George Lucas Educational Foundation
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illustration of different languages

The number of English-Language Learners in the United States is growing rapidly, including many states that have not previously had large immigrant populations. As teachers try to respond to the needs of these students, here are a few basic best practices that might help. We have found that consistently using these practices makes our lessons more efficient and effective. We also feel it is important to include a few "worst" practices in the hope that they will not be repeated!


Do model for students what they are expected to do or produce, especially for new skills or activities, by explaining and demonstrating the learning actions, sharing your thinking processes aloud, and showing good teacher and student work samples. Modeling promotes learning and motivation, as well as increasing student self-confidence -- they will have a stronger belief that they can accomplish the learning task if they follow steps that were demonstrated.

Don't just tell students what to do and expect them to do it.

Rate of Speech and Wait Time

Do speak slowly and clearly, and provide students with enough time to formulate their responses, whether in speaking or in writing. Remember, they are thinking and producing in two or more languages! After asking a question, wait for a few seconds before calling on someone to respond. This "wait time" provides all students with an opportunity to think and process, and especially gives ELLs a needed period to formulate a response.

Don't speak too fast, and if a student tells you they didn't understand what you said, never, ever repeat the same thing in a louder voice!

Use of Non-Linguistic Cues

Do use visuals, sketches, gestures, intonation, and other non-verbal cues to make both language and content more accessible to students. Teaching with visual representations of concepts can be hugely helpful to ELLs.

Don't stand in front of the class and lecture, or rely on a textbook as your only "visual aid."

Giving Instructions

Do give verbal and written instructions -- this practice can help all learners, especially ELLs. In addition, it is far easier for a teacher to point to the board in response to the inevitable repeated question, "What are we supposed to do?"

Don't act surprised if students are lost when you haven't clearly written and explained step-by-step directions.

Check for Understanding

Do regularly check that students are understanding the lesson. After an explanation or lesson, a teacher could say, "Please put thumbs up, thumbs down, or sideways to let me know if this is clear, and it's perfectly fine if you don't understand or are unsure -- I just need to know." This last phrase is essential if you want students to respond honestly. Teachers can also have students quickly answer on a Post-It note that they place on their desks. The teacher can then quickly circulate to check responses.

When teachers regularly check for understanding in the classroom, students become increasingly aware of monitoring their own understanding, which serves as a model of good study skills. It also helps ensure that students are learning, thinking, understanding, comprehending, and processing at high levels.

Don't simply ask, "Are there any questions?" This is not an effective way to gauge what all your students are thinking. Waiting until the end of class to see what people write in their learning log is not going to provide timely feedback. Also, don't assume that students are understanding because they are smiling and nodding their heads -- sometimes they are just being polite!

Encourage Development of Home Language

Do encourage students to continue building their literacy skills in their home language, also known as "L1." Research has found that learning to read in the home language promotes reading achievement in the second language as "transfer" occurs. These "transfers" may include phonological awareness, comprehension skills, and background knowledge.

While the research on transfer of L1 skills to L2 cannot be denied, it doesn't mean that we should not encourage the use of English in class and outside of the classroom.

Don't "ban" students from using their native language in the classroom. Forbidding students from using their primary languages does not promote a positive learning environment where students feel safe to take risks and make mistakes. This practice can be harmful to the relationships between teachers and students, especially if teachers act more like language "police" than language "coaches."

This is certainly not a complete guide -- they are just a few of the most basic practices to keep in mind when teaching English-Language Learners (or, for that matter, probably any second language learner). What are more "do's and don'ts" that you would add to the list?

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Patricia's picture

The techniques that one use with all children may seem to have more importance for ELL children. A teacher is always modeling behavior, values and learning to all children. Speaking slower and waiting may be a harder thing for a teacher to learn. Any speaker of their native language speak faster. Non English speaker do the same thing in their foreign language and frequently , do not wish to slow down. Many do not want English speakers to understand.

emmanuel's picture


marlizd's picture

As an ESL specialist, what Mr. Ferlazzo said is right on target. I would just like to add another important aspect of dealing with English language learners and that is 'invest time in learning the cultural background of your ELL's." The cultural identity of an ELL is a big factor in his/her learning process. It helps in knowing the right kind of academic support that should be given on a particular ELL. Besides, ELL students need to feel that their teachers are with them and understand them as they go through the challenge of not just acquiring a new language but new culture, as well.

Tan Huynh's picture

Hi, Larry!

Thank you for this GREAT post. It provided PRACTICAL reminders that are easily implemented in all classes.

I like how you identified modeling as the first DO. Learning is a social experience, so when we demonstrate and invite students to observe and participate in the modeling, they become familiarized with the process. The more complex a task, such as reading rigorous texts, the more modeling I have to do.

I use a guided reading strategy called Visible Reading where I produce mini-modeling sessions to help students internalize the process of reading a text. There are many decisions a reader has to do when constructing meaning while reading. These decisions are not made visible to the emerging English learner. Through modeling the decisions, students start to adapt the process of close reading.

I wrote about it here in my blog:

Thank you again for the GREAT list of reminders!!! I wished I had this when I started teaching in 2007!

Laughing Melpomene's picture

Honestly, I was brought up here because of a school project wherein the student needs to comment twice in a blog but unexpectedly, I had also learned some strategies.

I just wanted to say thank you for the second time.

Emily W's picture

Thank you for sharing these strategies for supporting English Language Learners in the classroom. One "Don't" you mentioned that resonated with me is to not wait until the end of the lesson to check for student understanding and to not simply ask if there are any questions. I must regularly check in with students to gauge their level of understanding. One "Do" I would add regarding encouraging development of home language is to utilize bilingual resources, such as using bilingual books and labeling classroom objects in different languages. Bilingual books can be used to introduce new topics and to further support literacy development in both languages. Another "Do" I would recommend to support English Language Learners is to assist them in building connections between the content and their personal lives. As educators we must gain a deep understanding of our students, including their unique cultures, backgrounds, and experiences. It is essential to help students make meaningful connections. Thank you again for these strategies!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Great additions, Emily. Thanks for adding your .02!

Amin Shah's picture

Hello Larry!
It was very interesting, to go through your points I m looking some one like you to teach teachers in a district which has entire need of it. Is it possible for you or such other ones to visit my country and give us services to make able the teachers to teach young generation.
I would be very glad of your positive response

David in Bellingham's picture

Wait time is so vital. An interesting study involving 1,387 ESL teachers found that they waited only 2.1 seconds for a student to respond before repeating the question, rephrasing or calling on another student. It seems obvious that if the teacher expects an answer within two seconds, the student's answer would have to be one that requires little thought. In addition to the teacher experiencing pressure to maintain speed for attention purposes, the students likewise feel stress due to what has been termed the "audience effect." That is to say, the student whose turn it is to respond, knowing that group of classmates and teacher are waiting in judgement, feels obliged to give a short, fast and grammatically correct answer.

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