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11 Tips for Teaching English Language learners.

11 Tips for Teaching English language learners (ELLS)

(These tips are written in no particular order)

These 11 tips have been written from an amalgamation of the 7 ESOL principles, my own ESOL knowledge and from an Edutopia post written by Ayanna Cooper, 10 Tips for Teaching English language learners, posted on 25 January, 2014.

1. Know your students (ESOL Principle 1)

Increase your understanding of who your students are, their backgrounds and educational experiences, as this will provide you with a better understanding of their educational needs and how to best support them.

For example do you know what language they speak at home? How long have they lived in New Zealand? Did they receive schooling in their home country and to what level?  Are they literate or not in their first language? What do you know about your students' language skills, both English and other languages? What do you know about their prior learning? How is their first language different from English and how will this likely affect their learning of English?

This knowledge can be found by talking to students and their families, at enrolment and during classroom conversations, and through student assessment and observations. You may also use student or parent surveys or search online for language differences.

How will this knowledge affect your planning?

How will you find out this information?

2.    Be aware of student’s social and emotional needs and develop strong Home-School partnerships with their family


Understanding more about the students' families and their home literacy experiences is important for being better able to understand your student’s needs and to differentiate your teaching to ensure learning success.

For example, if a student comes from a refugee background, they may have experienced or witnessed traumatic events or have broken schooling. They may also have lost family members or have family living outside New Zealand and sometimes still facing danger. Or, when ELL's have siblings to care for after school, possibly live with extended family members or have jobs to help support their families, completing homework assignments may not take priority.

The research supports developing Home-School Partnerships (HSP). All parents want the best for their child and they want them succeed at school and in life. Often the motivation to do well is even stronger in migrant families. However speaking a language other than English can be a barrier for some parents to access the knowledge of how they can best support their child’s learning at home. HSP programmes can help parents to overcome this barrier.  It is also important to encourage families to teach their child literacy skills in their first language and to continue speak their first language with their child. HSP programmes should be two-way learning, where not only the parents are learning about school and how to support their child, but also schools are learning from families about the child’s home literacy practices, language and culture. Teachers can then use this information as a learning platform in their classroom. The NZC Online Community  Engagement site has a wealth of information to support you in developing strong partnerships with diverse community

3. Increase your understanding of first and second language acquisition

An understanding of language acquisition learning theories and language teaching will help you teach ELLs more effectively. An Initial introduction can be found in The English Language Learning Progressions resource and in the pedagogy section on the ESOL Online website.  You may also find it valuable to be a member of the ESOL Online mailing list communities. This will allow you to ask questions and have them answered, share good practice and be informed.

For developing more in-depth knowledge there are Scholarships for Teaching English in Schools for Speakers of Other Languages (TESSOL) available for classroom teachers to undertake academic study.

4.Ensure a balance between receptive and productive language (ESOL Principle 6)

Ensuring that ELLs have opportunities to use and practice all four language modes (speaking, writing, reading and listening) equally and as frequently as possible and in each curriculum subject area, is essential for English language acquisition.  Using peer work and group collaboration increases the number of opportunities that an individual has to interact and use language.

A good teacher check is to ask these questions:

  • Are my students using both productive (speaking, writing) and receptive (listening, reading) language in this lesson?  
  • Have I included a balance across each mode across the duration of this unit of work?

5. Increase your understanding of English language proficiency and when a student needs language support


A student is usually more proficient in social English which is more easily learnt than academic English e.g. in the playground as an ELL mixes with their peers. The student’s proficiency in social English (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills or BICS) will often mask their level of academic English (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency or CALP). For example, teachers might assume a student has sufficient English because they can easily communicate with native English speakers in most classroom social situations. However that same student may struggle to understand in more academic contexts across different learning areas e.g. social studies, science, maths or technology. These students still require ongoing language support.

6.Know the language of your content area by identifying the learning outcomes including the language demands of the teaching and learning (ESOL Principle 2)


What language do the students need to complete the task?

Do the students know what the content and language learning outcomes are?

The Ministry has developed several teacher resources that will assist you in doing this, see Supporting English Language Learning In Primary Schools (SELLIPS), and The English Language Intensive Programme (ELIP). These resources provide a wealth of information and guidance about which language needs to be taught and how to plan for it. Although the DVD series, Making Language and Learning Work 1, 2 and 3 are aimed at years 7-13 teachers they are still helpful to year 1-6 teachers. They provide video footage of how different subject teachers support ELLs in mainstream content classrooms.  

