Skip to main content

Supporting English Language Learners: Resources for Educators and Administrators

July 17, 2023

More than two-thirds of teachers have at least one English language learner (ELL) in their classrooms, according to National Center for Education Statistics data. Fewer than half of these teachers have received formal training on how to teach these students. This knowledge gap underscores the urgent need for educators to have access to high-quality English language learner resources.

With the right methods and tools, educators can provide the support ELLs need to thrive academically and in other areas of their lives.

English as a Second Language Education

English as a second language (ESL) education plays a critical role in equipping non-native English speakers with the language skills they need to communicate effectively. This specialized form of instruction includes listening, speaking, reading, and writing lessons. It also gives students opportunities to build an understanding of cultural nuances within the English language.

Ultimately, ESL education helps empower students to become proficient in English. With effective ESL instruction, students can learn to adapt their language skills to different settings, navigating both academic and social contexts with a sense of self-assurance and competence.

Benefits of ESL Education

The importance of ESL education cannot be overstated. Research has repeatedly shown that high-quality ESL instruction positively impacts ELL students’ academic success. For example, studies have indicated that ELLs who receive comprehensive ESL support demonstrate improved performance and higher rates of on-time graduation.

Beyond language acquisition and greater academic success, ESL education helps students develop vital social and cultural skills by engaging them in meaningful cultural exploration. ELLs may learn about US holidays, their historical significance, and the traditions associated with them. This offers ELLs a chance to gain a deeper understanding of American society and its customs.

ESL education also introduces students to idioms and cultural references commonly used in English-speaking communities. For example, students might learn how to use phrases like “the ball is in your court” or “barking up the wrong tree.” In this way, ELLs can become better equipped to engage in conversations and understand the nuances of English.

Additionally, ESL education encourages cross-cultural interactions. Students may participate in projects in which they share aspects of their own cultures, such as traditional foods, music, or festivals. These exchanges can encourage greater feelings of acceptance and build bridges of understanding among students from diverse backgrounds.

Overall, ESL education empowers students to participate fully in academic pursuits, engage with their peers, and contribute meaningfully to their communities.

The Need for ESL Education

On average, ELLs comprise almost 14 percent of city public school enrollment, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. In some states, ELLs can comprise up to 20 percent of the overall enrollment. These numbers emphasize the need for targeted support and resources for ELLs.

Addressing the Barriers Faced by English Language Learners

English language learners face many obstacles on their educational journey. Their limited language skills can impede their ability to understand teachers’ instructions, participate in classroom discussions, and grasp complex academic concepts. These issues frequently hinder the students’ academic progress. This can lead to frustration and a sense of being left behind.

Cultural differences can further compound these feelings. Adjusting to a new educational system and new social norms and expectations can overwhelm ELLs. Unfamiliar teaching styles and classroom dynamics may also dampen these students’ motivation.

Standardized exams pose a particular challenge for English language learners. The complex wording often used in test questions can make it difficult for ELLs to fully comprehend and accurately respond to them. As a result, ELLs may struggle to perform at the same level as their peers, which can lead to them having lower test scores and can potentially impact their overall academic standing.

The combination of these obstacles can contribute to lower academic achievement and increased dropout rates among English language learners. Without appropriate support and accommodations, ELLs may feel discouraged and disconnected from the educational system.

To help ELLs deal with these issues, educators need to have access to quality English language learner resources and professional development. When equipped with the right knowledge and strategies, educators can create inclusive and supportive learning environments for all of their students.

Methods for Teaching English Language Learners

Teaching English language learners requires a diverse set of methods and approaches. By combining different instructional techniques, educators can create engaging and dynamic learning experiences that cater to the unique needs of ELLs.

Educators can employ the following methods to support ELLs.

Total Physical Response

The total physical response (TPR) instructional approach focuses on the powerful link between language and physical movement. In TPR, educators provide ELLs with commands or instructions in English and students respond by carrying out corresponding physical actions. This method taps into the connection between body movements and language comprehension, making language acquisition easier through active participation and kinesthetic learning.

Implementing TPR in the classroom can be greatly supported by practical resources such as TPR storytelling techniques and total physical response teacher toolkits available online. These resources offer educators a wide range of practical tools, activities, and lesson ideas to effectively incorporate TPR into their teaching practices.

