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15 Ways to Help English Language Learners in the Classroom

Geri McClymont holds an MEd and has taught English language learners for over a decade.


The NEA reports that by 2025, 1 out of 4 students in schools across the U.S. will be an English language learner.

With more ELLs entering their classrooms every year, teachers need effective strategies to help their English learners succeed.

Here are 15 effective ways I help my ELLs in class. These strategies can be used in all content-area classes and across all grade levels.

Strategies to Support ELs 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. Implement cooperative learning activities.
  10. Use student-friendly handouts.
  11. Modify class material and assessments.
  12. Allow ELs to use language resources.
  13. Pair new ELs with a buddy.
  14. Provide routine and structure.
  15. Create a welcoming classroom environment.
English learners will understand you better if you speak more slowly and clearly.

English learners will understand you better if you speak more slowly and clearly.

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.

It is just as important that you do not speak too fast. Since English isn't their first language, ELs 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!

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.

— Author

2. Use Fewer Words

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

Examples of How to Use Fewer Words

Too Many WordsFewer 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)

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

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

3. Allow More Wait Time

Not only do English 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 ELs 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.

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 ELs.

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 ELs make sense of new content.

A clear, colorful image of the water cycle. Visuals are invaluable in helping ELs make sense of new content.

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.

Some images you might use in your lessons:

  • 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 ELs make sense of new information.

Use graphic organizers to help your ELs make sense of new information.

6. Use Graphic Organizers

Graphic organizers are excellent visual tools for organizing information to facilitate students' understanding of content.

Some examples of graphic organizers:

  • Concept maps: diagrams that show the relationship between concepts
  • Flow chart: diagrams that show the sequence between actions or functions involved in an activity
  • Venn diagrams: diagrams that display the similarities and differences between two or more concepts

Display graphic organizers on your large screen with 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.

7. Teach Vocabulary

Lack of academic vocabulary is one of the greatest barriers ELs 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-EL students also lack vocabulary skills, they too can benefit from classroom vocabulary instruction!


  • Pre-teach key vocabulary: A significant way to help your ELs understand the content is to make it a habit to pre-teach key vocabulary before reading new text. Create word presentations on PowerPoint slides, on Word documents, or on posters to include the word, an image, a concise definition, and a sentence containing the word. (see example above)
  • Word Journals and Word Maps: Encourage your students to keep a journal of word maps for all new vocabulary they learn. This gives them something tangible to study during the school year, and something to take home at the end of the year.
  • Word walls: Exhibit words you are learning on your wall, along with a visual for each one. Use it as a reminder of all the vocabulary you've covered so far!
  • Word sorts: Ask students to categorize words based on common features and characteristics.
  • Quick Sketches: Keep dry erase markers handy at all times for sketching on the board on the spur of the moment to help clarify unfamiliar words you come across in text. Your students will love your drawings and your efforts to help them grasp new concepts.
Providing your ELs with background knowledge better enables them to understand new content.

Providing your ELs with background knowledge better enables them to understand new content.

8. Build on Background Knowledge

When you make connections between what your students already know and the new concepts you present, lessons are more 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 the new concepts you teach. This will pump them up to learn new material!

On the other hand, because of their diverse cultural and educational backgrounds, many ELs lack background knowledge in some 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-ELs' memories while at the same time help fill in the gaps for your English learners.

Use realia, videos and images to help build background knowledge for your ELs and to help them understand new content.

Students engaged in a cooperative learning activity in class.

Students engaged in a cooperative learning activity in class.

9. Implement Cooperative Learning Activities

Including pair-share and small group activities as a regular part of your lessons allows your ELs many opportunities to practice English in ways that are fun and natural.

Think, Pair, Share

  • Pair each of your less proficient ELs with a native English speaker or a fluent EL. This allows ELs to hear correct English modeled to them and to practice their English in a less intimidating setting within the classroom.
  • Decide which partner will be "A" and which will be "B".
  • After you pose a question, allow sufficient wait time for your ELs to process the question and to formulate a response.
  • Ask partner "A" to tell his partner his answer, allow sufficient time, and then ask partner "B" to do the same. You may want to have your more proficient students respond first so that they can model correct English grammar to your less proficient students.
  • When students have finished pair-sharing after each question, call on volunteers to share their responses with the whole class.

