Effective English Language Teachers

Patricia Hanson shares practical tips for classroom success

I recently observed a colleague teaching ratios in a middle school math class with several English learners (ELs). He naturally weaved in a conversation teaching the meaning of the word per. He stated it, defined it, wrote it, gave examples with illustrations, and had the students chant “Per means one! Per means one!” while holding up their index fingers. He had students share their own examples with the whole group and then had small, specially designed groups work together to solve and illustrate a real-life problem about pet food using the skills they had learned. These powerful moments and experiences, in which students learn how language works in relation to the content they are learning in multiple modes, are purposeful and a regular part of the way this class operates.

Another colleague, a language arts teacher, integrates reading and discussion about a novel depicting the struggles and successes of an immigrant child who is about the same age as her students. She reads aloud to model fluency and provides opportunities for students to learn new vocabulary. She periodically stops to check her children’s comprehension and to make connections.

They are attentive and are excited to know what the character might discover next and how the other characters in the novel show empathy toward him. They eagerly share their personal connections to the story in speaking and writing.

Recognizing the adjustment many of her own immigrant students are making, she is tending to their social-emotional well-being by providing acknowledgment of their lived experiences while simultaneously creating a classroom environment that builds content skills and language skills, as well as empathy among the many diverse children within it.
How can all educators develop the level of understanding and skill needed to teach ELs in a way that addresses their need to learn English, develops content knowledge, and supports their social-emotional growth, all while maintaining a rigorous curriculum for all students?
Below, I highlight actions and examples that effective teachers use to support ELs’ language acquisition and academic success and promote their social-emotional growth

Effective Teachers of ELs:

  • Show a genuine interest in the individual children in their classrooms to find out about their lives outside of the classroom, and use that knowledge in in connecting with them and in their instruction
  • Ask a student about how she did at her out-of-school activity or how she performed in a sporting event and look for ways to relate to an instructional moment
  • Know about their students’ academic and language backgrounds and collaborate with other staff to optimize learning opportunities
  • Seek to understand an EL’s previous schooling experiences, including achievement in reading and math
  • Value use of a student’s first language (L1) in learning
  • Understand the progression of language acquisition and where each EL is in the progression
  • Integrate lessons on how the English language works in their content areas
  • Find appropriate moments to point out how to use a new vocabulary word in a sentence; explain what a cognate or false cognate is, etc.
  • Model academic talk and provide opportunities to practice
  • Scaffold learning experiences
  • Provide reading, writing, listening, and speaking activities that are appropriate for individual EL students’ levels of proficiency while supporting their movement to the next level
  • Have high expectations for their students
  • Provide ELs “wait time” to think so that they can participate in class discussions
  • Find ways for newcomers who are non-English speakers to show what they know
  • Do not wait for ELs to learn English, but instead expect and support rigorous content learning and English learning simultaneously using L1 as support
  • Design a learning environment with spaces that encourage both cooperative work and independent work
  • Have students work together at tables, sit alone in comfy spots, etc.
  • Recognize multiple intelligences as a way to provide opportunities for students to show their understandings in different ways reflective of their language levels and interests
    Focus on students’ strengths while increasing proficiency
  • Explicitly teach content vocabulary paying attention to different tiers of words that ELs may have missed due to interrupted schooling or EL proficiency levels
  • Provide multiple opportunities and ways for students to learn and use new content vocabulary
  • Provide opportunities for academic talk in small groups that are designed with consideration for an EL student’s proficiency level and content knowledge
  • Set them up for success by providing sentence starters and vocabulary lists with illustrations as supports for low-level ELs
  • Value parent input and ensure ways to communicate with parents
  • Work with parents to learn about what a child’s strengths are in order to facilitate learning
  • Develop a communication system between school and home

Along with the principal’s leadership stressing the importance of supporting both EL students’ academic growth and language growth, educator teams can establish and ensure that appropriate interventions are in place and available when children are not making the progress necessary or anticipated.

Patricia A. Hanson has taught in Wisconsin public schools for more than 20 years. She has worked as an administrator, a Spanish teacher, and an EL teacher. She currently teaches middle school Spanish and EL students.


  1. Very doable and practical list; During my prior 40 year teaching career in Chinese, language arts, EL; most of which spent in EL, I figured out pretty much the same things you did. As department chair, though, I was able to get the EL department to apply or at least not oppose those practices. I would add one more point: seek feedback and collaboration with content colleagues who also teach the ELs. They are a valuable source of insight to student motivation and behaviors. A student who misbehaves in some classes may be enthusiastic participants in others. By personalizing services and instruction, our EL department set a record for exiting the most high school ELs from transitional bilingual services from year to year and earning recognition and awards for consistently high academic achievement, outscoring all other district and state HS ELs in Washington state on state tests of reading, writing, math and science. I hope all EL departments everywhere pay attention to the comprehensive list of actions you made. They really do boost academic achievement when applied systematically, department wide and in collaboration with parents, colleagues, and community.

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