George Lucas Educational Foundation
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"The hardest part of living in a different country is the language barrier. Because you know you have to learn the language in order to survive." – Betina Johnson

Being an English-language learner in the United States is no honeymoon. Efforts to support ELLs have often been well meaning but misinformed. Indeed, a lot of assumptions about how to serve ELLs need to be checked.

UC Berkeley experts Margaret Bridge and Bruce Fuller offer three examples of these faulty assumptions:

  1. The expectation that Mexican-American English-language learners would enter U.S. schools with inadequate social competence turned out not to be realized.
  2. Just because ELLs are quiet, don't assume that they understand the material. With respecting elders being a common cultural norm, many Mexican-American children may think that asking questions of their teachers is disrespectful. Also, classrooms should not be English-only zones.
  3. It's a mistake to disallow non-English talk in the classroom. Instead, help facilitate learning by permitting students to use their home language. This develops vocabulary and concepts in the ELLs' first language, boosting their cognitive skills and English development.

What About Grammar Drills?

Everyone agrees that ELLs need help in mastering "the basics" of grammar usage. However, the ways that those basics are taught varies widely. Don't drown ELLs in worksheets and grammar drills, warns Judie Haynes, co-founder and owner of the website "Research has shown that 'out-of-context' grammar drills do not work with students of any age . . . Read predictable books. Teach thematic units. Any mention of a grammar rule should be within the context of those texts."

Non-Negotiable Vocabulary for ELLs to Study

Beside focusing on developing communication and reading skills, Marilee Sprenger -- an expert in brain-based instructional strategies and author of Teaching the Critical Vocabulary of the Common Core -- recommends that ELLs learn high-frequency academic language terms that are embedded in the Common Core State Standards. This strategy should raise their standardized test scores, since researchers estimate that "85 percent of achievement test scores are based on the vocabulary of the standards." What are those critical CCSS nouns and verbs? Sprenger lists them on her website.

Below are a list of websites and books that suggest ways to support ELLs. The strategies will also benefit other students in your classes.

Websites to Support English-language Learners

  • English Grammar Word Builder offers printable lesson plans, grammar rules, and online exercises.
  • Google Translate is a free text-to-speech translator.
  • 365 ESL Short Stories are texts for intermediate ESL/EFL students.
  • PinkMonkey offers free G-rated literature study guides, with notes and chapter summaries.
  • Casa Notes provides note templates for field trip permissions, student contracts, invitation to parent-teacher conferences, etc. Users are given the option of printing the notes in Spanish or English.

Online Articles Discussing How to Support ELLs

Click to download a PDF of "Strategies to Support English-Language Learners" (77 KB)

How do you support ELLs in your classroom?

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Laure's picture

I currently teach prekindergarten in an inner city school system with more than half the student body coming from a home in which spanish is spoken. We have to teach and assess the students, however, there aren't many ELL resources at our grade level. The information in this blog is going to be a big help and trying reach more of my students. I did like the casa notes link to create the notes home in spanish for the families. I think they will appreciate that more than anything.

Brendan Finch's picture
Brendan Finch
High School Science teacher from Los Angeles, California

I had a lot of trouble reaching ELLs in my Science classroom with relevant and accessible text. I started building to serve my own students differentiated and adaptive text.

We're just now planning to launch a differentiated and adaptive History and Social Studies tool in the next couple months. If you're interested, please sign up here and I'd love to hear your feedback!

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