George Lucas Educational Foundation
English Language Learners

3 Tips for Supporting ELLs at the Beginning of the Year

Simple strategies focused on building relationships help teachers ensure that they’re getting students off to a good start.

August 17, 2022
High school teacher speaks to students in classroom
FatCamera / iStock

English language learners (ELLs) account for almost 5 million students, over 10 percent of public school enrollment. In addition to learning a new language, ELLs encounter challenges in adjusting to a new environment and culture, as well as gaining new academic skills and content knowledge. That’s a lot to ask from a student.

If you’re like most classroom teachers, you don’t have a great amount of expertise in working with ELLs. It might be overwhelming to ensure that you are scaffolding academic language, demonstrating cultural competency, and developing relationships all at the same time. That’s a lot to ask from a teacher.

There’s only so much that we as educators can do to differentiate and support all of our students’ various needs, so here are three simple ways you can get your ELL students off to a good start this year. These tactics, if applied early on, can help save you time while also providing an opportunity to ensure that your students are learning to their greatest potential.

1. Connect Early and Often

I recall a mentor once telling me to “connect early and often” with my students. It’s excellent advice, and I followed it with nearly all of my students. Research shows that strong teacher-student connections have been linked to improvements in nearly every indicator that schools care about, including increased student academic engagement, attendance, and grades, as well as decreased disruptive behaviors and suspensions.

My attention was naturally drawn to my students who were outgoing and talkative; however, I failed to connect with my more reserved students, including many of my ELLs.

It may require a little more effort to connect with ELL students due to language and cultural barriers. These connections commonly occur unintentionally. One day, I invited a group of ELL students and their friends to eat lunch in my room, and there was no turning back. My room became a gathering place for students to meet, talk, and laugh. They also asked me about myself and American culture in general and told me stories about themselves and their home cultures. 

These conversations boosted their trust in me. Perhaps it isn’t lunch in your room, but there is a gesture you can make to connect with ELLs at your school. The extra effort is worthwhile because when you engage on a personal level, you indicate that you are reliable—a safe place within the school building. A personal connection can go a long way toward piquing their interest in your lesson, and authentic relationships are always the best foundation for successful learning.

Furthermore, nonacademic dialogue and contact can help kids practice language production, which is critical for budding bilinguals. It sounds simple, but informal conversations with your ELL students are a terrific approach to learn about them, share about yourself, and create trust.

2. Make a Connection to Students’ Homes

Your administrator may have encouraged you to make a few phone calls home each week, especially at the start of the year. It can be intimidating for an English-speaking teacher to call a parent who speaks very little or no English. I was there, believe me. Often, parents of ELL students are just as unsure about trying to speak with their children’s teachers. Teachers know that a phone call home can help create rapport and increase family engagement, both of which can have a major impact in the classroom. Building a connection with ELL parents will allow them to feel more comfortable asking questions and visiting the school in the future.

Make use of the resources available to you to ensure that you are engaging families in the best way possible. School districts are required by law to provide material in the languages spoken by students’ families. And it’s possible that you have someone in your school who has a long-standing relationship with someone in your new student’s family. You might also have a bilingual colleague. That’s why I seek assistance from my coworkers.

I also try to keep in mind that each family is unique and communicates best through different channels. Phone conversations may be appropriate for one family, while email is preferable for another. Understanding how ELL students’ families prefer to communicate can be a good place to start. Communicating with families is never one-size-fits-all, and ELL families don’t break that mold. The important part is to first make an effort to reach out; only then will you begin to understand how to most productively connect.

3. Ask for Help

You’ve probably heard it said that it takes a village to raise a child. That sentiment is also true in education. Teaching can be isolating, but don’t worry—someone in your building probably knows a lot about how to effectively serve ELL students. I’ve never regretted asking an experienced ELL colleague questions about how to better connect with and teach ELL students, and I’ve received some fantastic advice over the years.

You could begin by introducing yourself to the person in your district that everyone goes to for ELL assistance. This might be an ELL teacher, a specialist, or even someone who is in charge of student services. Another option is to ask your ELL or bilingual colleagues a specific question about a student. Building your resource bank is important, even if you don’t need the help right now.

Other teachers in your building are likely to have similar questions or be dealing with similar challenges. Starting a discussion or brainstorming session about how to effectively approach these challenges together may assist you in getting started on providing the best instruction for your new ELL students.

Collaboration is key here. If your school already has a professional learning community (PLC) in place for helping ELL students, join it. If not, this could be an opportunity to take action and bring in others who are facing similar challenges. Don’t worry if you aren’t an ESL teacher; the great thing about a PLC is that the group’s diversity allows everyone to provide diverse viewpoints and resources.

To be clear, starting the school year is difficult, and teachers are already juggling a lot. There are many moving parts to consider when coming back to school, and engaging your ELLs may not be at the top of your priority list right now. These methods shouldn’t feel like a burden to add to your beginning-of-the-year checklist; rather, they are brief gestures and strategies that can serve you well in the long run.

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  • English Language Learners
  • Parent Partnership
  • 9-12 High School

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