If you want to see the best supports for English language learners all in one place, then you’ll LOVE this (updated) guide.
You’ll find 63 different support ideas in this massive list organized by category so that it is easy to reference.
This could make a huge difference in the impact you have on your English learner’s experience at your school.
So let’s dive right in.
Jump to a Section:
- Resource Related Supports
- Teacher Related Supports
- School Related Supports
- Software & Other Online Related Supports
- Emotional Related Supports
- Family Related Supports
Resource Related Supports for English Language Learners
In this section, we’ll cover resource supports for English language learners that can be printed for our students to help them learn target content or access grade-level content.
Scaffolds are any type of resource that help students “step up” to content that would be otherwise out of their reach. Scaffolds are necessary when students are in a grade level that is well above their English proficiency level. Our goal is to help our English learners access that grade level content as much as possible and scaffolds can go a long way towards making that possible. Anchor charts, graphic organizers, and sentence stems are examples of scaffolds, but there are many, many different kinds. Most of the resource supports discussed below would fall under this term.
First up and maybe the most obvious support is images. Images help students grasp the meaning of content more quickly and remember it far more easily. It can be time consuming, but the more related images we add to the resources we provide our students, the more quickly they will learn.
You can create little printable cheat sheets for students which detail classroom guidelines, topics, or concepts. These would be very similar to Anchor Charts (see below) only I like to think of these as being printed on smaller pieces of paper and more of a “this is just between you and me” kind of thing. If the “cheat sheets” include subject content from their classes, just let them know that the “cheat” part is just for fun and the students should not use them to do any actual cheating.
Realia are real-world objects that help ground academic content. For instance, having a globe when discussing world geography or providing plastic bugs for discussion of insects are both examples of using realia.
Sentence Frames & Sentence Stems
Sentence frames and sentence stems are both very helpful, but they are easily confused or conflated altogether. Sentence frames mainly leave blanks in place of particular words students can fill in and sentence frames provide the beginning of a sentence that students can go on to complete. Here is an article you might find helpful if you’d like to dig in further on how to use sentence frames and sentences stems with your students.
Graphic Organizers provide students a pre-structured way of organizing information from a text or other source. These help students better understand what they need to be looking for which takes a lot of guess work out of an assignment. This helps students focus in more easily on the goal of an assignment.
These are examples of literacy graphic organizers included within the Kid-Inspired ESL Curriculum Membership.
Anchor Charts are similar to graphic organizers but already filled in. These are helpful reference sheets students can use to better engage with grade-level content or assignment expectations.
Infographics / Reference Sheets
These are basically the same thing as Anchor Charts, but are also very helpful for students on specific topics in science, social studies, history, math, or other subjects. For instance, a reference sheet or anchor chart showing images of the water cycle labeled with key words can make a huge difference to students engagement in a lesson on that subject. The resources pictured below are a new resource being added to the Kid-Inspired ESL Curriculum Membership covering a range of common topics and include short reading paragraphs and discussion questions.
Vocabulary Reference Pages
There are a number of ways we can provide students with vocabulary references that they can use in speech and writing. These pages can help boost the use of academic vocabulary and improve reading comprehension.
Readers are a great way to get students reading a lot at a level they can more easily manage and then working their way up to harder and harder passages. The Kid-Inspired ESL Curriculum Membership includes a growing library of fluency readers, but there are other options as well like Reading A-Z. You can grab a free set of beginners readers here.
Word walls are a great way of surrounding students with the words they need to manage their grade-level content. There are loads of different ways students and teachers can create and organize word walls in classrooms to be used as a fun and helpful reference.
These can be somewhat expensive, but they can be a helpful tool as well. We don’t want our students spending all of their time looking up words in a dictionary so they should be used selectively when there is a word that a wants to say but only knows it in their native tongue. If your students come from a wide variety of language backgrounds, these types of dictionaries may not be feasible and you will likely want to just use online tools instead.
