice is excellent; it's always good to use any of your points whatever the student as all these things promote further learning and self-confidence.

        Well written and informative.

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