12 Ways to Support ESL Students in the Mainstream Classroom




You have a new student, and he speaks no English. His family has just moved to your town from Japan, and though he receives English as a Second Language (ESL) support, he will also be sitting in your room every day to give him more exposure to his new language. How can you be a good teacher to someone who barely understands you?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, an average of 9 percent of students in U.S. public schools are English Language Learners (ELLs); that number is closer to 14 percent in cities. Although many of these students start off in high-intensity, whole-day English programs, most are integrated into mainstream classrooms within a year, well before their English language skills would be considered proficient.

How prepared are you to teach these students? If you’re like most classroom teachers, you have little to no training in the most effective methods for working with English language learners (Walker, Shafer, & Iiams, 2004). So that means we have a problem here: Lots of ELL kids in regular classrooms, and no teacher training to ensure the success of that placement.


Below, three ESL teachers tell us what they know about the things regular classroom teachers can do to improve instruction for ELL students. These 12 strategies are simple, they are not very time consuming, and best of all, they will help everyone in your class learn better:

 1. Make it Visual


“Avoid giving instructions in the air,” says Melissa Eddington, an Ohio-based ESL teacher. “ELL kids have a harder time processing spoken language.” So instructions – even basic directions for classroom procedures – should be written on the board whenever possible. Challenging concepts should be diagrammed or supported with pictures. And modeling the steps of a process or showing students what a finished product should look like can go a long way toward helping students understand. “Sometimes showing our students what to do is all they need in order to do it,” Eddington says. Not only will this kind of nonlinguistic representation improve comprehension for ELL students, it will help all of your students grasp concepts better.

2. Build in more group work.

“Kids aren’t just empty glasses that we pour stuff into and then at the end of the day they dump it back onto a test,” says Kim, an ESL teacher who was the subject of my very first podcast interview. “If you really want the kids to learn, they’ve got to be engaged.” That means less teacher-led, whole-class instruction, and more small groups, where students can practice language with their peers in a more personal, lower-risk setting. And if ELL students attend your class with a resource teacher, make use of that person: In most cases the resource teacher doesn’t have to work exclusively with the ESL students; they can work with smaller groups that happen to contain these students, helping to improve the teacher-student ratio and give kids more time to practice.

3. Communicate with the ESL teacher.

Mary Yurkosky, a former ESL teacher in Massachusetts, credits much of her students’ success to the strong relationship she had with the regular classroom teachers. “The classroom teachers were always talking to me about what they were doing in their classes,” she says. “They made it so easy for me to support them: If a teacher was going to be doing a unit on plants, I could make sure we used some of that same vocabulary in the ESL class.”

Ideally, this could be systematized, where ESL teachers could regularly get copies of lesson plans or collaborate with regular classroom teachers to build solid back-and-forth support, but “it doesn’t have to be that much work,” Yurkosky insists. “Just talk to each other. Talk about what’s going on in your classrooms, invite each other to special presentations, share what your students are learning, and the words will naturally find their way into the ESL class.”

4. Honor the “silent period.”

Many new language learners go through a silent period, during which they will speak very little, if at all. “Don’t force them to talk if they don’t want to,” says Eddington, “A lot of students who come from cultures outside of America want to be perfect when they speak, so they will not share until they feel they are at a point where they’re perfect.” Just knowing that this is a normal stage in second language acquisition should help relieve any pressure you feel to move them toward talking too quickly.

5. Allow some scaffolding with the native language.

Although it has been a hotly debated topic in the language-learning community, allowing students some use of their first language (L1) in second-language (L2) classrooms is gaining acceptance. When a student is still very new to a language, it’s okay to pair him with other students who speak his native language. “Some students are afraid to open their mouths at all for fear of sounding stupid or just not knowing the words to use,” Yurkosky says. “Letting them explain things or ask questions in their first language gets them to relax and feel like a part of the class.”

And this doesn’t only apply to spoken language. If you give students a written assignment, but the ELL student doesn’t yet have the proficiency to handle writing his response in English, “Don’t make them just sit there and do nothing,” Eddington says. “Allow them to write in their first language if they’re able. This allows them to still participate in journal writing or a math extended response, even if you can’t read what they write.” There has even been some evidence that allowing second-language learners to pre-write and brainstorm in L1 results in higher-quality writing in L2 in later stages of the writing process (Yigsaw, 2012).

