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Do's & Don'ts For Teaching English-Language Learners

Larry Ferlazzo

I teach English & Social Studies at inner-city high school in Sacramento,CA

The number of English-Language Learners in the United States is growing rapidly, including many states that have not previously had large immigrant populations. As teachers try to respond to the needs of these students, here are a few basic best practices that might help. We have found that consistently using these practices makes our lessons more efficient and effective. We also feel it is important to include a few "worst" practices in the hope that they will not be repeated!


Do model for students what they are expected to do or produce, especially for new skills or activities, by explaining and demonstrating the learning actions, sharing your thinking processes aloud, and showing good teacher and student work samples. Modeling promotes learning and motivation, as well as increasing student self-confidence -- they will have a stronger belief that they can accomplish the learning task if they follow steps that were demonstrated.

Don't just tell students what to do and expect them to do it.

Rate of Speech and Wait Time

Do speak slowly and clearly, and provide students with enough time to formulate their responses, whether in speaking or in writing. Remember, they are thinking and producing in two or more languages! After asking a question, wait for a few seconds before calling on someone to respond. This "wait time" provides all students with an opportunity to think and process, and especially gives ELLs a needed period to formulate a response.

Don't speak too fast, and if a student tells you they didn't understand what you said, never, ever repeat the same thing in a louder voice!

Use of Non-Linguistic Cues

Do use visuals, sketches, gestures, intonation, and other non-verbal cues to make both language and content more accessible to students. Teaching with visual representations of concepts can be hugely helpful to ELLs.

Don't stand in front of the class and lecture, or rely on a textbook as your only "visual aid."

Giving Instructions

Do give verbal and written instructions -- this practice can help all learners, especially ELLs. In addition, it is far easier for a teacher to point to the board in response to the inevitable repeated question, "What are we supposed to do?"

Don't act surprised if students are lost when you haven't clearly written and explained step-by-step directions.

Check for Understanding

Do regularly check that students are understanding the lesson. After an explanation or lesson, a teacher could say, "Please put thumbs up, thumbs down, or sideways to let me know if this is clear, and it's perfectly fine if you don't understand or are unsure -- I just need to know." This last phrase is essential if you want students to respond honestly. Teachers can also have students quickly answer on a Post-It note that they place on their desks. The teacher can then quickly circulate to check responses.

When teachers regularly check for understanding in the classroom, students become increasingly aware of monitoring their own understanding, which serves as a model of good study skills. It also helps ensure that students are learning, thinking, understanding, comprehending, and processing at high levels.

Don't simply ask, "Are there any questions?" This is not an effective way to gauge what all your students are thinking. Waiting until the end of class to see what people write in their learning log is not going to provide timely feedback. Also, don't assume that students are understanding because they are smiling and nodding their heads -- sometimes they are just being polite!

Encourage Development of Home Language

Do encourage students to continue building their literacy skills in their home language, also known as "L1." Research has found that learning to read in the home language promotes reading achievement in the second language as "transfer" occurs. These "transfers" may include phonological awareness, comprehension skills, and background knowledge.

While the research on transfer of L1 skills to L2 cannot be denied, it doesn't mean that we should not encourage the use of English in class and outside of the classroom.

Don't "ban" students from using their native language in the classroom. Forbidding students from using their primary languages does not promote a positive learning environment where students feel safe to take risks and make mistakes. This practice can be harmful to the relationships between teachers and students, especially if teachers act more like language "police" than language "coaches."

This is certainly not a complete guide -- they are just a few of the most basic practices to keep in mind when teaching English-Language Learners (or, for that matter, probably any second language learner). What are more "do's and don'ts" that you would add to the list?