7.Provide multiple opportunities for authentic language use with a focus on students using academic language (ESOL Principle 5)


  • Is the language focus on key language?
  • Do I make sure the students have many opportunities to notice and use new language?
  • Do I teach the typical text structures used in each subject area?
  • Do I scaffold language learning?

Students need to have multiple opportunities to use language in order to really ‘know a word.’ Provide many opportunities to reuse language and to practice using it, especially through the use of collaborative task work. Review the vocabulary of your content area often and check in with ELLs to assure they know the words and possibly the multiple meanings associated with these words. For example, a "plot" of land in geography class versus the "plot" in a literature class. A "table" we sit at, versus a multiplication "table."  But there is more to 'it' than just teaching vocabulary, students also need to know the typical text structures, word phrases and sentence types used in each learning area.

8.Begin with context-embedded tasks which make the abstract concrete (ESOL Principle 4)

Try to incorporate shared experiences or use real objects or authentic visuals whenever possible when teaching a lesson. This is especially important when beginning a new sequence of lessons on a topic. This will help students to understand abstract ideas and concepts and to connect with the learning experience. Incorporating the use of digital technology and apps can be a useful way of doing this e.g. taking part in a virtual field trip or watching a video clip on a topic. It is also important to activate students prior background knowledge and experiences so they can bring what they already know to the learning, and build upon it.

9. Maintain and make explicit the same learning outcomes for all the learners (ESOL Principle 3)

  • How can I make the lesson comprehensible to all students?
  • How can I plan the learning tasks so that all the students are actively involved?
  • Do my students understand the learning outcomes?

Students need to be accessing the curriculum at an age appropriate level, therefore knowing the level of English language proficiency at which your students are functioning is vital in order to be able to scaffold learning appropriately. The English language learning progressions (ELLP) provide a nationally consistent way of tracking language acquisition across a number of language learning stages. Every funded ELL will be tracked using this tool. Know what language stage your ELLs are at, what this might look like, and what their next language learning steps are. See the ELLP professional support modules to learn more about using this tool. Also see the Impact section on ESOL Online for appropriate assessment tools.  

Once you have determined the student’s ELLP stage, break the learning down into small steps and scaffold the students to success. You will find some strategy suggestions to use on this ESOL Online page. Not all strategies are appropriate for all ages or levels of language learners.

The Making Language and Learning Work DVDs also show real examples of classroom teachers scaffolding students in various curriculum subject areas across year 5-13 class levels.  

10. Include opportunities for monitoring and self-evaluation (ESOL Principle 7)

  • Am I using 'think-alouds' to show students my use of strategy?
  • What opportunities are there for reflection and self-evaluation?
  • Are my learners using learning prompts and strategies?

Cognition (thinking about learning) and metacognition (thinking about thinking and learning) are both important components of learning and in helping students to become independent. Using ‘learning to learn’ prompts will help a teacher to achieve this. The last chapter of the English Language Learning Progressions (ELLP) has examples of learning prompts and strategies suitable for ELLs. Teachers who use the ELLP also have a way of tracking and monitoring student English language progress over time and to determine appropriate next language learning steps for students.

11. Encourage and actively facilitate the use of the student’s first language within the classroom with a focus on developing or maintaining their bilingualism / bi-literacy


There is increasingly strong international evidence that mother tongue based education results in better outcomes for English language by the end of primary school. In most NZ schools this is not currently possible. However teachers should encourage students to use their first language for learning whenever possible within the regular classroom. Allowing ELLs to use their first language in the classroom will provide them with ‘pegs’ to hang the second language onto. For example being able to use their first language to discuss difficult concepts within their first language will help students to grapple with content and then to transfer that knowledge into English. There are multiple ways you can encourage first language use for example you might have access to first language texts that could be used for guided reading lessons, allow the use of first language texts for independent reading, students can draft written texts in their first language before writing or speaking in English. This allows them to quickly get their ideas and thoughts organised onto paper. This presentation has a nice overview of some strategies in the international school context. Actively encourage learners and their families to value their first language and to continue to use it orally in the home and also to continue to develop their child’s first language literacy skills, see the HSP tip.

Questions for Reflection

1. What is the next learning step for my own professional development in teaching ELLs?

2. Am I using, all the MOE ESOL Teacher Resources in my teaching? See the Supporting English language learners, 2014 PowerPoint which covers all the resources that are available.