10 Superb Learning Strategies That Teach ELL Students to Teach Themselves

Ever notice that, despite teaching a well-thought-out lesson that’s geared towards a whole group of students, only some students will grasp the concepts straight away while others will really struggle?

It usually has to do with their individual learning strategies.

Some may have already cultivated their own unique ways to learn classroom materials. Others may have never given this a second thought.

The good news? You can help them. By familiarizing yourself with different learning strategies and how to teach them to your students, you can effectively teach your ELL students how to learn.


What Are ELL Learning Strategies?

Learning strategies are the tactics we use to learn new things. Research has shown us that the difference between good learners and poor learners is their ability to employ these strategies in learning situations.

The acquisition of learning strategies is particularly important for your ELL students, because they’re likely to already have a lot of natural abilities in their own native language which they can draw from. The goal will be to have them improve these same abilities in English.

While ELL has multiple definitions, here we are referring to ELL students who are studying in an English-language school or institute, and need additional support to help them understand subject matter taught in English.

These ELL students can often become overwhelmed by the challenge of attaining an English-language education with a limited proficiency in English, which makes it so much more important for them to focus on their existing strengths and to use the learning strategies that suit them best.

As an educator (and perhaps as a fellow language learners), you might already be aware of the learning strategies that best suit you.

Perhaps in a vocabulary learning exercise, you’d prefer to see the direct translation into your own language alongside the new vocabulary.

Perhaps drawing an image helps to stimulate your memory.

Maybe saying new words aloud to yourself is most effective, or maybe you like to see the new words in context so that you better understand their usage.

These are just to mention but a few learning strategies in a very specific context, and they all have their own merits. There are many, many more strategies out there for different subject matter.

The most important thing is that they work for you.

Now, your job is to help your students discover which ones work best for them.

How Can Developing Learning Strategies Help My ELL Students?

Quite simply, students feel more empowered to:

Take responsibility for their own learning.

Once your students become aware of how they learn best, they’ll be able to put this into practice, both in your classes and in their autonomous learning time. They’ll be empowered to learn faster and more accurately, which in turn will motivate them to continue learning. They’ll finally get to realize that, hey, what they like best really makes a difference!

Play to their strengths.

Remember how frustrating it was in school to be sitting in your worst class, say Math, struggling while everyone else around you seemingly understood exactly what they were doing? You’d much rather have been in your favorite class, like English, where you could excel with very little effort, right?

Well that’s how students can feel when they’re employing learning strategies that don’t suit them: Bored, frustrated and powerless. Students are much more comfortable playing to their strengths, and once they’ve found their strongest learning strategies, they’ll soon excel where they previously floundered.

Monitor their own goals and achievements.

So you’ve downloaded a new game for your smartphone and you can’t wait to compare your score with your friends so you can show them who’s boss. But guess what? The game doesn’t keep your score. Not only do you not know how you’re progressing, but you can’t tell how you compare to other people’s scores! Only the game knows, and it won’t tell. What’s the point?

The same goes for student progress.

Using the correct learning strategies, your students will be able to see their own progress and will have the tools to monitor it themselves. It’s obviously essential that teachers are able to monitor progress too, but if this progress is a secret to your student, they’re in danger of becoming demotivated and frustrated.

Learn English more quickly!

This, surely, is the biggest plus for both you and your students. When students stick to methods that actually work for them, they’ll find that they can learn just about any aspect of the language much faster than they could when using the strategy that works for the person next to them!

How Can ELL Strategies Help Me as an Educator?

Teaching your students about learning strategies will help you:

  • Create autonomous learners.
  • Waste less time on strategies that don’t work for your students
  • More effectively manage your lesson planning and progress monitoring.

Dying to learn more about preferred learning strategies?

Rebecca Oxford published a book in 1990 called “Language Learning Strategies: What Every Teacher Should Know.” Reading this will help you become more familiar with the research surrounding language learning strategies.

You can also encourage your students to complete Oxford’s Strategy Inventory for Language Learning (SILL) in order to gain an idea of what learning strategies they are already using, and what types of strategies they may want to try.

How Can I Teach These Learning Strategies?

Different linguists adhere to different rules about how to teach learning strategies.

