9 Best Practices To Support English Language Learner Students
The Classroom

9 Best Practices To Support English Language Learner Students

Daniel Scibienski
Jul 3, 2024

English language learner (ELL) students (also known as English learners, multilingual learners, and emergent bilingual learners) make up over 10% of the K-12 population. This percentage has risen slowly over the past decade and experts expect it to keep going up. Teachers of ELL students have the unique challenge of working to provide adequate differentiation and plan culturally relevant lessons to develop their language skills while also building their academic knowledge.

There are many best practices you can use to work with ELLs and most of them, at their foundation, are just extensions of the great teaching you already do. Today, we’re looking at some of these approaches you can use to help your ELL students achieve success in all areas of their education.

  1. Build background knowledge

  2. Connect students’ cultures

  3. Create a welcoming environment

  4. Vary ways to show knowledge

  5. Address all learning styles

  6. Provide more scaffolds

  7. Offer texts in native languages

  8. Use graphic organizers

  9. Teach vocabulary

1. Build background knowledge

Sometimes ELLs need additional information to understand the content discussed in class. This is likely to happen at the beginning of a new lesson or unit, but it can happen anytime. 

For example, if a middle school ELA class reads “The Red Badge of Courage,” some students, including ELLs, might have some knowledge of the U.S. Civil War. But ELL students may have significantly less knowledge than their peers depending on how long they’ve been in U.S. schools.

These students need extra support to fill in the gaps and opportunities to make connections to their knowledge and experiences. Newsela subject products make it super easy to build background knowledge on any topic in the classroom.  

  • Newsela ELA

    • Novel studies: Curated texts and guides to enhance instruction for over 500 of the most commonly taught books.

    • Curriculum Complements: Content mapped to resources you’re already using to make them more relevant and accessible.

    • Research projects: Text sets that provide context and current connections for a range of popular research topics.

  • Newsela Social Studies

    • Key concepts and skills: Resources to review key concepts from core social studies courses.

    • Explainer videos: Interactive resources that show key information about historical events and people necessary for understanding social studies topics.

    • Issue overviews: Deep dive into topics that shape government policy and affect students’ daily lives.

  • Newsela Science

    • Science core ideas: Build a foundation for science with activities that increase in depth and complexity.

    • Science videos: Explore core concepts and ideas across science disciplines with interactive videos.

    • Virtual field trips: Explore a variety of locations like zoos, national parks, and space.

2. Connect students’ cultures

All students should be able to see themselves and their classmates in the content they explore in school. This helps spark curiosity and empathy, so it’s important to integrate these elements into lessons all year long.

You can do this by incorporating more lessons with content familiar to your ELL students. For example, if you have Spanish-speaking students in your class you may choose to teach about or celebrate holidays familiar to them, like Cinco de Mayo, Día de los Muertos, or their native country’s independence day.

Newsela subject products offer over 15,000 pieces of content and a variety of activities that you can pair with your lessons to add more diverse perspectives and cultural topics. 

3. Create a welcoming environment

Aside from giving students opportunities to connect their culture to the lesson, your classroom must be a welcoming place for all students, including ELLs. Consider how uncomfortable or even scary it is to be unable to understand most of the people around you in class every day. You might feel anxious, frustrated, and out of place.

Adding more social-emotional learning lessons to classrooms with English language learners can help. They can allow students to connect with their emotions and each other in ways that highlight their similarities instead of their differences. You can add Newsela’s SEL collection to Newsela ELA, Newsela Social Studies, and Newsela Science to bring these lessons into any classroom. 

4. Vary ways to show knowledge

Do all students need to present in front of the class to show what they know? If you’re teaching public speaking skills, the answer might be yes. But that’s not the case for every lesson.

Students can demonstrate their knowledge and use language through writing, speaking, drawing, art, and other means. Allowing them to show what they know in different ways is a best practice for differentiation for all students, but it’s especially helpful for ELLs. Alternative assessment opportunities allow ELLs to show what they know about the content and concepts while minimizing the language barrier.

Formative offers 20+ question and content types to give students varied options to show their knowledge on any activity or assessment. 

