Reach ELLs: Nine Best Practices that Really Work


ELL Best PracticesWith the number of English Language Learners (ELLs) steadily increasing in schools each year, do you worry about how to reach them?

Here’s a little good news: a specialized degree is not required. While educators commonly believe there’s a magic strategy or secret instructional practice for ELLs, reaching diverse student populations (including regular learners) can be accomplished with a strong foundation of best practices.

It’s easier than you think. No matter where learners come from, they’re still students. And all students respond to and learn with best practices.

The following are three best practice categories and three smaller strategies you can start using today to not only engage ELLs, but also to motivate all students.

Establish Routines

Establishing a routine is a best practice because having a familiar, set pattern of behavioral expectations eliminates the need for the brain to worry about what to do next and allows it to focus on learning content.

Classroom routines: Establishing and practicing a routine from the moment students enter a classroom lowers uncertainty and immerses them in the learning experience. Teaching, homework collection, and everything in between should be practiced until it becomes second nature.

Graphic organizers: Graphic organizers are a form of informational routine. It’s a good idea to limit the variety of organizers and focus on a few specific types until students become comfortable with their usage.

Oral routines: Encourage students to repeat your directions in their own words for clarification.

Model, Model, Model

Teachers sometimes assume that all students know how to complete a task or finish an assignment, but gaps in learning experiences make the need for modeling or explicit teaching a prerequisite in some cases.

Model actions: For complex tasks, or even for simple ones where a new, ongoing behavior is expected, walking students through the process by modeling (a science lab, for example) requires little language but boosts student confidence prior to the task.

Model thoughts: I used to think this was only for elementary reading teachers, but some students have had such limited experience in building their thought processes that explicitly guiding their thoughts is necessary for success.

Make the abstract concrete: Especially in the case of vocabulary and concepts, using visuals, manipulatives, models, graphics, maps, objects, or charts can cement a student’s comprehension in less than five seconds.

Give It Time

Processing in two languages—or even one—takes time if we want genuine comprehension to take place. Do you want to ensure true understanding, or simply fit learning into a convenient time frame?

Wait time: Allowing students more than three minutes of processing time before answering or beginning an assignment decreases fear and increases engagement.

Extra work time: Giving students extra time to complete assignments and/or tests isn’t a cop-out; it’s what many of them need in order to access their first-language knowledge and express themselves fully.

Scaffolding time: The more complex the content, the more scaffolding time is needed to fill foundational knowledge gaps. Build extra time into lessons to make sure all students have the prerequisite comprehension for completing tasks to achieve maximum learning.

At the core of every child is a student, and every student is a learner. A solid repertoire of best practices will help all students learn, regardless of their background.

Beth Morrow teaches middle school ESL for Columbus City Schools in Columbus, Ohio. She also blogs on educational and classroom issues at Connect with her on Twitter: @BethFMorrow