Translations can be a great help for our students as they develop their English skills. They are also great in that they help students continue to practice their language skills in their home language as well. We need to be careful about over-using translation though since students can come to over-rely on them in a way that impedes the development of their English language skills. This is a balance that will change depending on the student and the context.
A good assessment is incredibly helpful for getting a clear picture of what student does and doesn’t know when they arrive. This information can go a long way towards helping you choose the right resources and strategies for supporting them. An assessment like the Kid-Inspired ESL Assessment can be used multiple times with a student over time to see their progress. You can download the Kid-Inspired ESL Assessment and guide here.
Don’t underestimate the power of games to help students gain mastery of the content they are learning. Games create interest and interest creates motivation. Games can also get students practicing with a lot of repetition without it feeling boring. I used to have teachers tell me they didn’t have time for games. My response was always, “You don’t have time not to play games.” They just need to be the right kinds of games that actually get each and every child practicing a lot.
Teacher Related Supports for English Language Learners
In this section, we’ll cover supports for English language learners that relate how you teach and prepares lessons.
Back up what you’re saying with hand gestures, actions, movement. Act it out. Show as well as tell.
Then stop gesticulating. Once students have spent some time with a topic, try using only your words and nothing else as a way of getting them to rely on their ears rather than just guessing at meaning with their eyes.
Create consistent ways of organizing your lessons, class structure, worksheets, etc and stick to them. The less time students have to spend trying to decode a new activity, the more mental energy they’ll have to focus on the content of what you’re trying to teach. Some worksheets have 10 different activities on one page. Some teachers change up how they organize their lessons every class. The variety might make the teacher feel more interested, it can drain an English learner’s mental energy before they’ve even set about the content they’re supposed to learn.
Model behaviors, routines, etc that you want students to learn. Have them practice those behaviors or routines until they feel confident with them. I often find that adding in a little humor into the modeling makes it a lot more engaging and memorable.
Pre-Teaching / Building Background Knowledge
One way to help students get more out of their gen-ed classes is to pre-teach target content they will need for those classes. I’ve bundled this idea together with building background knowledge though I can imagine if we split hairs, there are differences. You can teach target vocabulary words, sentence stems for how to respond, as well as concepts in their home language. Then when they get to their gen-ed classes, they will have a much better idea of what is going on and be far more likely to engage in the class.
Simplify your explanations and repeat them more than once. Then have your students repeat explanations back to you or turn to a partner and repeat them. Get students to engage with the content in speaking, listening, reading, and writing (see SWIRL below). It definitely helps to vary it up, but repetition will help your students retain far more of what they need to learn than dumping never-ending amounts of new content on them that they can not digest or remember before the next time they get dumped with more new content. Having students pull something from memory right about the moment they’ve forgotten it is also scientifically proven to improve retention. You can check out this article for more on that.
Allow for a little more wait time before asking students to respond to something. Giving English learners a chance to organize what they want to say can be extremely helpful. At higher levels where students already have some writing ability, it can be particularly helpful to have students write out some ideas of what they want to say before asking for a response.
This is something that all great teachers do regardless of whether they are English learners or not. Get your students involved. Do not give a lecture at the front of the class and expect students to understand and remember the content you’re teaching. You can use TPR (see below), have them repeat back to you what you’re saying, have them turn and tell a student next to them what you just said, or any other strategy that gets them to take some kind of action.
TPR stands for Total Physical Response. It is basically putting actions to the words that students are saying to help them better engage, understand, and remember the content you’re teaching.
