English Language Learners

Ensuring That ELLs Feel Comfortable Learning a New Language

These strategies for supporting English language learners, especially older students, can help reduce any embarrassment they may feel.

April 24, 2024
Drazen Zigic / iStock

The process of learning a language requires risk-taking, perseverance, and feeling uncomfortable. This is especially true for English language learners (ELLs) studying in the United States, where peers who are native speakers of English may not have the experience of learning a language outside of their home country. The process of language acquisition can last for years, even a lifetime. Embarrassment is a common feeling, but there are ways that educators can help reduce this to encourage language growth.

Doing some of the following strategies on a regular basis one-on-one or in classroom settings can encourage language learners and remind them that language learning can be a struggle for everyone and it comes with an array of challenges and feelings. It is also important to use these methods as you feel appropriate (in moderation) in order to create a welcoming learning environment that is free of criticism and full of encouragement and positive reinforcement. 

Helping ELLs to be comfortable learning a new language

Acknowledge effort. This may include something as simple as coming to school on a regular basis. Some students, especially older teenagers in high school, may have a difficult time maintaining good attendance. So anytime they come to school, show them how proud you are to see them and how you recognize that they are working hard at school or, in some cases, making an effort to attend classes even when they work at jobs outside of school in the evenings and on weekends. 

Recognize growth. Remind students of the progress they have made since first arriving in the United States or in your school or classroom. Use specific examples of their growth that may encourage them (show them a sample of their writing from previous months or years).  

Show sincere and frequent interest in talking with them. Make small talk with ELLs as they are comfortable. Ask them about their interests and their home country and culture. In addition, encourage classmates to talk with ELLs. Create opportunities for one-on-one and small group communication. Ensure that all classmates have a translator on their phone so they can use it in their interactions with ELLs as needed. Also encourage ELLs to share words in their native language with native speakers of English during their informal chats. This can help build their confidence to engage with others in the classroom and is a way to encourage their assets. 

Make an effort to learn words and phrases in their home language. If you know their language, that’s great. Use it. Integrating the learner’s native language is a scaffold to help students learn English. Encourage classmates to learn some words in the ELL’s home language, as well. 

If you don’t know their language, ask them to teach you words and phrases. Greet them with “Hello” in their language when they arrive to class and “Goodbye” when they leave so that you’re showing them how you are also in the process of language learning. Have fun with it and smile when you make mistakes. Model this language exchange for the native speakers in the classroom, and encourage them to also learn words in the native languages of their ELL classmates. 

Compliment language skills. Praise anything you feel warrants a good word about a particular language skill—pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, handwriting, reading, writing, even risk-taking with language production. A study published in Harvard Business Review found that in business, “top performing teams give each other more than five positive comments for every criticism.” Consider this when supporting language learners.

Focus less on pronunciation and more on comprehension. When I first started teaching the English language, I worked primarily with Japanese, Korean, and Chinese students who were studying abroad in the United States. They placed much focus on improving their pronunciation—so much that this impeded their opportunity to socialize extensively with native speakers of English. They frequently expressed insecurities with their pronunciation and asked to be corrected.

Although identifying pronunciation mistakes may be welcome to some language learners, this may discourage others from trying more or cause them to feel less confident. As a language learner myself, I remember feeling hopeless when I was told by an older native speaker of the language (through a translator) that I wouldn’t be able to have a conversation with her until I perfected my pronunciation.

The above methods can equally be applied in the world language classroom, where students may feel embarrassment, which can inhibit their proclivity to speak or use the language creatively and take risks in their writing. As both a learner and a teacher of languages, I hope that the process of acquiring language is a joyful one for all those who experience it. Anyone who engages with a nonnative speaker— whether a teacher, administrator, or classmate— plays an important role in this. 

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