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5 Easy Strategies to Help English Language Learners Succeed

Updated on February 18, 2017
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Geri McClymont is passionate about education. She has been teaching for over fifteen years.

An English language learner.
An English language learner. | Source

Many teachers experience frustration with English Language Learners, or ELLs, in their classrooms 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 ELL student looks at them helplessly after a question is posed, or stares at them blankly when a new concept is presented in class.

Here are some easy strategies you can begin to implement immediately to help your ELLs succeed in your classroom!

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 likely 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.

If you speak more slowly and clearly while still sounding natural, your ELLs are much more likely to understand what you’re saying.

Don’t overdo it – this will be very obvious to your students. Your non ELLS will become bored and impatient and your ELLs will realize right away that you’re changing your normal speaking style for them. They’ll become self-conscious and they'll shut down.

To maintain all students’ attention, demonstrate sincere enthusiasm in what you teach while you slow down the pace and enunciate more carefully. Your students will respect your desire to engage the whole class in the lessons.

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

An English Language Learner thinking.
An English Language Learner thinking. | Source

2. Allow sufficient wait time after you ask a question.

English Language Learners need more time to process what they hear in English and more time to formulate a response in English when asked 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 ELLs know you’re offering everybody in the class sufficient wait time, they’ll feel more at ease raising their hand to volunteer a verbal answer.

A teacher using a visual organizer.
A teacher using a visual organizer. | Source

3. Use lots of visuals.

Visual cues go a long way in helping ELLs grasp new material you present.

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

I like to have dry erase markers handy at all times for sketching on the board to better explain or elaborate on a topic I’m presenting.

Graphic organizers are excellent visual tools for organizing information and enhancing learning and 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 so they can make more sense of what they’re learning.

4. 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, ELLS often lack background knowledge in content areas such as American History because they're coming from completely different cultures.

In this case, review background knowledge with your entire class to help refresh their memories and prepare them to learn the new content.

Reviewing background knowledge will expose ELLs to information that is new to them and help fill in those gaps.

It’s a win-win for all students.

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

5. Use cooperative learning activities.

Incorporate pair and small group activities in your classroom on a regular basis to increase student participation and to allow ELLs to practice speaking English in a natural context.

ELLs, particularly non-English and limited English speakers, are more likely to speak in small groups than they are in front of the whole class.

Pair each non-English and limited English Language Learner with a native English speaker or a fluent English Language Learner. 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

By implementing these strategies, you are sure to see a gradual, notable improvement in your ELLs’ level of involvement and academic success in your classroom.

Be patient with your ELLs but also with yourself as you become accustomed to using some strategies you may not have used before.

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

Helping English Learners Succeed in the Classroom

© 2016 Geri McClymont


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    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 6 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.

    • gerimcclym profile image

      Geri McClymont 6 months ago from Colorado

      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!

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 6 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 image

      Geri McClymont 6 months ago from Colorado

      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!

    • profile image

      Gloria from Argentina 6 months ago

      Your article seems to me very useful and written in a way that everybody can understand the strategies you are proposing. As yu say it si very important the visual aid for any subject you are teaching, and also the task made in small groups encoureges the students and they will feel more free to express in English. It is also very important, if you allow me to add, preparing the class with time and joy. Students detect if you are improvising, and sometimes in the class appear some sort of silence because of your non preparation. I sincerely greet you for this ítem, also the tolos you are providing to use in class.

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