All Students Involved at All Times
One of the most common issues I have seen when observing teachers is this: they assume that just because everyone is in the classroom when a response is given, everyone has heard and understood. This is simply not true. Usually stronger students answer all of the questions and weaker students are expected to just listen. Avoid favoring stronger students, but don’t favor the weak ones either. Some teachers only ever call on weaker students because they know the stronger students already know the answers. Neither of these strategies will engage all students and keep them motivated. Instead, aim to choose only strategies that get all students involved at all times. A strategy like Think, Pair, Share is a good example. Give them a second to think about the answer, and then have them turn and share with a partner. You can also do Think, Write, Pair, Share which gives the students a minute to write something down first. This, in turn, also gives you a chance for informal assessment of the students’ grasp of the material. Ear to Ear Reading is a good example of an alternative to popcorn reading to get all students involved.
Students get better at what they practice. For instance, if they only practice listening, they will only improve in listening and will struggle to produce language in speaking and writing. Speak, Write, Interact, Read, Listen – Andrea Honigsfeld recommends every lesson touches on each of these in order to give students a chance to engage with content in multiple ways or modalities.
Make sure to give each and every student a chance to show what they’ve learned individually and without help. These check ins will help you better understand how many of your students are gaining a solid grasp of the content. Don’t wait until big tests or ACCESS testing or otherwise, check in every day or every other day.
Instead of saying “that’s wrong” when a students says something incorrectly, try just saying the sentence the correct way and having them repeat it. Then applaud the correct sentence they then made. If a student is having issues in class, rather than focus on the negative behaviors, search for any point in their behavior where they are doing what you’d like to see. Then praise that behavior, telling them that is exactly the kind of thing you absolutely love to see and makes you so proud of them.
Teach Common Classroom Phrases
When newcomers first arrive, one of the most helpful supports we can provide is to teach them basic classroom phrases so that they can get what they need. “I need help, please.” “May I go to the bathroom, please?” “I’m having a hard time with this.” These phrases give the student the ability to communicate needs. They also have the added benefit of making the student seem more normal and polite. English learners unintentionally come off as rude at times when they translate directly from their home language and it can unnecessarily bias some teachers against them.
Simplify your speech
Simplifying your speech can make a huge difference in your students grasp of the content you’re presenting, especially when introducing a new topic. Use short, punchy sentences. Choose target vocabulary to teach and use those words repeatedly while keeping the rest of your words and sentence structures simpler. Then build in more complexity as the students gain more of a grasp of the topic.
Slowing down your speaking speed is another helpful support. As native speakers, we don’t often realize just how quickly we speak. For those trying to learn the language, they will often only catch a few words out of a sentence and then guess at what you’re saying. This may get them through, but long-term, if they do not begin to understand all of the words in what they hear, this will severely handicap their English development.
Avoid Idiomatic Expressions, Sarcasm, and Slang
This is similar to simplifying our speech. Students will need to learn idiomatic expressions and slang with time, but they are not a priority up front. Sarcasm is just plain difficult to understand when learning English and can VERY easily be misinterpreted. Our goal is not to confuse students. We cannot ask them to run before they can crawl.
Assigning a Friend
You can pair an English learner with a native speaker or with another student who speaks the same home language for help and/or discussion when wrestling with a text or completing an assignment.
Giving students a little extra time to complete assignments can make a big difference to the students and the outcome of the experience.
Preview in Home Language
If possible, you can give students videos to watch or passages to read in their home language on the same topics they’ll be learning about in their gen-ed classes. This way they already have some knowledge about the subject before arriving and can focus more on the language acquisition during class. This is something that you would likely want to get parents on board with so that they understand what you’re doing and why.
Translanguaging is a theory that, when faced with an academic task, people who know more than one language use all of their language resources in whatever way best gets the job done. Practically speaking, it means letting students use their native languages in natural ways alongside their new language when engaging with subject content. You can encourage this by asking them label things in their home language as well as English or write a response in their home language first before attempting it in English. Check out this article for more ->
School Related Supports for English Language Learners
In this section, we’ll cover supports for English language learners that are related to what your school can do.
