ELL Teaching Strategies For When You Get a Non-English Speaker

When working with Level 1 English Language Learners (ELLs), it is essential to implement effective ELL teaching strategies to help newly arrived immigrants feel welcome and start learning English.

Many teachers feel alarmed when a non-English speaking student is assigned to their classrooms. However, there are ways that you can go about supporting this student and making them feel welcome.

ELL Teaching Strategies for newcomers

A Common Concern

As an ELL teacher, this scene has occurred several times during my teaching career: A concerned teacher rather frantically approaches me and exclaims, “What do I do? My new student doesn’t speak any English!!”

When this happens, I tend to react in two ways. First, I recall my own experience during my first year of teaching when second grader Jessica arrived at my classroom door one morning…and I sought out the school’s ELL teacher and spoke the exact same words to her!

Then, I start to calmly run down my “top 10 list.” I’m sharing that list with you today!

Top 10 ELL Teaching Strategies for Working with Level 1 ELLs

10. Pair Your New Student with a Buddy

Ideally, this buddy would be a patient, kind role model who speaks the same language as your student (and can translate!).

When this isn’t an option, however, choose a patient, kind English-speaking classmate, who will be agreeable to helping your new student follow your directions.

9. Use Lots of Gestures and/or Quick Sketches

If you only use words, your new student will quickly become overwhelmed and/or bored.

For example, if you are telling the class about your drive home from school the prior evening when you almost hit a deer, you might do this: “You’ll never believe (hands on cheeks) the scary thing that happened to me yesterday! I was driving home (hands look like they are moving a steering wheel) when a deer (draw a quick sketch of a deer on the board) jumped (use your hands to indicate a bounding motion) in front of my car!”

Don’t think you could draw a deer? Ask a student to help by saying, “Tim, you’re a good artist…would you come to the board and draw a quick sketch of a deer for Nafiso so she can understand what I am talking about?”

8. Utilize Google Images

I always have my iPad open to Google Images, and I am frequently typing in words to provide a necessary visual for my students.

Take, for instance, a lesson where you are trying to teach your students the meaning of the roots –ped and –pod. Use Google Images to show your student what a pedestrian, pedal, tripod, podium, and centipede are, and discuss how they are all related to the word “foot.”

I can almost guarantee that this action will benefit many students in your classroom, not only your new ELL!

ELL Teaching Strategies for newcomers

As an ELL teacher, I use Google Images frequently! Just last week, I was reading a task card with an ELL student about a bashful “flower girl.” I was worried that this fairly new student from Africa would think it was referring to a female flower, so I popped out the iPad, opened to Google Images, typed in “flower girl,” and then showed her the pictures. I used the photo in the upper left corner, and we discussed the American tradition of the bride choosing little girls to throw flower petals during the wedding ceremony.

Exercise Caution: There are times when you do an innocent search, and an inappropriate image is shown. I always turn the iPad so it is facing me only and enter the word I am searching for. Only after I have scanned the images for appropriateness do I turn the iPad to share the images with students!

ELL Teaching Strategy #7: Be Aware of Idioms

Be aware of how often you use idioms like “hold your horses” and “he let the cat out of the bag” when you talk.

These can confuse even advanced ELLs, but new students can be really stumped by them. You might even want to consider telling your other students to raise their hands when they catch you using an idiom!

They’ll learn to recognize idioms, and you will be able to take the opportunity to explain their meanings!

6. Speak Slowly and Clearly

Especially when you are speaking directly to the new student.

5. Do Not Correct Your Student’s Errors

Do not correct your student’s errors when they attempts to speak in English. (I know it’s tempting!)

Rather, celebrate that they tried to communicate in English.

If you have an opportunity, then model the correct way to say the phrase. For example, if your student tells you, “Mom have baby yesterday. Girl.” then you can respond, “Really?!? Your mom had her baby yesterday? The baby was a girl? How exciting!”

ELL Teaching Strategy #4. Take Small Steps with Writing

Writing is a tough subject for a newly-arrived student who doesn’t speak English.

Yes, many upper elementary students can write in their native language, but they quickly become bored writing for a non-existent audience, since most teachers do not track down an interpreter each day to translate their writing for them.

Writing in Their Native Language

I think it is wise to let them continue writing in their native language about twice a week. However, I also begin to teach them how to write simple English sentence structures soon after their arrival.

I begin with teaching my new students color words (see the freebie below!), and this vocabulary provides the base for beginning the writing process! You see, once they learn the color words, they can write simple sentences!

For instance, after I get my other students started on their writing assignment, I walk over to my new student’s desk and help him/her find a writing notebook.

I open the notebook to a blank page, and draw a large T on the page (forming a T-chart). I write, “I like _____________.” at the top of one column, and “I don’t like ________________.” at the top of the other column. Then, students can write color-related sentences in the columns, like “I like green.” or “I don’t like pink.”

ELL Teaching Strategies for newcomers

Use sentence starters with new ELLs! They will learn important common sentence structures, and they will have an opportunity to use the vocabulary they have been acquiring!

Picture dictionaries also come in handy during writing. For example, on a following day, you might open the picture dictionary to a food page, and students can write, “I like blueberries.” or “I don’t like apples.”

Other simple structures might include:

  • After students have learned basic verbs: I can jump. I can’t swim.
  • After students have learned body parts and numbers: I have two brown eyes.
  • After students have learned clothing vocabulary: I am wearing a red sweatshirt.
  • After students have learned sports: I play soccer. I don’t play tennis.
ELL Teaching Strategies for newcomers

3. Provide Books and Simple Dictionaries in the Student’s Native Language

Many upper elementary immigrants enter our classrooms already knowing how to read and write in their native language. Definitely capitalize on this! Give your new student some “down-time” each day when they can return to their comfort zone and read in their native language.

2. Alter Your Learning Objectives

ELL Teaching Strategies for newcomers

Alter your learning objectives for your new student. For example, if your social studies objective is to “name the three branches of government and explain the roles of each,” then this is probably not a realistic expectation for your new student. However, I do not think it is unrealistic to expect Level 1 ELLs to match a picture of a judge to an index card that says “judicial branch,” a picture of the president to an index card that says “executive branch,” etc. (I’d return to Google Images to quickly access those photos!) Start by deciding what exactly you want your student to learn from the lesson, find a way to teach it to him/her, and assess it.

1. Keep a Positive Attitude

Even if they can’t understand everything you say, they can read body language very well. Students know whether they are warmly accepted or not. After all, don’t you someday want them to say,” I’ll never forget how nice Ms. ____ was to me when I first came to America! I was so scared, but she made me feel welcome”?

ELL Teaching Strategies for newcomers

ELL Teaching Strategies to Get You Started

This FREEBIE contains 11 color flashcards and 16 school object flashcards that I use with newly-arrived ELLs. It also includes directions on how to effectively introduce the words and the directions to play a fun memory game with the cards!

Our Guest Expert: Deb Hanson

I am just finishing up my 16th year of teaching!  I started my teaching career in second grade, but quickly discovered that I have a passion for teaching ELLs!  Currently, I teach 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade ELL students.  About 70% of my day is spent co-teaching English Language Arts in four classrooms in my school.  The remainder of my day is spent working with small groups of students.  I love to observe students acquire language, and I consider myself so fortunate to work with students as they progress through three grade levels!  Stop by my TPT store when you have a free moment.  I think I am most well known for my upper elementary ELA craftivities. Blog

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