Reaching English Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom

Many of us have English as a Second Language (ESL) students in our classes, who come to us with varying levels of English proficiency when they arrive, and in some cases, varying levels of education.  I'm going to share a few tips for mainstream teachers who may be struggling with modifying instruction for English Language Learners in their classrooms.

Let's start by doing a little activity: Raise your hand if you've ever traveled to another country.  Lots of hands! Now raise your hand if you've ever gone to school in another country. Fewer hands.  Now raise your hand if you've ever learned math, science, or social studies in a language besides English in another country.  Even fewer hands.  That last example is what we are asking our ESL students to do: learn specific content-area vocabulary at their grade level, when in reality, they may not have the background education, knowledge, or experiences to be able to keep up with their classroom peers. So how can we make it easier?

Get to know your student
The ESL teacher in your school or district should be able to provide you with a   report that gives that student's level of proficiency.  About half of the states in the US, including NJ, use WIDA; check and see what your state uses. If you use WIDA, once you know your student's English proficiency level, you will be able to find a list of Can-Do descriptors for that student. I treat this similar to an IEP, in that now I know what I can absolutely expect the student to achieve in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Giving the student achievable work on his or her level makes learning so much more rewarding. Below is something the teachers at my school use to make the Can-Do descriptors a little bit easier to manage. If you use WIDA, hopefully it can help you too! It's a google doc-just click on the picture to download.

Build background knowledge with quality and quantity 
Many students come to the US without the experiences that our students take for granted.  Here's an example my students struggled with recently from their mainstream classroom basal reader: 
Robert and his grandfather are going camping.  They set out early with a tent, fishing pole, and hiking boots.  What did they forget?  
Here are the problems with giving ESL students questions like that: 
  • They may never have been camping before. 
  • They do not know what a tent, fishing pole, or hiking boots are if there are no illustrations.
  • I could go on and on!  
But how do I fix it?  Well, if I know that the selection for the week is going to be about camping, I could put together a 10 minute Powerpoint about common camping vocabulary for the benefit of all the students in the class.  Maybe I can find a Youtube video to show to my small group of ELL's before reading the story during guided reading.  Or, if I know of a native speaker who is an avid camper, I can have him/her "teach" the ELL's about camping and then partner-read the story together to answer questions as they arise. And, as I always tell my students, Google Images is our best friend.
Have one student be the "expert" to build background and enhance speaking and listening skills.
Make language personal 
There are two kinds of vocabulary ELL's need to learn: social and academic.  Most of the literature we read (Fountas and Pinnell) and the interaction they get with peers teaches them social language, so I supplement the academic language with cross-curricular activities   When we come across a word we don't know when reading (even after building background!) I explain, make or find a visual, and then ask them to tell me about the word.  Having the students use the word in their own sentence out loud makes them more apt to use it again and remember it when we are reading the next day.  Looking for more ways to work on vocabulary with ELL's?  Check out Marzano's 6 steps.   

Use resources 
If you have an ESL teacher for push-in or pull-out instruction in your building, set up weekly meetings either in person or via email to discuss a student's progress.  You can ask that teacher to help you with ideas for making modifications for tests and homework.  If you have a science/social studies textbook that is above a student's reading level, go to the grade level (or two!) below and borrow some of their non-fiction readers on the same subject- use those to supplement instruction.  

How do you modify for ELL's in the mainstream classroom? Share your stories of success (or difficulty!) in the comments.  Questions? Email me at

About the Author
Maria is a K-8 ESL teacher in New Jersey.  She is the author of the Everyone deServes to Learn blog.  She teaches reading, writing, listening, and speaking across the curriculum.  She has been a French teacher and a Basic Skills teacher, but her teaching heart is in ESL.  She has a Master's in Teaching ESL and is pursuing a career in administration. Visit her blog, Everyone Deserves to Learn and her Teachers Pay Teachers store.


Eclectic Educating said...

What a great informative post! I learned a lot of useful information. Thank you for providing the additional links and documents as well. Sometimes we take background knowledge for granted. We often don't even realize what concepts might be unfamiliar. Thank you for the reminder!

Eclectic Educating

Dinah Ely thetravelingclassroom said...

What a wonderful post! Living in Panama, my students are SSL (Spanish as a second language) students! I agree with you wholeheartedly empathy and understanding of our students is so important. As well a understanding cultural differences! I just started following and look forward to more of your posts:)

Anonymous said...

Absolutely awesome. Can't wait to share the can-do's with the mainstream classroom teachers.

AdvoClara said...

Do you have these for K and 1-2?

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