TPR storytelling techniques help educators combine storytelling with physical actions, allowing ELLs to comprehend and internalize language in a more immersive and engaging manner. Total physical response teacher toolkits provide educators with a comprehensive set of instructional materials, including command cards, action visuals, and interactive games, to enhance the TPR experience in the classroom.

In TPR, students’ bodies become part of their learning process; they use their hands, arms, legs, etc., to respond to language prompts. This may involve employing a combination of abstract signing, similar to sign language, and acting out the meaning of words. For instance, a student might demonstrate the action of swimming while saying the word “swim,” or they might use a specific hand gesture to indicate the word “stop.” 

This method not only strengthens language comprehension but also infuses enjoyment into the classroom. By connecting words and phrases with physical movements, students establish a tangible connection to the language. This enhances their overall language learning experience.

TPR works particularly well with young learners and beginner-level ELLs who may have limited vocabulary or language proficiency. The combination of clear, concrete commands and physical responses gives students visual and kinesthetic support for learning new language concepts.

Communicative Language Teaching

Communicative language teaching (CLT) focuses on developing students’ ability to communicate in real-life situations. This interactive approach engages ELLs in authentic conversations and practical language activities to help them gain the skills needed to express themselves fluently and with confidence.

CLT involves activities that prompt students to communicate using the words and vocabulary they’re learning. These activities may include role-plays, group discussions, or debates that can create opportunities for authentic language practice and allow students to express their thoughts, opinions, and ideas in a meaningful context.

The following guidelines provide ideas on how to integrate CLT principles into teaching ELLs:

Designing Communicative Tasks

In CLT, communicative tasks ask students to have a conversation, solve a problem, or share information in the language they’re learning. These activities help students use targeted vocabulary in practical and meaningful ways, just as they would in the real world.

To design effective communicative tasks:  

  • Practice real-life communication: Create activities that invite students to use language in practical situations that reflect their everyday lives. Consider role-plays, simulations, information gap exercises, and problem-solving tasks.
  • Use relevant supporting content: Incorporate authentic materials like news articles, videos, and interviews into the tasks, to provide meaningful contexts for language practice.
  • Set milestones: Create clear goals for each task, to ensure students understand the purpose and focus of their communication.

Promoting Pair and Group Work

Research has shown that pair and group work helps lower the anxiety ELLs feel about speaking and improves their speaking ability simultaneously. Working in pairs or groups provides a sense of support and shared responsibility, which can help alleviate the pressure and self-consciousness associated with speaking in front of others.

These instructional tools encourage students to engage in genuine conversations in a relaxed and interactive setting. They also allow students to receive more personalized attention and feedback from their partners as well as take ownership of their learning.

To promote successful pair and group work:

  • Delegate effectively: Assign group members roles and responsibilities, to ensure participation and equal involvement.
  • Facilitate collaboration: Help students work together, such as by providing sentence starters or discussion prompts.

Providing Constructive Feedback

Constructive feedback supports the language learning process in several ways. It allows educators to address errors and provide guidance on language accuracy, so students can understand their mistakes and make corrections, and it also encourages students to reflect on their own language use and identify areas for improvement.

Things to keep in mind when using this tool:

  • Give constructive feedback: Focus on providing feedback that enhances students’ communication skills rather than solely pointing out errors.
  • Validate progress and success: Offer specific praise for effective communication strategies, such as using appropriate vocabulary or initiating conversations.
  • Consider both accuracy and fluency: Avoid immediately correcting every error during an activity or conversation. Instead, write down the errors or use symbols or codes to indicate them, so students can continue communicating without interruption, maintaining their fluency. 

Content-Based Instruction

Content-based instruction (CBI) intertwines language learning with subject matter content. This provides English language learners the resources to acquire language skills while also learning other academic subjects. This integration of language and content helps students develop their language proficiency and keep up with their grade level curriculum. 

For example, in a middle school science class, educators can incorporate CBI by designing lessons where students conduct hands-on experiments and engage in collaborative discussions. By actively participating in experiments, analyzing data, and communicating their findings, students not only deepen their understanding of scientific concepts but also develop their ability to use scientific language effectively, expanding their language skills within the context of science.

