Setting Up Success: 7 Ways to Help ELL Students Excel in Any Classroom

More and more, we English educators are being called upon to help our colleagues teach our ELL students.

Our students are out there learning more than just English—they’re using their new English skills to absorb math, science, art, history and other subjects.

Naturally, everyone involved wants to make sure that they’re getting the support they need.

We may work in their classrooms supporting their instruction, or be asked for advice in the teachers’ lounge.

So, what are the best things any teacher can do to support ELL students?

The first piece of good news is that a few helpful hints can go a long way, and this blog post will provide just that for you.

The second piece of good news is that the research is clear: When done right, the things we do to improve education for our varied student populations (whether students with disabilities or non-native speakers) end up improving the educational experience and outcomes for all of our students. Talk about a win-win!

Setting Up Success: 7 Ways to Help ELL Students Excel in Any Classroom

1. Know What It Means to Be an ELL Student

First things first: What is ELL? And how does it differ from ESL?

The fact you are reading this means you that you may already know the answer to this question (if so, just skip down the page a bit for the tips you are looking for!). If not, though, let’s begin by laying out the difference between ELL and ESL.

ELL stands for English Language Learner. No matter what subject or level you teach, you have had these students in your classroom. They are non-native speakers who face the double challenge of learning the content of your course while at the same time working to master the English necessary for your course.

If you are lucky, these students may also take ESL (English as a Second Language) classes in your school, where a teacher focuses very specifically on teaching them the English language. But whether or not this is the case, the challenge for us in our classrooms is how to help these non-native speakers master the content of our courses.

You can read more about types of ELL students and methods of ELL instruction here.

2. Get to Know Your Students

When working with ELL students, as with any students, the first step is knowing and understanding them, both as individuals and as members of different communities, linked to language and culture.

Knowing our students is incredibly important. Of course, this is true for all students. Student success has been shown to be tied to a student’s sense that they are known and valued.

ELL learners in particular often feel like their teachers and peers do not know them or value them. Bridging this gap is key, and it can be done through classroom activities that allow students to share themselves with the class or with other students. One little example: One of my colleagues has his international students teach their classmates a word in their language each week. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Some teachers resist spending time getting to know their students individually, believing that they must focus their teaching time solely on academics. Just to be clear, all the research supports investing the time to make students feel know and valued.

You can begin as simply as greeting each student by name at the door and taking the time to learn how to say their names properly.

Noticing when something is bothering a student and talking to the student about it is another good strategy.

It does not take a lot of class time to show that you see your students as people, but it is worth reminding yourself to do this and developing some routines, so that when things get hectic you do not forget that your students are people, too!

3. See Them as Individuals

Every student, including our ELL students, is an individual; knowing our students as individuals means getting a sense of their strengths and weaknesses, their likes and dislikes and their life outside the classroom, whether at home or as part of the school community. With ELL students, part of learning about them as individuals means learning about their language learning background and also their cultural background.

So, why do we need to understand our ELL students’ history as language learners?

Did you know that one of the greatest predictors of success in learning a new language is mastery of one’s first language? It is important that we understand how well students know their first language. Have they studied it in school, or just learned it at home? Some students may already know some academic vocabulary in their first language while others may not know any of these terms in either language—you can see why this would be important to know!

Beyond this, understanding our students’ cultural backgrounds is key for many reasons, but let me single out a few that are particularly pertinent in the classroom.

Some students come from cultures where students are meant to be seen but not heard, where they only speak when spoken to. They may act shy or be reluctant to participate, and they must be taught and encouraged to speak up, to share and to make their voices heard. Other students may come from more outspoken cultures and might come across as pushy or even obnoxious at times. These students will need coaching on how to appropriately interact with their peers and their teachers.

In both cases (and again, with our non-ELL students), treating their behavior as a product of the culture they come from can help us remember not to judge them based on that behavior, but rather to coach them to behave in ways that will help them learn and connect to their peers.

There are many classroom activities that can help us understand our students as individuals and as language learners, and that can help us get a handle on their cultural background too. For example, surveys are great tools to help us understand our students. I have surveyed students to learn what they like and dislike, what extracurricular activities they are involved in and how they learn most effectively. Including questions about their past exposure to the subject being taught, in any language, is very helpful too.

Take notes. I set aside some space in my grade book beside each student’s name to jot down a few important details for me to remember, so that I can take them into account or can ask them about activities in their lives, to show that I care and that I see them as an individual.

You might also occasionally use class period workdays to conference individually with students, getting to know them better and providing tailored help and suggestions for them. Of course, you can’t meet with every student during a single period, but if you set up a schedule for these face-to-face conversations you can ensure that each student receives individual attention several times over the course of the year.

4. Understand the Challenges They Typically Face

Being an ELL means facing challenges above and beyond what most non-ELL students face.

Beyond the individual challenges they face, typically ELL students must not only learn the course content but also the culture of the classroom and school, and they must grapple with the fear of embarrassment that all students have.

Working in an unfamiliar language and culture offers so many opportunities to embarrass yourself—I know that when I lived overseas, I inadvertently embarrassed myself daily!

Cultural Differences

Cultural differences can affect not only how ELL students participate in the classroom and how they relate to their peers, but it can also determine whether or not they seek out help outside the classroom. Again, if you coach all your students on what you want and expect from them (assigning group roles, modeling how to interact in groups), you can help all of your students improve in this area.

Cultural differences can also make it hard for ELL students to connect to their peers because they may not share the same taste or background in popular culture. They may not have seen the movies and shows that we often consider cultural touchstones.

