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Teaching Strategies in Instructing ELLs

Teaching strategies

The article provides useful and valuable insights into the teaching strategies that educators can use when instructing ELLs (English language learners). One of the most effective instructional practices is an explicit instruction that demonstrates how a task is going to be done and what the teacher and their students will do (Linan-Thompson & Vaughn, 2007). Even though such a recommendation can seem evident, many students indeed understand the task better if it is introduced as clearly and directly as possible.

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ELLs are often too shy to ask for support and help, especially if they do not understand provided instructions. Therefore, we as professionals should adjust to the difficulties they experience and change our techniques to ensure that all students can learn effectively despite their different levels of advancement in English. As I have noticed during my lessons, some ELLs have difficulties when trying to understand what phonemic awareness is and how it is acquired. It is advisable to support students by splitting them into teams and helping each team complete the task by providing explicit instructions and peer support (if possible, since the number of monolingual English students can be too small to include them in each team).

Linan-Thompson and Vaughn (2007) also suggest extending student knowledge by introducing them with new words and meanings that can aid their comprehension. However, I would be more cautious with such a technique because ELLs can demonstrate confusion when introduced to a new meaning of a word they recently learned. Unlike monolingual students, ELLs often use the presented word for the first time without any background that could support their understanding. They tend to confuse words more often if additional meanings are given to them. Therefore, I would use this approach only in a strong group of ELLs or such a group where the majority of the students are native English speakers so that they can provide support for ELLs if necessary.

I would also like to discuss the use of visual prompts. Not only gestures but also pictures, photos, and simple tables can also be a perfect means of support for ELLs. Decoding pictures (if there is little to no text in the foreign language) is easier for ELLs than listening and trying to comprehend instructions given in the second language. Furthermore, pictures and photos are also more valued both by elementary and middle- or high-school students who often feel overwhelmed (more applicable to the latter) due to the amount of text they have to read throughout the semester.

Students often perceive pictures as a sign of an easier, more comprehensible task (even if it is not that easy), which helps the educator create the “right” psychological approach to the task: students display less fear and confusion and more interest in it. Writing down each step can be extremely ineffective, especially if the time is limited. Therefore, I would suggest combining gestures and pictures as tools for explicit instructions; both children and more mature high-school students appreciate it.

According to Linan-Thompson and Vaughn (2007), repeated reading activities can also help students acquire and later employ automatic recognition of English phonemes, which improves their fluency and reading. This is true; despite the students’ seeming boredom with repeated reading, they remember word meanings more quickly and rarely confuse words learned through this type of reading. It is also possible to discuss students’ wishes about the texts for the repeated reading to see whether their interests can be used to make the activity more engaging.

Grade level: middle school. Content area: ESL

Some strategies that my students use (even if they are not aware of it) could be also helpful to other students and teachers whose content area is ESL. One of the focusing strategies particularly helpful for ELLs is rereading the instructions (e.g. for an assignment that has to be completed at home). Rereading is a strategy often ignored by more advanced ELLs who are more or less confident in their knowledge and believe that they can comprehend new instructions during the first reading. However, almost half of my students who were quite advanced in English but ignored rereading performed worse than their peers who were not as proficient in English but instead paid particular attention to instructions. Some of them write out the questions or main points at the beginning of their essay, which I normally encourage if these notes are not too long (otherwise they overcomplicate the student’s answer).

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When I work with a younger audience, I ask them to restate the main points of a text to see whether their text comprehension is satisfying or not. If I notice students who cannot restate the points or are reluctant to do so, I ask other students to help them understand the given text. Peer support is sometimes a better option than a teacher’s support. When working with a teacher, ELLs are afraid of making a mistake, and they often stay quiet during the whole assignment. They are less afraid of this when working together with an English-speaking classmate or in a team.

Some older students who were to become graduates soon showed another strategy that I find useful for students of any age. For the essays on a particular topic, these ELLs engaged in research in their native language, thus producing essays that contained unique information, unknown both to the teacher and to other students.

Other ELLs sometimes overlook the ability to use their first language as a base for research; I often encourage them to do it because some of the sources in English they use are either too complicated for them or irrelevant. The only problem with this approach is that students can simply translate the information from their language in English, which is evident and usually poorly written. If a student only translates the materials and does not reflect them, it is advisable to address the issue as early as possible.

