George Lucas Educational Foundation
English Language Learners

3 Strategies to Support English Language Learners in Social Studies

Scaffolding such as visual guides and templates can make it easier for ELLs to grasp material in courses with complicated vocabulary.

January 24, 2022
High school students in classroom
FatCamera / iStock

One of the scariest things I’ve done was to leave my role as a language specialist and accept a secondary social studies position. It was scary to leave the shelter of the familiar to explore the wilds of the unknown.

As I taught topics such as both of the World Wars, the Cold War, human rights, and globalization, I regularly pulled tools from my language specialist tool kit to teach all students, especially the multilingual learners (MLs). Learning social studies content can be difficult because many of the concepts are abstract. Take, for example, the concept of globalization—it requires lots of explanations and examples to make this concept concrete.

Additionally, each concept comes with unfamiliar vocabulary. As students are learning about globalization, they will need to learn terms such as supply chain, garment industry, and outsourcing. If this isn’t difficult enough, students have to read on-grade-level texts, compose texts with content-specific details, and engage in conversations that require the use of these terms and concepts. But students can meet these goals with the right supports. 

3 Language Strategies to Bolster Social Studies Instruction

1. Establish comprehensible input. For MLs to retain content, the language we use must be comprehensible to them. How much a student understands about social studies is dependent on what we do to make it accessible.

For example, to teach my 10th graders about the business cycle, I projected a graph of the business cycle to provide a visual support to my direct instruction. I explained one part of the graph at a time. In this way, I chunked the information so that it was more manageable since the vocabulary words and concepts were quite new. 

After describing one part of the cycle, I paused to have students huddle together to summarize the concept in their own words, which offered an opportunity to process collaboratively. Finally, students added that concept to their own business cycle graph to reinforce their understanding.

To teach a single concept, I merged several strategies to make the business cycle comprehensible. Social studies teachers don’t have to use the strategies from this lesson. They just have to plan lessons with the goal of establishing comprehensible input.

2. SWIRL engagement. For students to learn social studies concepts, they must actively engage with the content to process it. Gone are the days where we stood and told students dates, places, people, and events. We must design lessons where multilingual learners are speaking, writing, interacting, reading, and listening (SWIRL).

For example, in a lesson on the advantages and disadvantages of garment factory work in Cambodia, student pairs might do the following:

  • Discuss what it might be like to sew their own clothes
  • Review a video about the experience of a Cambodian garment worker
  • Compose a list of the advantages and disadvantages based on the video

In this SWIRLed lesson, MLs get the chance to develop their language skills meaningfully to learn social studies content. Furthermore, in this type of lesson, students learn more content because they are actively processing it instead of passively listening as the teacher talks.

3. Structure output. Each content area has their own language conventions. It’s our job to teach MLs to speak, write, and think like historians. For these students to communicate and think like historians, they will be expected to do the following:

  • Use social studies–specific words
  • Incorporate the most relevant details about a topic (e.g., people, places, dates, statistics)
  • Organize ideas logically
  • Transition between ideas smoothly

Often, students are assigned a report or a research project. To boost multilingual learners’ achievement, social studies teachers can create a template that outlines the expectations for the report. The template contains text boxes, each corresponding to a specific idea that students have to communicate. The text boxes scaffold the organization of ideas for MLs. The text boxes can contain a number of scaffolds—for example:

  • Prompts to stimulate thinking
  • Detailed instructions
  • Sentence starters
  • Sentence frames
  • Links to resources

This scaffolded template does not provide students with the answers. It prompts and guides students to think and sound like historians. Often, multilingual learners understand the content, but they struggle with clearly communicating their understanding. A scaffolded template like this raises the chances that MLs will successfully think and communicate like historians.

The roles and responsibilities of a language specialist and a social studies teacher are quite different. However, their goals are the same: to provide the best learning experience that fosters thinking. Social studies teachers can borrow the same strategies used by language specialists. But strategies alone are not enough.

For MLs to be successful in social studies, we need to share the belief that language specialists have in them. This belief is one of unwavering confidence that MLs are capable of learning challenging, grade-level content when teachers make it accessible through the proper scaffolding.

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Filed Under

  • English Language Learners
  • Social Studies/History
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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