George Lucas Educational Foundation
English Language Learners

How ELLs Can Be an Asset in History Class

These strategies support newly arrived high school English language learners and encourage them to share their own histories.

June 28, 2023
izusek / iStock

In many U.S. public high schools, newly arrived immigrants who need English language support are placed together with native speakers of English. These teenage English language learners (ELLs) face linguistic, emotional, and cultural challenges and may lack a knowledge of United States history.

In an effort to support and educate these recent immigrants, here are some strategies to consider that will also enable the ELLs’ experiences to enrich history class.

Gauge and develop background knowledge

An ELL who arrives in this country as a teenager may not have the same understanding of historical events that their classmates have. Even with a strong command of English, an ELL may have never heard of the Fourth of July or the U.S. Civil War. 

  • Work on a KWL chart as an individual or group activity or give a brief diagnostic quiz.
  • Provide supplemental videos and texts in the native language with or without  translations.

Engage ELLs in the classroom conversation 

ELLs thrive when they feel that they are valued members of the community. Encouraging them to be active classroom participants will also give their classmates more opportunities to learn from ELLs.

  • Before a new ELL arrives, have a brief discussion with the class about how to make the newcomer feel welcome. This can be a beneficial starting point for developing the intercultural communication skills that historians need and is impactful and meaningful to English language learners.
  • When an ELL comes to class, greet them with a smile, introduce them to the class, and welcome classmates to introduce themselves. Using Google Translate can facilitate comprehension. A few minutes of this at the start of the class can leave a lasting impression on the ELL and promote future interactions.
  • Give the newcomers an opportunity to talk about life in their home country if they’re interested and it supports the curriculum. They can give a slide presentation or simply share photos and answer questions from classmates. Provide model questions and observations that are culturally sensitive and respectful, a skill that all historians must have, and be explicit about the purpose and benefits of this type of communication.
  • Offer opportunities for all of the students to collaborate on cultural projects. For example, they can make a Venn diagram to compare countries or create collages to show how a country has changed over time.       
  • Incorporate journaling and voluntary share-outs. Journaling gives ELLs the time they need to process information and produce language. Check their writing for clarity and content, help them with pronouncing what they’ve written, and encourage them to read their journal aloud, even if it’s one sentence, but only if they’re comfortable doing so.

 Support using the home language

Allowing ELLs the opportunity to use their native language supports comprehension and encourages biliteracy through adulthood, certainly a valuable skill for an historian.

  • Provide translated copies of materials, and allow students to use a translation app. Google Translate offers ways to translate digital copies of texts, including PDFs and hard copies.
  • Display posters in multiple languages with lists of enduring issues, terms, and vocabulary.

Use simple and relevant language

Although using authentic text and colloquial expressions is part of the language acquisition process, it can cause obstacles for ELLs. 

  • When speaking in class or preparing slides for presentations, limit the usage of expressions, phrasal verbs, idioms, slang, and cultural references that may not be relevant to the goal of the lesson. Simple language translates to other languages more clearly.
  • Disseminate important information (homework assignments and upcoming tests) both in text form and orally in English and the language of the ELLs to ensure that it’s received accurately. 

Utilize visuals 

These can help the language learning process through increasing comprehension and supporting memory.

  • Incorporate realia that reflect the topic—for example, an old bowl, a blanket, a doll— anything visual that can be touched and passed around.
  • Display visuals on the walls, and invite students to work with groups to analyze them.

Offer scaffolding 

Provide supports that give ELLs the opportunity to maintain the same momentum as their peers and demonstrate that although they struggle with the English language, they’re intellectually capable.

  • Provide graphic organizers, sentence starters, and paragraph models.
  • Demonstrate how to annotate using guided questions, and provide basic essay models.
  • Give students a list of questions to answer as they’re writing a response to a prompt. 

Have frequent comprehension checks 

These help ELLs to focus, clarify misunderstandings, and reinforce key information. 

  • During a lecture, pause to have students write a two-to-three-sentence summary or response in their own words. Ask basic questions like “What is the topic of today?” “Why is it important?” “What was the cause and effect of this topic?” “What enduring issue is this topic related to?” ELLs are likely to lose focus when following a lecture and taking notes, so such pauses are especially important for them.
  • Collect an exit ticket at the end of every class.
  • Provide opportunities for in-class test reviews. This could be in the form of a Kahoot game that students play during class time and have access to after class for additional practice at their own pace. 

We need to continually adapt to the unique needs of our ELLs with the goal of maintaining rigor and outcomes that are supportive of their future. The methods above not only support ELLs but can be beneficial to all history students as we prepare them for an increasingly globalized world.

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

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