Small Groups

Placing your ELs in small groups enables them to interact with students they may normally not have a chance to interact with. It also helps them learn important social skills such as getting along with students who may be very different from them.

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

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

It's important to keep the layout on handouts uncluttered for English learners so they can focus on the essentials.

It's important to keep the layout on handouts uncluttered for English learners so they can focus on the essentials.

10. Use Student-Friendly Handouts

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

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

What does a student-friendly handout look like?

  • The layout makes sense and facilitates understanding of the content.
  • The print is legible and large enough for students to read.
  • Sections of the handout are spread out with sufficient space in between.
  • There isn't an excessive amount of print on the page.
  • If there's a word bank, the words are enclosed in a box.
  • All information on the page, including directions, is clear and concise.

When it comes to any kind of handout, less is more for ELs because it helps them focus on the essential information on the page without unnecessary distractions.

The Five Stages of Language Acquisition

Make sure the expectations you have of your ELLs are realistic, based on their stage of language acquisition.

StageCharacteristicsApproximate Time FrameTeacher Prompts


"Silent period", nodding yes or no, pointing, drawing, limited comprehension

0-6 months

"Point to...", "Circle the....", "Show me..."

Early production

1-2 word responses, uses present tense verbs and key words, limited comprehension

6 months-1 year

Yes/no questions, questions that require 1-2 word responses, "Who...?" , "What....?", "Where...?"

Emergent speech

short phrases and sentences, errors in grammar and pronunciation, good comprehension

1-3 years

Questions that require short phrase or short sentence responses, "How...?", "Why...?"

Intermediate fluency

longer sentences, few grammatical errors, very good-excellent comprehension

3-5 years

Questions that require more thorough responses, "Explain....", "Compare...."

Advanced fluency

near-native speech, excellent comprehension

5-7 years

"Retell....", "Support your answer."

11. Modify Material and Assessments

It's not just handouts that need to be presented to ELs in a simple format—other class material and assessments often do, too.


Textbooks in elementary school tend to be very student-friendly so they often work fine for ELs. They're written at a lower reading level and often have key concepts and vocabulary highlighted or color-coded.

However, middle and high school textbooks are likely to be too difficult for ELs so modifications will need to be made.


  • Highlighted text: Set aside some of your class textbooks just for your ELs. Highlight the key concepts and vocabulary in the text to facilitate your students' ability to focus on the most essential information without being overwhelmed. Teach your ELs to read only the highlighted sections.
  • Audiobooks: Find out if there is an audio version of your class textbook online or on CD so that your ELs can listen as they read along. If there isn't, consider recording the key, highlighted points of the text for your students so they can listen as they follow along in the book.
  • Supplemental material: Look for easier books or articles with many visuals that cover the same content that is in the textbook. You can also create written summaries of the content for your ELs with plenty of visuals to aid their understanding. is an excellent website that offers free reading material across a wide range of topics (both fiction and nonfiction) at various reading levels for each specific topic. BrainPop, a popular educational website, offers videos of subject matter in all content areas in both English and Spanish.

Classwork and Assessments

It's vital to know the language acquisition stage of each of your ELs so that your academic expectations of them are realistic (see chart above). You don't want your ELs to shut down because your expectations are beyond what they're yet capable of producing.

Ensure that the layout for all classwork and assessments is straightforward so that your ELs can focus on showing you what they've learned rather than on trying to make sense of what they're being asked to do.

Consider reducing classwork:

  • Ask students to complete only a portion of the worksheets 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 worksheets.
  • For writing assignments, ask students 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).

Modify assessments:

  • Graphic Organizers: Ask your ELs to complete a concept map, a flow chart or another graphic organizer they've used in class to show you their understanding of concepts you've taught.
  • Categories and Lists: Have your ELs create word lists or sort words into categories based on common features and characteristics.
  • Read Assessments Aloud: Read assessment directions, questions and multiple response options aloud to your students. Allow sufficient time for them to process what they hear and to respond.
  • Oral or Picture Responses: Allow your ELs to respond to assessment questions verbally or by drawing pictures.
  • Native Language Assessments: If your ELs are literate in their native language, offer them the assessment translated into their native language. Google translate usually produces very accurate translations and is free. BrainPop offers Spanish quizzes on a wide range of topics across all content areas.