Students also find metacognitive strategies useful. A teacher can ask his or her students to create a journal where all their tasks and assignments will be planned and evaluated by students themselves. At the end of the learning week, the teacher can collect the journals to see how students planned their learning time and whether it was effective. Typically, those students who had paid attention to their journal provided better performance than those who either forgot about it or write down several poorly detailed plans without any real explanation or planning whatsoever. Metacognitive strategies are particularly useful during long tasks (e.g. when students read a book, study a new complex topic, etc.) because they help them track down their progress and see what mistakes are made during the assignment.

The planning journal does not always work perfectly because some students tend to oversee their mistakes or inaccurate time management just because they are still learning to do it right. Here, the teacher can provide additional support for a struggling student to work on a better, more efficient plan or assess student’s mistakes. I would advise not to use any grading criteria for the planning journal because it is not an assignment per se but rather a way to support students’ understanding of the importance of metacognition (Zare, 2012).

Another strategy that is also efficient for ELLs is the use of background knowledge (Mokhtar, Rawian, Yahaya, Abdullah, & Mohamed, 2017). We have already discussed this technique as a tool for reading, but it also facilitates understanding of ELLs by allowing them to comprehend or even guess a new word with the help of their background knowledge. For example, in the case of French-speaking students, they easily guess some English verbs by comparing them to their native language.

The similarity between words also helps other students with various backgrounds understand a new word in a text. Furthermore, words with similar pronunciation and meaning are easier to remember. The strategy, however, can become problematic if students face a new English word that is similar in pronunciation to their native language but different in meaning. For example, French “attends” translates as “to wait”, and some of the students tend to use “to attend” as a synonym to “to wait”. Such differences in meanings can complicate students’ ability to become more advanced in English because they will continue to use wrong words unintentionally and disrupt fluent communication.

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Grade level: middle school. Content area: ESL.

The lesson will be based on the book The Compound; the main aims will be to teach students to find evidence in the text to determine the main topic of it. The first chapter of the book will be used for the lesson.


  1. Students can find and cite textual evidence to support their statements about the text’s meaning
  2. Students can determine the main theme of or idea expressed in the text (the first chapter)

Learning standards:

Key ideas:

“CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.: Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences are drawn from the text. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.2: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments” (CCSSI, n.d., para. 1, 2)

Craft and structure:

“CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.6: Explain how an author develops the point of view of the narrator or speaker in a text” (CCSSI, n.d., para. 6)

Into the Lesson

  1. Before introducing the text, the teacher will provide a list of new vocabulary words that students might find difficult to understand during reading.
  2. Students will be divided into teams; each of the teams will receive their own words that they will need to decode. The teacher discusses each of the words together with teams and writes them down on the whiteboard. If students have difficulties with decoding the word, the teacher helps them by discussing the context or asking them to use their background knowledge.
  3. Once all of the new words are analyzed, the class repeats new words together with the teacher to facilitate further reading.
  4. The teacher writes some of the new words on the whiteboard to help students understand the text during reading.
  5. The teacher provides a brief description of the book (“The Compound”) that students will read. Each of the students will receive handouts with a chapter. The teacher will also discuss the name of the book with students, asking them to name the associations they have with the word and speculate about the content of the book.

Through the Lesson

1. At first, students will read only the first two pages of the chapter to get acquainted with the plot and the characters.

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2. The teacher will ask the students to discuss the events that happened in the chapter. After the discussion, some of the students who are willing to participate will share their opinion about the character and the events.

3. The rereading strategy will be used to help students understand the central theme of the chapter and find evidence about the character’s attitude toward his father. Students will be asked to reread the last paragraph on the second page of the first chapter to explain how the protagonist views his father.

4. After the discussion, the third page of the chapter will be read and reread. This time, students will need to find textual evidence about the father-son relationship independently. The teacher will provide necessary assistance and support for those who will display difficulties to understand the content of the chapter by asking the peers who completed the reading to help them find textual evidence. All evidence found will be discussed by the teacher and the class and written on the whiteboard.

5. To better understand the difference between the protagonist’s attitude and the author’s description, students will receive the following table for completion:

What I think of them What the author writes (choice of words) What the protagonist thinks
Character name (1)
Character name (2)

The point of the assignment is to demonstrate to students that the textual evidence they found can represent different points of view that can be polar. Additional attention should be paid to the words that the author uses to describe a character (even if he or she is writing from the protagonist’s point of view). The table should help students understand how to distinguish the author’s and the protagonist’s descriptions of other characters.

