4 Ways Teachers Can Support English Learners

The school year is well under way, and teachers are beginning to get to know their students and to build relationships with them. The teachers that work with English learners (ELs) should know how crucial their classroom practices are to the success of these students. Here are four essential practices that effective teachers of ELs exhibit in their classrooms:

  1. Demonstrate a positive, asset-based relationship with students.
  2. Provide scaffolds to support ELs to acquire new information.
  3. Make use of flexible grouping of students in the classroom.
  4. Model appreciation of diversity in the classroom.

Following, I’ll discuss these four practices in detail.

1. Teachers demonstrate a positive, asset-based relationship with the ELs in their class.

When classroom teachers genuinely care about their ELs, they demonstrate concern for  students’ social and emotional well-being as well as their academic progress. This care has a substantial influence on ELs’ motivation to learn. It is imperative that classroom teachers of ELs understand the cultures and educational backgrounds of their students. Teachers should be able to put themselves into their ELs’ shoes and understand what it is like to come to a strange country with a different culture and customs. Here are some samples of what teachers can do to build a relationship with ELs:

  • Have positive interactions with ELs every day. Messages such as “You are really good at…”, and “I like the way you solved that problem…” can encourage ELs as they are learning. Use gestures to accompany your positive message (thumbs up, pat on the shoulder, high five, smile) so that a child whose English is limited will understand that you are saying something positive.
  • Teach ELs useful phrases. Teach phrases ELs can use to develop the social skills they need to bond with their teachers and classmates. They need to learn, for example, how to approach a teacher to ask a question or engage a classmate in a conversation.
  • Provide safe spaces. According to Teaching Tolerance, teachers must provide safe spaces for students where they are seen, valued, cared for, and respected. This is especially important for ELs. To create this learning environment, teachers need to ensure ELs see their experiences reflected in the curriculum.

2. Teachers use scaffolds to help ELs acquire new information.

When scaffolding instruction, effective classroom teachers provide supports that help ELs succeed academically. These scaffolds should be tailored to meet the their students’ individual needs. Scaffolds for ELs may include the following:

  • Link new learning to what English learners already know. Teachers need to consider what schema ELs  bring to the classroom and to link instruction to the students’ personal, cultural, and world experiences.
  • Model think-alouds. Effective teachers use think-alouds to help ELs understand the step-by-step thinking process in finding a solution. They help ELs see the strategies and the language that the teacher uses to solve a problem.
  • Use visual representations. Teachers of ELs should use photos, drawings, realia, graphic organizers, charts, graphs, and Venn diagrams to support EL learning.
  • Reteach essential vocabulary. Effective teachers choose essential vocabulary for ELs to learn. New vocabulary is pretaught in context, not through rote memorization. Teachers provide multiple occasions for ELs to practice vocabulary.

3. Teachers make use of flexible grouping of students in the classroom.

In the classroom of an effective teacher of ELs, the physical layout of the classroom is conducive to small group and pair learning. Desks are arranged in small groups so that ELs feel that they are an integral part of the classroom community. ELs are provided with plenty of comprehensible output through interactions with their English-speaking classmates. Observers can see meaning negotiated unceasingly as students work in their groups. ELs have a greater opportunity for practicing their English and learning the content information through repetition. Small group and pair learning provide ELs with an opportunity for sustained dialogues with native speakers of English.

4. Teachers model appreciation of diversity in the classroom.

The diversity in the classroom is viewed as a resource from which all students can learn. Classroom teachers should value diversity and model this outlook to their students, demonstrating that they appreciate that the families of ELs have unique experiences to share with classmates. ELs feel that their culture is being validated when they see their home cultures and languages being studied in the classroom. This is a real self-esteem builder for them.

