Breaking Down Language Barriers for English Language Learners: How to Support ESL Students in the Classroom

English learners (EL), English language learners (ELLs) and English as a second language (ESL) students are a growing population in America’s schools. In fact, between the 2009-10 and 2014-15 school years, the U.S. Department of Education calculates that the percentage of ELL students increased in more than half of the states. Over 4.8 million ELL students were enrolled in U.S. schools in 2014-15, representing approximately 10 percent of the total K-12 student population. Of those ELL students, 97 percent participated in language instruction education programs.

This webinar discusses the importance of providing English Language Development to these students, in addition to highlighting tips for teaching English language learners. While ELLs go through the same process for acquiring the English language as their English-speaking peers, they don’t necessarily do so at the same or similar rates. Research shows that they often enter kindergarten with a gap in language and math, and these deficits can impact their future academic success. ELLs often fail high school exit exams despite meeting graduation requirements, are shown to graduate at lower rates than their peers, and are more likely than other student groups to drop out of school.

This webinar emphasizes the importance of educators being intentional when teaching ELL students to meet their unique learning needs. Educators must make a conscious effort to teach English Language Development, and English learners should be provided with the opportunity to access high-rigor curriculum and learn in groups with mixed language abilities.

Watch the full webinar to learn more about why and how to support ESL students in the classroom with strategies for teaching English language learners, some of which are outlined below.

Tips for Teaching English Language Learners

While this webinar dives into specific research-based strategies for ELL students in targeted subjects, including ELL strategies for reading and ELL strategies for math, it also explores some of the unique challenges of teaching ELL students as a group.

The webinar points out that school experiences differ among ELL students, and that when teaching ELLs, it’s important to be conscious of and address their unique circumstances. For example:

  • Some ELL students have limited formal education, while others may have experienced significant periods of educational disruption.
  • Some ELL students have a strong background in their native language, but simply lack English proficiency.
  • Some ELL students were born in America but speak a different language at home. In some cases, these students may be dealing with poverty, non-citizenship and/or familial transiency.
  • Some ELL students may be recently arrived immigrants or refugees who have experienced war, social turmoil and persecution.

All of these challenges can adversely impact an ELL student’s learning progress and academic achievement. In addition, an ELL’s perception of how society, including their teachers, understand, accept or reject their background, culture and language is critical to their eventual academic success. Being culturally responsive is essential to the growth and development of language proficiency. Educators must be aware of best practices and research based strategies for ELL students that address these challenges. Some tips include:

  • Creating a partnership with ELL families and the community to show a respect for their culture
  • Being intentional about explaining the learning process to ELL students, and letting them know that their feelings (perhaps vagueness and frustration) are valid
  • Setting up tasks that will prepare ELL students to be successful for what they will be required to do
  • Having high expectations for ELL students and encouraging them to contribute to classroom instruction and a positive learning environment for all students

How to Support ESL Students in the Classroom

English Language Development is critical to supporting ELL students in the classroom. And fortunately, it can increase instructional effectiveness for all learners — what supports one group of students often supports another.

This webinar emphasizes the importance of schools making a conscious effort to offer English Language Development to ensure that ELL students have access to a rigorous curriculum and the opportunity to succeed academically. Watch the full webinar to learn more about educators’ responsibility to ELL students and more strategies for teaching English language learners.

Video Transcript

Jill Youngren: We know that English learners are a growing population. English learners go through a similar process to acquire the English language, but not necessarily at the same rate. English language development instruction increases the instructional effectiveness for all learners. We hear that over and over again. What supports one group of students, also supports another. I really wanna emphasize that we have to be very intentional. We can’t just do best practice and assume it’s gonna meet the needs of our ELL students. We have to be intentional about it. Schools needs to make a conscious effort to teach ELD. English learners should have an opportunity to be grouped with mixed language abilities, as well as time to be with their like-speaking ability peers. ELD supports all learners, not just English learners. English language development instruction is a way to insure English learners have access to the curriculum. That’s really our goal. We wanna make sure that that high level rigor happens for all students.

Jill Youngren: Why ensure ELLs have equal access to the curriculum? On the slide are some facts about English language learners. They enter kindergarten with a gap in language and math. They fail high school exit exams while meeting all other graduation requirements. Graduate at lower rates than their peers. Are more likely to dorp out of school. This is where I really have passion, and I really wanna emphasize this, that educators have a moral imperative to be responsive to the educational needs. It isn’t enough to just teach English language or just teach content. We must do both.

Jill Youngren: As we look at varied background, it’s real important that we address what our English learners may be bringing to school and that we have to be conscious of. Schooling experiences differ among English learners. Some students may have limited or interrupted formal education. Some students have strong educational backgrounds in their first language but lack English proficiency. The schema may not match the culture for which the text was written, or the structure for our learning. English learner perspectives of how the majority of society accepts or rejects the culture and language they bring to the school are extremely, extremely important for their eventual success in the school. Being culturally responsive is essential to the growth and the development of language proficiencies.

Jill Youngren: It is critical to create a partnership with family and community, because it shows that you respect their culture. In addition, teachers must explain the process of how to learn to students. Too often, students are the last to know. For English learners, this is especially damaging. They need to understand that their feelings of vagueness and frustration are valid. At the same time, teachers should carefully prepare learners by setting up tasks that will prepare them to be successful for what they will be required to do. Most importantly, we must have high, high expectations for our English learners and believe that they can contribute to classroom instruction while creating a safe, risk-free learning environment.