George Lucas Educational Foundation
English Language Learners

3 Strategies for Empowering ELL Students

Here’s how using strategies that link linguistic effort with content can engage and encourage middle school English language learners.

May 16, 2023
SDI Productions / iStock

As a teacher, I know the importance of high expectations for all students, and as a middle school teacher who works mostly with students who are English language learners (ELLs), I know the importance of teaching both academic content and language acquisition from an asset-based pedagogy—that is, building up students from their strengths, not blaming them for their weaknesses.

Here are three strategies that I’ve used with great success in my classroom. You can combine them with other strategies to create a safe, educative environment for ELL students so that the conditions are in place for students to be most receptive to engaging. 

Extending the sentence

This first strategy involves more students in your classroom discussions. Start by asking a question that requires students to use higher-order thinking skills. After taking the first student’s answer, direct another student to repeat and extend the first student’s line of reasoning. You can scaffold this by specifying the type of extension—whether that’s providing evidence for the first student’s claim, clarifying a target vocabulary term, or considering a counterclaim. For example, a student could say that a paragraph is an example of dramatic irony, and the next student could add a subordinate clause explaining how that’s the case. 

This strategy has a few benefits for ELL students. First, it involves repetition of comprehensible language that’s related to grade-level instruction. Comprehensible language is crucial for language acquisition, and exposure to grade-level academic content is vital for ensuring that ELL students succeed in school. Second, it treats their contributions to the discussion as something worthy of attention from the other students; this builds classroom community. Finally, it treats the process of editing and clarifying one’s language as a normal part of communication, which is important for lowering ELL students’ affective filters

Peer-to-peer dictation and editing

Divide students into heterogeneous pairs, and give them a high-order-thinking question. They start by writing down their personal initial response. Then, one student reads their response to the other, who attempts to write it down exactly as the first student dictated. The pair then compares the two written versions, reconciles any missed words or verbally added words or phrases, and attempts to pick out any grammatical or written errors.

They then repeat the process in reverse, with the first student taking dictation from the second. You can further extend the activity by asking each pair to synthesize a joint answer that takes elements from each of their individual responses. 

This activity has two benefits for ELL students. First, like the previous strategy, it increases the amount of comprehensible input that the ELL students receive. Comprehensible input from a variety of speakers helps students learn a language, especially in the beginning and intermediate stages of fluency. Second, by making the process two-way, it emphasizes that both voices in the pair are valuable, and it better prepares both students for a deeper level of writing and discussion after the activity. 

Expert translator

This is a strategy you can use with ELL students who speak a Romance language as their heritage language. Many English words are derived from Latin roots, and so students can often recognize cognates from their own languages. However, this requires careful planning from the teacher to avoid false cognates, or “false friends.” Highlighting this in class discussions can help reverse the all-too-common power dynamic in a classroom, where ELL students can feel at a linguistic disadvantage compared with their English-first peers. 

An example from my own classroom: My students were struggling to understand a line from Romeo and Juliet where Romeo laments that his friend Mercutio “hath got his mortal hurt/In my behalf.” The trouble was with the word mortal; students who spoke only English assumed that it meant life, since the only context they had for the word was its antonym immortal.

I asked one of my ELL students to help me break down the word. I wrote the Latin word morte on the board and explained to the class that this was the linguistic root of the English word mortal. I asked my ELL student volunteer if this looked like a word in Spanish. He pointed out that it was similar to the word muerte and translated it as “death.” This helped him explain to the rest of the class that mortal meant “deathly” or “deadly.” 

This strategy helps empower ELL students to act as an authority on academic content and reverse the usual linguistic power dynamic in the classroom. It also helps all students understand some of the history of the English language, as well as the connections between many of their ELL peers’ and their own linguistic heritages; this promotes classroom community. 

I’ve found that these three strategies empower ELL students in the classroom. Each strategy combines linguistic input with academic content, and so they help build ELL students’ linguistic skills and content mastery at the same time. I hope these strategies will prove equally useful in your classrooms. 

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  • English Language Learners
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School

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