3 Practical Tips For Teaching ELL Students

3 Practical Tips For Teaching ELL Students

What Are Practical Tips For Teaching ELL Students?

by Cynthia Valdez, Kindergarten Bilingual Teacher at Roth Elementary

All my life, I wanted to be a teacher.

It was my only dream, and as I studied education in college, I had a pretty clear idea of exactly what my classroom would feel like, sound like and of course, look like. Before teaching, I spent an invaluable eight years as a paraprofessional, through which I gained hands-on experience with every kind of learning there is.

As I entered the classroom for the first time as a teacher, I thought I’d had all of the experience I needed to establish a culture of academic achievement. But I quickly learned that teaching English Language Learners is a whole different ballgame.

It came as kind of a surprise. I was an ELL student myself, so I knew the experience on both sides. I knew the importance of building strong relationships, modeled for me by my 4th grade teacher Miss Hallman who took time out of her own schedule to help me when I struggled.

Miss Hallman always taught me to believe in myself, and those experiences inspired me to instill those feelings in my students. But I needed help. In the summer of 2008, I participated in a workshop held by education non-profit Great Expectations, which taught me methods of classroom management that would change my life as an educator forever.

The methodology facilitates academic achievement by establishing a school culture of mutual respect and focusing on the human quality of teaching and learning. With a growing population of ELL students in U.S. classrooms (4.4 million according to the most recent data), and a Great Expectations mandate in our school, my mind was quickly formulating ways to apply these practices in my own classroom. A classroom with, admittedly, a different population than many teachers are accustomed to.

But the basic ingredients are the same. My job is to teach these students, and their job is to learn. If you’re looking for ways to engage your ELL students, here are a few thoughts to keep in mind:

Lesson 1: It’s okay to make mistakes

Teaching ELL students can be an intimidating prospect, especially for teachers who don’t have specific training in ELL education or are not themselves bilingual. Making mistakes seems terrifying, but it’s how we grow as human beings. In my classroom, I tell myself and my students daily that it’s okay to make mistakes.

I was raised in the same kind of household as my ELL students, and I wasn’t always confident speaking English either. I remind my students that the only way to improve is consistent, committed practice. Mistakes are every bit a part of that practice as success.

Lesson 2: Remember your roots

As I mentioned, I was raised in a similar household as many of my ELL students, but not every teacher with ELL students benefits from that perspective. It’s extremely important to me that my students feel their own success with English, but never forget the importance of speaking Spanish.

Practicing respect for ELL students’ cultures is something every ELL teacher can and should do. What we’re asking them to do is difficult. The best way to make it easier (and in the end, more successful) it to acknowledge, honor and encourage their individuality and their native culture.

It seems like such a small thing, but for me, that level of respect has resulted in students who are more focused, feel more valued and achieve more.

Lesson 3: Look for ways to build up confidence

In many ways, ELL students are fish out of water. As adults, we don’t always have the ability to create confidence in new situations, so we shouldn’t expect that confidence to materialize on its own (especially with younger students).

My students are very sure of themselves, and I admire their self-confidence. But I never waste an opportunity to reinforce that self-confidence. This is where Great Expectations comes in the most in my classroom – most rules are about “don’t,” but the Eight Expectations are about “can.”

We value each other as unique individuals. We don’t laugh at each other when we make mistakes. We develop language by speaking in complete sentences and addressing each other by name. We use good manners and cheer each other on when we experience success. We always seek to help one another, and applaud every effort, no matter how small. We encourage each other to do our best.

We practice virtue at every level of classroom interaction.


Give your ELL students opportunities to make mistakes and create a culture where students can learn and grow from them. In my classroom, I know that my students believe in themselves and have developed the courage to attempt anything in both English and in Spanish.

These are things you can start practicing in your classroom today. And you if make your own mistakes along the way, cut yourself some slack. You’re only human.

Cynthia Valdez is a Kindergarten Bilingual Teacher at Roth Elementary in Klein, Texas. She is a fearless advocate for her students an practitioner of Great Expectations methodology; 3 Practical Tips For Teaching ELL Students; image attribution flickr user usdepartmentofeducation