Teaching Language Skills Across All Subjects
Schools can support English learners as well as all other students by recognizing that all subjects involve language learning. The language of math or science is just as foreign to a student who has not learned the vocabulary and sentence structures for those subjects as the English language is to English learners. This means that any strategies that work for English learners also work for native speakers. If schools train teachers across the spectrum to use the strategies we know work well for English learners, all students will benefit.
Schools can help teachers stay up to date with the accommodations for English learners that are allowed and are sometimes legally required by the state. Most teachers want to do right by their students and there is simply a knowledge gap about the kinds of accommodations they can use. For more information on accommodations, you can check out the following article which also includes a much shorter, more-easily-digestible, downloadable list of accommodations.
Testing Accommodations Training
In many cases, students can use an alternative language edition of an exam or be allowed more testing time. Check out your state’s guidelines for what testing accommodations are allowed for your students.
No two people are alike. We all benefit when we are shown that we do not have to fit a mold that someone else has provided for us. The more diversity is celebrated and students are accepted for who they are, the more successful they will be in and out of the classroom. This can be done throughout the school in all sorts of both tangible and intangible ways. Schools can have students showcase their various backgrounds by creating posters, table displays, or shadowboxes in the school’s halls is one way but not the only way.
It’s easy to overlook how important community is to the success of a school. Students need to feel safe, need to feel like they belong, need to feel like they are part of a group of people who see them and love them. This kind of community is created through understanding and connection. You can consider having everyone in the school break off into small groups to discuss what kind of school they want to have. Then get the students to create a school contract that everyone signs and is posted somewhere publicly. Get the students, teachers, and staff to start brainstorming how they are going to actually create that kind of school and then have everyone prioritize those ideas to start testing them out. After each idea is tested, there should be discussion on how effective it was and how it should be adapted to better meet the goal.
Teacher, Staff, Parent, Child Communication
A school is extremely challenging because there are so many different parties involved yet they very rarely get to see each other in action. Teachers teach in the classroom, but parents are not there to see the challenges they face or the effort they put in. Parents do the parenting at home out of sight of the teachers who can only guess at what might be happening at home. Staff and administrators get sandwiched parents and teachers. The parents expect staff and administrators to tell the teachers why the parents are right and the teachers expect them to tell the parents why the teachers are right. This makes for a sometimes explosive environment where misunderstanding is running rampant and stress levels are off the charts. The way forward is opening up better lines of communication for everyone with the goal of creating understanding. The better parents understand teachers, the more likely they will be gracious and flexible with their feedback and support. The better teachers understand parents, the more willing they will be to help out with concerns parents have brought up. The better staff and administrators understand teachers, well you get the idea. There are more ways to do this than there are schools and each school will need to take some time for critical and creative thinking about how it can be accomplished effectively. If you need a tool that helps with communication across language barriers, you can check out Talking Points (see below).
Collaboration / Teacher to Teacher Communication
Collaboration between content teachers and ELL Support Teachers is a must for the success of English learners. I’ve put it in this section because it is something that the school really needs to support in order for it to happen consistently. The more teachers collaborate with each other, the more students benefit, especially when it comes to English learners. Find ways to make it possible for teachers to lesson plan together, discuss results, give feedback, etc. For some collaboration lesson planning templates as well on tips on the different types of co-teaching, you can check out the article below.
Software & Other Online Related Supports for English Language Learners
There are so many amazing software tools out there now that can be used as supports for our English learners. I have listed a few of the more popular options below. If you have a favorite that isn’t listed here, let me know in the comments below!
This is a go-to tool for many teachers and students and can help enormously with scaffolding grade-level content for English learners. Just be careful not to over-rely on translation. Students who do over-rely on translation into their home language usually do not make very good gains in English.
This is probably already on everyone’s list when it comes to helping English learners. There are videos for pretty much everything imaginable and, very often, videos can be found in a student’s home language to help them with concepts they are learning. If you don’t speak the student’s language, do a Google Translate of a topic and then put the translation into the search bar to see if any kids videos come up.