6. Look out for culturally unique vocabulary.

ESL-Mainstream3“For most of these kids, their background knowledge is lacking, especially with things that are unique to American or westernized culture,” says Eddington. It’s important to directly teach certain vocabulary words: “Show them videos of what it looks like to toss pizza dough, show pictures of a juke box or a clothing rack – things that are not common in their own language.”

One way to differentiate for ELL students is to consider the whole list of terms you’re going to teach for a unit, and if you think an ELL student may be overwhelmed by such a long list, omit those that are not essential to understanding the larger topic at hand.

7. Use sentence frames to give students practice with academic language.

All students, not just English language learners, need practice with academic conversations. Sentence frames – partially completed sentences like “I disagree with what _________ said because…” – show students how to structure language in a formal way. Keep these posted in a highly visible spot in your classroom and require students to refer to them during discussions and while they write.

For this kind of language to really sink in, though, Kim says it has to become a regular part of class. “They won’t do it if it’s not the norm in the class, because they’ll be embarrassed to use it among their peers,” she says. “But if they can put it off on the teacher and say, Oh, well, you know, Miss Kim makes me talk like this, then they don’t look as hoity-toity as they would otherwise.”

8. Pre-teach whenever possible. 

If you’re going to be reading a certain article next week, give ESL students a copy of it now. If you plan to show a YouTube video tomorrow, send a link to your ESL students today. Any chance you can give these students to preview material will increase the odds that they’ll understand it on the day you present it to everyone else. “That kind of thing is wonderful,” Yurkosky says. “The kids feel so empowered if they’ve had a chance to look at the material ahead of time.”

9. Learn about the cultural background of your students…

Our second-language populations grow more diverse every year. Taking the time to learn the basics of where a child comes from — exactly, not ‘somewhere in the Middle East/South America/Asia/Africa’ — tells the student that you respect her enough to bother. Kim remembers one time when she had to set the record straight about the diverse South American population at her school: “I was listening to the teachers talking about the ‘Mexican’ kids in our building,” she says, “and I was like, ‘We don’t have any Mexicans.'” Not taking the time to at least correctly identify a child’s country of origin, much like not bothering to pronounce their name correctly, is a kind of microaggression, a small, subtle insult that communicates hostility toward people of color. Make a commitment to be someone who bothers to get it right.

Once you have the country straight, take things up a notch by learning about students’ religious and cultural practices. If he is a practicing Muslim, he should be told if one of the pizzas you ordered for the class party has sausage on it. If she comes from a culture where eye contact with adults is viewed as disrespectful, you’ll know not to force her to look you in the eye when she’s talking.

10. …but don’t make a child speak for his entire culture.

In her podcast interview, Kim shared a story about watching a teacher ask a new Iraqi student how he felt about the war in his country, right in the middle of class. “That’s not cultural inclusiveness,” she explains. “I’ve seen teachers do this and then pat themselves on the back.  The students’ English is limited so they can’t express themselves very well, and they don’t want to ‘represent’; they just want to be there.” If you anticipate a theme coming up in your class that’s going to be relevant to one of your students, have a conversation with them in advance, or check with your ESL teacher to see if they think it’s appropriate for in-class discussion.

11. Show them how to take themselves  less seriously…

By modeling the risk-taking that’s required to learn a new language, you help students develop the courage to take their own risks, and to have a sense of humor about it. “I tried to say the word ‘paint’ (pinta) in Portuguese and instead I said the word for ‘penis’ (pinto). They all roared with laughter while I stood there with a What?? look on my face,” Yurkosky says. “When they explained what I’d said, I laughed so hard! I told them that laughing was fine because sometimes mistakes are really funny, but ridicule is never okay.”

12. …but always take them  seriously.

