The Chalk Blog

Achieving Success with English Language Learners

ELL Students (2)

This blog was originally published on November 6th, 2015, but it was so well received we wanted to share it again! We also added our Top Three Tips when working with students who are ELL.

As teachers we are constantly trying to improve ourselves, our teaching strategies, and our ways of interacting with each unique student. Learning is difficult in itself, but a language barrier makes things more complex. Below are 3 tips from Learners Edge about how to work with ELL students, along with some additional suggestions from Jennifer Marks, a teacher from Northborough, MA , who took Course 842: Achieving Success with English Language Learners.

Tip 1: Learn the culture. 

On a recent trip overseas, I was delighted to sit down with a group of people who had emigrated from Africa to Norway. In talking about what leaving their country was like (they all spoke Arabic, Norwegian, and English)—they shared how helpful it was when teachers learned about their native culture. Understanding just some of the cultural norms helped the teacher, the students, and those who had emigrated transition to a new culture in a way that felt respectful and supportive. When teachers try their best to pronounce names or to honor cultural norms (i.e. food restrictions, social mores) it helps to alleviate micro-aggressions which can feel hurtful to those who are new. 

Tip 2: There’s a reason we say “a picture is worth a thousand words!” (color works, too!) 

If you drive, walk, or ride a bike, you use color as a tool. We all know that red means stop, yellow means caution, and green means go. The international language of color is a wonderful—and easy—tool that can be used when students are learning a new language and can help bridge the gap so they are successful. Pictures or drawings are another, relatively simple, way teachers and students learning a new language can communicate. 

Tip 3: Connect with your colleagues 

When working with students who are ELL, it is tremendously beneficial to talk with our colleagues about what we are teaching! Sounds simple enough yet, we all know how busy we are once we set foot in the classroom. Whenever possible, work with your teacher and specialist colleagues to ensure you are supporting student learning by planning lessons and units that work in tandem with other lessons and units being taught in other classrooms. That way, language, stories, and other curriculum being used feels seamless and reinforces what is being taught.  

That's it from Learners Edge! Now read about what Jennifer Marks took away from Course 842: Achieving Success with English Language Learners.


Especially intriguing, is Jen's discussion regarding how some of the students with whom she worked had moved from warmer climates, and therefore did not know what a Snow Day was. Learners Edge is located in Minnesota (aka: Minne-SNOW-ta) so it's hard for us to imagine a life without Snow Days!     

Read Jen's ideas for helping her students prepare for what winter brings, along with her suggestions for achieving success when working with ELL students, including: KWL Charts, Data Charts, Realia Charts, and Modeled Talk.  

Chapter 11: KWL and Data Charts 

This is a great way to engage students in any topic we might be learning about. The reason I like the KWL chart is because it activates the students’ prior knowledge and gives me a baseline of how much they already know about a particular topic. I will plan on using the KWL for our fall social studies unit, which is all about the Pilgrims and their voyage to America. I find this is a great unit for the ELL students because they can relate to the Pilgrims in terms of what it felt like to move to a new and unknown place.  I also really like the “What we want to learn” component of the chart because the students feel like they have ownership of what they will be learning, instead of me telling them this is what we are learning. I find when the students take ownership, they are more vested in learning about the information. Lastly, it is great to wrap up what we learned and create a reflection about the whole unit. Once we have completed the whole chart, I will leave it up on the wall for the students to reference as we complete some culminating activities to go along with our unit.    

Chapter 13: Realia Strategies   

One area where I find (some) ELL students are lacking has to do with seasons and appropriate clothing to wear during those seasons. In a lot of instances, the ELL students have only lived somewhere where there is a warm climate and they have never experienced cold weather or seen snow. I remember one year our MCAS prompt wanted students to write about what they would do during a “Snow Day” and quite a few ELL students were at a loss because they didn’t know what a snow day was!  Some students have never seen or used boots, snow pants, etc before!   

What I would do is bring in a laundry basket filled with clothes- bathing suit, sweater, boots, hats, gloves, umbrella, rain coat, sandals, etc. I would then have four areas around the room labeled winter, spring, summer, fall. Groups of students would have to decide where to place each item of clothing- in some instances a piece of clothing could go in two seasons so they’ll have to discuss/debate the best option.  Once the clothes have been sorted, I would hand each student a card with one of the seasons on it. They would then have to go to that season and pick a piece of clothing. Then they would fill out a sentence frame, ex: In the winter, I would wear a green sweater with stripes on it (describing the article of clothing) to keep me warm.  We would then compile all the pages and put them together to create a seasonal clothing book that the students could read and reference throughout the year.   

Chapter 14: Modeled Talk   

I love the idea of using modeled talk with my ELL students because it really helps them learn how to follow directions and listen for key instructions. I have already done this with my students, but I always just called it “Following Directions Activities.” I like using the term modeled talk because then the students will know I will be modeling for them and take some of the anxiety out of the activity.  I liked the figure 14.2- how to make a frog. I think in the beginning of the year, I will have the students create a school bus. I will list the steps to make a school bus (ex: cut 2 black circles- these will be the wheels). After the buses are created, I will use this activity as a jumping off point for a writing prompt for my students. How do you get to school? This will be a fun way for the students to get to know a little bit about each other. I will put the school bus pictures along with the writing on a bulletin board so students can easily share with one another. 

From this, we can have a class discussion about how we would prefer to get to school, make a graph of how many people walk/take a bus/drive to school, etc.  I always try to make each activity have a purpose so for this Modeled Talk, my goal is to help the students follow directions but I also want to be able to tie it into other curriculum areas (writing, math, etc) to make it part of a more encompassing experience.   


Course 842: Achieving Success with English Language Learners

Explore over 40 proven strategies to that help students develop their English language skills in all subjects. This course addresses basic principles of teaching and assessing English learners, adaptations necessary in helping ELLs understand content, active participation along with vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension strategies. Find out how to achieve success today!

Register Now!

Topics: Special Populations, Teaching Excellence, diversity

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Offering more than 100 print-based or online courses for teachers, you can earn the graduate credit you need for salary advancement and meet your professional development needs. Contact us today to get started!

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