6. The teacher will also ask students whether the author demonstrates a negative or positive attitude toward characters. After the discussion (that will not have any right or wrong opinions), the teacher will indicate that the author of this book can only indicate the character’s traits via their actions but cannot explicitly express her attitude because the book is written from the protagonist’s point of view.

7. The students will read the next pages and complete the table to compare their results with their partner’s notes and observations.

Beyond the Lesson

1. Students will be asked to read the last two pages of the chapter independently. After that, they will complete the table provided above without any discussion with their partner to ensure independent work. Before this assignment, all unknown words will be discussed with the teacher and written on the whiteboard to avoid confusion that will overcomplicate the assignment.

2. A rereading of the two pages will be required to ensure that students do not miss any important pieces of evidence hidden in the text.

3. The last pages of the chapter are dedicated to another character, the protagonist’s twin brother Eddy. Students will need to identify as many pieces of evidence as they can about the character, demonstrating text understating. An analysis of several characters would overcomplicate the work.

Vocabulary list:

  1. stellar
  2. ornery
  3. a recumbent bike
  4. mainland
  5. follow-through
  6. accent
  7. wrenched
  8. uncanny
  9. survive
  10. muumuu

Rubric for the lesson assignment:

Criteria Excellent Satisfactory Unsatisfactory
Author/Protagonist Opinion The student understands the difference between the opinions of the author and protagonist Student partially understands the difference between the opinions The student is unable to identify the difference
Textual Evidence Student finds more than five pieces of textual evidence to support his findings on points of view of the protagonist/author Student finds no less than two pieces of evidence Student finds from two to zero pieces of evidence
Rereading Student rereads the text two or more times and demonstrates an understanding of it Student rereads the text once and demonstrates an understanding The student does not reread the text/ demonstrates any understanding
Main Theme Student can identify the main theme of the chapter Student can identify the main theme with support The student is unable to identify the theme

In my opinion, one of the most useful chapters in the book is the second one. In this chapter, the author discusses the importance of creating a community of writers, i.e. establishing the right environment for the children (mono- and multilingual) to help them become successful and productive writers later (Laman, 2013).

It is crucial to support the newcomers who do not speak English yet or are too shy to talk by giving them opportunities to take part in a conversation or encouraging them to do so. Students might not be very talkative at first, and the teacher should not press them to take part in a discussion. Other forms of support are also available: creating a multilingual library, asking a family member to introduce their first language to the class, suggesting that children bring a favorite or interesting object from home are some of the possibilities available to the teacher of a multilingual class.

One of the strategies suggested by Laman (2013) was particularly meaningful to me. I often encounter students’ anxiety when they are asked to share a story in English. Although it was not difficult to understand why they are afraid to speak in front of the class, for a long time I utilized various techniques to help them gain confidence. Laman’s (2013) strategy consists of several steps: let children think of a story, let them rehearse it, allow them to share it with you or a partner, let them sketch it if necessary, let the child share the story in their first language (and translate it or ask another family member/student to do it).

I aim to use this strategy when students’ family members are also present in the class to provide students with the opportunity to talk in their first language. Since my students’ first language is the same, it is also possible to ask them to help their peers share a story in English by translating the phrases or words she/he forgets from their first language in the second one. In a multilingual class, the ELL can be assisted by an English-speaking student or another peer who is more advanced in English to prepare and deliver the story.

The first chapter also contains some interesting and valuable insights. The author describes the framework of a writing workshop for multilingual students. Since the workshop is contextualized, consistent in its structure, and full of opportunities both for mono- and for multilingual students, it creates a safe environment for every student involved. Laman (2013) points out that the teacher described in the chapter allows her students to speak their first language freely so that they do not perceive the school as an environment that limits their communication.

The independent writing time described by Laman (2013) is a great strategy that I can utilize during my lessons. It can be embedded into other reading lessons, where students will read a chapter from the assigned book, discuss it (in pairs or together with the teacher and the rest of the class), and then work on their writing project by drafting the first pages of the essay dedicated to the content of the book we are currently reading. I would also encourage discussing the book during the writing in their first language since it could create some new interpretations among students.

