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Teaching English Language Learners Effectively

Updated on February 19, 2012

Embracing ELL Learners in Your Classroom


Teaching English as a Second Language: Understanding the Language

English as a second language (ESL) in the United States has become more pronounced in recent years than in the past. Due to the continuing influx of immigrants from other countries, ESL is a much needed component in many public schools across the nation (Allegheny Intermediate Unit, 2006). In fact, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (2006) has seen an explosion of ESL students within the last 20 years since ESL programs began. They service nearly 800 ESL students in 26 different public schools and students speak nearly 50 different languages. Such growth suggests that schools need to provide ESL services that effectively integrate and immerse ESL students into their new culture so that they may communicate with their peers in English. In doing so, it is suggested that specific techniques have been developed by educators that are more effective methods to teaching ESL in our nation’s schools.

When it comes to teaching ESL in schools it is important to understand the related terminology as it applies to ESL. One such term is referred to as comprehensible input. One may ask what exactly is comprehensible input and how can I apply this in ESL instruction? Simply put, comprehensible input is the ability of English Language learners to be able to understand what they have learned through spoken and written word. The most effective way to drive this point home to ESL students is through using context and visual cues and clarifying information when it is not understood. When ESL students understand what is being said to them they are more inclined to take that information and apply it to everyday concepts. Sometimes this can even occur within the context of everyday experiences within the classroom (Teacher Vision).

By drawing on the student’s individual experiences the content is more meaningful and the students are able to make more connections between their language and the English language. However, it is important to note that the ultimate goal with learning the language is not on rigid requirements that would apply to students who already know the language, but more so on accuracy. Students should be able to comprehend and then synthesize what they are learning but in a way that reflects accuracy in spoken and written word.

What are the most effective ways to teach English as a Second Language in schools?

Research suggests (Mora, 2000) that effective methods vary, but the classrooms where the most success is experienced tend to be the classrooms that display certain criteria. For instance, cooperative grouping was often a successful technique employed by many of these classrooms. Students were often grouped by like language abilities and were flexible in their expectations and activities. Other classrooms conducted lessons in both the native language and in English in order to help the student understand and communicate better. However, according to NWREL (2003), it is suggested that language acquisition theory is composed of five main hypothesis.

The first relies on acquisition learning or more simply stated the splitting of two independent systems: an acquired system and a learned system. In this theory it is stated that children learn their language in two ways and learn to become better through practice in both manners. Acquisition learning comprises what is a natural inclination to pick up the native language through natural communication, while a learned system is through formal schooling (much like what we learn in the early school years).

However, this is just one theory, as it is suggested through other research that several others processes are at play. This includes the monitor hypothesis (students learn the language through correction from others), the natural order hypothesis (acquisition of grammatical structures follows a natural order), the input hypothesis (is mainly concerned with how we receive a language or the input), and the affective filter hypothesis (stresses the fact that a number of variables come into play when it comes to learning a new language-ie. Motivation, self confidence, and anxiety).

Considering the theories that suggest certain methods are more effective than others when teaching ESL students, it is important to address how students will be taught and ways in which they will be assessed to determine the rate of learning. According to Holts, Chips, and Wallace (1991) cooperative group activities are one of the most effective portions of the educational process today. When people learn to work together in groups and develop solutions to problems by working with one another, they gain more from the process. In fact, it is suggested that many cooperative group activities be utilized in ESL classrooms because it promotes more socialization and allows the students to engage in meaningful conversations. Holt, Chips, and Wallace (1991) suggest that middle to high school students are more prone to being able to understand the English language than they are to read or write it. Thus, it is crucial to give them opportunities to further develop their skills and this can be accomplished through cooperative grouping. However, it is important to determine ways in which these students will be assessed, especially since these activities do not use standard measures to assess learning.

One way in which to do this is via the means of portfolios and technology. Technology is an ever present facet of everyday life today and it also allows us to have access to things we never have before. The internet and certain software programs can be an invaluable tool to assess ESL students. In addition, the information can be easily compared with the student’s own abilities over time through a portfolio. Such methods of assessment will allow the teacher to give the student the immediate feedback that is needed for ESL students to excel in the English language.

One of the man concerns with teaching English language learners is that they tend to lose interest or motivation in the task. Since the language is not their native language and can be difficult for them to acquire, they give up easily. Due to this, many students simply do not acquire as much of the language as they should. However, one way in which to remedy this is trough the effective use of games and activities which are interactive (Wallace, 2004). Many students respond quite well to games and because we have access to a wealth of information through the internet, there are many sites that give teachers some great ideas for educating ESL students. In fact, teachers who do use such techniques tend to have more success with their students and the language is acquired at a faster rate (Kerper-Mora, 2000). This is one way in which teachers can effectively capture the interest of the ESL student.


Holt, D.D., Chips, B., and Wallace, D. (1991) Cooperative learning in the secondary school: Maximizing language acquisition, academic achievement, and social development.

Kerper-Mora, J. (2000). Classrooms where students learn english as a second language. /effectiveL2classrooms.htm

NWREL (2003). Strategies and resources for mainstream teachers of English Language Learners: General principles for teaching ELL students.

Teacher Vision (n.d.). What is comprehensible input?


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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Well-researched and well-documented. Excellent explanation of a difficult task. As a former teacher I applaud anyone who teaches ESL. Great hub and quite useful and informative.


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