Six Strategies for Teaching ELLs Across the Content Areas

The role of the ESL teacher is changing. According to the TESOL’s Implementing the Common Core State Standards for English Learners: The Changing Role of the ESL Teacher, “ESL teachers should be recognized as experts, consultants, and trainers well versed in teaching rigorous academic content to ELs.” What can you do to share your expertise with the classroom teachers in your school?

Here are six strategies that classroom teachers need to learn:

1. Determine content and language objectives for each lesson. Teachers need to learn how to write a content objective for every lesson in language that ELLs can understand. At the end of the lesson, students should be asked if the objective was met. Classroom teachers also need to set language objectives for the ELLs for each lesson. A language objective specifically outlines the language that ELLs will need in order to meet the content objective. For example, if your content objective is for ELLs to provide examples of solids, liquids, and gas, the language objective could be to write simple sentences about the stages of matter.

2. Connect content to ELLs’ background knowledge. Teachers need to consider the schema that ELLs bring to the classroom and to link instruction to the students’ personal, cultural, and world experiences. They also need to identify what their students do not know. They must understand how the cultures of their ELLs impact learning in the classroom.

3. Provide comprehensible input for ELLs. Language is not “soaked up.” The learner must understand the message that is conveyed. Comprehensible input is a hypothesis first proposed by Krashen (1981). He purports that ELLs acquire language by hearing and understanding messages that are slightly above their current English language level. When ELLs are assigned to a general education classroom and spend most of their day in this environment, it is especially critical for them to receive comprehensible input from their content area teachers and classmates.

4. Make lessons auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. Use visual representations to introduce new concepts and vocabulary. Find graphs, maps, photographs, drawings, and charts. Create story maps and graphic organizers to teach ELLs how to organize information. ELLs will benefit from hands-on activities. Have them learn by doing. Investigate project-based learning and Makerspaces.

5. Use cooperative learning strategies. Lecture-style teaching excludes ELLs from the learning in a classroom. We don’t want to relegate them to the fringes of the classroom, doing a separate lesson with a classroom aide or ESL teacher. Working in small groups is especially beneficial to ELLs who have an authentic reason to use academic vocabulary and real reasons to discuss key concepts. ELLs benefit from cooperative learning structures. Give students a job in a group, and monitor that they are participating.

6. Modify vocabulary instruction for ELLs. ELLs do not usually learn new vocabulary indirectly. It needs to be explicitly taught in order for them to understand texts that they are reading. ELLs need many more exposures to new words than native-English speakers. They need to learn cognates, prefixes, suffixes, and root words to enhance their ability to make sense of new vocabulary . Understanding context clues such as embedded definitions, pictures, and charts builds ELLs’ schema. They should actively engage in holistic activities to practice new vocabulary because learning words out of context is difficult for them.
Don’t overwhelm students with too many new words. Pick vocabulary that is absolutely essential in each unit. Introduce the vocabulary in a familiar and meaningful context and then again in a content-specific setting. For example, in a unit on tornadoes, the word “front” needs to be reviewed in a familiar context and then taught in the context of the unit.

Have you tried to share any of these strategies with classroom teachers?  I invite your comments.

Haynes, J., & Zacarian, D. (2010). Teaching English language learners across the content areas. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervisors and Curriculum Developers.

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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5 Responses to Six Strategies for Teaching ELLs Across the Content Areas

  1. SP says:

    I am an ESL teacher, and for the previous few years I taught stand alone ESL classes, so all of my students were ELLs. This year I was moved to teach GenEd with a substantially smaller amount of ELLs in each of my classes. I especially appreciate the reminder of how important comprehensible input is for ELLs in GenEd classrooms. If ELLs don’t understand what they’re hearing or reading, they are not learning. While I have far fewer ELLs in my classes now than I’m used to having, I aim to stay cognizant of their language needs so that they can have equitable access to my class material. So, I scaffold lessons and embed language support in each activity.

  2. Anthony McCulloch says:

    An AR(augmented reality) or VR (Virtual reality) would be able to reinforce some of these strategies and add to the learning experience of ELLS Students (Wilang & Soermphongsuwat, 2018; Taskiran, 2018 ). This would expand the auditory, visual and kinesthetics experience. Historical events could be replayed by the individual. The Reading comprehension skill could also be polished by way of various simulations.

    Wilang, J. D., & Soermphongsuwat, A. (2018). Virtual Reality for Undergraduate English Language Learners: A Formative Study. Online Submission.
    Taskiran, A. (2018, June). Augmented reality games and motivation in language learning. In EdMedia+ Innovate Learning (pp. 892-898). Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE).

  3. Lauren Rohrer says:

    I am definitely going to modify vocabulary and use more cooperative learning strategies. As an ELL co-teacher with ELA, O always make sure to differentiate for my ELLs, provide more scaffolding, pull out and pre-teach vocabulary words, and chunk text. I also try my best to use multiple SIOP and ExELL strategies to make sure I’m accommodating their needs.

    • Grace-Ann Fogah says:

      I am also an ELL co-teacher with ELA. I am even more cognizant of the necessity to pre-teach vocabulary words along with adequate time to prepare and implement this strategy. This can be challenging, but for the sake of our students, we must advocate and accommodate their needs. I am encouraged to be more strategic with explicit vocabulary instruction.

  4. Nelson Sabatto says:

    I am going to teach ESL to some hispanic and chinese students. I am not worried about the hispanic ones, but the chinese do have poor or no prior exposure to English. What kind of activities would you recommend? Oh I forgot this is high school.

    Thanks in advance,


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