Teaching Strategies for Students Who Don’t Speak English

December 1, 2015


In the Classroom

How many diverse languages do the students in your class speak? The population of English language learners (ELLs) has been steadily growing, so chances are you’ve had at least one ELL in your class. In fact, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Education data, an estimated 9 percent of public school students are ELLs, and in some states, that percentage is over 22 percent. ELLs face the two-fold challenge of learning not only the academic content of their classes, but also the language of instruction, so we’re sharing some teaching strategies to help this growing segment of U.S. students.

1. Be patient

Though ELL students often acquire conversational English relatively quickly, it’s a much slower journey for academic English. In fact, it’s estimated that ELL students need between four and seven years to reach academic English proficiency. However, forcing ELLs to speak only English at school or home doesn’t speed this process up—research demonstrates that by developing their native language, ELLs are better able to transfer concepts from their first language to their study of English.

2. Value linguistic diversity

While you’ll never learn all 6,000 of the world’s languages, you can learn and pronounce your students’ names correctly—it will make your students feel respected and valued. Likewise, learn your students’ countries of origin, and even better, research their home countries, cultures, and languages. By thinking of cultural and linguistic differences as resources and learning opportunities rather than obstacles, you’ll create a welcoming environment where your students won’t worry about taking risks as they develop their English skills.

3. Leverage background knowledge

Although ELL students aren’t fluent in English, they still bring valuable skills and knowledge to your classroom. Assess their educational background: find out if and where they’ve attended school and if they’re literate in their home language. This sets you up to better support them, and if they are literate in their native language, encourage them to keep reading in it! Research shows that literacy in a student’s native language helps scaffold English literacy. Similarly, if ELLs aren’t able to answer a written task in English, have them answer in their native language instead. Even if you can’t understand their response, it allows them to participate while practicing valuable academic skills.

4. Provide visual support

A lot of communication in the classroom is verbal, but for ELL students, providing visual support is important. When giving instructions, make sure you also provide a written summary, whether on the board or in a handout. Supplement your presentations and lectures with visual aids, and vary your medium of instruction: oral, written, videos, teacher demonstrations, and student demonstrations. Create strategic bulletin boards with words of the day or high-frequency word lists, and provide your students with graphic organizers to take structured notes. ELLs aren’t the only ones who will benefit from these methods—so will mainstream students.

5. Model comprehensible language

ELL students need to be exposed to complex language, but without scaffolding, ELLs are more likely to sink than swim. Luckily, just being aware of your language and speech patterns will help your students. Speak slowly and clearly, and avoid idioms. Use shorter sentences and simple tenses when possible. Give examples of what you want students to do and model the academic language you want students to use. Rephrase your instructions multiple ways and use synonyms, gestures, and demonstrations so students have more than one chance to catch your meaning.

6. Create groups with purpose

Just as with mainstream students, purposeful pairing with ELL students helps them get the most out of group work. Give your ELLs chances to practice their language skills with peers of varying English proficiency. Working together allows ELLs to support each other while English proficient students can model language and provide personalized feedback. And don’t forget to allow group work between speakers of the same language! If you pair ELLs with bilingual students, they’ll have an opportunity to clarify questions about the lesson in their native language.

Are there any strategies you’d add? How do you help ELLs succeed in your classroom?

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All Comments (8)

Robert Bonane January 1, 2017 at 8:47 pm

I need someone to teach me English


Michael October 1, 2017 at 3:04 am

I found this very useful. I would be glad you could also provide pictorial demonstrations in future releases.


nthuseng sholoko June 15, 2018 at 3:59 am

i need somone to teach me english plz


The IXL Team June 15, 2018 at 10:27 am

Hi there — IXL can help with extra English practice! Check out our skills here: https://www.ixl.com/ela/


Luc Albertini August 13, 2018 at 3:11 pm

Good article am going to use some of the ideas, can you provide author’s name for crediting as a resource. Thanks


The IXL Team August 13, 2018 at 5:09 pm

Hi there — We’re glad to hear it! Feel free to use it as a resource, and you can simply cite IXL Learning as the source.


braim makadawire January 24, 2019 at 6:56 am

im in Africa, Malawi to be precise, i have just joined a pre-school as a teascher, i ve been given a class to teach english, neither of my students speak english, the owner of the school wants me to train student to speak english, what should i do?


The IXL Team January 24, 2019 at 11:23 am

The strategies in this blog post are a great place to start! If you’d like to learn how IXL can help with extra English practice, feel free to reach out to orders@ixl.com. We wish you the best of luck with your new preschool class!


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