To Help English Learners Succeed, Go Beyond Teaching the Language

March 23, 2020

Alexandra Mercer

Ed.D. in Leadership


Having English learners (ELs) in your classroom can be a test of your abilities to differentiate and multi-task. Unless you’ve been a language- learner firsthand, it’s difficult to understand how much support your ELs need beyond language instruction. Here is a list of things to consider and prepare for when you’re teaching a class that includes ELs.

Give English Learners Visual Instructions

We give verbal instructions in the classroom all the time. We do it without thinking, and our students who speak fluent English follow the instructions without thinking. But for ELs, those verbal instructions can be a major hurdle. But fear not — there is a simple solution! Add a gesture, a visual and/or a demonstration to your verbal instructions. ELs search for clues to help them understand what is going on, so a simple point of the finger or mime of the task can be all they need to catch on. (For multi-step instructions, prepare a visual version!)

Walk English Learners Through Technical Skills

More than ever, technology is a cornerstone of our classrooms. In many ways, this is great for ELs. English learning resources are plentiful online and translation apps are better than they have ever been. But don’t expect your ELs to be as prepared for technical tasks as the rest of your students. Depending on their backgrounds, they may lack some basic skills or only know them based on terminology in their first languages. Be prepared to review some skills you might not normally teach, like how to get on the internet and how to send something to the printer. And remember, you will need to demonstrate or teach visually.

Establish School Norms with English Learners

The teacher-student relationship is not the same everywhere in the world. Everything from how to address teachers to making eye contact could be different in your student’s home culture. So it would be unfair to project your cultural expectations on an EL who is unaware of and unaccustomed to them. Teach those expectations explicitly and allow your ELs time to adjust to the new classroom culture. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so a student from Rome won’t adjust in a day! (I’m just having fun with words here. This issue is actually much more common with non-Western ELs.)

Give English Learners Extra Time to Ask Questions

“Do you understand?”


“Do you have any questions?”


These are the responses I get all day, every day from my ELs. There are two reasons for this, and neither reason is that they actually have no questions.

  1. In some cultures, it’s drilled into students to always answer a teacher in the affirmative.
  2. It’s embarrassing for any student to say they don’t understand something that everyone else does, and ELs are already sensitive to “being different.”

Take ELs aside once everyone else has started working so they have a little more privacy. Instead of asking yes or no questions, ask them to show you what you just explained or to explain it back to you in their own words. This will give you a clear assessment of how much they understand.

Use Numbers to Give English Learners Clear Feedback

A few things get lost in translation and niceties can be one of them. When you’re giving constructive feedback, the way you “fluff” your words is likely to be lost on an EL. Speak directly and without wordiness. Instead of using terms like “area for improvement” or “room for growth,” express this feedback as concretely as possible. I find it helpful to use numbers, the international language. For example, “On this skill, you are at an 80%. To get to a 100%, here is what we need to do.” Using numbers leaves less room for misinterpretation and more room for development!

By making just a little extra effort, you can improve an English learner’s experience of school quite a bit. Always be sensitive to the fact that they face a lot of challenges as they navigate their way through a foreign culture and community. Do your best to help them conquer as many of those challenges as they can!

American College of Education provides several ways for you to learn the skills you need to teach English language learners. Explore our M.Ed. in Teaching English Learners and Certificate in Teaching English Learners.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of American College of Education.
Alexandra Mercer
Alexandra Mercer, Ed.D. in Leadership

Alex has been teaching for six years, leading classrooms abroad in Korea, Japan, Thailand and Morocco. She continues to be active in the global English education community and loves writing about what she's learned along the way.

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