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Rachael's picture

I teach all-day kindergarten in an urban district. Every year I have about 3-5 ELL students in my class. A "do" that works for me is using picture clues whenever possible. We do a lot of vocabulary development and I try to always have a picture for them to associate it with. It is also very important to have picture clues when giving directions. I use pictures for scissors, crayons, glue, work with a partner, etc. This helps all of my students, not just the ELL students.
Learning a new language at a young age is easier than later in life. It also helps that in kindergarten we spend a lot of time teaching phonics, phonological awareness, and sight words. The ELL students are given a lot of exposure and practice in the classroom and with an ELL teacher.
I think another "do" would be to stay consistent with how you word directions, etc. They will know what to expect and it will become familiar to them. This also helps build their confidence.
I completely agree with allowing students to use their home language in the classroom. Many of my students speak Spanish and I know a little bit myself. I like to occasionally try to communicate with them in Spanish because it they love it. I enjoy when they teach me new words and it helps me build a relationship with them.
I also agree with the part about checking for understanding and how important it is. I use the thumbs up or thumbs sideways approach and the students feel more comfortable being honest when they don't understand something. I like the sticky note idea but my students might be too young for it.

Alexis Radney Mercedes's picture

I want to add an important point I found here in Eudotopia.
The most important thing to remember is that your students need to be speaking English as much as possible. The more they practice, the better they speak. The better they speak, the more confidence they will gain. And this cycle will continue to build fluency. Don't make the grammar lessons the focal point of your instruction. Don't do too much teacher talk and lengthy explanations. Choral responses where the students recite the same "response" -- whether it be a word, phrase, sentence or dialogue -- are an effective tool to build vocabulary skills that lead to comprehension. This method helps to build success for all learners. So get your students to talk, and keep them talking!

VeraV's picture

These "do's" and "dont's" are great! My school is heavily populated with students who are ELL, and I used many of these methods this past school year. Throughout the school year, I used a variety of visuals and cues to help some of my students who had just exited ESOL. I like how you mentioned "Don't ban students from using their native language in the classroom." One thing that I found to be an amazing learning experience for me was giving them the opportunity (when appropriate) to teach me words from their native language. Here and there, I would try to use the words that they taught me in a sentence or during instruction, and it got them very engaged. I find that the effort that I was putting into getting to know them individually and culturally, allowed me to create meaningful relationships with my students. Ultimately, I believe that this relationship was a huge contributor to their social and academic success in my classroom. I am looking forward to using more of these practices during the upcoming years.

Clamjacob's picture

I'm guessing I'm a bit late to the party for this, but seeing that post made me want to join this here website.

Since every teacher, every classroom, every school and every student is different, I won't hazard into guessing what you are dealing by providing an exact solution, but I got a couple of pointers that might help you find a solution. In your case, there is the problem of not sharing a language in which the two sides are comfortable enough for discussions on some issues, since they can't voice their feedback as completely and accurately as they would like, which in turn makes them less prone to voicing such problems (Fear of being inadequate, fear of ridicule etc.), and also gives you less to work with, since there is a greater chance for misdiagnostic if you were to misunderstand the problem, so you might provide a cure for the wrong ailment.

So you have to think like a doctor working in a hospital, whose patients, like your students, usually don't possess the terminology to ask a precise question, may be unaware that a problem exists, might feel uncomfortable discussing an issue in a room full of people, or like my grandpa, be too proud to even consider needing help. You have to work with what you have, not what you want to have (Namely, mind reading powers).

1) Check for symptoms : Checking for understanding shouldn't depend on the student to leave the comfort of anonymity and raise his hand to ask a question, though you should always be mindful of providing a safe and amicable classroom for it to be possible. You have to keep your ears receptive to mistakes in all of you students utterance, you may act on them by providing the correct form as they happen, though it might make the more self-conscious, shy or overly confident of your students be more wary of speaking in class. More importantly, you have to remember that many diseases share the same symptoms, and that just dealing with the symptoms without investigating the root cause is just inviting the same mistake again.

2) Keep the historic of you patient on file : You must however keep that mistake in mind, either a mental note or a written note ( I keep a journal where I collect mistakes, but I work with smaller classes so it might possibly not be applicable to you). What's the nature of the mistake? Is it misused vocabulary, sketchy syntax, grammatically correct but non-native utterance? The more mistakes of a similar nature you collect, the clearer the picture will become. If you are working with a class in which everybody shares a common L1, you can also check other students mistakes to see if there are patterns. If your students come from different language groups, you might want to not compare apples with oranges, though many languages share the same features, and furthermore some mistakes may stem from *GASP* the teacher himself, or the teaching material.

