How To Effectively Engage English Language Learners

May 25, 2018

How to Effectively Engage English Language Learners


As we move towards more heterogeneous classrooms, an area of concern I receive from teachers is about how best to engage their English Language Learners (ELLs). Teachers often feel at a loss about what to expect from their new language learners, how to communicate with them, and how to make them feel like they belong. Fortunately, quite a bit of research has been done in this area that supports three broad ideas for teachers to follow.


Elevate Your Expectations

First and foremost, expect more from your ELLS. Just because they don’t always have the language to explain their thoughts, doesn’t mean they don’t possess the mental capacity to utilize higher order thinking skills. As you develop lessons, think about how you can integrate oral and written language instruction into areas that are also content rich. For example, if you want an 8th grade student to practice their reading skills, they would benefit immensely from from reading material on a subject that interests them, as opposed to a more “basic” reading primer on an arbitrarily chosen text from the curriculum (see my previous post, “Curriculum Isn’t the Answer”). The problem with many of the more easily accessible texts for ELLs is that they look and feel like something written for a child. There is nothing more deflating than being an adolescent and given a book that looks like it’s for a first grader. While selecting reading material, find ways to help students access their background knowledge, provide supports that allow them to navigate and annotate more complex texts, and really challenge them to a point just beyond their comfort level. By elevating our expectations about what ELLs can do, we end up providing them with more challenging material and expanding their English language skills at a faster rate.


Mix It Up

In the not too distant past, the predominant thinking in education circles was that the best way for students to learn a new language was to completely prohibit them for using their native language, and instead focus solely on total immersion. Fortunately, reams of research has shown us that a bilingual education program will actually produce higher rates of language acquisition. Furthermore, the use of some amount of the ELLs native language results in an increased sense of student well being, and better social skills. This does not mean that you, as a teacher of ELLs, has to learn and understand every language of every learner in your classroom. It does, however, mean that you should allow students to access material in their native language when it has a chance to increase meaning. As students move through the six stages of language acquisition, teachers should identify where their students are and scaffold, or reduce scaffolding, as appropriate. The ability of students to speak another language is not a deficit and, if used correctly, can be a great asset. As Zaretta Hammond told me in an interview, ELLs “don’t have a deficit, they have a superpower.”


Increase Engagement

One of the best ways to help ELLs learn a new language is to proactively recruit them to participate in a myriad of school programs. The bottom line is this: when students participate in extracurricular activities, they increase their English language acquisition. Unfortunately, often times this is easier said than done. The social pressures and awkwardness of adolescence makes it difficult for ELLs to easily throw themselves into after school activities. Their discomfort with the language is no small barrier to easily integrating with their classmates. But, if a concerted effort is made to include ELLs, extra curricular activities can provide a space that allows students to learn the English language in a more casual environment while also allowing them to share interests with their peers. These shared interests serve the dual purpose of increasing a sense of belonging and increasing language skills. Both of these purposes ultimately end in an increase in academic achievement.


As our society continues to grow and change, the integration of English Language Learners will serve as a crucial barometer to how well we can meets the needs of different students in the same classroom. By utilizing a mix of classroom strategies and a shift in mindset of what ELLs are capable of, our classrooms can continue to successfully enrich and teach all students.

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