by Becky L. Spivey, M. Ed.
In 2009, the number of English Language Learners (ELLs)
formerly known as limited English proficient (LEP) rose to 10
percent or 4.7 million students. Many schools in the United
States have no programs at all for students with limited English
proficiency, and others have minimal English as a second
language (ESL) or bilingual programs. Therefore, English
language learners (ELLs) often become part of the mainstream
classroom with teachers that, more than likely, have little
or no experience or training in teaching English as a second
The most difficult struggle ELLs face, of course, is the total submersion into a new
language. The anxiety of entering an environment where he or she is not even close to
being proficient in the language is common. Imagine not being able to understand anything
said in your classroom, the hallways, lunchroom, playground, or among your peers, etc.
These feelings of anxiety become overwhelming at times, not because of the students’ fear
of making mistakes in understanding or speaking the language, but by the ignorance and
intolerance of others when they try. If we, as educators, are to help ELLs become proficient
in another language, we must help all students embrace the beauty of all languages and
cultures outside their own.
Many immigrant children find that speaking their native language works against
acceptance by their peers at school. They find that their native language is their most
obvious difference and will go to great lengths to avoid speaking it, not attempt to speak
English for fear of ridicule, and unfortunately may become silent and withdrawn in the
classroom. Again, there are ways teachers can create a comfortable environment for the ELL
to attempt to learn and communicate in his or her new language.
Teachers can help by:
- Pairing the ELL student with a buddy that speaks both languages or with a buddy that is open,
welcoming, tolerant, patient, encouraging, and wants to be a trusted friend and helper.
- Taking the ELL students on a tour of the school. Introduce them to all administration,
teachers, and all staff they may encounter during the day.
- Teaching essential vocabulary first: library, cafeteria, restroom, office, nurse, principal,
- Labeling classroom items with simple English terms: door, chair, map, light, bookshelf, etc.
- Not speaking loudly when the student doesn’t understand. He or she isn’t deaf. Speak slowly and
clearly. Use plenty of repetition which is essential to learning language.
- Putting yourself in the students’ shoes. They may not be following your directions
because they don’t understand you; they are not being defiant. Most ELLs learn
quickly by watching other students for cues on what to do – socially and in the
- Learning about a student’s culture. It may disrespectful in their culture to look at you
directly while you speak, raise their hand to answer, or call you by your name rather
Help Make the School Year Easier for Student’s by:
- Allowing students to speak in their native language when on the playground or when
being helped by another student that speaks their language. Communicating in their
native language is nothing they should be made to feel ashamed of or incompetent
- Understanding that acquiring a new language doesn’t happen quickly. Research
says it takes 7-10 years to be fully proficient in a different language. Have realistic
expectations for progress.
- Never assuming that ELL student’s understand – always confirm. For example, if an
ELL student is having problems on the bus, have another student or staff member that
speaks the same language explain the rules.
- Understanding that for ELLs, specialized vocabulary within content areas (Math,
Social Studies, Science, etc.) may take years to internalize and truly understand. Take
opportunities to relate vocabulary in a kinesthetic manner; for example, have the
student weigh him- or herself and other items on a scale. Repeat the term weigh as
the student reads and/or records the weight.
- Present curriculum goals in a variety of ways. Besides having an ELL try to read
materials, listen to others read, or try to write notes, use multi-media presentations
which helps all students.
Help the ELL Parents by:
- Sending notes, homework, and other information in the native language. Search for
parent liaisons, interpreters, or translation assistance in the form of software. Some
translation programs found on internet search engines can help you, but be careful.
They are not always accurate.
- Consulting the district’s ELL teachers. Each school may not have an ELL teacher, but
your district will have someone overseeing ELL students. They may have printed
materials or handouts that have already been translated or other resources available
- Having a meeting with parents soon after the student enrolls and on a regular basis.
Have an interpreter present. Make eye contact when speaking. Share good things
about the student first before sharing your concerns. Set up the next meeting while
everyone is together. Write the date and time on a card for parents to take with
them. Give them your contact information.
If you are the Teacher:
- Contact the district ELL/ESL(English as a Second Language)/
TESOL(Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages)
person as soon as the student enrolls in your class. Have the
district person come by to meet the student. This person can
help you collect valuable information about the student and
give you strategies for teaching particular subjects.
- Invite the district person to parent meetings and to assist you
with translations, acquiring information for records, suggesting
interventions, and monitoring progress.
- Get help from school volunteers, volunteer tutors, or high school students that may
be proficient in the student’s language. These volunteers can help with teaching basic
skills like counting or learning the alphabet. This is easy for the little ones, but a lack
of these basic skills can hinder students in the upper grades. These volunteers might
also be able to help ELL students after school with homework or other assignments.
GET TO KNOW YOUR STUDENTS. Most are very bright, creative thinkers. Learn about
their families, their hopes and dreams, where they come from, their culture and history, and
teach them about ours. Everyone will benefit from the experience!