Teaching English Learners

What Classroom and Content Teachers Need to Know About English Learners

Developed and compiled by: Carol Striskovic, Linda Wait and Jill Kramer

How is a Student identified as an EL?

If a student has a language other than English spoken in the home and has completed the Home Language Survey at enrollment, the student will be assessed for English Language Proficiency.  If the student qualifies, he or she is then an EL.  ELs may be born in the USA or come from other countries.

Stages of Second Language Acquisition

Pre-functional – Pre-production or the silent period.  New students just listen.  Some may not speak for weeks or months.  Don’t force them. Some will start using simple learned phrases and simple sentences.

Beginner –Students will develop a vocabulary of about 1000 words; speak in one or two word phrases, memorized chunks and simple sentences.  This may last about 6 months.

High Beginner–Students will develop a vocabulary of about 3000 words, use simple sentences, ask simple questions, read easy stories, and write simple sentences.

Intermediate–Now students have a 6000 word vocabulary, use more complex sentences, and ask questions.  They will still have grammar errors.

Advanced –It can take 4 – 10 years to achieve this.  Students are able to cope in the classroom but will still need help with vocabulary, idioms, writing and content such as social studies. 

Two Types of Language

Researcher Jim Cummins differentiated between social and academic language. 

BICS - Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills
This is social language and develops in 1 – 3 years.  This is the day-to-day language needed to interact with other people.  ELLs use BICS on the playground, in the cafeteria, on the bus.  This language is context based.

CALP – Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency
This is academic language and takes 5- 7 years to develop.  There are general academic words and content specific words.  Academic language is context reduced, especially in the upper grades. 

According to Cummins, students who have developed BICS but not CALP do not lack higher order thinking ability; they simply lack the language to succeed in school.  This is especially apparent in the writings of our English Learners who are challenged with conventions of English writing, spelling, punctuation, and grammar. 

Know Your Student

Take time to consult with the EL teacher to find out the student’s English proficiency level. Other important information is the amount of formal schooling, student’s literacy in their first language, degree of acculturation into the USA, and level of family support.  Yvonne and David Freeman, authors of Academic Language for English Learners and Struggling Readers distinguish among three types of English Learners:  (1) those newly arrived in the United States but well educated in their home country, they may succeed in school but face the challenges of learning English quickly enough to pass standardized or state assessments; (2) others may come with limited academic knowledge in their own countries due to limited access to education, and these students must learn how to read and write in English along with attaining and developing content area knowledge in English; (3) the last group are the long term English learners who have been in the United States for an extended time, speak the language quite well but lack academic English.   

Comprehensible Input

Students learn by hearing and reading English that is slightly above their current English level.  This is called comprehensible input.  Also give students opportunity for comprehensible output – to show what they know through pictures, simple English, etc.

Speaking with an EL

Depending on the student’s level, you need to speak slowly and in short sentences, avoid idioms and slang.  Don’t ask, “Do you understand?”  Rather ask the student to show that they understand.

Use of the student’s native language

If you know the language, use it judiciously to help the students understand the lesson. But don’t let it become a crutch.  The student may depend on you to translate.  Allow students with the same first language to discuss the learning materials.  Often higher proficiency students can help new arrivals. 


Ask the EL Teacher or read about the student’s culture.  Celebrate that culture with stories and artifacts.  Literacy is biographical in terms of how the child was introduced to reading as a toddler.  It is very important for the teacher to know what the child has been exposed to in terms of literacy in the home.  For some of our English Learners there has been little exposure to literacy; in other cultures rich literacy exists.  A teacher may have an English Learner share a favorite book from their home country.  This demonstrates a respect for the student’s culture.  Another way to show respect of others’ languages is to learn how to say “Hello” in your students’ languages. 

Modify Instruction and Assessment

Especially for Beginners and low intermediate students, you will need to determine the essential learning of this topic.  Then find materials at the EL’s level. The EL teacher may have resources.  Modify instruction and assessment and allow the EL to show their understanding through pictures, labeling, using a word bank or having fewer questions.  Encourage use of a bilingual dictionary in class work and assessments.


  • Use movement, songs, rhymes, and finger plays.
  • Bring in realia – real items and models that students can touch and can talk about.
  • Graphic organizers help students see relationships.
  • Use Visuals – a picture is worth a thousand words.
  • Build background knowledge.  E.g. Students might not know about the tooth fairy or lemonade stands.  American history will be a challenge.
  • Make connections to their home culture when possible.
  • Model your thinking through “think-alouds” for determining a word meaning, finding main ideas, making inferences, doing a math problem and so on. 
  • When reading a book, stop to make predictions, connections and clear up confusions.  This is also a great strategy to figure our unknown vocabulary and to improve reading comprehension.  Teachers who model the Think-aloud Strategy strengthen inferring, summarizing, predicting, questioning and connecting…all effective reading strategies.
  • Encourage and teach dictionary use. Teach about multiple meanings.
  • Allow ample wait time for ELs to answer a question.
  • Use cooperative learning groups in different ways.  Sometimes group students with the same language together.  Other times group students with different languages together so that English is the “common denominator.”
  • Give directions orally and in writing.

More tips

Involve the parents in the child’s learning.  Get to know the student’s family.  By getting to know the family the teacher will get a snapshot of the resources in the home, literacy experiences, and the family’s perceptions of learning.  A teacher may also understand the level of student learning in their first language. 

In writing, ELs have trouble self-editing as they don’t know recognize their errors. Develop writing skills through explicit instruction and practice. Direct instruction along with interactive approaches or grouping the English Learners with more competent writers will produce significant gains. This approach includes peer-learning and cooperative learning and allows the EL to learn from the models of others.  In time the EL and members of the cooperative learning group can engage in shared writing experiences and project-based activities. 

ELs can often decode well, but have difficulty comprehending what they read. Some tools that support reading comprehension are using sticky notes to flag pages that may answer questions that they have, working in small groups to connect with the text, using graphic organizers such as Venn Diagrams to support understanding, using question bookmarks as a tool to pose questions about the text, and using a Story Retelling Matrix to scaffold the skill of retelling the basic facts and leading into the skill of making inferences in the story. The teacher will need to know the student well in order to select the appropriate reading comprehension strategy. 

Additional Research


Last Modified: 6/16/2022 12:22:37 PM