5. Address all learning styles

Alternative learning methods aren’t just for assessments or assignments. You can incorporate different ways for students to practice what they’re learning and target their learning styles. This is especially helpful for ELLs who may not be able to share the ways they prefer to learn due to the language barrier. 

Adding more opportunities to view or listen to interactive content, or do hands-on activities, allows students of all learning styles to interact with information so they can learn and remember it.

Newsela Science seasonal STEAM projects are a great way to add more kinesthetic activities to your lesson. Each includes a step-by-step STEAM activity paired with a holiday or seasonal moment. They also include texts and videos that explain key science concepts behind the experiments that make them work.

6. Provide more ways to access and scaffold materials

When planning your lessons, it’s important to determine the best ways for students to access classroom materials and scaffold knowledge to make it stick. More interaction and collaboration with a focus on communication can help. 

For example, rather than listing key terms on the board and asking students to define them, a science teacher may do experiments to demonstrate what the terms mean. For a lesson on buoyancy, the teacher may fill a fish tank with water and then ask students if they think different objects will float. Students vote and the teacher drops the items in the water to test their predictions.

These types of experiments help students connect the concepts of floating and sinking to the vocabulary word buoyancy. It’s especially important when teaching English language learners to provide a tangible example that they can tie to new words in a new language.

Newsela products offer a variety of ways to provide access and scaffolds to every student, such as providing texts at five reading levels, read aloud mode, and annotations.

7. Provide access to texts in native languages

Providing translated texts helps ELL students connect with what they’re learning by accessing it in their first and new language. Some teachers may be hesitant to provide translated texts because they can become a crutch. The fear is that ELL students will rely too heavily on content in their native language and not learn English.

There’s a difference between just handing students a copy of the book you’re reading in their first language and using materials in their first language to scaffold understanding. The first option doesn’t provide any room for growth. The second allows students to build on previous knowledge by using the two texts together and making connections.

Other options include providing reference materials, like dictionaries, in students' native languages, or access to translating apps where students can look up and listen to translations from English to their native language and back again.

Newsela products offer almost 5,000 texts in both English and Spanish to differentiate for ELL students in the classroom. Access each text at five reading levels and assign Spanish-language quizzes and writing prompts to go with them. Students can use read aloud mode with Spanish texts to hear the content.

8. Use graphic organizers

Regular use of graphic organizers can help students arrange their thoughts and look for patterns and connections within a text. Students learn how to use these tools when they’re embedded in classroom instruction and treated like essential tools for success. ELL students who have spent less time in U.S. schools than their peers may be less familiar with what graphic organizers are and how to use them. 

Help English language learners become more familiar with graphic organizers by including them in your lessons. Newsela offers a variety of downloadable and printable graphic organizers—like flowcharts and Venn diagrams—to share with your students. Filter your search for worksheets to see all the graphic organizers you can access.

9. Teach vocabulary

Contrary to what we’re often told, it’s challenging to learn vocabulary through context alone. Context helps students make sense of vocabulary words and learn appropriate times to use them. But they also need explicit instruction on words and their meaning to learn new vocabulary. This is even more critical for ELL students who may not understand the context of a new English vocabulary word in a sentence. 

Provide explicit instruction whenever the need arises. You may do it as a pre-teaching activity before students read a text, in the middle of a lesson to check for understanding, or at the end of a lesson to review. The Power Words feature on Newsela ELA provides in-context definitions for Tier II vocabulary words, It provides definitions for each word and the ability for students to hear them out loud.

Set English language learners up for success with Newsela

Even if EL teachers want to follow these best practices, knowing where to start can be a challenge. They need support and instructional materials designed to help them educate all learners, not just those who speak English. 

Newsela products offer a variety of in-class and independent supports for English learners to have the tools they need to learn content knowledge alongside a new language. They allow educators to feel more comfortable differentiating instructions for ELLs to avoid gaps in their content knowledge that a language barrier could create.

Not a Newsela customer yet? You can sign up for Newsela Lite for free and get access to the content and skill-building scaffolds you need to support ELLs in your classroom.

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