Teaching Strategies for English Language Learners

By Jennifer Solis and Jenifer Boatwright on February 16, 2012
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

It seems that our English language learner (ELL) population grows every year. As a result we are always looking for ways to modify our teaching in order to accommodate those students who not only face learning a new language, but also meeting grade level standards.

In this post we'll share the strategies that have worked for us. These practices can be modified to teach students in any grade and for any subject.


Vocabulary Development

Don’t hesitate with the big words. Yes, even a 1st grader can be taught the word “photosynthesis.”  Vocabulary development leads to improved comprehension and increases background knowledge. 


Content Cognitive Dictionary (CCD)

CCD chart

We were introduced to the CCD during a GLAD training several years ago. We have found it to be a very useful tool. Students predict word meanings, which are recorded on the chart. The chart is later revisited. At that time, actual definitions and pictures are posted, and a motion to represent the definition is created. This chart is visited often and is always visible to students. 


This picture shows how our students use their journals to complete a word study activity. Drawing pictures for words gives students visuals to help them remember what the words are. This is especially helpful when we come across homophones.


Practice Those CCD Words!

Once you have a word on the chart, make sure students use the word.  One simple way to do this is to create a motion to go with the definition.  Anytime you say the vocabulary word, students need to stop what they are doing, stand up, and recite the definition using the motion you have made up together.  They LOVE this.  They never know when you are going to say the word, and they love getting up and showing you their moves!


Two-Minute Teaching

Get your timers out!  Ever feel as though you taught the perfect lesson and at the end of the 30 minutes, you don’t understand why some students didn’t “get it”?  We found two-minute teaching to be helpful in preventing those situations.

Instead of changing your lesson, set a timer for two minutes and teach the lesson as planned.  When the timer goes off, stop and instruct students to share with their neighbor what they just learned.  We give our students a “sentence starter” that they must use with their partner in this exchange.  They must finish the sentence with what they learned.  Here are some examples of sentence starters:


Did you know ____________?

Guess what I just learned?

I just learned _________.


After students share with each other, choose a few nonvolunteers to share with the class what they learned.  Continue the lesson, again setting the timer for two minutes.  This breaks up the lesson and allows students to practice oral language, using complete sentences and academic language.  Explicit Direct Instruction (EDI) research shows that this strategy dramatically increases vocabulary development and the retention of material being taught.  


Let’s Draw It Out!

Most students love to draw, so why not draw pictures while you teach?  This is also a GLAD strategy that we have borrowed and use often. Start by drawing a picture on chart paper or butcher paper. Allow students to draw as you draw, and talk about and label the picture as you go. Remember to stop every two minutes to allow students to practice their oral language and share what they are learning.



Complete Sentences

When asking students to share an answer in class, we encourage students to use complete sentences rather than simple one-word answers.  We practice using complete sentences early in the year. This strategy allows students to practice proper academic language and proper grammar. Here is an example of how it works:

T:  What is the sum of 8 + 4?   

S:  The sum of 8 + 4 is 12.

T:  S says the sum of 8 + 4 is 12. S, how did you know the sum was 12?

S:  I knew the sum was 12 because I started with 8 and I counted 4 more to get 12.

T:  Very good. S started with 8 and counted 4 more to get 12.


It may seem like a lot of repetition, but this strategy reinforces the oral language development that all children need.

We both have about 30 students in our class, and of that, about 50% are ELL students. We are interested to know what your classroom demographics are and what strategies you find to be most useful in your classrooms. Please comment below!


Thank you for the strategies. I coach teachers on how to help the one or 2 ELL learners in their general Ed classroom, and these are wonderful for ALL learners!

These are some great strategies. I've found putting and action with the letter sound for Kindergarteners helps them learn the sound easier so it make sense to put an action with a new word.

Thanks for sharing these strategies! I can definitely see myself using them.

I will try some of the strategies listed. Anything will help me right now.

i have read through it and i must say it seemed really interesting and something i would try

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