One of Kim’s pet peeves about how teachers interact with English language learners is the way they often see students’ efforts as ‘cute,’ missing the whole point of what the student is trying to say. “A student will be desperate to communicate, and the teacher will get distracted by the delivery and miss the message,” she says. “That’s painful for me to watch.” It bothers her when teachers mistake a lack of language for a lack of intelligence or maturity. When a child can’t express themselves as well as they would in their native language, it’s far too easy to assume the concepts just aren’t in their heads.

“It breaks my heart when I hear teachers say (ELL kids) don’t know anything,” says Eddington. “These are brilliant kids and they know a lot. They just can’t tell us in English yet.” Make a conscious effort to see past the accent and the mispronunciations and treat every interaction — every student — with the respect they deserve.

“They’re doing twice the job of everybody else in the class,” Kim adds, “even though the result looks like half as much.” ♦


Further Reading

ESLThe ESL/ELL Teacher’s Survival Guide is one of the highest-rated books on teaching English-language learners available. In addition to offering an overview of the research on second-language learners and best practices in teaching ESL, it also includes a whole section on teaching ESL in the content areas and another specifically geared toward teaching ELL students in mainstream classrooms.





Walker, A., Shafer, J., & Iiams, M. (2004). “Not in my classroom”: Teacher attitudes towards English language learners in the mainstream classroomNABE Journal of Research and Practice2(1), 130-160.

Yigsaw, A. (2012). Impact of L1 use in L2 English writing classesEthiopian Journal of Education and Sciences, 8(1), 11-27.


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Jennifer Gonzalez

Editor-in-Chief at Cult of Pedagogy
Former middle-school language arts teacher and college-level teacher of teachers. NBCT. Mother of 3. All of these experiences have brought me to where I am now: Devoted full-time to helping teachers do their work better.

Jennifer Gonzalez

Former middle-school language arts teacher and college-level teacher of teachers. NBCT. Mother of 3. All of these experiences have brought me to where I am now: Devoted full-time to helping teachers do their work better.


  1. The story about the Iraqi student reminds me of a kid I had last year, a girl from Syria. She was quiet, wore a headscarf, kind of blended into the background. The kids were working in informal groups one day, and as I walked around the room I noticed that she was talking to a few of the students about the war there. I stopped to listen, and within a few minutes the whole class was listening and asking questions. It was a golden moment. Most of the kids had no idea where Syria is or that anything is going on there. To hear it from another teenager was priceless. Once the kids heard her talk and they realized she was open to it, they’d ask her questions all the time. The girl ended up being rather popular. One time the kids were asking her about her headscarf and what the rules were. She said she would take it off for us if all the boys left the room. I arranged for that, and we had a Showing Of The Hair. It was touching, personal, and I’m sure all of the girls will remember it (and more importantly, the reasons behind it; their understanding will foster respect for the hijab).

    I don’t know the point of my telling this story… I guess it’s that when it’s done cautiously and respectfully and on the ELL student’s terms, we can learn SO much from them. All of us, not just the teachers. Most people like to talk about themselves.

    • Thank you so much for sharing that story Abby. That’s so beautiful. And thank you Jennifer for putting this website together. I’m an ELL tutor at my university and I always enjoy reading tips from the professionals. This is all very encouraging and helpful!

    • This is the best blog post I’ve ever read about teaching ELL’s in public schools. I’ll be sharing this with new teachers who have not had a TESOL methods course or a sheltered instruction training.

  2. Thanks for that story, Abby. It sounds like your student gave tacit permission ahead of time for this conversation to take place (just by virtue of it happening organically and semi-privately, rather than you just putting her on the spot in front of everyone). You phrased it beautifully — when it’s done cautiously and respectfully, and on the student’s terms, we can most definitely ask questions and show interest in their background. I appreciate your adding this extra nuance to that point.

  3. Hi, I just looked that book up (ESL Manual), and it’s selling for over $300.00 in Amazon. Any chance you can find another book to recommend?

  4. Price on Amazon as of Nov 19, 2015 is $500 for spiral bound copy… pretty costly.

    • Yes Vera, I know. I have had others comment on this as well. I’m not sure how Amazon pricing works sometimes, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t this high when I initially recommended it. I am going to look for an alternative!

