15 Tips for Supporting English Language Learners

Many of us are lucky enough to have a diverse student population in our classrooms these days.  Our schools are now filled with a huge variety of cultures, traditions, histories, and languages.  While it’s amazing to live in a time when students from such a big variety of cultures are able to learn and grow together, it’s the language piece that we find ourselves puzzling about a great deal.  It’s extremely difficult when we can barely communicate with our English language learners (ELLs).  Even kids from the same country that speak the same language might not be able to understand each other because their dialects are so different.  And that means supporting our English language learners is an added challenge for teachers–a big one.

This has been a topic near and dear to my heart for many years, as my schools have primarily had a huge population of English learners.  And that population grows bigger and bigger every year.  

Finding ways to support these students is paramount.

I’m going to share some tips I’ve learned along the way that are specific to literacy.  However, I think you’ll quickly find two things to be true:  One, these tips transcend literacy; they are applicable to the entire day.  And two, many of these tips are helpful to ALL students, not just our English language learners.

Teacher providing writing support to students.
Supporting English Language learners benefits ALL learners! Image @Monkeybusiness via Depositphotos

Our English learners, and I would absolutely say that all of our learners, benefit from a balanced approach to literacy.  These students of course need explicit phonics instruction, and they need exposure to lots of print.  They need ample opportunity for writing, and they also need tremendous support with vocabulary and comprehension.  They’re going to need a good mix of whole group, small group, and 1:1 instruction, and they’ll benefit tremendously from a gradual release of responsibility model, with feedback all along the way.  This is what balanced literacy is (which I say more about here).  

In their very helpful book Reading and Writing with English Learners, authors Valentina Gonzalez and Melinda Miller explain why a balanced literacy approach is so imperative for English learners.  They say that balanced literacy “combines explicit strategy and skill instruction with meaningful daily reading and writing experiences in order to allow students time to practice orchestrating reading and writing skills.”  Something all students benefit from.  

And since I’m such a huge proponent of classroom efficiency, to me it just makes sense to always plan with the ideas I’m about to share in mind for all of our students.  We shouldn’t think of them as separate things to plan for just our ELLs.  This kind of thinking is not only much more efficient–it will only strengthen our overall instruction.  

With this in mind, here are some tips for supporting your English Language learners (that will also help ALL of your learners) when planning for literacy:

  1. Build a strong foundation of collaboration and participation.  Not only does this encourage lots and lots of language use, it also fosters that all-important sense of community that helps students feel comfortable expressing themselves.
  2. Be sure you’re including lots of interactive read alouds.  Not just regular, just-for-enjoyment read alouds, which are wonderful, but actual more planned out read alouds that include deliberate vocabulary instruction as well as pivotal times for conversation and processing thinking.  You’re also, of course, modeling fluent reading and exposing your students to a much larger variety of sentence structures, giving them countless examples of English syntax. 
  3. When thinking about building in time for conversation, put your ELLs in triads.  This gives them more support, as now they can hear two English proficient speakers, and at the same time gives them more time to process their own thoughts.  It also helps ensure that the conversation isn’t one-sided, like it would be with an English learner and an English-proficient student, or no conversation at all, as it could be with two English learners paired together.
  4. Provide pictures to help ELLs grasp the meaning of new words. I always like to provide images of the vocabulary I pull from an interactive read aloud or from my content text to go along with my explanation.  Seeing it and hearing it is always better.  
  5. Many English learners don’t have the same letter sounds in their own language.  This makes phonics instruction super important for these students.  This is the perfect time for a more structured phonics approach, where a multi-sensory approach is incorporated.  This helps students have something meaningful to attach the letter sounds to.  Making phonics instruction as interactive as possible is better for everyone!  Building in games and songs is an additional layer to consider.  Phonics should not have to be boring.  
  6. For newcomers, let them write in their own language for a bit (and I mean even a few weeks).  This allows them to do what the rest of the kids are doing so they don’t feel left out.  It also tells you a whole lot about what they come to you with in terms of writing, and gives you a nice amount of time to confer 1:1 to determine what sorts of scaffolds this student needs. Jumping in immediately could lead to over-scaffolding–and limiting. Providing picture cues and sentence stems as they’re ready for them can be of great support.  I promise, if you just let them write for a bit in their own language, they’re going to take off!  (When I say writing here, I’m talking about independent writing, where the teacher has modeled with explicit instruction, not writing to a prompt.  These are not the same.)  
  7. Related to #6:  begin where they are, not what your grade level benchmarks dictate they’re “supposed” to be.  This is for both reading and writing.  If they need to draw pictures of their story first, then label that picture before writing sentences and they’re in 5th grade, so be it.  When it comes to literacy, you have to learn to crawl before you can run.   
  8. Be sure to include shared reading in your regular routine.  Shared reading is an important part of instruction that supports students in accessing grade level texts.  It’s a prime opportunity for students to practice reading:  decoding, fluency, and comprehension work, all with the guidance of the teacher and the support of the group.  No one is singled out.  This is the bridge between teacher-driven lessons and read alouds to independent reading.  As your English language learners learn the language, this support helps them participate in the work of reading without the pressure of having to do it all on their own.  This is where you show them how, with a piece of text.  
  9. Shared and interactive writing is also a key component to supporting your English language learners.  Just as with shared reading, this instructional tool is the bridge from teacher-driven, I do it to student independent application.  This is a critical support!
  10. For small group reading instruction, this is about the only time I’d recommend a thorough book introduction.  There’s so much that’s new for these kids–vocabulary, concepts, sentence structure, and decoding work. Scaffold away from a heavy introduction as they’re ready to take on more of that work for themselves, but at first, they really need it.    
  11. If and when possible, provide audio versions of texts so kids can listen while they read their own books.  It’s even better when they can listen to something as they follow along ahead of when you’ll be reading it in class.  This is especially helpful in social studies and science.
  12. Speaking of content, think about text sets.  Images, realia, and video can and should be included.  Providing visual supports to teach concepts–and all the vocabulary that goes with them–is a necessity.  
  13. While technology is a phenomenal tool, they shouldn’t be on it all day.  Have them balance listening to audiobooks with reading independently.  Consolidation of skills requires hard work, but they have to do the work themselves.  When they always listen to books, it takes away a huge portion of the critical practice they need.  Also, as Gonzalez and Miller remind us, “As students gain vocabulary and grammar structures from reading, they begin to apply them in their writing.  The more English learners read, the more they write, and the better they become at writing.”  
  14. With books for independent reading, a mix is important.  Some should be audio, some familiar that they’ve read in small group or even that you’ve read aloud, some should be decodable.  If you have access, it’s fantastic to include books in the child’s home language, too.  
  15. It almost goes without saying, but I also can’t stress it enough–they need to see themselves in the books you provide.  They need to see books where kids look like them and where their culture is represented–accurately.  

I’m going to stop there at 15 tips, although I could probably easily share another 20.  At the end of the day, it’s all about intentionality, accessibility, and differentiation.    I hope you find what I’ve shared here to be helpful.  If you do, please pass this post onto a teacher friend who could also benefit from these tips!

If you could use a thinking partner to help you in further supporting your English language learners so that they can become stronger readers and writers, reach out!  I’m just an email or Instagram DM away!  

Who is Coach from the Couch??  I’m Michelle, a 24-year veteran educator, currently a K-5 literacy coach.  I continue to learn alongside teachers in classrooms each and every day, and it’s my mission to support as many teachers as I can.  Because no one can do this work alone. I’m available to you, too, through virtual coaching calls

Or, consider joining my Facebook community–a safe, supportive environment (really!)  where you can ask questions, learn ideas, and share your thoughts among other literacy-loving educators!  

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