If you have other practices that classroom teachers can use to help their ELs’ social and academic growth, please share them in the comments.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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14 Responses to 4 Ways Teachers Can Support English Learners

  1. Sandy Johnson says:

    I really appreciate how all of your strategies relate back to the importance of positive relationships and welcoming environments. Any child, EL or not, will be more successful if they have a positive mindset. English-learners specifically are predisposed to feel uncomfortable, nervous, or out of place, so it becomes crucial for teachers to make an additional effort to ensure that they feel supported. Making a point to tell ELs how they positively contribute to the class makes them feel like they are a part of the community. Supporting instruction with modeling, visuals, and connections shows an EL student that you care about their learning/ progress. Flexible grouping also relates back to developing a welcoming environment because it provides struggling students with a safety net. When teachers purposefully group EL students with other helpful classmates, it helps them to feel confident because they can get additional help from their peers. Finally, celebrating diversity in the classroom shows that everyone is important and what sets us apart can also bring us together!

  2. Elena Faulkner says:

    After reading your blog, I had a bit of an aha moment when thinking about the EL students in my classroom. I think I have really overlooked purposefully teaching EL students useful phrases that we use in our daily routine. I have maybe erred on the side of assuming they are understanding the procedures and directives given in the classroom, or that they will always be able to figure it out by watching the other students. Going forward, I think I will generate a list of statements/phrases/directives that are common to my classroom to teach new students as they arrive. I know I’ve covered some of the basics, but I need to be a lot more proactive in instructing students in this area so they can feel more a part of our classroom community and can focus more on learning and engaging in the content of the instruction. Thank you for this valuable reminder!

  3. Kim Nowlin says:

    Thank you for sharing Judie! I feel the four essential practices you highlighted within your blog are crucial for teachers who work with ELs. It reminds me of a quote by Carol Ann Tomlinson that truly resonates with me, “If I were an English language learner, I’d want to be in a class where the teacher put himself in my shoes, imagined the challenges I faced, and did something concrete to help me find my way.” Taking the time to establish relationships with our ELs and to welcome and honor their culture within the classroom is key.

  4. Rachel C says:

    As a student who is new to learning about how to teach English Language Learners, I often find myself wondering what more can I do as a teacher to support EL students, and each one of these essential practices really resonated with me. Relationships are important with all students, but can be even more important with EL students. We as teachers need to make sure these students know just how much we care about them. I think it is vital that we put ourselves in our students shoes to understand what life is like for them. Scaffolding is also very important for aspect for EL students. Teachers need to model think-aloud, and visual representations to make sure our students are understand what we are teaching. Group can be vital for for how EL students adapt. How students feel in a group, will display with how they participate. Groups can also be a really great place for students to learn and adapt with other students. Diversity should always be appreciated in the classroom. No students are ever going to be the same, and it’s important that both teachers and students, know and appreciate that.

  5. Grace says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article about ways we, as teachers, can support our ELL students within the classroom. In my opinion, your point about modeling an appreciation of diversity within the classroom is so important. Not only are we allowing our ELL students to feel a sense of belongingness and acceptance, but we are also teaching ALL of our students how to be good citizens in general. It is so important to make sure we do not make our students feel as though English is inferior to their home language. We need to celebrate the culture in which their roots are from! This means we need to allow our students the ability to make connections to their home language and English. This takes a delicate balance, but when done correctly, our ELL’s and our other students walk away with a tolerance and understanding of another culture.

  6. Alisha Easley says:

    Modeling appreciation of diversity is a very important thing to do in our classrooms at all times regardless of if we have ELs or not. However, is is especially crucial when we are creating an environment that our ELs can thrive in that we show a respect for their culture and find a place for it in our rooms. A great way to do this is through literature. I believe literacy opens so many doors for our kiddos and it is important that they are seeing themselves in the texts we are providing them. Through the books we provide our students we can educate others on our students culture and give them an opportunity to share their experiences with the class.

