What is an English Language Learner?

English Language Learners (ELLs) are students whose first and primary language is other than English. These students can be identified through the school enrollment process as able to benefit from English Language Development (ELD) Programming. Those students are then eligible for ESL (English as a Second Language) or English Language Acquisition (ELA) instruction.

Depending on the school and district, students may receive ELD support in a variety of ways. There are two basic models of for ELD programs: the first uses English and another language, the second is English-only. In the United States, English-only ELD programs are much more prevalent.

Frequently, students who are identified as “Level I” on the WIDA Access Screener receive services through Sheltered English Instruction, which means that they receive English instruction directly and solely from a teacher with an ESL certification or degree in TESOL (Teaching English to Students of Other Languages)/TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language). Students who have Limited English Proficiency (LEP) and score greater than one on the screener may receive English support from an ESL-certified teacher within the regular education classroom following the co-teaching model.

How is an ESL Classroom Different from a Non-ESL Classroom?

Since ELD programs can encompass different ESL classroom structures, it is important to understand the differences between a classroom with ELs and one without so that we can best meet their instructional needs. Instruction in an ESL classroom should include as many of the following strategies as possible.

English Language Learner Strategies for the Classroom


As learners, we all come from different backgrounds than each other. English language learners are no different, but have even greater needs for scaffolding than most first language English-speakers. If “systematically building on students’ experiences and knowledge” is a key to scaffolding, knowledge of students is of even greater importance.

How can we help our students get to where they need to be if we don’t meet them where they are in the beginning? Scaffolding can even the playing field for those who bring different background knowledge to the classroom. For example, the English language is packed with idioms – where the actual meanings of individual words do not add up to the meaning of the words collectively. Idioms are extremely difficult for English Language Learners to identify and interpret. This is because all language learners translate their second language back to their base/first language in order to comprehend meaning. Intention of non-literal meaning of words is nearly impossible to identify in a speaker or writer. To help English learners with this, educators must use scaffolding in every grade level and classroom.

Teaching Academic Language across Curriculum

English learners acquire vocabulary words and language skills not only in English class, but all academic subjects. Teachers of science, social studies, math, and other subjects need to ensure that their instruction includes explicit vocabulary instruction so that students can comprehend reading and writing within their curricular content.

Explicit vocabulary instruction is a purposeful and concise study of two or three vocabulary words at a time during instruction daily. ELs need to learn vocabulary words at a rate much higher in frequency than their native English-speaking peers. Vocabulary instruction is key for reading and writing comprehension. In order to understand text in science, math, and social studies, vocabulary instruction in these subjects is imperative. One helpful strategy is to label everything in the classroom, as well. This visual helps support language acquisition and key vocabulary.

Interactive Notebooks

One way to increase student engagement in instruction is through interactive notebooks. This strategy involves a notebook and usually gluing charts and/or graphic organizers into the notebook to establish a way to structure and record vocabulary, definitions, notes, and graphics that support them.

Multi-modal learning helps students deepen their understanding of topics. Reading, writing, listening, speaking, and drawing are examples of ways that students can learn information in new ways. Interactive notebooks give teachers the opportunity to teach content using these different modalities. Students can draw pictures that go with vocabulary words, complete sentence stems, and practice reading and spelling. It also helps students find a way to structure and outline concepts.

Instructional Games

Instructional games have become much more easily accessible over the past few years. They are available in physical offline format and also for free online. Websites like ESL Games World and ESL Games Plus can be used within instructional time or at home if students have internet access.

ESL classroom games are an interactive way to allow students to continue learning independently and can be incorporated into a rotation during center time, as an intervention, or during indoor recess. I’ve personally used these as a reward when students finished their work early. There are also printable board games available for both free and for a small cost on TeachersPayTeachers.

Be Culturally Responsive & Attentive to Individual Needs

Understanding that students who speak the same first language may have drastically different cultures is imperative. Spanish is the official language of 20 countries. Each of these countries has their own uniqueness that create a culture unlike another’s, although possibly similar. Recognizing this and showing an interest in individual student backgrounds lays the groundwork for developing positive, authentic relationships between teacher and student.

In addition, recognizing that depending on each student’s cultural background, their beliefs and traditions may unveil what motivates them as learners is also crucial. Being sensitive to the journey of language acquisition that ELs are on can mean restructuring your own classroom routines to make those students feel safe to take risks in learning.

For example, providing extended wait time when asking students to answer questions or share aloud is a best practice. When a question is posed in English, students need time to translate the question into their first language, process their thinking into a response, translate their response back to English, and then state their answer aloud. Keep in mind that answering questions aloud in English many times is a huge risk for students, as they are nervous about saying something wrong and often being made fun of. Being attentive to individual student needs with strategies such as extended wait time is an example of being culturally responsive.

There are many more useful learning strategies to implement in an ESL classroom and with ELs in the regular education setting with an inclusive model. These five strategies can help teachers take a huge leap forward in their practice with ELs.