  5. This article is so helpful! Thank you for sharing. I am a college student about to start my student teaching. I am currently observing various teachers in my local middle school. It is a small town public school that has little to no diversity. This year they received their first student with no English background. There is no ESL teacher and from what I have seen, he gets no content ahead of time and the use of his first language is often discouraged. The school’s focus seems to be that he learn English and hopefully pick up content along the way rather than the other way around. He is fully mainstream and is pulled out for about 20 minutes every other day to practice English vocabulary (colors, body parts, etc). In Language Arts, he has a reading book and grammar workbook in his native language, but is given spelling words such as shirt, pants, big, little, and asked to read books on a first or second grade level to practice his English comprehension. In math, science, and history, he just sits in class. Google Translate is used to interpret some assignments, but that is about the extent of his instruction. I am not an ESL major and have very little experience with ESL students, but I feel like some things are being done backwards. I have worked with the student some and he is a very smart kid and picks up on things quickly. Being around him and observing him in class, I get the feeling that he is bored and is annoyed with the English vocabulary drills. So, I’ve said all of this to say I have been researching ways to help him and the teachers provide a more productive learning environment and this article was very informative. Again, thank you for sharing,

  6. I love these suggestions. I’d like to add that #10 should also apply to First Nations/aboriginal students, who, although they already speak English, also often are asked to be representative of their whole nation or culture. Or defend it.

  7. I have been teaching for 18 years in a Hispanic neighborhood and usually only knew how to pronounce a students first name. This article has made me realize that it is a sign of respect. I never thought of it like that. I am going to make a conscious effort to know and memorize the first and last name of each student in my classroom. You have change my point of view regarding this topic. Thank you. I never understood the importance of someone’s name. Although, my students know that it is difficult to memorize all the last names, that is no excuse. I know that I can do better and I will do better from now on due to your article!

  8. I really like what you are doing. Please keep sharing these ideas with teachers. It is essential that we share and reflect on how we approach our profession. I appreciate your hard work and look forward to hearing more of your ideas.

  9. This is so wonderful that I am going to share it with teachers in our school that works with ESL students. Thanks ever so much. It is so powerful and resourceful to especially international teachers who travels to poor countries across the ocean where resources are not easy to find.

  10. Supporting opportunities for practice and social exchanges between ELL students and their same-age peers is something that I value in my practice as a Speech Language Pathologist. My colleague in the field of special education and I plan integration activities for our ELL special education students with students in the community preschool program. This exposes them to peer role models and group practice in activities featuring age-level vocabulary and langue concepts.

  11. I teach a self-contained, developmentally delayed preschool classroom. I found that tip number 9 (Learn About the Culture Background of my Students) is very important. A good understanding of my ELL students’ cultures is important for effectively establishing a good rapport with their parents and caregivers. This helps build a level of trust so that we can work collaboratively to improve their child’s access to the special education curriculum.

  12. This article was very helpful for me because I am doing an assignment that is based on differentiated instruction and has something to do with ESL learners and what are different ways to teach them and meet there needs

  13. Dear ladies and gents, In Canada, I could borrow this book with ease from one of our public libraries. I prefer that to the $500 cost of the book. I would imagine that in the US, your library services would be the same. Thank you Jennifer for some great tips, quite useful as am a French language teacher, with smatterings of ESL teaching via Skype. All suggestions can be used or adapted in all forms of teaching. Thank you for sharing.

  14. Hi, Jenny! Again, you produce great content that is immediately implementable! As a teacher of English learners (ELs), these ideas are very appropriate practices. The two pratices that I like the most in this list are #1 and #2. I especially like #2 because when ELs are solving problems in a group, they’re actively using language for a purpose and engaged because they are using their critical thinking skills.

    I use group work to help ELs develop reading, speaking, and critical thinking skills. The process is called Visible Reading. I model the process of deconstructing comolex texts. Then, I let students practice that skill in small pairs. Finally, we compare our ideas as a whole class to clarify misunderstandings.

    I worte about the process in this article http://www.empoweringells.com/2016/09/02/a3-making-reading-visible-to-ells/ . I hope it helps your readers strategically use group work to develop reading, speaking, and thinking skills in an enagung way.

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