We need to watch out for this in our teaching, too, and avoid assuming that students know about things that most native speakers would. For example, I had a science teacher colleague who put the following question on one of his tests: “Is a banana split an example of a homogeneous or heterogeneous mixture?” One of my Chinese students came to me frustrated by this question—she had no idea what a banana split was!

Fear of Embarrassment

We all hate being embarrassed. Students (particularly middle school and high school students) are particularly sensitive to it since they are incredibly self-conscious and typically feel like all eyes are on them.

Add to this the challenges of an unfamiliar language and an environment in which many people may mispronounce your name, and we can understand why embarrassment can cripple our ELL students, keeping them quiet and in the margins of the classroom when success requires them to be front and center, along with our other students.

Even if we are not very self-conscious ourselves, we need to consider that the fear of embarrassment is a very real factor when we plan our lessons and strive to create classroom environments which feel as safe and welcoming as possible, to help our students overcome this. Idea #7 below will give you some specific ideas about how to do this.

5. Play to Their Strengths & Interests

Our students have a wide variety of strengths they bring to the classroom, whether they are artistic or athletic or enjoy performing or something else entirely. Often ELL students don’t have much confidence in their language skills, but if we can let them bring their other skills to the table, they can carry some of that confidence over into the classroom.

Of course, this is easiest in math classes where the playing field is a bit more level (and to an extent in science classes, although the quantity of vocabulary in those classes can overwhelm our ELL). But with a little flexibility, we can find a way to let our students bring their strengths into any classroom.

The key here is choice. The more options and possibilities you provide, the more students can rely on their strengths to bolster their efforts.

Think about the assignments and projects that you have enjoyed the most and that have gotten you working at your most productive. Typically you were allowed to choose what you wanted to explore, often from a menu of options, and given some freedom as to how you would explore and present your topic.

A great way to do this is with FluentU.

You’ll be able to create assignments, track progress and work with the interests of your students to maximize output. Be sure to request a free trial to begin and start exploring the program and massive content library.

Our students are no different! For example, when my students were researching the medieval period, some chose to examine what was happening in their own countries or cultures at that time, while others explored particular subjects that interested them—such as medieval medicine, law or mathematics. These choices kept them engaged and let them build on prior knowledge as well.

6. Set Them Up for Success

There are a few other things we can do to set our students up for success. The first of these is believing in their ability to succeed, and the second is making sure that our students are challenged appropriately so that our “Goldilocks” assignments are neither too hard nor too easy for them. Finally, making sure that we help them master the course vocabulary, no matter what subject we teach, is a key to success for ELLs.

It may seem strange that our belief in our students is so important, but again the research is clear—belief in our students’ abilities to learn and succeed is a major predictor of student success. We can be tempted to “dumb things down” for our ELL students or students who we perceive as weaker, but we are actually hurting their chances of success if we do so!

That said, our goal is not to throw anyone off the diving board, in the hopes that they will swim to survive! We need to be sure that, as with teaching swimming, we offer our students the right support and challenges to get them moving through the water gradually, safely and calmly!

Make Adjustments

Setting challenges to the right level means that we may need to offer alternative texts to our ELL students, whether they be completely different readings or shortened versions of the original.

I also encourage my ELL students to not only read textbooks and course material but also to listen to that material. Doing so can help in two ways—it can help them learn the words as they are spoken (in addition to as they written) and can push them not to “lose the forest for the trees”—some ELLs get so stuck trying to understand every word that they do not get through the reading or learn how to focus on the big picture of the section. Most e-book apps now have a “read aloud” option, which is a great help.

This can mean modifying assignments for students. This does not mean changing the goal or purpose of the assignment—after all, our students need to learn the material, skills and methods in order to earn their grades. But it can mean allowing them to demonstrate that learning in ways that might look different from one student to the next.

Teaching Content Vocabulary

Another important predictor of success in any class is the mastery of course vocabulary.

Learning this vocabulary is harder for ELL students, who are often learning these new terms and concepts in two languages at the same time. There are many online resources for flashcards (nowadays, you can find a set for almost any textbook already on Quizlet or other sites), but research still shows that making your own flashcards by hand is more effective than using sets created by others.

Depending on their language skill level, you might allow ELL students to make bilingual flashcards for course vocabulary, or at higher levels encourage them to use only English on their cards.

7. Foster Integration

Any classroom that aims to integrate and support ELL students needs to foster the integration of all students into a classroom community.

Forming a supportive group helps head off the embarrassment that can plague these students, and can help build connections between our ELL and non-ELL students, as well as making learning fun for everyone.

We can use all kinds of activities to build a community and to level the playing field for all our students. These activities foster learning, too!

For example, if we set clear learning goals for each class and ensure that we have not only a content goal (“Students will learn the difference between mean, median and mode”) but also a language usage goal (“Students will discuss whether the mean, median or mode is the best choice to use in various situations”), not only gets your students talking to one another, but is another research-supported method to improve performance for all students (this is one piece of the SIOP model of instruction; for more on SIOP follow this link).

And of course, having fun, whether by playing games or engaging in goofy activities, can help everyone bond and get over their fear of embarrassment.

For example, before my students study Shakespeare, we play a number of improvisational theater games which are ridiculous and which are equally comprehensible to all my students. As we play and laugh we get used to making fools of ourselves around one another, so that we can feel comfortable acting and pronouncing (and mispronouncing!) Shakespeare’s language. (And of course, you need to play too—if the teacher is not afraid of embarrassing himself the students won’t be either!). Here are the directions for one fun improv game you can play.


As you can see, there are many easy ways to make class more approachable and friendly for ELLs.

All it takes is the right attitude, some extra thoughtfulness and a good dose of educational fun!

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