We have put together the list below based on professional experience, research (including White, Schramm & Chamot (2007) and Rubin, Chamot, Harris & Anderson (2007)) and also with ELL students in mind.

You can read the most recent research on learning strategies on Google Scholar.

Here are the steps you’ll need to take to teach learning strategies alongside your regularly scheduled lessons:

1. Model

Your students need to see how to put these strategies into practice. Therefore you should model whatever strategy you wish to teach by walking your students through it. It’s important to do this within the context of a normal lesson, so that the students can see how they can put it into practice in future lessons.

2. Explain

Explain clearly what you’re doing, how the strategy works and in what situations it’s an appropriate strategy. Ensure the students understand each stage of the strategy and why it makes their learning experience easier.

3. Give examples

This one speaks for itself. If you’re teaching students the strategy of creating rules, walk them through various examples of this and check at each stage that they understand the rules you have made. Better yet, get the students to keep a copy of the work they’ve produced using the strategy, so that they can refer back to it the next time they want to use it.

4. Fade

Once you have helped the students to familiarize themselves with a strategy, you should then begin to “fade” your assistance with that strategy, giving the students the chance to implement it themselves. This helps your students to take responsibility for their own learning and become much more autonomous!

5. Individualize

If you see one of your students struggling with using a learning strategy after you have faded your assistance, you should give them as much chance as possible to succeed, but provide personalized assistance if you feel that this student is becoming demotivated or if this learning strategy doesn’t suit their individual needs. Ask them what they feel works better for them and help them work towards this.

10 Superb Strategies to Teach Your ELL Students

Now here are 10 superb learning strategies to teach your ELL students, with example situations to show how they’ll benefit your students’ learning abilities.

1. Planning

This seems like such an obvious strategy to teachers that they often forget that their students might not hold it in such high regard!

Teaching your students how to plan their learning is essential, as it sets their expectations and gives them goals to reach.

Learning in a foreign language is incredibly difficult and it can sometimes seem to ELL students that there are simply too many gaps in their language knowledge to grasp a subject. However, if they plan to do one manageable task at a time, they should find that they can immediately see progress.


Imagine that you’re giving your students a novel or short story that they’re required to read, as well as an accompanying dictionary.

Now, the most likely outcome of this process is that students begin to look up every single word that they don’t recognize. This leads to broken reading and discontinuity in their comprehension.

However, if students plan to read an entire page or paragraph (depending on their level) to get an overall grasp of the content before going back to look up any words, they’ll probably find that they’ll have heightened comprehension and will be more likely to make an educated guess at unfamiliar words using the context.

This is an example of planning on a small scale, but this can also be applied to more long-term learning goals.

2. Monitoring

Similarly, monitoring progress might come as second nature to teachers, but students haven’t necessarily been taught to independently monitor their own learning.

Once they learn to do this, it can help to accelerate their learning massively as they feel personally responsible for their own progress. ELL students can sometimes feel powerless in an environment where they aren’t communicating in their first language, but self-monitoring helps them take back some of this control.


Why not give your students a copy of your long-term plan for the week, month or even year ahead?

Spend some time walking them through exactly what topics you’ll be covering and what’s expected of them at each stage. Better yet, encourage students to continually refer to this outline by asking them periodically what stage they should be at, what topic is being covered next and whether or not they feel they’re meeting their goals. This way, students’ expectations are set for each stage of their learning and they’re able to self-monitor their progress.

If you work in an establishment which uses data in the form of graphs and charts to track student progress for teachers’ information, why not share this data with your students on an individual basis?

Research has suggested that traditional, teacher-led progress monitoring isn’t always effective, because students’ thoughts and feelings about their personal progress aren’t factored in. Student self-monitoring solves this problem!

3. Evaluating

No matter what subject you’re required to teach your ELL students, it’s vital that they evaluate their own progress.

This self-evaluation is beneficial not only for the student but also for the teacher’s information. Not only can students evaluate their progress after a task or a lesson, but also after implementing a new learning strategy.

Asking your students to self-evaluate can seem like a rather daunting and time-consuming task. However, it can be implemented into your current lesson plans relatively easily, and, once your students get used to this, it should become a habit and a valuable learning tool.


