Instructional Techniques for Teachers of ELLs

Teacher teaching student in classroom

Whether teachers specialize in working with English Language Learners full time or only have a few ELLs in their content area courses, knowledge of current and effective instructional techniques for teaching ELLs is crucial. Teachers can take important steps before, during, and after each lesson to make sure ELLs are optimally engaged in the learning process.

Preparing to teach

The first step in preparing to best teach our ELLs is the careful identification of ELLs and their needs. Talk to school administrators, ESL teachers, and support personnel to find out important information about students’ home languages, English proficiency levels, strengths/weaknesses, and needs. Needs may encompass more than educational needs, since many ELLs face difficult challenges both in and out of school.

Once you are aware of the ELLs in your classroom, you can conduct an interest inventory or similar getting-to-know-you type of profile for all students (not only ELLs). Creating an interest inventory helps teachers to relate content to students’ personalities and interests, thus enhancing motivation, engagement, and rapport.

Be sure to note the importance of each ELL’s home language when considering each student’s unique needs. The home language is the starting point for language development in English, because ELLs have already mastered certain basic language structures in their home languages. Some may already read and write in their home language, thus providing some of the basics of literacy development in English. Depending on the home language, this may or may not be a direct match. For example, some languages use the same phonemic alphabet as English, while others use a different alphabet and others use no phonemic alphabet at all.

Student interests, home language, and other factors are golden opportunities for helping teachers to link students’ prior knowledge to new curricular content. For example, if an ELL has always enjoyed a particular sport, perhaps that could be linked to books about that sport for an upcoming book report or for math problems about that sport in math class. Many teachers use KWL charts in small and large group instruction to help activate prior knowledge.

Differentiated instruction is a hot topic and is especially appropriate for ELLs. For example, picture an ELL who excels at math but still struggles with English proficiency at his or her grade level. This student might perform well on a math pre-test and work in a small group at that level for math, while also receiving the necessary language adaptations to make work at that level possible.

When planning lessons for ELLs, consider the four skills of speaking, listening, reading, writing, all of which are crucial and interconnected. Students should have ample opportunity for English language practice in all four skills at the appropriate level.

There is a lot to consider when planning lessons for ELLs, but luckily teachers don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Many excellent lesson plans can be found online.

During the lesson

Proper planning is crucial to success, but teacher and student interaction during the lesson itself can make or break our plans. Here are a few important issues to consider during the lesson itself:

  • Journal/writing prompts at the beginning of the lesson give ELLs individual opportunities to reflect on content in a nonthreatening and personal way.
  • Using a combination of both verbal and written instructions will allow all students, including ELLs, to be sure they understand directions and know what to do.
  • Modeling and giving clear examples can put students at ease and help them to better follow along with the lesson.
  • Visuals and other nonlinguistic cues, such as tone of voice and meaningful gestures, are crucial for helping ELLs fill in gaps when they might now know a particular vocabulary word or two.
  • Slowing the rate of speech and paying mindful attention to clear enunciation can increase student understanding and decrease anxiety.
  • Similarly, increasing wait time after asking a question allows ELLs to form a meaningful response/answer.
  • Think-Alouds and Think-Pair-Shares are effective and quick ways to engage ELLs with their peers, in terms of both language and content knowledge.
  • Providing comprehensible input has been shown to be the most reliable way to increase ELL engagement and success. The SIOP Model has well-researched best practices.
  • Be sure to continually check for understanding throughout the lesson, whether students are engaged in lecture, large group instruction, small group work, or individual work.

Small group work and instruction has been found to be especially helpful for ELLs, while also giving their non-ELL peers opportunities for bettering their own cultural and linguistic understanding.

For example, a San Francisco International High School teacher plans student group work so that native languages and proficiency levels in English are taken into account. The result has been stronger discussions and better engagement for all students, according to KQED’s Mind/Shift.

After the lesson

Good lesson planning and teacher/student interaction during the lesson go a long way toward helping our ELLs engage with content and instruction. How can we best keep this energy going and extend learning beyond the classroom walls? Consider the following ideas:

  • The Flipped Classroom model has gained in popularity, since it combines 21st-century skills and technology with the ability for students to front-load content. ELLs can benefit greatly from watching videos of lesson content at home or at the library before the actual lesson. One terrific element is the ability to rewind videos and watch the necessary parts again as needed. This strategy helps ELLs to feel responsible for and self-directed in their own language and content learning.
  • Teachers should consider appropriate modifications for homework. For example, some ELLs might need to write less and speak more, while others might need the opposite.
  • Assessments can also be modified for specific language proficiency levels and needs.
  • Ongoing and positive communication with parents and families can promote ELL learning and engagement with school and your classroom.

Good teachers know the importance of planning, instruction, and extension of learning experiences. Taking our ELL needs and current instructional techniques into consideration can help us to create lasting learning experiences that go far beyond the classroom walls.

Dr. Maggie Broderick teaches master’s and doctoral level courses in teacher education online for various universities, including Concordia University-Portland. Dr. Broderick taught K-12 in the Pittsburgh Public Schools before completing her Ph.D. in Foreign Language Education at the University of Pittsburgh. In addition to teaching, she enjoys writing, course development, and research.

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