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Our Diverse Classrooms:

ESL students have become a regular part of many classrooms in the U.S. with some of the largest school districts counting one out of three students as having a home language other than English.  With this increase come many challenges to content area teachers who teach students with many different needs.  [The following] is meant to be a quick reference to use as a guide in understanding and working with ESL students.

Helping the ESL Student

When the student first arrives:

  • Assign a student ambassador
  • Learn to pronounce the child's name.  Don't automatically assign a nickname
  • Allow for a silent period
  • Familiarize yourself with the student's culture
  • Put yourself in the child's place
  • Establish contact with parents

Daily Assignments:

  • Print on board (not in cursive)
  • Shorten assignments
  • Give students extra time
  • Group student with native speakers


  • Pass/Fail
  • Modified grades
  • Regular grades with ESL support

General Advice:

Communicating with ESL Students:

  • Give clear directions
  • Use simple language
  • Use the same words when you must repeat information in order to be understood
  • Frequently check for comprehension
  • Speak slowly, not loudly
  • Be sensitive to cultural differences
  • Don't suggest English should replace their first language.  (Strong literacy in the first language helps students build literacy in a second language.)
  • Ignore speaking errors
  • Carefully explain classroom rules
  • Minimize number of steps [particularly in giving directions]
  • Frequently praise small accomplishments
  • Help student learn the culture of the school

Factors that influence language learning:

  • Literacy in first language
  • Literacy of family
  • Motivation
  • Parents' view of U.S. schools
  • Reason for relocating to the U.S.
  • Past situation in home country
  • Student perception of teacher
  • Mother's adaptability to the U.S.
  • Home country's education methods

Testing / Methods

Effective Testing Methods:

  • Alternative assessment
  • Student portfolios (Valuable for recording progress in reading and writing)
  • Shortened tests
  • Read the test to the student
  • Test questions simplified
  • Test questions discussed with student
  • Use of bilingual dictionaries
  • Computation tested in math
  • Essays skipped for some students
  • When grading essay answers, grade for content, not structure
  • Tests taken in ESL
  • Put words at top for fill in the blank tests
  • With matching tests, don't put in extra answers

Methods That Work Well:

  • Peer tutoring
  • Cooperative groups (Do not group all ESL students together)
  • Building on prior knowledge
  • Semantic mapping
  • Pre-reading plans
  • Guided writing procedure
  • Experience text-relationships

Adapting Materials

Simplifying Materials:

  • Reduce details that are not important
  • Relate information to student experiences
  • Try not to use negatives in test questions.  For example, "Which of the following is not an area that Columbus explored."  Students often do not understand what they are being asked to do.
  • Use graphs, timelines, and pictures to help students develop a visual sense of the information
  • Use simple language
  • Use simple grammatical forms like the present tense in describing information

Language Acquisition:

  • Research on ESL students shows that reading and writing processes in a second language are not that different from a first language
  • It is often limited background knowledge and vocabulary in the content areas that gives students trouble when learning new material.  (The students haven't learned the vocabulary in their first language)
  • Literacy is part of language, so reading and writing should be taught with speaking and listening



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