You can start simply by asking students to reflect after small tasks on their performance.

For younger students or those with extremely limited English, ask them to evaluate how they’ve performed by indicating on a numerical scale. Asking them to keep track of their confidence and performance in this way will encourage them to address any gaps in knowledge so that they can rate themselves higher in there future.

For more advanced students, you could try a current trend in UK schooling which is to ask students to write two short sentences addressing “What went well” and “This would have been even better if…”.

If time allows, you can monitor these sentences yourself in order to help students address any recurring issues they’re facing. Make sure they’re keeping track of these sentences in the same notebook or folder, preferably one which they keep in your classroom so it never gets misplaced!

This article, by a website called Assessment for Learning, suggests methods for student self-assessment and self-evaluation, including reflection activities, setting targets and student-led conferences.

4. Making predictions

Making predictions about tasks can seriously enhance student comprehension.

Instead of jumping straight into a task, students can take some time to predict what it entails and what knowledge will be required to complete it. This helps to raise their schemata (their existing knowledge about the topic) and immediately generates vocabulary related to the topic, meaning that students will know what kind of language to expect.


To encourage this, you can provide your students with a title, picture, question or even a short discussion related to the task ahead. Imagine, for example, you’re teaching a science lesson about plant growth, but you’re worried that the scientific language will prove too intimidating for your ELL students. Something as simple as presenting students with a seed being planted, and asking them to predict what will happen to the seed over time, can be extremely effective in this situation.

Their prediction could come in the form of a storyboard illustrating growth or in a written description, or both. Students should be fairly confident that their prediction is correct, based on their prior knowledge. Then, when you introduce the more scientific vocabulary, you and your students can use their predictions as references to help put the concepts in context.

5. Language transfer

Language transfer is a term used to describe the influence of a language learner’s first language on their acquisition of a second language. Language transfer can be an extremely useful strategy in aiding student comprehension.

You’ll probably already be aware of the similarities between some words in English and other European languages if you’ve studied them. The French words horrible, terrible and excellent mean exactly what you’d expect them to mean in English, making my life as a high school French student much easier!

However, language transfer can also lead to misunderstanding due to something known as “false friends.” This is when two words are so alike that students assume they mean the same thing in both languages, but in fact there’s a subtle difference. Imagine, to the despair of many students, discovering that the French librarie doesn’t mean “library” but instead means “bookstore,” and the French for library is actually bibliothèque!

Even then, these false friends can still help to create memorable vocabulary lessons.


Encourage your students to examine words and grammar patterns closely to see if they can notice any similarities with words in their own language.

You can start by providing the words initially, to help students realize that they’re able to make language transfer connections in certain situations. Soon enough, they shall begin to make these connections on their own without prompting.

However, encourage dictionary work when needed, to avoid misunderstandings caused by false friends.

6. Substitutions

When students feel unable to express themselves during a task, they can be encouraged to find alternative ways of using the language to get a similar meaning across. You can encourage substitutions at both word level and sentence level.


During an upcoming history lesson, you might require students to write an account of the American Civil War. In order to prepare them for this daunting task, you can encourage students to collect their information from online written sources, perhaps creating a timeline of events for future reference.

If your students only collect information from one source, they’ll only have encountered one method of describing events, which they might try to recreate exactly in their written task.

However, if they create timelines using different written sources, or they have access to other students’ timelines from different sources than theirs, they’ll be equipped with various ways of describing the same events. By widening your students’ language sources, you can help them to substitute language where they would otherwise struggle to express themselves.

At the vocabulary level, you can also give students access to resources such as thesauruses and encourage them to use these in their own time. Additionally, there are plenty of online resources such as this one which help to introduce them to synonyms and antonyms.

7. Imagery

As we know, some students prefer to learn with visual aids. If this helps, they should by all means be encouraged to use this as a learning strategy wherever appropriate.

Imagery is particularly useful for ELL students as they can struggle to really connect with the language when it’s presented on a page or in the spoken word. Imagery helps to solidify meaning and reassure students that they are following the language correctly.


The great thing about visual aids is that you can encourage their use in just about any situation.

