Addressing the Needs of English Language Learners in the Classroom

Teaching during the 2020-21 school year was a learning experience for everyone. Quick shifts from in-person to virtual instruction had heads spinning. Navigating classrooms of sometimes invisible students felt like driving with a blindfold. And, while there were a multitude of great lessons learned as teachers were forced to try new instructional strategies, one of the glaring concerns was equity. How could teachers reach and support all learners in this digital space?

As teachers prepare to head back into the classroom, it’s important to keep that equal access to learning at the forefront of planning. This is particularly important with one of our largest growing student populations, English Language Learners (ELLs). How can we best support this unique group of learners in our classrooms? It may seem like a daunting task at first, but there are some easy ways to build bridges to understanding that can lead to learning for everyone.

How to support ELLs in the classroom: 

  1. Scaffolding. Vygotsky’s constructivist theory works particularly well for students learning to read, write, speak, and read in English. Consider all of the different ways new information can be taught. Break down large assignments. Pre-teach vocabulary with pictures and videos to facilitate understanding. When writing or requiring a written response, provide ELLs with sentence frames to get them started. For reading, provide adapted texts, outlines, graphic organizers, and flow charts. Build in visual and audio components that can help ELLs make connections to the content in ways that don’t force them to exclusively read or listen.

  2. The gift of time. Speaking of reading and listening…think about all of the processing that goes on for a student when they have to respond to a question or task in their native language. Now, imagine translating the task into a different language, thinking about the response in your native language and then turning around a response in a language you are just learning. That’s like running a mental marathon over the course of a 7-hour school day. By offering students opportunities to write or type their answers, you are giving them the gift of time. Time to process. Time to revise. Time to observe other responses to help craft their own. By allowing peer interaction before whole class discussion, you are inviting students to slow down, to work with a native speaker, and build confidence in their own communication skills.

  3. Differentiate. ELLs bring so many different experiences to the classroom. Capitalize on them! Many ELLs have great pride in their home country, and this can be your chance to learn more about them and for them to share that knowledge with the class. Encourage student engagement and connections between cultures as part of how you differentiate instruction and output. Consider different ways that ELLs can demonstrate their understanding of new material. 

  4. Create a safe, inclusive classroom space. One of the most important considerations for all students, but particularly ELLs, is that they feel safe in the classroom among peers and with their teacher. Many ELLs experience culture shock, isolation, and other obstacles that stand in the way of their learning. Teachers can be conduits to a comfortable place where learning can happen. A large part of creating this comfort zone has to do with a teacher learning about the student’s culture and recognizing how and when to address student needs, parent communication, and performance. The more teachers know about their students, the better equipped they are to create a successful learning experience for them.


English Language Learners can add a rich tapestry of diversity to a classroom. The best experiences happen when the challenges faced by ELLs are understood by teachers, and supports are built into instruction to maximize learning. For more information, model lesson plans, and additional resources, check out Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) online.

Joy Carey teaches eighth-grade English for Arlington Public Schools in Virginia. A middle school teacher for 19 years, Joy is currently working on her EdD in Educational Leadership. Find her on Twitter @joymswriter.


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