The importance of feeling welcomed in an environment where a new language is used is significant for ELLs; it fosters them to share their stories and communicate with English speakers more frequently. Writing workshops are also crucial for the teacher as well since he or she will be able to identify students’ strengths in writing and how they can be used throughout the curriculum activities.

The sixth chapter is dedicated to the importance of sharing and celebrating the work that students have done. Public readings (i.e. sharing one’s story with classmates or older students) of the materials produced by students facilitate their work with the language, the teacher, and classmates; students learn to gain confidence via presenting their writings to others. It is important to remember that students need to be comfortable with sharing, and teachers are responsible for encouraging students to use the second language more confidently, although it does not happen at once. Providing students with an opportunity to rehearse, display their writing, and prepare to share can significantly decrease multilingual students’ confidence in their skills.

Rehearsal is a strategy that can be easily utilized in a class with multilingual students only. Students can build teams or work in pairs on the rehearsal of their writings, thus practicing their language skills and communicating simultaneously. I can assign the most advanced English-speaking students to be the leaders of their teams; this way, students will also learn to cooperate and help each other when preparing an assignment.

The “sharing” sessions can be conducted each week after the primary materials are learned and understood. I will ask students to add the new vocabulary they learned this week to their writing and presentation to help them memorize the words. Students will prepare illustrations too, just in case if they want to display their writing first. Displaying writing can facilitate further discussions among students and foster them to use English in these debates as a basis for practice. Of course, I would not prohibit them from using their first language either, but they would be only allowed to share their opinions in it; English would be used to discuss illustrations related to their materials or other books.

In the seventh chapter, the author provides us with several examples of success stories related to multilingual students (Laman, 2013). One of the students kept a writer’s notebook, where she noted her experiences and other events in English, thus gradually becoming more advanced in it. Another student developed a great passion for writing, which helped her edit and revise her writings more often. Another student used his writing not only to write down his experiences but also to translate notes for his mother and reflect on his life. Each of the described students used their writing skills to explore languages and their own life.

As I have noticed from the chapter, each of the students kept a writer’s notebook where he or she described significant events of his/her life. I believe that ELLs can use a writer’s notebook as an annual assignment that will aim to improve their language skills, as well as develop their ability to self-reflect. I will ask my students to use the writer’s notebook only when they are familiar with the basic vocabulary and grammar to ensure that they do not use their first language from time to time in it. Our writer’s notebook will encourage them to use English as often as possible to reflect their study and personal life.

However, students and their families indeed need to use their first language as well so that they do not forget it or confuse it with the second one. Therefore, I would invite family members of my students to one or two lessons per year where we would learn their first language and get more familiar with their culture. Such lessons would show students and their families that every language is valued in the school.

In the fourth chapter, the author provides detailed information about how a teacher can strengthen students’ sense of agency: giving enough time to develop students’ identities as writers, knowing that writing is individual, helping them create a connection between their first language and English, and providing them with opportunities to write various texts (Laman, 2013).

Making a chart with cognates is a helpful technique that can facilitate students’ learning by showing them that the second language is not as “unknown” or “foreign” as it might seem to some. Of course, some of the languages (like English and French) can have more cognates than others (like English and Hungarian), but I would advise creating such a chart nonetheless. In my classroom, we had created one but only for several chapters from the book we were reading since it contained multiple words easily recognized by ELLs.

Cognates might help, but the use of translation websites is also reasonable, especially when students are writing a complex and lengthy essay on a controversial topic. I have noticed that such assignments tend to create more passionate discussions among students than others do because they use the second language to express their opinion. It is not always easy for them to translate complex ideas from their mother tongue in English; here, translation websites come in handy. I would not let students abuse them (it does happen) but, instead, encourage them to use it as a tool to improve their writings and make them richer. Translation websites are not accurate, but they help students proceed with their thoughts and accelerate their writing.


CCSSI. (n.d.). English language arts standards.

Laman, T. T. (2013). From ideas to words: Writing strategies for English language learners. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Linan-Thompson, S., & Vaughn, S. (2007). Research-based methods of reading instruction for English language learners, grades K–4. New York, NY: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

Mokhtar, A. A., Rawian, R. M., Yahaya, M. F., Abdullah, A., & Mohamed, A. R. (2017). Vocabulary learning strategies of adult ESL learners. The English Teacher, 38(12), 133-145.

Zare, P. (2012). Language learning strategies among EFL/ESL learners: A review of literature. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 2(5), 162-169.

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