ELL Strategies: 7 Teaching Strategies For English Language Learners

ALI Staff | Published  June 27, 2018

English Language Learners (ELLs), or Multilingual Learners (MLLs), bring diverse perspectives and experiences to the classroom.

Despite the invaluable assets they bring, these learners often need help in math and science classrooms due to traditional teaching methods that may not cater to their specific needs.

To transform the narrative, this blog delves deep into seven practical, research-based strategies (plus a few bonus ones) aimed at effectively engaging students learning English.

These strategies level the academic playing field for all, providing an in-depth exploration of how to empower ELLs in math and science.


Wooden tiles spelling out English Learner


ELL Challenges and Why TRADITIONAL Approaches Fall Short

Teaching math and science is a complex task, especially when the classroom includes students who are in the process of learning English, such as ELLs and MLLs.

Two major challenges make the learning curve steeper for these students, and standard teaching methods often fall short in addressing these issues.

Firstly, the language barrier can make it hard to keep up. Both math and science come with their own specialized vocabulary that can be tricky for anyone.

Now, think about grappling with these terms while also navigating a new language. Typical teaching methods assume everyone has a firm grasp of English, leaving these students disadvantaged.

This is where tailored strategies that account for language barriers can make a world of difference.

Secondly, cultural differences bring another layer of complexity. Students from different backgrounds often have their own ways of participating and learning.

These differences can affect how students interact with their peers and teachers, and may even impact their willingness to engage in classroom activities.

Therefore, a more flexible and inclusive teaching approach is needed to ensure that all students, irrespective of their cultural background, feel involved and can effectively learn.

So, it's clear that a 'one-size-fits-all' teaching method won't do the trick.

Teachers need specialized strategies that consider both language barriers and cultural diversity to give all students a fair opportunity to excel.


Practical Strategies for Empowering ELLs in Math and Science 

Getting the teaching approach right for English Language in math and science classes doesn't have to be an uphill battle.

To effectively support English Language Learners, it is crucial to employ focused strategies that take into account the specific difficulties these students encounter.

These strategies aren't just 'good teaching practices' repackaged; they are based on research and have been shown to be effective in diverse classrooms.

In the following sections, we'll dive into some tried-and-true methods that can make the learning experience more engaging and productive for all your students.


1. Fostering a Supportive Learning Community at School and Home

To help English Language Learners succeed in STEM, it's important to do more than just teach the subject matter.

Creating a welcoming school community and strong home connections sets the stage for better learning by building trust, celebrating diversity, and involving families.


Building Relationships & Creating a Welcoming Environment

Let's start with the foundation: building solid relationships and creating a welcoming environment for all students.

This is crucial and serves as the bedrock upon which other strategies are built. Even the most well-designed teaching methods will fall flat if students don't feel safe, valued, and welcomed. 


Cultural Responsiveness

Being culturally responsive means being aware of the diverse backgrounds of your students and incorporating elements from those backgrounds into your teaching.

It's not just about hanging flags or celebrating holidays but genuinely understanding the cultural factors that affect your students' learning.

It's a way to make your students feel at home, which in turn helps to foster a more effective learning environment. 


Creating Home-School Connections

Reaching out to families and caregivers can go a long way in building a support system for your students.

Whether it's through parent-teacher conferences, newsletters, or community events, strong home-school connections can enrich the learning environment and help students feel more anchored in their academic journey. 


2. Build on Existing Strengths to Create Classroom Success for ELLs

The key to effective teaching often lies in recognizing and utilizing the assets that students already bring with them.

Every student comes to the classroom with unique skills, experiences, and even languages.

In STEM education for English Language Learners, tapping into these existing strengths enriches the learning experience and makes the academic content more accessible.  


Leveraging Background Knowledge

Each student brings their own set of skills and experiences to the classroom.

Teachers can leverage this by linking new STEM concepts to what students already know. This makes the material more relatable and easier to grasp.


Native Language as a Resource

Don't view your students' native language skills as a barrier but as an asset.

Encouraging the use of native languages can actually help in understanding and retaining complex STEM topics. This approach validates the students' identities and can make the transition to learning STEM topics in English smoother.

By putting relationships first and building on what students already know, we create an atmosphere where every learner can succeed.

It's not just about delivering content but about making it accessible and meaningful to everyone in the room. 


