5 Instruction Strategies for ELL Students That Are Surefire Winners

There are certain times in life when it may pay to gamble.

For example, hitting the blackjack tables, a Saturday night card game with friends or maybe even picking up that lottery ticket on the way home.

There are other times in life when you should always go with the safe bet: Setting up your 401k, staying away from that unsavory Craigslist ad and ELL classroom instruction.

Your classroom instruction method can literally be a lifeline for your English Language Learners. Your style of instruction might be the difference between opening up worlds and shutting doors. You should never take a chance on ineffective strategies when the stakes are so high.

The Importance of Effective ELL Strategies

Teaching any subject to any student is often a challenging task.

When charged with reaching ELL students, we must be especially cognizant of the specific set of challenges intrinsic to the ELL student and how best to rise to those challenges.

Strategies that might be tried and true in reaching your native speakers could very likely be lost on your ELL students. Explicit and effective ELL strategies must be utilized in order for your students to gain a true understanding of the content being taught and the language associated with that content.

As an educator, the last thing you want to do is waste time—your students or your own. When using strategies that aren’t beneficial for the ELL student, you’re doing just that. Don’t gamble with precious time and even more precious students. Use strategies that will pay off big!

5 Best Bet Instruction Strategies for ELL Students

1. Purposeful Planning

This one is pretty obvious. Planning is always important.

However, when planning for your ELL students, there are some definitive guidelines that should be followed. Like every good lesson, ELL or not, there should always be:

  • Content objectives: For instance, if you’re teaching about the solar system, you must determine what exactly it is that you want to teach. You decide you want to teach how many miles each planet is from the sun. This would be your content objective.
  • Language objectives: This step in the planning process is key when preparing for the ELL student. They aren’t likely to be as familiar with the vocabulary associated with solar system as a native speaker. Specific vocabulary must be determined and explicitly taught.

It can be fairly simple to determine which words might be appropriate for your language objectives. Just choose words that are significant to the lesson being taught. In the above example you might select the words solar system, miles and planet to explicitly teach.

When explicitly teaching vocabulary there are a few things to remember:

  • A simple and clearly understood definition must be provided. It’s often helpful to introduce the word using some sort of visual.
  • Vocabulary should be revisited and reviewed multiple times.
  • Vocabulary must be taught and used contextually.
  • Students must be actively involved in using the vocabulary.

By establishing and planning for both content and language objectives, your lessons will be clear and impactful, resulting in a greater success for your students.

2. Utilizing Visuals

Visuals are universal. That’s what makes them such a great tool for use with your ELL students.

Visuals can be used in many capacities. It can be something as simple as a photograph or picture provided along with your vocabulary words, or something as involved as a whole theme planned around authentic video materials.

Though we may not always think of it, visuals can include things like graphs, maps and graphic organizers.

Perhaps the most effective use of visuals is done through the use of realia. Realia can be defined as objects from real life used in the classroom for instructional purposes.

Try to guess what I’m describing: These things are all different colors. Kind of plain looking—actually sometimes kind of sparkly. And they’re pretty small, but sometimes really big. They’re bumpy, but they can be really smooth, too. You can find them pretty much anywhere, except certain kinds, which are really, really, rare and very expensive.

If you haven’t figured it out, I’m talking about rocks. This could be kind of confusing for an ELL student. Imagine how much more meaningful this might have been if I would’ve just brought in a basket of rocks.

Realia is usually easy to get hold of, easy to plan with and powerful in creating understanding. A physical experience with an object, such as touching, smelling or tasting, helps solidify a student’s comprehension of a new word or concept.

3. Activating Prior Knowledge

What’s Prior Knowledge?

Every student you teach is different and each will come through your classroom door with a different set of experiences. It’s these experiences, beliefs and attitudes that help to determine a student’s level of prior knowledge in a particular area. Prior knowledge influences how a student interprets and organizes new information.

Think about an American wedding. You’ve probably attended one, or at least seen one on TV. If a friend were to tell you about a recent American wedding she attended, you’d have lots of prior knowledge influencing your perception of the event. You could probably picture the wedding procession and all the customs associated with the ceremony. You could easily imagine countless traditions occurring at the reception: Cake cutting, the bouquet toss and the YMCA.

If you were to retell your friend’s version of events from the wedding, your vast level of prior knowledge would aid in your accurate recall.

Now think about an Indian wedding. I’d guess that most Americans wouldn’t have nearly the same amount of experience with this cultural celebration (though of course there are plenty of exceptions to this). A different friend tells you about an Indian wedding she recently attended. Hearing about this would produce a completely different perception, one that’s probably a lot more vague. It would likely be much more difficult for you to picture or recall details from her experience. If it was truly imperative that you recall the details, your lack of prior knowledge would dictate the need for more cues and reference points.

