Read how to support students’ language acquisition with authentic, meaningful learning opportunities.

two elementary students on an ipad

Three years ago, the English-language learners (ELLs) program at the elementary school where I teach switched from a pullout program to a push-in program. This meant that instead of sending our English learners out of the classroom for 30 to 45 minutes each day, an ELL assistant started coming into a few dedicated immersion classrooms to support them.

I was approached by my principal to teach one of these immersion classes for second grade. As a teacher, I appreciate the amazing learning opportunities that are possible when working with young ELLs. I also recognize the challenges these students face as they learn a second language while still learning their first. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity!

In addition to state-facilitated training on teaching ELLs, I've done graduate research to broaden my knowledge in this area. My own experiences the past few years and the support of my seasoned ELL assistant have given me a set of strategies to help me support my students.

Until this school year, most of my English learners were bilingual, primarily from Spanish-speaking families that originated in Mexico, Cuba, and Honduras. But in December, only two weeks before winter break, a new student arrived -- I'll call him Carlos -- who spoke only Spanish. While I had been employing sound strategies for supporting all my students, I quickly realized that I needed to step up my game.

Enabling Two-Way Communication

My first roadblock was communication. Carlos didn't speak any English, and I didn't know enough Spanish to explain assignments and procedures to him or to understand what he was saying when he spoke to me or asked questions. I knew right away that I needed to make accommodations to facilitate communication.  

I figured out that a good way to empower Carlos and enable two-way communication was by having my bilingual students be interpreters for him. I also started using Google Translate (and my four semesters of college Spanish) to help me communicate with him directly in Spanish. And fortunately I have a bilingual ELL assistant who can help translate more academic instruction and give him the one-on-one instruction I can't quite provide.

I also used Google Translate to translate teacher-made activities and assessments so Carlos could participate and demonstrate his learning. I incorporated other tech tools to bridge the language divide and help Carlos continue developing his Spanish-language skills as well. He reads Spanish and bilingual books on the Epic books app. And Quizizz allows me to create Spanish assessments.

Opportunities for Success

Once we addressed some of the communication obstacles, I knew I still needed to modify my teaching strategies to further meet his needs. Based on years of working one-on-one with struggling students, I know that playing to their strengths can give them opportunities for success in what can otherwise be challenging learning situations. I figured this was a sound strategy to use with Carlos.

I learned that Carlos was strong in math, so I focused on that. When students were working on adding two-digit numbers, I tried to call on Carlos regularly because he was able to solve the problem correctly most of the time. And since learning the English names for numbers is one of the first things he accomplished, he loved giving the answers in Spanish and English.

During a lesson on comparing numbers, I paired him with one of my bilingual students. First, we wrote both the English and Spanish words for the symbols ("greater than," "less than," and "equal to") on symbol cards. The two students each built a three-digit number and chose the correct symbol to compare the two numbers. Then, using the Seesaw app, the students took a picture of their work, and Carlos recorded himself reading it in Spanish while the other student read it in English. Finally, I had Carlos listen to the recording so he could hear both the Spanish and the English.

I could tell it was a positive learning experience for Carlos. He really wants to learn English and the other content his peers are learning. And he likes that he's able to demonstrate what he knows despite the language barrier.

I plan to apply this strategy to different lessons and concepts throughout the year to help Carlos demonstrate what he knows confidently while helping him in his English-language acquisition. When other students are reading and writing in English, he can still be engaged in literacy activities. He can share his writing and explain his thinking in Spanish.

What I've Learned So Far

I discovered from training and actual experience that many of the strategies recommended to support and empower ELLs are good instructional practices for working with all young learners. In many cases, I'm already using these strategies.

When I give my ELL students varied exposure to the English language, it helps them acquire it. Technology supports can provide pictures, videos, and graphic organizers. Games such as Osmo Words are excellent tools because they provide picture supports with words and are self-checking. Video-based sites and apps such as BrainPop ESL are engaging and help teach students English, especially language usage and grammar. Popplet is a great way for students to organize ideas.

I've also learned that it's important to provide students opportunities to use the English language in meaningful ways. Seesaw lets students practice the language through listening, speaking, writing, and drawing. It also gives them an authentic audience, which is motivating. Nearpod is another excellent tool because it provides activities in which students have to draw or write to explain their answer.

I've found that communicating with parents in their native language helps promote the home-school connection, which is important for any student's success. A tool like Seesaw can facilitate this with its translation feature that allows my students' parents to read notes, captions, or comments in their native language. Google Translate is also a valuable tool for translating newsletters to parents.

I love using technology to equip and enable my English-language learners. It allows me to provide them opportunities to learn that may not otherwise have been available to them, and it gives them a chance to share what they're learning and to be successful. As I reflect on my ELLs' learning, and on my own teaching and learning, I am continuously considering which tech tools will help us reach our goals and am constantly on the search for new ones to empower them in their learning.

Get more tips, tools, and strategies on empowering ELLs with technology. >

Ashley F.

A South Carolina native, I am a product of the small, rural school district where I proudly live and work. I spent five years building my family before deciding to return to college and pursue a teaching degree. I graduated summa cum laude in 2010 from the University of South Carolina, Aiken, with a Bachelor of Arts in Early Childhood Education. A Liberty University Graduate of High Distinction, I finished a Master of Education in Teaching and Learning with a concentration in educational technology and online instruction in 2015. Currently, I'm in my sixth year of teaching second grade and my third year of teaching an immersion program for English language learners. Currently, I am also the Technology Teacher Leader at the primary school where I work.I believe that all children can learn when they are placed in an effective learning environment, even if they come from difficult circumstances or have different styles of learning. I recognize that one of my purposes as a teacher is to help students foster a love of learning and a spirit of wonder. Additionally, my intent is that my students are learning and changing from the moment I get them and what they learn will help them as they grow as individuals and develop as learners. And while I realize that I may only work with my students for a brief period of their lives and they may not learn from me everything they need to be successful learners for their lifetimes, I will prepare them with 21st-century skills that they will rely on throughout their educational careers.