3. Visual Aids and Multimedia Tools 

Utilizing both visual aids and technology provides a comprehensive way to make STEM subjects more accessible and engaging for English Language Learners.

These tools range from graphic organizers to digital glossaries, each enhancing comprehension and bridging language gaps in unique ways.

  • Visual Supports for Complex Concepts: Graphic organizers, diagrams, and charts can be game-changers in helping students wrap their heads around challenging STEM topics. The idea is to take complicated ideas and make them simple through visual representation. 

  • Use of Google Translate: This tool can offer quick translation and aid understanding. But be cautious; it's a helpful supplement but shouldn't be the primary way students learn English.

  • Closed Captioning for Video Content: Turn on those captions! They help everyone in the class, not just ELL students, by improving comprehension and literacy skills.

  • Voice-to-Text Tools: Some students may find talking more accessible than writing, particularly in a second language. Features like voice typing in Google Docs can bridge that gap.

  • Digital Glossaries: These can be handy little helpers in the classroom. An interactive glossary allows students to quickly look up and understand terms in context, which can be especially useful during a fast-paced lesson.


At Accelerate Learning, we provide many STEM solutions as well as translated Spanish-aligned lessons, activities, and assignments that can be quickly printed or downloaded.

Related reading:

4. Contextual Learning

Understanding things in a vacuum seldom makes sense to anyone. For STEM subjects, creating real-world links can make abstract theories much more digestible.

So connect those dots between what you're teaching and the world around us.

Whether it's showing how geometry impacts building design or how chemical reactions are everywhere in our daily lives, these connections can make learning more relevant, exciting, and accessible. 


5. Interactive Engagement

Understanding often comes from doing, and this is especially true in STEM subjects, where abstract concepts can come to life through hands-on activities and other strategies to increase interactivity.

Active involvement reinforces the subject matter and builds valuable social and language skills. For ELL students, interactive engagement offers a two-fold benefit: grasping complex topics in STEM and enhancing their language proficiency. 


Collaborative Learning

Group work and classroom activities allow students to interact and learn from each other.

These collaborative settings can be particularly beneficial for ELL students, who get the opportunity to practice language skills while absorbing STEM content.


Student Pairing

Let ELL students pick their own partners for projects and activities.

A good partnership can really boost both learning and language skills, making the lessons more effective and interesting. Sometimes, it might be beneficial for students to pair up with someone who speaks the same home language for better comprehension.

In other situations, pairing them with a student with a higher English proficiency level can offer valuable guidance.


Think-Pair-Share Techniques

This strategy gives students time to process and reflect on new information.

They think independently, discuss their thoughts with a partner, and finally share with the class.

This staged approach is excellent for helping ELL students to thoughtfully engage with complex topics, allowing them to contribute meaningfully to class discussions. It's also especially useful for scenarios where students are required to write answers later on.


6. Simplify Language, Not Content

Making lessons easier to understand doesn't mean dumbing them down. You can keep the rigor while making the content more accessible.

  • Accessible Language: Reword complex terminology and sentences in a way that maintains the academic challenge but makes the content more accessible to ELL students.

  • Strategies to Limit Language Production Requirements: Provide tools like sentence starters, word banks, and visual aids that allow students to participate without struggling through language barriers.

  • Comprehensible Input and Total Physical Response (TPR): Using actions along with words can help solidify understanding. It's a hands-on way to help students, especially those learning English, to grasp new concepts.


7. Building Vocabulary in Context 

Understanding the specific terms used in STEM subjects is critical for any student's success and is even more vital for ELLs.

Mastering this vocabulary serves as a foundation that supports comprehension and problem-solving in complex subjects like math and science. 


Focused Vocabulary Instruction

Don't just give a list of words; teach them in the context of the lesson. This helps students understand not just the meaning but also the application.

This strategy ensures that vocabulary becomes a tool for understanding rather than a list to be memorized and forgotten. 


ELLs and Beyond: The Future of Inclusive STEM Education

While this blog has covered an extensive range of methods for leveling the educational landscape for ELLs in STEM, it's worth noting that these strategies don't only benefit English Language Learners—they enhance the educational experience for everyone in the classroom.

This isn't merely about new educational strategies; it's a paradigm shift towards embracing diversity as the catalyst for intellectual and social growth in the 21st-century classroom.


Which STEM subjects are of interest to you?

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