George Lucas Educational Foundation

9 Tips to Support English-Language Learners

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If you are teaching English Language Learners, here are some tips and strategies that you can practice in the classroom to create a safe environment and support the students throughout their learning process:

1. Speak slower, not louder: Students need to process the words separately and form an understanding, for ELL students this requires some extra time. Speaking louder doesn't help and in fact sounds condescending.

2. Make sure to pause frequently and write out instructions on the board: This gives time for students to think about the instructions and ask questions if they have any. Use the pause time to write the information on the board in case a student has misheard a word or a sentence.

3. Provide short instructions, preferably starting with action verbs, ex: "Write 5 adjectives to describe the main character". Long instructions overwhelm ELL students, as they will probably need to look up a few vocabulary words, as well as process chunks of information. Short instructions with action verbs are clear and concise.

4. Write key vocabulary on a word wall: The space will create a safe environment for ELL students to ask questions about unfamiliar vocabulary and as a result build their confidence in speaking and practicing their oral communication in the classroom.

5. Check for student understanding frequently: Do not ask "do you understand/is that clear?" Do ask questions about content/instruction: "will you present today or tomorrow?" "Is this list in the correct order?" 

By asking the latter students usually will default to "yes we understand". Instead, go over the material again and summarize it in the form of questions. By doing this you will see that students will start answering together and even explaining tasks/concepts to their classmates. This creates a safe and open culture in the classroom to ask questions.

6. Provide visual guides, and/or infographics: Visuals act as a supplement for unfamiliar vocabulary words as well as concepts. Using them will also support different learning styles in the classroom.

7. Use body language and gestures to express appropriate words: Don't be afraid to do this! Body language and gestures can help in explaining words, activities and even concepts.

8. Do not correct with negative expressions: For example, "No the verb seen is incorrect." Instead model correct usage, "Yes, that's true! We see things differently." Many ELL students are very shy, because they're afraid to make mistakes when speaking. By modeling correct communication skills you will be encouraging students to continue to practice their oral communication skills in a safe space free of judgment.

9. Avoid idiomatic expressions and/or sarcasm: These expressions can be confusing for ELL students to understand, because the meaning behind them is figurative as opposed to literal. Sarcastic expressions are especially misunderstood and often taken literally. That is because some cultures do not use sarcasm, and as a result the meaning is lost in translation. However, ELL students love learning about English idioms so devoting a class solely for idioms is encouraged and can be lots of fun!

This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

Comments (11) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

This is a fantastic and practical list. What's great is that a lot of these tips double as best practice for ELL students and students on the autism spectrum/other students with difficulties understanding social cues. And I agree with Laura - let's stop being sarcastic with ALL students.

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Laura, I agree with you about sarcasm. Thank you for your kind feedback!

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Alex, thank you! that's very useful to know. I had no idea that these tips would also work with autism spectrum and other students with learning difficulties.

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Danielle, I actually haven't used it but it seems like a really helpful tool to use. In fact, I am installing now to test it out. Thanks for sharing!

Tefl Phuket's picture

What a wonderful list. We use each one of them during our TESOL training and certification course.

If we could add one bit: limit corrections. Unless the error relates directly to the lesson, or it's one that the class has been working hard to correct as a group, leave it. Too many corrections lowers class morale and creates a negative atmosphere.

Hillary Hill's picture
Hillary Hill
Social Media Marketing Associate at Edutopia

That's a great comment, Tefl! I believe a positive environment fosters a positive and deep learning experience.

Gwen Pescatore's picture
Gwen Pescatore
President Home & School Assoc, #ParentCamp Organizer, Co-Moderator #PTchat

Love this, Rusul! I know it may best serve educators - but being at a school with over 20 languages spoken at it, these same tips are helpful to those of us who are also trying to communicate with families. One of the roles our PTO takes on is ensuring that our families have all the information necessary to best support their children...which can be challenging when attempting to do so with so many that don't necessarily speak your same language.

Visuals and graphics...any particular place you like to pull from? We are always looking for images that are simple yet helpful in communicating the message.

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Tefl that's a great suggestion! So important to keep the environment a positive one for english language learners.

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Hi Gwen, thank you! I think infographics and visuals are great way to communicate with parents. Not only does it help communicate a message but makes the environment feel more welcoming. I have a few resources that might have helpful links there:

Larry Ferrlazo's site is always great, here' s page for infographics:

I see that he also referenced it from here:

I always go to the government site for ELL and they usually have tons of resources, US dept of education recently updated and provided more ELL resources more specifically targeting parents, so there might be some here:

But also you can make your own through tools like Canva for infographics. If I come across more resources I will link them to you!

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