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Three high school ELL students looking at book

Tips for Teaching Middle and High School ELLs

Learn how middle and high school teachers can target their instruction to support ELL success with these tips from a veteran high school ELL teacher.

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What do educators of middle and high school English language learners (ELLs) need to know to support their students’ success? Take a look at these strategies and recommendations for some ideas to help you get started.

For additional ideas, see the other articles in this series:

Educational experience

Middle and high school students who come to the United States as teenagers may have attended school in their native country. If so, educators can tap into their experience and skills. When teachers show students that they can use the skills they already possess, students gain valuable confidence.

At the same time, some students may have interrupted or limited schooling. These students also possess valuable personal experiences and perspectives that are an important resource in the classroom. Help students to make connections to content by tapping into their background knowledge and look for opportunities to make associations between things that students have experienced in their own lives, as well as ways to make your instruction more culturally responsive.

In addition, identify the skills that students with interrupted education need so you can explicitly teach the skills they need to access grade-level content. For many helpful tips on how to navigate these questions, see the following:

Examples

Vocabulary: Students may be unfamiliar with new terms in English, but when the concept is explained and they connect it to prior knowledge, you will see the light bulb turn on.

Pre-reading: If reading a story about a girl's first day of school in a new city, have the students access their own background knowledge about a time they felt new at something and what feelings were evoked.

Content-area knowledge: In science class, ask students to brainstorm what they know or think about the topics you are studying. Maybe they haven't formally studied rocks and geology, for example, but they have certainly looked at rocks before and probably have some idea of their composition. These experiences are valuable to build upon.

Using students’ languages as a resource

Students' home languages are a valuable resource. Even if you don't speak those languages and are not working in a bilingual setting, there are way to tap into them to support instruction.

For example, ELL expert Dr. Diane August recommends a number of research-based strategies that draw upon the home language such as the following:

  • using bilingual glossaries
  • providing background information in students' home languages
  • peer work in students' home languages
  • explicit instruction in how to use cognates (words that are related across languages such as English and Spanish) or build on their own skills in their home language.

In addition, older students will be able to discuss similarities and differences in the their first language and English. For example, they will recognize similarities and differences in alphabet, cognates, or root words. For the more advanced learner, you can explore sentence structure: "In English, we build sentences using Subject-Verb-Object." Does your student's language follow the same sentence structure? Ask them and guide them to help reveal and compare. See more ideas in Students' Home Languages as a Resource.

ELL instruction

Lesson planning

There are many ways to make grade-level content more accessible to ELLs. As part of your planning, it's important to:

  • identify background knowledge needed to understand the lesson
  • connect content to students' experience
  • identify content and language objectives
  • identify key vocabulary and academic language needed for the lesson
  • scaffold and differentiate instruction
  • incorporate peer learning into your instruction.

Learn how to use these strategies in the following articles:

Literacy and language skills

One of the biggest differences between elementary ELLs and middle and high school ELLs is that everyone is learning literacy in the primary grades. By the time students reach middle and high school, they are expected to be literate. For ELLs who are not, they need explicit instruction in how language works in areas such as:

  • Phonics
  • Phonemic awareness
  • Word families
  • Vocabulary
  • Reading
  • Grammatical structures and their uses

In addition, students may need instruction in how to:

  • read and write sight words
  • form a complete sentence
  • develop a paragraph
  • access grade-level text in different content areas.

Collaboration between classroom teachers, ELL specialists, and reading specialists can make a big difference in supporting older students' literacy development since each colleague brings an important perspective. Consider asking administrators for more collaboration time and professional development to address these areas of instruction.

For additional ideas, see the following articles from Colorín Colorado:

Age-appropriate materials and strategies

Teaching basic language skills is essential, but it's important not to make students feel like they are doing elementary work. Beginning level materials geared for teenagers and adults can be difficult to come by; however, learning basic reading and writing skills such as phonemic awareness and phonics is essential to the development of comprehension. Give rationales for the teaching of such basic skills as well as the procurement of materials targeted to older students if needed.

Making connections: Creating an active and engaged reader

Learn how to engage ELLs as readers through strategies such as frequent comprehension checks and higher level thinking activities.

Creating an engaged and active reader Learn how to engage ELLs as readers through strategies such as frequent comprehension checks and higher level thinking activities.

Story set-up: Pre-reading strategies for comprehension

Learn about pre-reading strategies that will lay the groundwork for ELLs to tackle new texts. Watch as these strategies are put into action to help ELLs learn “A Christmas Carol.”

Pre-reading strategies for comprehension Learn about pre-reading strategies that will lay the groundwork for ELLs to tackle new texts. Watch as these strategies are put into action to help ELLs learn “A Christmas Carol”.

Writing instruction

It’s also imperative to explicitly teach writing styles as well. It’s okay to make writing formulaic because this gives students a handle on where to start. ELLs need to know the rules of the game.

Use rubrics for writing assessment so that students know ahead of time how they will be graded. Rubrics allow you to grade specific parts of an assignment: content, grammar and usage, presentation, spelling, mechanics, etc.

Writing a paragraph with high school ELLs

See how Michelle helps her high school ELL students turn their brainstorm into a paragraph.

Brainstorming a journal assignment with high school ELLs

Learn how Michelle guides her ELLs through the brainstorming process as they prepare to write a journal.

Video: Using sentence frames with ELLs

Using sentence frames with ELLs Teacher Sheila Madji explains what a sentence frame is and how she might use this strategy with ELLs.

Collaboration in your school community

Look for opportunities to draw on your colleagues’ knowledge and expertise. You may be able to build on the helpful experience of:

  • ELL teachers
  • Library staff
  • Reading teachers
  • Content-area teachers
  • Speech pathologist
  • Bilingual staff

Share your collaborative successes with colleagues and administrators — that way you can advocate for more collaboration time together. It takes a school village to teach a child, and each member of the community as an important part to play in ELLs’ success!

Classroom videos

To see additional strategies in action, take a look at the following classroom videos featuring middle and high school classrooms:

Answering Guiding Questions with Middle School ELLs

In this lesson, middle school students read an excerpt from the novel Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck about a man who takes a road trip with his dog. (Related resources available )

Reading Non-Fiction Text with High School ELLs

In this lesson for high school ELLs, students discuss the language used in Nelson Mandela's 1964 Court Speech "An Ideal for Which I am Prepared to Die." (Related resources available)

Instruction of Key Academic Vocabulary with High School ELLs

In this standards-aligned lesson, students read a letter that Captain John Smith of the English Army wrote to Queen Anne in 1616. (Related resources available)

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