This is a wonderful and popular tool for helping teachers, staff, and parents communicate across language barriers. You can learn more by visiting their site here.
Unite for Literacy
This is a website with loads of free books that have English recordings of the texts. There are all sorts of topics covered. You can check it out here.
News In Levels
This site includes loads of news articles written at 3 different English proficiency levels. Here is the link to thew News In Levels site. One helpful strategy with this kind of resource is a Close Reading. You can learn more about how to do a Close Reading in this article.
The site your own now has quite a few resources you can check out as well.
- ELL Teaching activity ideas organized by category
- Articles on ELL teaching strategies
- The Kid-Inspired ESL Curriculum Membership – Includes the resource you see pictured in this article.
Emotional Related Supports for English Language Learners
Moving to a new country that does not speak your home language is incredibly challenging for students. In this section, we’ll go through emotional supports for English language learners.
Cultivating a Relationship
Building a connection with your students builds trust. A student who trusts you and has a connection with you is going to be far more willing to put in the hard work it’s going to take for them to get up to grade level. Get to know their strengths and interests, their fears, their home lives, everything you can.
Take Them Seriously
This support as well as the next one come specifically from the Jennifer Gonzalez’s Cult of Pedagogy blog article on supporting ELLs. Our English learners need affirmation of the real struggles they face as well as the complex emotions that go with those struggles. There are times when we might be tempted to let go a chuckle at the hangups or mistakes of our ELLs, but can be a big mistake that destroys any trust you’ve built with them. This is especially true of strong emotions like anger. Unfortunately, I’ve observed teachers laugh at students who are angry and communicating badly in English about something the teacher has done that they perceive as unfair. Their emotions are real even if they can’t express them very well or you can’t relate with them.
Show Them How to Take Themselves Less Seriously
There may be nothing more helpful than the ability to laugh at oneself. Unfortunately, many adults aren’t able to do this, so don’t just expect it to be easy for your students to do. It’s not. You can only graciously share examples from your own story as you point them in the right direction. When students make progress in this area, it can be very helpful, giving them more confidence and making them far less wary of making mistakes. Worrying about what others think can seriously hold our students back. When learning a language, one of the best things we can do is throw caution to the wind and just bravely go for it, being able to laugh when we make mistakes and learn from them.
Find Ways to Connect with Their Cultural Backgrounds
This was discussed in the section on school supports, but individuals can still get lost in the crowd at the school level. You can find ways to connect with their backgrounds personally or to connect the content to their backgrounds where applicable. You can learn about students’ cultural backgrounds simply by talking with them, asking them questions, or by researching their home countries. Then take advantage of opportunities to connect with those cultural backgrounds when opportunities arise.
Let Them Tell Their Story
When we show that we value and understand our students pasts, they better trust us with their futures. One of the first assignments we can give to our students is to tell their story. It can be in their home language first if necessary and then translated. Graphic organizers can also be beneficial in helping students to their stories.
Respect the “silent period”
Newcomers have a lot to adjust to: New country, new city, new neighborhood, new language, new school, new teachers, new friends, new expectations. It’s not surprising they don’t speak up very much at the beginning. Give them time to observe, but don’t treat them like they’re not there. Interact with them in ways that keep the pressure off while still letting them know you see them and are happy they’re there.
Know How to Say Their Names Correctly
This can be a challenge, to be sure. Some names are hard to pronounce and, if written in languages very different from English, can be spelled in ways unfamiliar to us. Taking the time to get a name right and practice it until we can remember it easily speaks volumes to our English learners about how much we value them.
Involve Them in Decision Making
Where possible, discuss options with students and give them choices about how they want to participate, how much assistance they need, and how they will complete assignments. Students will take ownership of decisions they’ve been included in.
Friendship – Pair Them Up with Potential Friends
By helping students pair up with students who can not only help them out, but also potentially build a friendship, our English learners are far more likely to feel like they belong. It should go without saying that students who have a sense of belonging are going to be more engaged in school.