Educators can effectively implement CBI by:

  • Selecting relevant and engaging content: Choose subject matter that aligns with the curriculum and is interesting to students, such as current events, cultural topics, or real-world issues.
  • Integrating language and content: Design activities and assignments that require students to use language while engaging with the content. This can include discussions, debates, projects, presentations, and research papers.
    • Providing language support: Scaffold language learning by providing vocabulary lists, language models, and graphic organizers that assist students in understanding and expressing complex ideas related to the content. Scaffolding means providing structured support to help students grasp new concepts and skills. Teachers give students tools and resources that assist them in their learning process until they can independently apply what they’ve been taught.
  • Incorporating authentic materials: Use original materials, such as articles, videos, and primary sources, to expose students to real-life language use and to enhance their understanding of the content.
  • Assessing language and content integration: Evaluate students’ language proficiency and content understanding through a variety of assessments, such as oral presentations, written assignments, and project-based assessments. 

Collaborative Learning

Collaborative learning strategies help foster a collaborative and inclusive learning environment for ELLs. Engaging ELLs in group activities, discussions, and projects promotes participation and mutual support among students. Collaborative learning allows ELLs to practice their language skills in real-life contexts while building connections with their peers. 

Educators can implement various practical collaborative learning techniques including: 

  • Jigsaw activities: Divide the class into small groups and assign each group member a specific topic or task. Each group member becomes an expert in their assigned area and then shares their knowledge with the other group members. This encourages cooperation and the exchange of ideas and information among students. 
  • Think-pair-share: Pose a thought-provoking question or a problem to the class. Allow students a few moments to reflect individually (think), then have them pair up with a partner to discuss their thoughts (pair), and, finally, invite pairs to discuss their ideas with the whole class (share). This technique promotes collaboration, communication, and the development of speaking and listening skills. 
  • Group projects: Assign group projects that require students to work together to complete a task or solve a problem. For example, students can collaborate to create presentations, design posters, conduct research, or create multimedia projects. Group projects encourage ELLs to engage in meaningful language practice, develop teamwork skills, and learn from other students’ perspectives and experiences. 
  • Role-playing: Assign specific roles or characters to each student and have them engage in role-playing activities. This could involve simulations of real-life situations, such as ordering food at a restaurant, interviewing for a job, or acting out a scene from a book. Role-playing encourages active participation, language use, and the development of oral communication skills. 
  • Establishing clear expectations and roles: Whatever the collaborative learning activity, give students clear guidelines and expectations, including specific roles and responsibilities for each group member. This helps ensure equal participation, accountability, and a sense of ownership among students. By clarifying expectations, educators can facilitate a positive and productive collaborative learning environment. 

Task-Based Language Teaching

Task-based language teaching (TBLT) emphasizes learning through tasks and activities that reflect real-world language use. TBLT engages students in tasks that require them to use language to achieve specific goals or solve problems. 

For example, a teacher may assign students the task of planning a trip to a foreign country. Students would need to research and gather information, make travel arrangements, and create an itinerary—all while using specific assigned target language when communicating with their peers. As they complete the task, students practice language skills such as reading, writing, speaking, and listening. They also develop problem-solving and collaboration skills. 

TBLT exposes students to language in situations that mirror real-life communication. This approach enhances ELLs’ ability to use language effectively in everyday situations and makes language learning more relevant and engaging, leading to a deeper understanding and retention of English.

Strategies and techniques for implementing TBLT effectively include:

  • Task selection: Choose tasks that are relevant and meaningful to the students’ lives. Tasks could include planning a trip, solving a problem, conducting an interview, or participating in a debate. Connecting language learning to real-life situations motivates students to engage and apply their language skills.
  • Preparatory activities: Before students begin the task, provide them with activities that will activate their prior knowledge and introduce key vocabulary or language structures. These activities can include brainstorming, discussions, or short reading/listening exercises that prepare students for the task.
  • Task design: Design tasks that have a clear goal and require students to use language to achieve that goal. Tasks should be challenging but achievable, promoting critical thinking and language production. Consider incorporating elements of collaboration, negotiation, and problem-solving into the task design.
  • Planning phase: Allow students time to plan and prepare for the task. During this phase, encourage students to discuss their strategies, organize their thoughts, and plan their language use. This planning stage fosters communication and helps students clarify their ideas before engaging in the task.
  • Task performance: Provide opportunities for students to engage in the task and use language to accomplish the goal. Monitor and facilitate the students’ performance of the task, offering support and guidance as needed. Encourage students to interact with one another and apply the language skills they have been learning.
  • Language focus: While the primary focus of TBLT is on completing the task, address students’ specific language needs that arise during the task performance. Provide feedback and language support as students engage in the task, addressing errors, clarifying language use, and highlighting language patterns or structures.
  • Reflection and feedback: After completing the task, engage students in reflection. Encourage them to discuss their experience, evaluate their performance, and reflect on their use of language. Provide constructive feedback that focuses on both the content and the language aspects of their performance, helping them improve their skills.

English Language Learner Resources for Educators, Students, and Their Families

High-quality resources designed for instructing ELLs can empower educators to create inclusive classrooms that support the needs of students working toward full English language proficiency. The right resources can offer valuable guidance and assistance to both educators seeking innovative teaching materials and students looking for language learning support. 

Resources for Educators

To enhance their instructional practices, educators can turn to a range of English language learner resources. By exploring professional development platforms, instructional strategies, assessment tools, and more, educators can stay up to date with the latest research and gain insights into effective teaching methods for ESL instruction. 

  • Colorín Colorado, a resource hub for ESL teachers, provides a wide range of lesson plans, instructional strategies, and classroom activities for various English language proficiency levels. It also houses an extensive collection of bilingual books and recommended reading lists for students.
  • The National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition gives educators access to webinars and workshops focused on ESL teaching strategies, research-based publications about effective ESL instruction and language acquisition, as well as information on policies, laws, and guidelines related to ESL education. 
  • TESOL offers an array of articles, research papers, and publications that cover topics such as lesson planning, language assessment, classroom management, and cultural competence. Additionally, TESOL provides a platform for teachers to connect through discussion forums, online communities, and networking opportunities.
  • “Helpful Online Resources for Teaching ELLs” offers a collection of tools that support teaching vocabulary and literacy skill development to ELLs, discusses the benefits of online learning stations, and provides a list of ELL learning apps and websites.
  • WIDA, part of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, provides a range of educator resources, including ESL instructional materials and assessment tools for evaluating ELLs’ language proficiency and monitoring their progress.
  • On the National Education Association’s Resources for English Language Learners page, ESL teachers can access instructional materials, lesson plans, and teaching strategies tailored to ELLs. The page also provides access to professional development resources as well as articles, research papers, and guides that offer insights into effective ESL instructional practices.
  • Kid-Inspired Classroom focuses on ESL teaching resources for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Teachers can access printable worksheets, graphic organizers, and educational materials for ESL instruction as well as learn teaching tips and strategies for working with ELLs.

Resources for ELLs and Their Families

From online platforms and language learning apps to community organizations and support networks, ELLs and their families can benefit from exploring a range of resources that cater to their diverse needs and aspirations.

  • Randall’s ESL Cyber Listening Lab houses a vast collection of audio recordings at different levels of difficulty. ELLs can listen to various dialogues, interviews, and conversations followed by comprehension questions designed to help ELLs assess their understanding. The site also provides links to podcasts, videos, and websites that further support language acquisition. 
  • The resource page for ELLs and their families compiled by the New York State Education Department offers helpful links to community organizations and advocacy groups that support ELLs and their families in overcoming their language barriers and thriving in school. 
  • “Eight Excellent Digital Resources for English Language Learners” provides recommendations for websites where ELLs can practice their reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. 
  • Storyline Online offers a collection of video recordings of celebrated actors reading children’s books aloud. The website also provides activity guides and worksheets families can use to engage with the stories and promote reading comprehension.

Create Inclusive Environments for English Language Learners 

All students deserve a quality education. By providing appropriate support, educators can help ELLs thrive academically and socially. English language learner resources help promote educational equity and empower students for future success.