3) Hazard a hypothesis: is it first language transfer, is it overgeneralizing a rule, is it that damnable electronic dictionary providing definitions without context, is the birth of a pidgin called ''Class-speak''? Crack open the books, google it up, ask your coworkers if they have faced similar issue. Some basic training in linguistics is always a plus, same with some basic knowledge of the students mother tongue, though it would be unrealistic to expect a language teacher to know everything.

4) Test your hypothesis: Up to this point, the only cooperation that was needed from your students was to participate in class, by doing the normal kind of things you do in a language classroom like answering your questions, doing their homework, talking about the weather, all of which provided the utterances that you worked with to this point. Now comes the point of reaching out. Or not. "The skilful traveller leaves no traces of his wheels or footsteps" and all that. Anyway, you will have to recreate the conditions that produces the mistake, and turn it into a question to the class, and get the students to write their answers on a piece of paper, so as to get pure samples. You don't really need their names on the piece of paper, just make sure they don't consult each other. If your hypothesis was wrong, go back to step 3). If your hypothesis is confirmed, then you have identified the problem and can either deal with it in the here and now (Provided you did step 5- below), or you might just keep it for a later time. This keeping of anonymity diffuse the feeling of inadequacy, as any student who is wrong can reasonably think that he wasn't alone in this.

5) Treatment: You can deal with the problem in different ways, and you know as soon as the core problem is dealt with, the symptoms will subside. You could raise awareness on the issue (So the learners take it seriously), provide explanation (So that the learners understand ''Why?''), provide examples (So that the learners learn ''How?''), give homework (So that the learners actively confront the issue), make it part of class culture (''As I dared make this mistake whilst knowing the rule, I will now buy my teacher a coffee'').

Now your situation requires you to be a bit more imaginative in dealing with the problem, since of that language barrier you mentioned. You will also have to avoid using complicated terminology, since if you use the word ''gerund'' in your classroom, you might want to reconsider your career choice. So that leaves you with illustrations, body language, a helpful teaching assistant (If you have that luxury), or simplified English. The simplified English explanations only work when your students have reached a certain level though, so if you are in the ''English 101 for recently arrived immigrants front-line'', it might just make the language barrier situation worse.

The method I use came from my own experiences and classroom situation, and might not be suited for your situation. I have a bachelors in linguistics and I just completed a masters in education, so I'm trained in the art of parachuting into a jungle and coming out with a rough draft of the grammar of the local jungle dwellers. Furthermore, my classrooms were filled with students whose mother tongue was mandarin, and I was learning mandarin at the same time I was teaching, so I could easily compare mistakes and rapidly see the patterns.

Something you could do though, is provide your students with the tools to ask questions, like illustrated posters you hang around the classroom with questions like ''What does X mean?'', ''Can you give me more examples?'', ''Is XXX correct?'', ''Can I say XXX?'', ''Can you rephrase that?''. Having them well trained in the WH- question words also doesn't hurt.

Hope that helps!

Ian's picture

I think that having an English only rule for kids works pretty well. If the kids want to speak in their native tongue then I have them raise their hand and ask. I think for adults you don't need a rule like that as they should be responsible for themselves.

rivrdansr's picture
Let's change written english,musical notation, accounting forms

Not just for ELLs, but wunder if getting them to start writing in "capitl inglish" (a phonetic version of written English) would be easier than trying to get students to jump immediately into the morass of normally written English. (see "rImz" at www.Greensuit.org)

Janice's picture

Hello, I do like to have picture clues to help out. In my school we also do sign language so we are all communicating with each other. This works for us but I don't want to discourage them from using their own language.

Janice's picture

I like the do's and don'ts. This give me a lot of nice ideas to use. I do believe in focusing on the English language in hopes they will learn hopefully quicker.

Patricia's picture

The techniques that one use with all children may seem to have more importance for ELL children. A teacher is always modeling behavior, values and learning to all children. Speaking slower and waiting may be a harder thing for a teacher to learn. Any speaker of their native language speak faster. Non English speaker do the same thing in their foreign language and frequently , do not wish to slow down. Many do not want English speakers to understand.

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