Make Students Feel Welcome and Comfortable
Be patient and encouraging, smile a lot. – I got dinged on this when I first began teaching. Students thought I was angry a lot when I wasn’t just because of my facial expressions.
There are few things more soothing than having a good laugh. It can be extremely helpful to find ways to bring humor into lesson content. For our English learners, don’t be surprised that they enjoy simple, silly kinds of humor more than more nuanced, sarcastic kinds of humor. They will likely not understand nuanced, sarcastic kinds of humor at all, and you’ll be the only one laughing. When developing the Kid-Inspired ESL Curriculum, I noticed over and over how much more easily students remembered challenging content when there was humor embedded in it or the teacher used strategies that brought humor into challenging content. A good example of this is the Madlibs strategy with a challenging reading passage you want your students to grasp. I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating, if we want efficient lessons, we don’t have time NOT to play games like these. Our children are not machines we can plug a USB into to upload data and we shouldn’t get upset with them when our USB-style teaching strategy produces poor results.
Family Related Supports for English Language Learners
The family is one of the most important factors in your students’ success. This section goes over family-related supports for English learners.
Building Relationships with Families
Hopefully your school realizes the importance of good relationships with families and nurtures an environment where that is made easier for you. But even if your school doesn’t, there are still few things that will have a greater impact on your students’ futures. The house always wins when it comes to casinos, and the home always wins when it comes to schooling. You will never be able to outdo the impact the home has and you’re far better off working with them than against them. This comes with an enormous number of challenges even when the parents speak the same language and can seem impossible when there is a language barrier. Just remember that a little usually goes a long way. You just need to focus on the most important things affecting your students rather than gunny-sacking every problem you’ve ever seen and dumping it all on the parents at one time, giving them the impression that you think their child is hopeless when all you’re really trying to do is show that you care (and possibly, since we’re all guilty at times, maybe show off a little). Be encouraging and understanding. Listen first and ask questions before offering solutions. Sandwich the bad things you may have to share in between good things.
Family Get Togethers
There are usually family nights where you can get together with your students’ families, but it doesn’t have to stop there. You can get parents together on a regular basis to help create a community of support for your students and yourself. You don’t even have to be there every time, you just need to be a part of the Facebook group so that you can know what’s happening and can lean on the network when a student is struggling.
Phone calls can be awkward if you don’t speak the parents’ language, but it still means a lot to the parents to hear from you, if possible. It doesn’t have to be long, just a check in. Let them know how their child is doing and remind them of anything they need to pay attention to. Thank them for the effort they put into working together with you to help their child, even if they don’t do much. You’d be surprised at how much a difference it makes when you notice parents’ efforts and praise them for it.
Writing a quick letter can be just as helpful as a phone call, just a little less personal. You can have the letter translated into any needed languages using Google Translate or Talking Points (see above). If it is a general letter to multiple parents, you can even have your students take a crack at translating it for you. It’s great practice for their home language skills as much as English.
A communication book is another easy way to communicate with parents. You can actually make a book or just print out individual pages. The nice thing about this strategy is that you can have the different parts of the page translated into multiple languages and all you need to do is check boxes or write numbers for homework. Request that parents sign the communication book each day. The ones who don’t can be put on a call list to follow up with if you have the time.
Sources & Further Reading
- 9 Tips to Support English-Language Learners – Edutopia
- 12 Ways to Support English Learners in the Mainstream Classroom – Cult of Pedagogy
- How can I support ELLs in my classroom? – Penn State
- Supporting ELLs in the Mainstream Classroom: 12 Strategies for Language Instruction – Colorin Colorado
So…What Do You Think?
I’d love to hear from you.
What do you think of this list?
Did I miss one of your favorite supports for ELLs?
Either way, leave me a comment below and let me know!