Want to teach past perfect tense in English? Use a timeline to help students visualize the location of the event in terms of time, and encourage them to do the same.

Want to teach some new vocabulary? Start by providing flashcards or illustrations for your students (there are loads of these online) and then gradually allow them to find or create their own using the internet.

Reading a Shakespeare play in English? Encourage your students to create their own storyboard as they progress in the plot, using great websites such as StoryboardThat.

In addition to using imagery to help remember parts of the language, you can also invert this strategy by, for example, beginning with a picture and asking students to brainstorm vocabulary or sentences to describe it. This encourages students to really dig deep for adventurous and ambitious vocabulary that they wouldn’t normally access, and it’s a great strategy to use before producing a piece of writing.

8. Role play

A favorite of drama teachers, role play needn’t be confined to the more theatrical subjects where your ELL students are concerned! Similarly to imagery, using role play as a learning strategy can help your students to use the target language as they would do in real life—communicating with others.

ELL students are sometimes hesitant to produce language in spoken form in the classroom, for fear of making mistakes or seeming incompetent. Therefore whenever role play is used in the classroom, or indeed encouraged in autonomous learning time, you and your students should try to ensure that you’ve covered the language and background information which will allow your students to succeed in a role play scenario.


Why not try using video? Imagine you’ve been looking at a recorded political debate, either as a language focus or in a specific subject you might teach, such as politics.

When you’re confident that your students are familiar enough with the type of language used in a debate, why not set up a classroom debate about a subject of the students’ choosing?

This way, you’re giving them control and allowing them to use the language in the correct context.

You could even implement an earlier-taught learning strategy such as self-evaluation before and after the task, to help students measure how confident they were about the language (or the task of debating itself) before and after, hopefully showing them how effective the role play learning strategy might be for them.

9. Creating rules

When students are taught a rule, let’s say a grammar rule, they can immediately apply it to the language they already know and, after a time, become so familiar with the rule that it becomes second nature. At least, that’s the theory.

But what if they forget the rule? Or what if the exceptions to that rule are so numerous that they begin to over-apply it and come back even more confused and frustrated than before?

Well, Richard Schmidt’s Noticing Theory (1990) suggests that, if students learn rules by noticing them rather than being told them, they’re more likely to retain the information and remember the rule later.


Since we’ve mentioned it, let’s look at grammar. When I was learning French in high school, I was given lists and lists (and more lists) of verb conjugations to learn. I would write them out, over and over, until my writing hand hurt and my brain was fried. A less than inspiring learning strategy.

Why not give your students the tools to notice conjugations for themselves? And in context!

A very simple example is this great little song from Rockin’ English Lessons. It uses extremely simple vocabulary with accessible visual aids, and it incorporates all the present simple verb conjugations of the verb “to be.”

For more advanced learners, keep an eye out for other songs and reading passages where the characters repeat the same actions, so that students can notice the correct form of the verbs by themselves!

10. Classifying

Classifying is a great learning strategy that most of us use without even thinking, but it’s particularly useful for ELL students who have the daunting task of learning about various subjects in a language different from their own.

Classifying involves grouping information together in a way that will help students understand and remember it. The great thing about classifying is that your students can do it in whatever way works best for them in terms of other learning strategies.


Let’s imagine you’re teaching a geography lesson about countries of the world. Perhaps, if your student is a visual learner, they would benefit from maps (maybe even interactive ones if you have access to technology) which they can model depending on their own needs, using pictures of the food eaten, style of dress worn and traditional customs practiced in each country.

If they’re good at planning, they could make goals for themselves based on what they know about each country, and what they would like to find out. Perhaps they’d like to classify the vocabulary associated with each country under headings based on their confidence with that vocabulary such as “very confident,” “not so sure” and “need to learn.” Whichever way you use classifying, it’s a great tool to help organize your students’ thoughts and give them control of how they learn.


So, there you are!

10 superb learning strategies for you to teach your ELL students to help them become confident learners in what is often a very challenging and frustrating learning environment.

Good luck!

Jenn Linning is a postgraduate student at Manchester Metropolitan University, where she studies TEFL. She has experience teaching EFL in Thailand and the UK. Check out her blog TeflTekkers, where she explores issues surrounding technology in teaching.

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