When you modify material and assessments for your English learners, it's important to not single them out, as this may embarrass them. Instead, quietly communicate your expectations to them before or during class. Nobody else needs to know.

Show your ELs how to use resources that will support them in class.

Show your ELs how to use resources that will support them in class.

12. Allow ELs to Use Resources

Introducing your ELs to language resources will help reduce their anxiety as they learn English and try to catch up academically with their grade-level peers. Be sure to have these resources available for them in your classroom.

If you need copies, talk to your school EL department and school library, as they should have some available for classroom use. Show your students how to use these materials to help them with classwork and assessments.

Some resources to introduce to your ELs:

  • Picture Dictionaries: These books are rich in colorful images to help ELs learn new vocabulary. Words in these dictionaries are arranged thematically, such as Places in the City, Outdoor Activities, and Types of Vehicles. Some of these dictionaries are bilingual while others are only in English.
  • Bilingual Dictionaries: These books provide students with the translation of words from English into their home language. Bilingual dictionaries are available in all of the most commonly spoken languages and enable students to quickly reference unfamiliar words they come across in text.
  • Glossaries: These resources contain key vocabulary specific to a subject, such as Science, Math, or Social Studies. Some are bilingual, while others are only in English. Glossaries can be very instrumental in helping ELs succeed in mainstream content area classes.
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.

13. 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 ELs are also survivors of trauma that 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're experiencing.

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

How to select a buddy:

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

Seat your newer EL 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.

Routine and structure in the classroom help ELs feel at ease, as they provide them with a predictable and consistent environment.

Routine and structure in the classroom help ELs feel at ease, as they provide them with a predictable and consistent environment.

14. Provide Routine and Structure

Most teachers are well aware that classroom routines and structure benefit all students. However, routine and structure in the classroom especially help English learners because of the many changes they are already going through in their personal lives.

Establishing a regular routine and structure in the classroom helps reduce their anxiety as it provides them with a predictable and consistent environment.

Some ways to implement routine and structure in the classroom:

  • Have a regular morning process for attendance, lunch count, morning announcements, and other daily items.
  • Keep classroom materials and supplies such as pencils, paper, and glue in the same location, such as on a table in the corner of the room.
  • Have a clear process for transitions, such as when going to the library or to lunch. For example, all students push their chairs in, line up by the door and wait for you to lead them.
  • Ensure that class rules and expectations are clear and enforced from the beginning of the school year.

15. Create a Welcoming Environment

Creating a welcoming classroom environment is invaluable in helping your ELs succeed academically. After all, if they don't enjoy coming to your class, they are unlikely to pay attention, participate or put forth much effort in learning or completing any work you give them.


  • Learn about their culture: Read up a little on their country of origin so you can better understand your students. Learn about their native foods and customs and use this information to engage in conversation with them and their families when you have a chance.
  • Accept mistakes with grace: A classroom where students feel comfortable making mistakes is one in which they are sure to grow not only academically but also to grow into more compassionate and empathetic human beings. Teach your students that making mistakes is a natural part of learning. This will build your ELs' confidence in your classroom.
  • Read about people of different cultures: Reading about minorities who have suffered many hardships, yet made significant contributions to society is a meaningful way to help your non-ELs have a greater awareness of some of the challenges English learners face. It's also a great way for your class to learn about other cultures.
  • Praise students for showing kindness: When you catch one of your students treating a classmate kindly, point it out so they know it's important. Show them how to encourage each other and lend a helping hand to one another when needed. Share personal stories of how people in your life have stepped in to help you when you most needed it, and of the difference that made for you.

Keep in Mind

Whether you teach a class composed of all English language learners or a mainstream class in which you have a mix of ELs and non-ELs, keep in mind that many of these strategies will assist not just your English learners, but your other students as well, including slower processors and special needs students.

By practicing these strategies, you're sure to see a gradual, notable improvement in your ELs’ 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 tips.

Be consistent in using them. Your ELs will appreciate your efforts to help them succeed and to show you what they are capable of!

© 2016 Geri McClymont


Geri McClymont (author) on August 07, 2016:

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 Richard Kuehn from Udorn City, Thailand on August 06, 2016:

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!

Geri McClymont (author) on August 06, 2016:

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!

Ann Carr from SW England on August 06, 2016:

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.