Why Activate Prior Knowledge?

Activating prior knowledge immediately engages your students. They begin thinking about their personal experiences with the topic at hand. Once the topic has become personal, of course, it’s more interesting and applicable.

It’s also helpful to be familiar with what your students already know about a topic. What connections can be made? What information would be helpful to build upon? What details are missing? Are there some misconceptions that may need to be addressed?

How to Activate Prior Knowledge?

Prior knowledge can be activated in a number of ways. Just presenting a visual—a picture or an object—can really start a student’s wheels turning. Once the wheels are turning, it’s time to start asking questions. What do you know about this? Tell me about some experiences you’ve had with this. How does this make you feel and why? Have you ever read anything about this? If so, what?

Graphic organizers are also helpful for classifying information. Brainstorming, webbing and creating KWL charts are all methods of working with graphic organizers that can help activate prior knowledge.

Expanding Upon Prior Knowledge

Hopefully at this point you have a pretty good idea of your students’ understanding and experiences regarding the present topic. Now you know where to begin. Use their experiences to help them make connections. Fill in any blanks that may be missing. Pick up where their experience leaves off.

Assessing and building upon prior knowledge is an advantageous strategy for both students and educators.

4. Scaffolding

Learning how to ride a bike was always a challenge for me. Several well-meant attempts were made in my childhood to help me attain this skill but, for some reason, I just couldn’t do it. I was finally able to conquer this complex task at the age of 26 with the help from my then-boyfriend-now-husband.

He took me to an abandoned parking lot and began by riding all around me. I watched as he slowly steadied himself and then built up speed. He made several passes through the parking lot using slow, exaggerated moves. It was then my turn. I hopped up on the seat and, just like a 6 year old, I performed the movements with his help. He guided me with his hand on the seat behind me while I pushed the pedals and worked the steering. After several minutes of this, he let go. It was all me. I had successfully learned how to ride a bike.

This I do, We do, You do theory of teaching is called scaffolding.

The term “scaffolding” was originally coined by psychologist Jerome Bruner in the mid-seventies. It really just refers to the belief that, in the beginning stages of instruction, a student will need more support to be successful. As the skill level is strengthened, the supports can be methodically eliminated until the student is comfortably succeeding on their own.

Scaffolding is effective with ELL students because it introduces skills and tasks in a slow and manageable manner.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed when learning something new. This can lead to a lack of confidence which could eventually shut down the learning, resulting in a frustrating and unsuccessful experience for everyone. Through the use of scaffolding, a student builds confidence while mastering a skill.

So, what does scaffolding look like specifically for the ELL student? Just like the bike riding experience, modeling can be the foundation of scaffolding. Imagine that you’re learning how to make scrambled eggs. Someone can tell you exactly what to do: Add just a little milk, don’t over-scramble, don’t under-scramble, keep them on the stove until fully cooked but not over-cooked.

If you have little experience with scrambling eggs, all of these instructions would probably be useless. It would be more helpful to watch someone do this before trying it together and, ultimately, doing it yourself.

Visuals can also be used as a form of scaffolding. When introducing and learning new vocabulary, it’s beyond helpful to have a visual representation of the new words. As the students become more familiar with the language, the visuals can be removed. Soon they’ll be recognizing words and reading them all on their own.

There are many ways to use scaffolding in the ELL classroom. The best method for your classroom can be determined by assessing the specific needs and goals of your students and the exact content you’ll be teaching.

5. Working Together

Cooperative learning activities are always beneficial in the ELL classroom. Working with peers creates a low-pressure, confidence-building environment optimal for progress.

The peer interactions essential to cooperative learning help to develop language in a natural manner. Small groups of peers provide a safe setting for practicing language. Students learn the nuances of language through simple conversations with friends. Native speakers or more fluent peers are excellent models for ELLs who may be just learning the language.

Cooperative learning can take on many different forms. Interactive learning games are always fun and beneficial ways to interact with peers. It can also be helpful to use peer review activities. Corrections or revisions are often easier to take coming from a friend rather than a teacher.

Cooperative learning activities can vary greatly in content and objective. There are lots of great online resources for planning cooperative learning activities that can be tailored to best meet the needs of your students.

Take That to the Bank!

There are few instances in life where taking a chance actually pays off.

By using these 5 strategies with your English Language Learners, you’ve got a safe bet on success.

You can gamble on luck, you can gamble on love, but you should never gamble on learning!

Jackie Hostetler has worked in the field of education for 14 years, earning her ESOL Masters in 2010. Her passions include early childhood education and language acquisition in our youngest learners. She is the director of an early learning center and the mother of two of her own little learners.

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