32 Tips for ELLs: Help your English language learners gain ground from the first day

By: Jeri S. Cipriano


2 Tips for Before the School Begins:
-Do your homework.
Learn what you can about your new ELL students, now. Can they read and write in their home language? Have they attended school consistently? Students who are literate in their home language can more easily transfer concepts and vocabulary.

-Prepare a guidebook.
Make a map of your school and a handy list of school-related words in English and the other languages. Examples: teacher, principal, student, classroom, gym, office, bathroom, cafeteria, library, hall, blackboard, desk, chair. This will be incredibly helpful to your new students.

3 Ideas for the First Day:
-Say “Hi” in their language.
Greet your new ELL students by calling them by name and perhaps, saying hello in their native language. Understand that newcomers will go through a “quiet time,” when they first arrive. Be patient. They are actively absorbing their new culture by watching and listening.

-Offer bilingual buddies.
Prepare a seating chart to help newcomers learn the names of classmates, who are seated nearby. If you can, ask  a student who is bilingual to be a “host friend” or “bilingual buddy” for each newcomer. Have hosts walk newcomers around the school to make connections to the real people and places listed in their guidebooks.

-Use sentence frames.
Prepare sentence frames for phrases students will need. Use gestures and concrete examples to demonstrate what each means. Examples: Can I please _____? I need help with _____. Where is the _____?

4 Ways to Build Vocabulary: 
-Label your classroom.
Label classroom objects with sticky notes (desk, clock, flag, chair, board). Point to the words as you use them in sentences every day.

-Create dictionaries.
Show ELL students how to keep a personal dictionary in a small notebook. Students can draw a picture or write the meaning in their home language next to words they want to learn.

-Teach little words.
Focus on “little words” that connect ideas (and, but) or signal transitions (then, next). Point out root words, prefixes, and suffixes.

-Revisit known words.
English learners need repeated exposure to words before they “own” them. In teaching new words, group them with related words. For example, myself might be linked with herself.

2 Tips for Teaching Idioms:
-Don’t go word by word.
In conversation and in reading, English learners will come across idioms that can be confusing. Idioms must be learned as “units of meaning” and not translated word by word.

-Practice their use.
Have students practice the correct use of idioms they encounter. Help them to see how the meaning of a word like take can “take on” various meanings, as in: take it easy, take care, take a turn, take a chance, take control, or take-out.

3 Math Class Reminders:
-Introduce process.
English learners may have learned math by rote and view it as “calculating.” They may never have worked with manipulatives or described their process of arriving at an answer.

-Teach measurement.
Students’ native cultures may use the metric system. Teach the measurements we use by having students work with rulers, scales, and thermometers.

-Simplify word problems.
Replace or modify cultural references in math texts that are designed for “relevance.” English learners’ lack of experience or unfamiliarity with vocabulary may get in the way of knowing which mathematical operation to use.

5 Reading Lessons:
-Walk through the text.
Introduce texts by taking walk-throughs of each. Familiarize students with the parts of books, such as tables of contents and glossaries. Show how chapters are organized. Point to the headings and subheadings that tell about each section.

-Read aloud.
Read aloud portions of texts and note differences between spoken and written language (e.g., the use of passive tense in some texts). Reread the same passages multiple times. Each time, set a different purpose: word study, comprehension, pronunciation, etc.

-Use picture books.
Use easy picture books, when your aim is to pre-teach or expose students to new academic experiences. Borrow big books on relevant topics and conduct a shared reading experience.

-Prompt reading at home.
Ask for class volunteers to create audio recordings of texts for English learners to take home. Students will love the chance to do this, and build fluency!

-Discuss what’s unsaid.
Students may read the words, but still not understand all that’s left unsaid­-what authors assume we know. Developing these analysis skills takes practice. Talk with your students about what we can infer, as we read.

7 Ways to Fill Cultural Gaps:
-Compare languages.
Encourage English learners to identify the letters and sounds that are the same or different from those in their home language. For example, v and b sound almost the same in Spanish: /b/. Knowing this helps you understand why some Spanish speakers say bery in place of very. In addition, most Asian languages do not have consonant blends, so some students may add vowel sounds between consonants (belew). The more students reveal about their home language, the better able you will be to help them learn English.

-Build background.
English learners may not know much about the United States, which makes it difficult to activate prior knowledge in social studies. Try showing a video or reading aloud from a picture book about your topic, first.

-Understand differences.
Be sensitive to the fact that English learners may not have experienced expressing their own opinions and ideas in class. They may be unfamiliar with the question-answer format of discussions and more accustomed to learning by rote and reciting what they have learned.

-Use Body Language.
Have students demonstrate comprehension through movement. For example: “Clap your hands when you hear a word that…”; “Point to the correct answer.”

-Connect their culture.
Whenever possible, connect units of study to English learners’ cultures and prior experience by having them, for example, tell about animals or weather with which they are familiar.

-Involve families.
Prepare projects that encourage family involvement. For instance, create a Family Quilt at the end of a social studies unit on culture. Send home paper squares for families to work on together. They can illustrate their home cultures or family interests with words, drawings, maps, photos, or even objects.

-Strive to differentiate.
Adapt class participation and homework to match English learners’ language proficiencies. Invite them to draw, if they are not yet able to write. Encourage them to add labels by copying the correct words.

Dive In: 
The best way to  support ELLs is to immerse them in classroom life. Give newcomers duties (pet caretaker, line leader) like everyone else. Pretty soon, they’ll be going with the flow.


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