How can I offer language support to the English Language Learners in my classroom if I don’t speak their native language?

By: Kristina Robertson

Fortunately, there are a number of ways to support ELL students’ language acquisition by adapting strategies already in use. These small things may make a big difference to ELLs. Here are a few ideas.

1. Create a language-rich environment. English language learners will benefit from increased exposure to print and language. A print-rich environment will include access to books and reference materials, labels and posters, and student work on bulletin boards. Word walls are also a great support for ELLs, and may be organized around a number of concepts, including new vocabulary words, sight words, grammar rules, conversational phrases, and writing structures.

2. Simplify your language without "dumbing it down." It may seem difficult to balance this at first, but here are some tips for communicating effectively with your students:

  • Avoid slang and idiomatic expressions.
  • Speak clearly and naturally, without going too quickly or slowly.
  • Encourage students to raise their hand if they don't understand a word.

Remember that ELLs may not understand instructions and key vocabulary words, and that reading something aloud doesn't always help comprehension. Provide extra supports such as realia, graphic organizers, and visuals.

3. Support academic language development. Often students are available to communicate effectively with teachers or peers in social settings, but struggle when it comes to textbooks, tests, assignments, or class presentations. There are a number of ways to support academic language development, such as previewing the text, teaching grammatical structures relevant to a particular content area ("greater than" and "less than" in math class), and showing how the targeted academic language is used in reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

4. Provide students with frequent opportunities to work together. Cooperative learning activities promote peer interaction, which promotes language development and comprehension. Activities may include working on a worksheet together as problem-solver and coach (then switching roles), think-pair-share, and book groups. Assign ELLs to different groups so that they can benefit from English language role models. ELLs learn to express themselves with greater confidence when working in small teams.

There are a number of ways you can support language acquisition—and in the process get them on the road to academic success!
Kristina Robertson is an English language supervisor in Roseville, Minnesota, an educational consultant, and a former WIDA national trainer with 25 years in the field. She is a writer for Colorin Colorado ( This article is excerpted from her Colorin Colorado article, "Supporting ELLs in the Mainstream Classroom: Language Tips," available at

Published in AMLE Magazine, January 2016.

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1 comments on article "How can I offer language support to the English Language Learners in my classroom if I don't speak their native language? "

I will be having several ELL students in my classroom this semester during my Professional 1 semester. I have been a little nervous on how to create a confidence in them and a trust in me for them. This article was very helpful on a few tips to make ELL students comfortable in what can be a very intimidating environment. Avoiding slang, and using more academic language I think is great advice to follow in any classroom. It is easy to default to slang language, but I think it is important for all students to see the teacher using academic language and push them to put more of that into their own vocabulary. Allowing students to work and learn from each other is also great advice as I believe students can learn just as much from each other as they can the teacher. Overall, I appreciate this advice and plan to use it going into my new classroom.

1/24/2020 12:55 PM

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