8 Classroom Strategies to Help English Language Learners Succeed

Updated on July 12, 2018
gerimcclym profile image

Geri McClymont is passionate about education. She holds an MEd and has taught ESL, Spanish, and special education students grades K-12.

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

Many teachers experience frustration with English language learners in their classroom because they’re at a loss as to how to best meet their needs.

They want to help their students move forward academically but don’t know what to do when the new English language student looks at them helplessly after a question is posed, or stares at them blankly when daily class lessons are presented.

Here are some simple strategies you can implement in your classroom to help your English language learners succeed!

1. Speak more slowly and clearly.

2. Speak in chunks.

3. Allow sufficient wait time.

4. Use many visuals.

5. Teach vocabulary.

6. Build on background knowledge.

7. Use student-friendly handouts.

8. Implement cooperative learning activities.

This is what you sound like to an English language learner when you speak too fast.
This is what you sound like to an English language learner when you speak too fast. | Source

1. Speak More Slowly and Clearly

Because many of your English language learners are not exposed to spoken English in their homes, you are the 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. Because English is not their first language, ELLs 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.

English language students are very unlikely to ask you to speak more slowly, or to repeat or explain what you said because they don’t want to stand out from their peers. So they’ll often just sit there in silence when they don’t understand what’s going on in the classroom.

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

Speaking more slowly and clearly is one of the most underrated yet most effective strategies you can use to help ELLs succeed in your classroom!

Don’t overdo it—this will be very obvious to your students. Your non-ELLS will become bored and impatient and your English language learners will realize right away that you’re changing your normal speaking style for them.

They’ll become self-conscious and shut down.

To maintain all students’ attention, demonstrate sincere enthusiasm in what you teach while you incorporate this strategy.

Your students will respect your desire to engage the whole class in the lessons.

Examples of How to Communicate the Same Message Using 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 start 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 start 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. Speak in Chunks

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 as few words as 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 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.

English language learners need more time to process what they hear in English.
English language learners need more time to process what they hear in English. | Source

3. Allow Sufficient 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 sufficient wait time, they’ll feel more at ease raising their hand to volunteer a verbal response.

A visual image of the water cycle.
A visual image of the water cycle. | Source

4. Use Many Visuals

Visual aides go a long way in helping English language learners grasp new material you present!

Posters, photographs, illustrations, tangible items—anything visual will enhance your students’ comprehension of subject matter.

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 doc cam or simply draw them on the board.

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

5. 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 ELLs. Because many non-ELLs also lack vocabulary skills, they too can benefit from classroom vocabulary instruction!

Another significant way to introduce new words to students is to make it a habit to pre-teach vocabulary before reading new text. 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

6. 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 ELLS 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-ELLs' memories while at the same time help fill in the gaps for your English language learners.

It’s a win-win for all students.

7. Use Student-Friendly Handouts

English language learners are often overwhelmed by the amount of print on handouts and worksheets they are given. It's no wonder, as many handouts and worksheets are over-saturated with visual input. In modern terms, they are "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 not too small
  • sections of the handout are spread out with sufficient space between them
  • there is not an excessive amount of print on the page
  • If there is a word bank, it is enclosed in a box, thereby making it easier for students to locate it
  • the 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

8. Implement Cooperative Learning Activities

Include pair and small group activities in your classroom as a regular part of your lessons to increase student participation and to allow students opportunities to practice speaking English in a natural context.

English language learners, particularly non-English and limited English speakers, are more comfortable speaking English in small groups than in front of the whole class.

Pair each non-English and limited English language student with a native English speaker or a fluent English language student. This allows ELLs to hear correct English modeled to them and to practice speaking 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 as well as for grouping students, ensuring that they all participate equally within groups, and evaluating their work. Make sure you get the updated 2009 edition!

Students raising their hands in class.
Students raising their hands in class. | Source

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

See results

By practicing these strategies, you are 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 ELLs 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.

Helping English Language Learners Succeed in the Classroom

© 2016 Geri McClymont


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    • gerimcclym profile imageAUTHOR

      Geri McClymont 

      23 months 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 

      23 months 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 

      23 months 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 

      23 months 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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