Empowering ELA Teachers:  3 Effective Strategies for Supporting ELL Students

Title Image of teacher supporting ELL students. Text reads, "Empowering ELA Teachers: 3 Effective Strategies for Supporting ELL Students"

You may not have been expecting the number of English language learners you have in your elementary classroom.  However, welcoming and supporting these students is vital to their success.  As a parent who has supported my own boys while they were navigating a foreign classroom, and as a teacher who has welcomed countless English language learners into my own room, I’d love to share what I believe to be the most effective strategies for success.

image of English language learners sitting together on stairwell

1. Support ELL Language Acquisition through Creating an Environment That Promotes CONNECTION

When your English language learners are uncomfortable, and disconnected from the class, they are not in a good place to learn. 

Of course, they will be uncomfortable in a new culture but the more you can help them FEEL more comfortable and connected, the more they will be open to learning.

I have witnessed the power of connection in learning a language firsthand and on many levels.  When we moved to Budapest, Hungary for our nearly 10 year long stay, I was SURE I would be communicating in no time. 

I was a GREAT student, loved to learn and loved learning about new cultures.  Yet after 2 ½ years of language school, I knew a ton of grammar, but my communication was stiff, struggling and totally lacked confidence.  I should also mention I was a stay-at-home mom, afraid of driving in a foreign country, and the two together meant I was NOT well connected.  HOWEVER, my husband who made a very close friend, with whom he needed to speak Hungarian AMAZED everyone with his language abilities. (And let me tell you – I love Hungarians but they can be tough critics on others speaking their language!)

image of boys together with a soccer ball

Look for ways to connect your English language learners with other students in the class. 

If you know your ESL student is an amazing soccer player, make sure your soccer playing students know that.  Encourage them to be a part of the game at recess.  Help your ELL artist to share their artwork with other budding artists in the class and watch connections bloom.  Often these connections may even have the bonus of them becoming life-long friends.

Click here to read more about helping English language learners connect:  The Vital Element To Get Your Newcomer Communicating

2. Support English Language Learners with Multi-Sensory Resources Whenever Possible

I remember sitting in the theater watching a Hungarian comedy.  Although at this point my husband and I knew a LOT of Hungarian, we were lost.  BUT when they turned on the written translation everything started making WAY more sense.

When we were able to hear AND see the words, it was MUCH easier to catch on to the overall meaning. 

So, what are some other ways to include multi-sensory things in the classroom?

      • Use closed captioning whenever possible.

      • Add visuals to lessons.  Use real life examples when you have them but simply adding a google image to a power point slide may be the difference between your English language learners being totally lost and basically following the conversation. 

      • Use meaningful gestures when you speak.  Also watch the speed at which you speak. You do not need to change the TONE of your speech (this can feel VERY condescending) but just slowing down a little while using meaningful gestures can go a long way.

    3. Use Available Resources to Differentiate Instruction for Supporting ELL Students

    image of a math word wall to help with supporting ell students

    Word Walls

    This will help ALL your students but especially your English language learners.  Don’t just put these up to emphasize content vocabulary but REFER to them often so students see the connection.   I also include a PERSONAL word wall for my English language learners that they keep in their binder.  When they find a tricky word, they record it here and write their first language equivalent.

    Bilingual Dictionaries

    Your school should provide these and they are a minimum. But often schools also have access to booklets of content specific language that might not be included in the generic dictionary.

    image of bilingual dictionary to help with supporting ell students

    BEWARE of Google Translate! 

    Although this can be incredibly helpful, please be mindful that these literal translations can be AWFUL and even sometimes sound coarse and completely inappropriate.   I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a chuckle when things were not translated correctly.  I’m not suggesting you never use it, but especially if you are putting things in writing, you might want to run it by someone who is a native speaker first.

    But what if my English language learner is a complete newcomer and speaks ZERO English? 

    image of a free teachers guide for how to prepare for a non-English speaking student

    Click here for a FREE guide on How to prepare, before, during, and after receiving a Non-English Speaker.

        • First- greet them warmly.  A smile and a kind face will go a LONG way.

        • Pair them with a friendly “buddy” who will help them with tasks they are able to do (like setting up their binder, knowing where to go and what to do at different times of the day).

        • Look for a picture bilingual dictionary in their language in addition to their bilingual dictionary. (Visuals are so important)

        • Prepare a packet of meaningful assignments that they can complete somewhat independently.  These should include visual heavy tasks with basic communication in mind such as how to introduce yourself.

      image of an ELL Newcomer Bundle with everything you need for newcomers

      Are you interested in a “done for you” packet? 

      This might be just what you need: ELL Newcomer for Upper Grades  or the younger grade version ELL Newcomer Bundle of Activities.

      Being intentional to create a welcoming and connection rich environment, using visual and multisensory instruction, and differentiating your teaching, you can help these precious students navigate the transition successfully. Every effort you make as a teacher can have a profound impact on the lives and educational journeys of these students.

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      About the Author:

      Liana Corbin is a mom to two grown boys and a former teacher who spent 10 years living in Budapest. She has a heart for helping ELL newcomers transition to the classroom and creates math curriculum to help kids develop confidence. You can find her in the following places:

      hello, i'm laura heinen from cultivating critical readers

      I help third and fourth grade RLA teachers like you create engaging and effective reading lessons without all the stress.

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