Supporting English Language Learners

One of the questions I most often get when I tell people that I am a teacher is, “But how do you teach students who don’t know any English?” Almost as if it was an extra hardship to have students who are learning English in my classroom. My answer is always, “English Language Learners (ELLs) are some of my favorite students to teach”. They are some of the hardest working students and it is truly awe-inspiring to watch their growth. There are several easy ways to best support your students who are learning English. This article is based on my experience as an American early childhood classroom teacher (preschool-grade 2), but the strategies can be used with all types of English learners.

Relationships First

Imagine the world from your English Language Learner’s perspective – imagine how scary it must be to walk into a room where you cannot understand anyone or communicate your needs. Students cannot learn anything if they do not feel safe – so your first job is to make sure that you form a relationship with your students, so they feel safe and comfortable in your classroom.

This also means understanding where they are in the development of their language learning. There are five phases of learning another language and we need to meet children where they are and then support them as they move through the stages.

1. Silent phase I have also heard this referred to the receptive phase, which I like better, because in this phase students are just taking everything in and listening and learning to the language they are learning. For some students, there may be a phase before this where they are still speaking in their native language until they understand that their peers and teachers do not understand them. Then they most often go into the silent phase. It is important not to force then out of this phase by requiring them to share with the class or with you. If you think they are in this phase for too long and are looking for ways to support them, consult with your English Language Learner teacher.
2. Early ProductionThis is where students start using a word or phrase they have learned here or there. A very common first phrase is “Good morning” and “Can I use the bathroom?”. I’ll never forget my first year teaching I had a student that was silent for most of the first half of the year. Then all of a sudden around January, they asked to use the bathroom in a complete sentence, and I was so excited I almost forgot to let them use the bathroom!
3. Speech EmergenceIn this stage the student starts to combine words and phrases they have learned to really start communicating in the classroom and/or with their peers. It is important to note that social language develops before academic language, and so a student may appear almost proficient in English when chatting with their peers but may still need a lot of support in navigating the academic world.
4. Intermediate FluencyThis stage is where students start to use more complex sentences.
5. Continued Language FluencyThis is the final stage of learning another language and students will stay here to learn the complexity of the language, along with the social pragmatics and cultural specific knowledge.

If you want to know more about the different stages of language development, I suggest you check out the WIDA Can Do Descriptors. The stages are specifically based on the WIDA English exam, but are pretty similar to these stages here. What I like about these Can Do Descriptors, is that it is broken up grade by grade into what exactly your students CAN DO so you can focus on their strengths and how best to support them to move to the next phase. They are also a great way to prepare for a new student who is learning English.

Accommodations for English Language Learners

When you get a newcomer, a student with little to no English understanding, you will need to make a few accommodations for them. You will need to make sure they have a way of expressing their basic needs. You should get a card for them with visuals and their home language on it for the basic needs of bathroom, drink, nurse, and help. You could include other needs after getting to know them and what they need help with. These kinds of picture cue cards are also often used for students with special needs, so you should check with your special education team to see if they have some you can use. You could also teach non-verbal signals for bathroom/drink.

No matter what grade you teach, you should consider having visuals around the room whenever you have a label or make a chart/poster. All of the labels in my room have pictures because it is best practice to support all students, so that even if they can’t read the word or understand the word, they will have an idea of what you are teaching about or what the label is for.

Expressive Teaching

For all students, but especially for English language learners, it is important to be an expressive teacher. They will be searching your body language and face for signs of what you are talking about. If you can’t have a visual in front of you for what you are talking about, act it out! It may feel awkward at first, but filming yourself while you teach is a great way to see what your students see when you are teaching. If you are doing a read aloud, point to some of the new vocabulary in the picture while you are reading, or act out what the book is talking about.

Teaching Vocabulary to English Language Learners

Vocabulary Cards

Strategies for english language learners

When starting a new unit or new theme, it is really important to pre-teach vocabulary to all students, but especially to English learners. A great way to do this is with vocabulary cards. Vocabulary cards have a clear image and the vocabulary word on it. They may also have a definition on it as well, depending on the age you teach. These cards will be resources for all students when reading, writing, and discussing this new topic. So how do you know which words to teach? Well you will want to choose words that you expect all students to know and use throughout the unit (Tier 3) but you should also include some Tier 2 words. If you are not sure what I am talking about with the Tiered vocabulary, check out this handout.

Sentence Starters

For students who are in stages two and three of their language development, they will need support taking the vocabulary and phrases they have learned and using them in complete sentences. It is good practice for teachers to provide sentence starters whenever they are asking students to share, with a peer or with the whole class. I use this every time I do a “turn and talk”. For example, I might say, “Turn and talk with your partner about your favorite part of the story. Say, ‘My favorite part of the story was ______’ ok go ahead!” The more you practice this routine, the more you hear everyone using this sentence starter.

Five Steps

When teaching new vocabulary, I use a five-step model (for the younger grades it is five steps, for the older grades it is seven steps. See this video on a teacher explaining and using the seven steps in his classroom.

  1. I introduce the vocabulary word and have my students repeat it. Then I say it again and they repeat it. I do this for a third time so that they will have said the word three times.
  2. I give a student-friendly definition of the word (if possible, include a motion to use).
  3. I then explain if there is a part of the word that might be difficult – like if it sounds like a different word or if the letters make unusual sounds.
  4. Then I provide a visual for the word.
  5. Finally, I have students use the word in a turn and talk with their partner. I always provide a sentence starter for them to use.

Literacy Support for English Language Learners

When students are learning to read and write in English there are a few simple things you can do to support them.


Provide sentence starters for their writing. Give them a tool they can keep in their writing folders and take out as needed. When they are just starting out as writers, have them work on their drawings and then help them to label their drawing. If you provide the labels, eventually they can use those labels to write sentences, with the sentence starters you provide.


When they are just starting out as readers, let them listen to books on tape – but preferably books online that show the pictures. RAZ kids, Vooks, and Epic are great resources for this, but so are youtube read alouds (just make sure you preview them first).

It is also a good idea to let them have a book or two in their home language, if possible. We want to teach them to love reading and reading comprehension, in addition to decoding English words. By letting them read books in their native language, they can still learn the routines of reading and foster the love of reading. I tell parents to read to their children at night in whatever language they are comfortable reading it. We want children to hear fluent readers and to discuss the books they are reading – this can be done no matter the language.

Reading and Writing Together

Provide a picture dictionary – there are several big books you can purchase, or you could make one for the writing genre you are working on. This will help students to find the words they are looking to write or are reading in their books. You could also give them a personal dictionary where you can write words they are asking about so that next time they can find it in their dictionary.

Write books with them and then let them read the books during reading. I like to use these wordless books and write down the words my students say, while helping them make complete sentences. Then we read it together and I give it to them to keep in their book bags and read during reading. They will feel so confident in themselves as a reader – they will remember the words more because they are their own words. They will also feel confident in themselves as an author, because they wrote a whole book!

Strategies for english language learners


Teaching English Language Learners is so incredibly rewarding. Teachers must meet these students where they are, help them feel safe and comfortable in the classroom, and support them in developing their English language skills. There are many simple and easy supports that are best practice for teaching all students, but especially English Language Learners. With these simple supports, they will flourish.


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