Essential Tips for Mainstream Teachers with ELLs (Part 1)

I'm compiling a list of essential tips for teachers working with English language learners. These are the things I find myself telling teachers repeatedly. Or things I'm noticing when I do observations. Some of them may seem like common sense but in the trenches it is easier said than done, and that doesn't mean it is always done, and some of these are just overlooked, or go completely unrealized.

Because this runs the risk of being a really long post, I'm going to break it up into several parts. Starting with the beginning, something that needs to happen before any learning can go on, creating a welcoming classroom environment.

Creating a welcoming classroom environment: 

Creating a welcoming classroom environment is one of the most important things you can do when working with English language learners. We need to feel safe and comfortable in order to take the risks necessary to learn. 

1. Smile - Especially if you are new to working with ELLs and the task seems daunting. It is a new learning experience for you, and is not something that you should dread. I am well aware of the stresses placed on teachers in the classroom, and I know what it feels like to be in the middle of a large class and in walks a brand new student that doesn't speak any English right in the middle of a Beowulf unit, or a week before finals, and that feeling of just wanting to scream. When an ELL walks into your classroom, if you look at them with a sense of impending doom, they will see it. We all smile in the same language, and a smile goes a long way towards creating a welcoming environment for students.

The same is true for ignoring the students. One year in the spring semester at my school, the failure rate for ninth grade English learners was so high the administration took pictures of all of the students and printed them, and at a staff meeting asked the teachers to pick up all of their students. Each student had 8 teachers, surely they could all be claimed. Wrong, at the end there were 5 students left over that none of their teachers recognized. Surprisingly, these students were receiving failing grades in most of their classes. I'm sure if you asked those students, they were aware of their teachers' indifference towards their education. Sometimes ignoring the students is not intentional, but a byproduct of assuming the student doesn't understand English.

2. Learn how to pronounce the student's name - Even if the name is hard to pronounce or sounds funny to you, take the time and make the effort to learn to pronounce their name correctly. Ask the student if you are saying it right, they will appreciate the effort.

3. Increase your knowledge - Take time to learn as much as you can about the language and culture of your students. A quick search for something like "Hmong culture" can give you valuable insights. This might even open up opportunities to bring the student's home language and culture into the classroom. All students will benefit from this. Also be aware of effects of culture shock which can manifest with physical ailments and behavior outbursts.

4. Don't assume he/she does not speak or understand English - Take the time to find out. Ask about the language proficiency level of your students. This will be necessary for planning appropriate accommodations.

One year, again in the spring, a student with rather low English language proficiency - she came to me in the beginning as a beginner, but she was intermediate level at the time - said, "Ms. E, you are my favorite teacher." so I asked her why was that, what did I do that was so different from everyone else. She didn't even hesitate when she answered, "you're the only one who talks to me."

5. Recognize that students will make language mistakes - model correct grammatical form in a supportive, friendly and respectful way. Being overly corrected, and getting writing back full of red ink doesn't make anyone feel good. Consider a conversation like this:

Student: I goed the store.
Teacher: Oh, you went to the store! What did you buy?

It shows an interest in what the student is talking about and is giving extended opportunities for them to practice their English.

6. Do not force reticent students to speak - Give students plenty of opportunities to speak in low risk settings, casual conversations, and with a buddy, etc. Increase wait time to allow students to process a response, and respond positively to student's attempts. Most newcomers go through a silent period that might last months, where they aren't producing the language yet, but they are listening and taking in their environment. If they are not comfortable with speaking, give them other ways to show their understanding of content. Allow them to do activities with pointing, matching.

7. Give lots of praise and encouragement - celebrate successes and give praise for what students can do. Create opportunities for students to be successful in the classroom. Grade for content not language.


  1. I'm currently taking a class at my university about teaching ELL students. I found this post interesting because all of the tips you mentioned were also stated in the textbook I'm using for my class. It's nice to know what I'm learning now can be applied to my future classroom.

    1. I am so glad you enjoyed it. It is good to see your university preparing you for the diverse learners that you will inevitably have sitting in front of you in your future classroom. One of the most common frustrations mainstream teachers share with me is they did not feel adequately trained to deal with English language learners, only a handful of states require such courses. So you are ahead of the game!