Best Practices for Teaching Beginner English Language Learners (ELLs) at the Secondary Level

Author:   Oryan Landa, ESL Instructional Coach



Walk into just about any secondary campus today and you are bound to find a teacher wondering what to do with a student who doesn’t speak English. And for a teacher who might have a class of 30 students, knowing how to meet the needs of that one non-English speaker can be a seemingly impossible challenge. What often transpires is a climate of avoidance or the idea that someone else on campus is (or should be) serving that student’s needs. But the reality on many campuses is that there isn’t that “someone else.” The education of these students falls onto the shoulders of all of their teachers – often through the form of Sheltered Instruction.

Sheltered Instruction is a program model designed to help ELLs access grade-level subject matter. Many of the strategies are geared towards students with an Intermediate proficiency level or above; however there are a lot of strategies that content area teachers can use to assist beginners as well. Those are the strategies addressed in this article.

In an ideal world, Beginner ELLs would also have direct, targeted instruction in English, in the same manner that our students here study French or Spanish; something that some schools offer through local elective courses. Simply being here in this country isn’t enough to “pick up” the language, especially if they are Spanish speakers and can easily go most of the day speaking their native language. We also place a lot of focus on developing academic language, but knowing academic language isn’t enough to pass a test if they can’t read all that English in between the academic words. The reality, however, is that most schools are not offering direct English instruction, while at the same time wondering why these students are not passing their classes and statewide assessments.

There are few appropriate interventions for beginners because the students’ lexile score is typically not high enough to participate meaningfully in the program. Meanwhile, ESOL classes are geared towards mastery of the English Language Arts TEKS which is not the same as learning the English language. The two classes would have different curricula and different methodologies.


Here at Education Service Center Region 13, our focus is on finding solutions. And regardless of whether schools are providing direct, targeted instruction in English, the education of these students is the responsibility of an entire campus; not just the ESL teacher.  With that in mind, there are many things content area teachers can do to assist the language acquisition and development for Beginner ELLs.

In order for content area teachers to appropriately meet the needs of their ELLs, teachers need to know their students’ proficiency levels. These scores can be found in the TELPAS results located in any student’s permanent record, where they will be marked as having Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, or Advanced High proficiency in listening, speaking, reading, and writing.


Before we can move towards a target, we have to be clear about what that target is. The first thing a teacher should do is have patience and know that learning a language doesn’t happen overnight. According to research, developing social language alone can take 2-3 years and academic language can take 5-7 years. Our goal with Beginner ELLs is to move them from “little or no ability in reading, writing, listening and speaking” to an Intermediate proficiency level defined broadly as the ability to understand, read, and write simple, high-frequency English used in routine settings. From a solid foundation, we can move them to more advanced proficiency. But without a solid foundation, the students’ language development will suffer.  For teachers, this means creating opportunities for students to feel successful, rather than situation like failures. We need to praise students’ achievements and encourage them, focusing on their progress rather than focusing on what they cannot do.


As we move towards a specific target, there are things we have control over and things we don’t, and it’s important to know where we do have influence. For one, teachers have influence over a student’s motivation through encouragement and positive reinforcement. Controlling the affective environment – making these students feel welcomed and safe to take risks – is a major factor in their language development. This can be achieved through such things as greeting students with a smile, having a consistent classroom routine, seating them in the front or middle of the classroom, simplifying your speech (by speaking more slowly, using fewer words to explain concepts, avoiding idioms, paraphrasing ideas, and keeping directions short and simple), praising student attempts to use English, never ridiculing, pairing students up with a buddy who speaks their language and who is willing to befriend them and help them settle in , giving them a tour of the school, and putting their native culture on display. A teacher could also use a tool such as Google Translate to communicate with these students socially.

In group work, students can either partner up with a more advanced ELL, or have the Beginner ELL “tag-along” with another student, who pairs up with someone else – forming a trio. The key is to make them feel included.

Secondly, teachers have influence over these students’ access to language. This includes having appropriate materials available such as native-language/English dictionaries, translators, low-level/high-interest reading materials, and/or primary language resources. A teacher can also create a language rich environment with content-related posters, labels of the classroom, magazines and books with lots of visuals, and student-generated Word Walls. The idea is to fill your classroom with print and interesting things to talk, read and write about, so that students feel immersed in English just by being in your classroom.

Another way teachers can influence Beginner ELLs’ access to language is by making the instruction understandable. In ESL jargon we call this “comprehensible input.” This simply means making your messages easily understood. This is something that is most easily achieved through the use of visual communication or gesturing, and avoiding lecture-only instruction. Visuals should always be used to reinforce/explain what a teacher is trying to communicate. Once students achieve Intermediate proficiency, we can place more focus on developing academic language. But for a Beginner ELL, our focus should be on making things understood, so as to develop their receptive language skills. Developing students’ ability to understand English will positively influence their ability to produce English.

When interacting with Beginner ELLs, it’s also important to keep in mind that a lot of translating is going on in their heads. This means allowing them plenty of think time to both absorb information as well as formulate what they want to say. It also means that sometimes our messages need to be restated exactly the same way, because sometimes these students need to hear something several times to process its meaning. If a student still doesn’t understand, then we can rephrase our explanation, but what we want to avoid is explaining something five different ways, thereby giving them five different messages to process and translate. Less is always more.


  • Pre-teach and re-teach material – ideally in a small group, using visuals – or provide informational text in the student’s native language (which may mean translating articles or other texts, using Google Translate or a similar website).
  • Avoid passing over information only once. Beginner ELLs need multiple exposures to the material.
  • Modify assessments by underlining or bolding key words, paraphrasing or simplifying directions/questions, or allowing dictionaries/translators.
  • Provide alternative assessments such as true/false or multiple-choice tests instead of short answer formats or exams that require lots of writing. Other options include oral administration, or allowing for non-linguistic representation. The idea in the beginning is to assess for content knowledge – and not language ability.
  • Provide students with academic glossaries that provide explanations in the student’s native language.
  • Have students write in their native language, and then use Google Translate (or other resource) to translate their writing to English. Then have them copy the English version by hand.
  • Provide plenty of resources and opportunities for reading, which will help develop their grammar and vocabulary, as well as their listening, speaking, and writing ability.
  • Provide opportunities to practice speaking and writing in English, to cement the learning of both the content and the language.
  • Use the “I DO, WE DO, YOU DO” model of instruction to provide Beginner ELLs with plenty of modeling, guided practice, and peer support.
  • When students are working independently, support Beginner ELLs with one-on-one support.
  • Allow for single word or yes/no responses, grammatical and spelling errors, listing and labeling, peer support and cooperative learning, and use of drawing.
  • Provide language scaffolds such as sentence stems, paragraph frames, and graphic organizers.

Having a Beginner ELL in class can be intimidating for any teacher. It’s even more intimidating for the student. There’s a lot we don’t have control over, such as a student’s home environment, their prior schooling, or their personality. The key is knowing what needs to be in place for successful learning to occur. We do have influence over the environment we create, the relationship we establish with them, and the language we give them access to.

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