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4 Strategies for Supporting ELLs in the Secondary Classroom

Middle school and high school can be challenging times for any student, but English language learner (ELL) students have a unique set of needs and challenges as they enter the final stretch of their K–12 education. By this point, many English language learners have sufficient language skills for common academic and casual conversation, and according to Pew Research Center, are often reclassified as proficient. However, learning to speak about highly conceptual topics with a broad vocabulary can be both difficult and increasingly important for older students as they begin identifying their postsecondary interests and goals.

Here are four ways you can support English language learners in your secondary classroom.

1. Incorporate Video with Native-Language Supports

One way to help older ELL students improve their English-language skills is to suggest video collections that cover a diverse range of interests and topics and to encourage students to watch the videos in English with subtitles in their native language. TED offers a curated list of inspiring talks specifically for language practice; ELL students can select from the English-language videos based on their personal interests and passions and then follow along in the subtitles to build vocabulary and language skills.

This same concept can be applied to English-language movies or TV shows—help ELL students improve their conversational English by suggesting appropriate movies, documentaries, or TV shows that students and their families can watch at home with subtitles in their native language.

2. Promote Verbal Participation in Low-Stress Situations

Many ELL students only speak a language other than English at home and receive the majority of their English-language practice at school. Promoting the use of small-group analysis can increase the amount of verbal practice and confidence ELL students experience.

Colorín Colorado, an online resource that offers bilingual, research-based information, activities, and advice for educators and families of English language learners, suggests trying “think-pair-shares” to support verbal participation in the classroom. A “think-pair-share” activity requires the class to split into pairs (ideally, ELLs would be paired with stronger English speakers) and answer a thought-provoking question—first alone, then in discussion with their assigned partner, and finally, with the whole group. This allows ELL students to formulate their ideas in English first and then discuss their analysis with their partner to build confidence and practice conversational English around the topic before sharing with the entire class.

3. Keep Cultural Differences in Mind

Norman Herr, Ph.D., of California State University, Northridge, came up with a list of support techniques for ELL students taking science courses after noting that the “science classroom is often a frustrating place for English language learners.” While the list primarily centers around helping ELL students develop a stronger scientific vocabulary, many of his ideas can be helpful for educators regardless of what subject they teach.

Herr promotes active encouragement of class participation to increase student confidence and to be sensitive to the fact that “many English learners come from countries in which student participation is not encouraged.” By remaining conscious of cultural differences, as well as the anxiety ELL students may feel as they speak to the class in English, educators can foster a supportive and comfortable environment for older ELL students to build important language and interpersonal skills.  

4. Supplement Teaching with an Individualized Online Program

English learners make up a large and diverse group of students with unique backgrounds, language abilities, and postsecondary goals. Let technology help you meet students where they are with individualized learning paths built around the specific skills that they’re ready for.

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