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Simple Ways Teachers Can Better Support English Language Learners

Teaching strategies to empower the nation’s growing number of English language learners.

Which group of students makes up the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. public school population? It’s students learning English in addition to their primary language, so they can meet the same academic requirements as their native English-speaking classmates. Known as English language learners (ELLs), this diverse group makes up 10% of the country’s population.1 And it’s a group that continues to grow.

California, Texas, and Florida have the most ELLs, but 35 other states have seen an increase in the past 10 years, with Maryland experiencing the greatest growth.2

Simple Ways Teachers Can Better Support English Language Learners

Spanish is the most common first language of ELLs, accounting for 77.1% of all ELL students and 7.6% of all public K–12 students. After Spanish, the most common primary languages are Arabic, Chinese, and Vietnamese.3

Who Are English Language Learners?

These students come from a variety of economic and educational backgrounds and have varying experience with the English language. They may come from homes where some or no English is spoken—parents may be highly educated but unable to express themselves in English, or they could have learning disabilities as well as limited knowledge of English language. Most ELLs are born in the United States.4

Common Challenges Faced by ELLs

Because ELLs come with such a range of experiences and exposure to the English language, teachers can be confused or uncertain about how best to support them in their classrooms. In addition, common misunderstandings about them can affect their ability to succeed.5 Here are some ways educators can address these challenges head-on:

  • ASSESSMENTS: Many ELLs are incorrectly placed in special education because they appear to have learning disabilities. Remedy: Although some ELLS do have disabilities, educators can work to ensure that assessments accurately distinguish between actual academic or content knowledge and the student’s level of English proficiency. This can prevent ELLs from being mistakenly placed in special education because they can’t effectively express the knowledge they have.
  • UNIVERSAL ACCOMODATIONS: Some teachers may be concerned that making accommodations for ELL students only benefits ELL students and may appear unfair to others. Remedy: Many native English speakers also struggle to master reading and writing in English. Making accommodations that address issues common to both types of learners can help native English learners as well.
  • ACCURATE EVALUATIONS: Many ELL students can speak English well, so it may appear that they’ve learned what they need to know about the language. Remedy: Recognize that speaking English for daily purposes and using it for writing out assignments and understanding math problems are different abilities. This will help ensure that students get the support they need to succeed academically.

Teaching Strategies to Support ELLs

Fortunately, new education efforts in many states are aimed at helping ELLs meet their academic challenges. These include creating ELL-only schools, offering bilingual education beginning in preschool, and creating full-emersion classes where ELLs learn with native English speakers.6

So what can you do as a teacher to help these students? For starters, try these three proven and simple teaching strategies that can not only help you support ELLs but other students as well.7

  • Use visual tools. ELLs often need more time to not only grasp the concept of the lesson but also to translate it into English terms. Reinforcing verbal instruction by providing visual cues—writing things down on the board or using charts, graphs, or videos—can be very effective.
  • Arrange small groups. Giving ELLs an opportunity for more personalized attention and the chance to interact with other ELLs may make them more comfortable practicing English and sharing their experiences with others who are also learning English.
  • Provide materials in advance. Consider sending material to ELLs in advance so they can avoid feeling the pressure to understand it immediately. For instance, if you’re going to review an article in class, send it the day before. This can help them feel empowered because they know what to expect and can take time to grasp the concepts before having to discuss it in class.

Graduate Programs for Teachers to Help Support ELLs

If you’re interested in advancing your education career while developing skills to help ELL students, consider Walden University’s online Master of Science in Education (MSEd) education degree program with a specialization in Teaching English Language Learners (Grades K–12) (Non-Licensure). In this online master’s in education program, you’ll have the opportunity to learn teaching strategies that address the unique needs of ELL students in your classroom. The specialization was developed to reflect the guidelines of the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and can help you create a K–12 environment that is effective for all students.

This MSEd degree specialization can help prepare you to:

  • Identify, interpret, and assess the language proficiencies of English language learners in the K–12 classroom.
  • Adapt your current instruction techniques, teaching strategies, and course materials for these students.
  • Enhance collaboration between families of ELL students and school staff members.
  • Design learning environments that meet the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse students.

This online master’s in education specialization requires 30 semester credit hours and an ePortfolio. If you’re concerned that you don’t have time to earn a master’s in education, the online education degree option could be an ideal fit. Unlike earning an MSEd degree through a traditional school of education program, pursuing a master’s in education online can allow you to complete the majority of your studies from the convenience of your home. Plus an online education degree format allows you to study and complete coursework at your pace, so you can continue to teach while completing your online MS in Education.

Earning Walden University’s online master’s degree in education can not only enable you to boost student performance, but it can also prepare you for other education careers, including school administrator, counselor, director, or content specialist. The need for teachers and education professionals to support ELLs will only continue to grow. Completing an online master’s in education degree can help you make your contribution to meeting that need.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an MSEd degree program online. Expand your career options and earn your degree using a convenient, flexible online learning platform that fits your busy life.


Note to all Washington residents: This program is not intended to lead to teacher certification. Teachers are advised to contact their individual school districts as to whether this program may qualify for salary advancement.

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,