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How To: Help Your English Language Learners

How To: Help Your English Language Learners

Kit Richert, Ph.D.

Diversity is growing within the US and its schools. Some states such as California, Texas, New York, and Arizona have large numbers of Limited English Proficient (LEP) or English Language Learner (ELL) students matriculating each year. Many of these students were born in the US, but are nevertheless learning English as a second language.

ELL student drop-out rates are particularly high. The availability of bilingual and English as a Second Language programs varies from school to school. The No Child Left Behind Act has recently increased teacher’s accountability for ELL student achievement. Although there is no ELL group that is representative of all sub-groups, there are tips that can help you provide the best possible educational program for your ELL students.

What Can A Teacher Do?

The best possible approach is to learn as much as possible about your student’s culture and personal history. Here are some areas of inquiry to explore:


• What do I know about the culture and customs of my student? How might that affect the way they view school, their studies, and authority figures?

• What are the holidays they celebrate? What is the etiquette of the student-teacher dynamic in their culture?


• What is the education system like in my student’s home country?

• Have they been in school consistently? Have they moved a lot?

• What are their current skills? Are they literate in their own language?

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• Has my student had a stressful or traumatic past? Are they a refugee?

• Have they just moved and are they in the middle of an adjustment process?

• Are there any emotional or social concerns?

• Do they know the rules and expectations of the class?


• Is my student’s family accustomed to participating in the schooling of their children? Can family help with homework or will this student need more support?

• Is there a way I can reach out to get to know this family?

The Process of Learning English as a Second Language

Learning a second language occurs through a developmental trajectory. (1) The ELL student need to acquire basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) before they can move on to (2) the stage of learning higher order cognitive academic language proficiency skills (CALPS) needed for general education language arts classes. Proficiency in academic skills in the student’s first language will transfer into academic skills in the second language.

Classroom Strategies for ELL Students

• Set high expectations for your student.

• Ask them how to pronounce their name correctly.

• Teach key words first (e.g., pencil, bathroom, food).

• Teach the rules and expectations of the school.

• Give clear directions and avoid slang.

• Align curriculum and instruction to the student’s current language proficiency level.

• Reduce the linguistic demands but maintain conceptual demands for lessons.

• Provide instructional support in their native language if you are able to.

• Try to pair them with a bilingual buddy that can help translate.

• Use visual cues and gestures with your verbal instructions.

• Check for understanding of directions.

• Use technology (CDs, computers) to enhance language learning.

• Create opportunities for communication through group work.

• Allow student to share their cultural heritage with the class.

• Support their participation in extracurricular activities and help foster their talents.

Enjoy your ELL students and all they bring to your class!

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