  7. Rachel says:

    I think that everything that Judie hit on in this post is extremely important for our English Language learners! Despite the fact that these students have a variety of needs, by simply making a few changes to our daily routines we can help them become more comfortable in our classrooms. By taking the time to get to know our students, allowing students to get to know each other, provide scaffolding for them, and by celebrating the diversity in our classrooms, we can truly change the educational experience of an English Language learner.

  8. Megan Duregger says:

    I absolutely agree how vital it is that we consider our classroom practices when thinking about the success of our EL students in our classrooms. Of the four listed, I really connected with the idea of scaffolding new information so that it is easier for the Els to relate to and understand. Linking new learning to what the English learners already know ties into something I am very passionate about, which is connecting instruction to background knowledge. It is so important to consider what experiences, and ideas, students bring with them into the classroom, and how this can affect what they are able to take away from the lesson. By considering this, we are also able to validate their home language and cultures because we are respecting their experiences they have had so far in life.

  9. Caroline says:

    I love the idea of incorporating a safe space for ELs, one teacher creating a safe space for that student could provide a grounding for them that will help them excel. Great point! When talking about scaffolds you make great points when talking about building connections. We often forget that new material can be challenging for all students, so building connections to prior knowledge is always a wonderful scaffold. Thank you for including an appreciation for diversity, something we can all so easily forget. It is so important for our students to know they are valued and that their diversity is a resource. Thanks for including information on the connections between diversity and families, building bonds with families is such an important connection we can make as teachers and can make a huge impact on student success. I would also even go further to stress the importance of building bonds with students communities, showing appreciation and giving and importance to the community ( families, leaders, friends, businesses) is an amazing way to stay in the know with what is going on around our students, as well as building more stronger relationship.s

  10. Amy Bersch says:

    I love how you stress the importance of having positive relationships with our students. It is so important to encourage students, especially our Els, because everyone needs the reassurance that they are doing a good job. If they feel like they are accomplishing certain goals, no matter how small, they will continue to strive to accomplish more and more as time goes on. I think this also relates to number 4, appreciating the diversity in the classroom. Part of showing a student that they are valuable is showing that their culture is an important addition/aspect of the classroom. This will help other students value the differences of other cultures as well, and hopefully the atmosphere will be one where all students feel accepted and valued. The more a student feels comfortable in a classroom, the better the chance of them trying and striving.

  11. Sara Hess says:

    When looking at the ways teachers can support English Learners, all of the specific ways listed seem to be things that we know but once they are put to paper, the simple statements of support hold a whole lot of meaningful truth. We obviously want to create a warm and cultivated classroom environment for all of our students, but we must put on a different lens when thinking about our English Leaners. When it comes to this, empathy I believe is huge. How we care for our students comes from putting ourselves in their shoes and then responding to that feeling in direct ways. In terms of instruction, we want to scaffold support for all learners, but again, it is putting on a different lens for our students. It also looks like teaching small phrases and things that we as native English speakers might not think twice about. English Learners are apart of our classroom community and it is essential that we take the necessary steps and be empathetic for our learners to make them feel wanted, welcomed and valued in the classroom.

  12. Brittany Herndon says:

    This article is so valuable to how teachers can expand the growth of English Learners. Having a good rapport with students, helps build their trust and their ability to feel comfortable in the classroom. As a teacher, if we have a safe space, build on their knowledge, and then show how important diversity is in our society, our students will go into the world with the same mindset. Having a classroom environment that is positive for all students is how our students will grow.

  13. Julianna Shibley says:

    Supporting ELs in the classroom is extremely important to build relationships and create a sense of comfort. The teacher is the leader in the class that structures the safe space we want children to experience. There are many ways that you touched on that are very simple, like a pat on the back to remind them you are there. When coming to a new school with a new language it can be daunting for students and takes them a while to feel comfortable. As teacher we need to be responsive to our students and try our best to make the safe space a priority.

  14. Pablo Oñate says:

    Thanks for sharaing the inforamation to be updated about teaching in better way