George Lucas Educational Foundation
English-Language Learners

4 Truths About Teaching English Language Learners

One veteran teacher shares her experiences helping ELL students thrive.

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The majority of communities in the United States have English language learners (ELLs) and consequently, the great majority of teachers are engaged in identifying how to serve this group of students. Here are a few highlights of what I’ve learned ELLs really need from more than 20 years of working closely with them in public schools.

1. There Are Many Different Kinds of English Language Learners

Amongst the first group of students I ever taught—a group of high school students who were all English language learners—was a 17 year old who had never attended school and didn’t know the alphabet. We started with how to hold a pencil. A young South Korean student in the same class spoke little English, but had a great deal of content knowledge in her first language.

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Another student from Yemen struggled to learn English and—his older brother told me—was frustrated that he couldn’t transfer his understanding of math into English given that our numbers are written differently. Finally, there was a student from El Salvador who had attended only a couple of years of school at home. She had experienced extreme violence in her home country, as well as on the journey to the U.S. She had constant headaches, stomachaches, insomnia, and other indicators of trauma.

There are ELLs whose U.S. born parents were ELLs, and whose grandparents, also born in this country, are lifelong ELLs. There are students who sound fluent in English, who can carry on conversations, but lack the fluency in English academic discourse to access complicated content or to express their understandings. Assumptions are often made about who ELLs are or what they need which leads to the next suggestion.

2. They Need to Be Known

A child who can’t speak English may have academic knowledge in other content areas, and may have strong speaking, reading, and writing skills in their first language. It’s our job as teachers to figure out what they are able to do when we remove the language factor. Understanding what the child brings to the classroom will allow us to affirm their skills and build on their strengths.

Beyond this, we need to know our English language learners—as we need to know all of our students—as full and complex human beings. We need to know what matters to them, what makes their eyes light up with joy, what they find funny, who matters to them, and what they dream of in life.

We also need to know their names—and how to correctly pronounce them. We need to know how to appropriately greet their parents or caregivers given their family’s culture, and how to partner with the adults in their lives so that we can better serve them.

3. They Need Opportunities to Speak English

All kids need to speak in school, including English language learners. They need opportunities to speak where they feel safe and at least somewhat comfortable. This is the teacher’s responsibility: to create a safe classroom where students can take risks and practice speaking in English—where no one will laugh or make fun of them.

In order to practice speaking English and feel somewhat successful, English language learners require scaffolds of many kinds. A scaffold such as sentence stems, for example, can assist ELLs as they practice speaking. For those who speak very little English, a visual depicting a handful of faces expressing emotions can also go along with the stem, “I feel ______ today.” ELLs need to speak and speak and speak, repeating phrases over and over, in order to learn the language.

4. They Need Us to Be Learners

Many areas in the U.S. have had English language learners for a long time, while other regions are more recently experiencing an influx of immigrants and refugees. If you teach English language learners, and if you don’t yet feel fully equipped to do so, your students need you to continue learning so that you can meet their needs. Check out the website, Colorín Colorado, which offers a variety of age-specific tools for teaching ELLs (articles, webcasts, videos, and various strategies and tips). What strategies and tools have worked for you in supporting students who are learning English? Please share in the comments section below.