School districts across the country are witnessing an increasing number of English-language learners (ELLs) on their campuses. While secondary school teachers can attest that most of their ELLs are Spanish speakers, others find that their ELLs come from various linguistic backgrounds. Linguistic diversity within the classroom presents an opportunity for teachers to explore ways to adapt strategies they may already be using to better meet the needs of ELLs. 

Many content-area teachers can feel weighed down knowing they must help their ELLs develop English proficiency while also learning content. They know that in order for ELLs to pass their courses and a state exam, they have to make their content more comprehensible. School districts and administrators often provide teachers with professional development on instructional strategies that help their students maintain academic achievement, but quite often these strategies need to be adapted for ELLs.

Making Content More Understandable 

Students with a beginning level of English proficiency will need instructional strategies and activities that are cognitively demanding and contextually rich, such as visual aids, hands-on activities, games, and technology. More proficient ELLs need activities that are less contextual but still require them to exercise higher cognitive skills. At this higher level of English proficiency, instruction should be more focused on academic language acquisition. In all lessons and activities, teachers should integrate context from which the students can build understanding in a way that is culturally and linguistically responsive.

Adapting Strategies to Meet the Needs of ELLs 

Principals should make teachers aware of strategies that afford ELLs opportunities to practice speaking English as they talk about the content. Consider these strategies:

  • Provide ELLs with advance notice of the strategy teachers will be using. Explain that future lessons will include strategies in which all students will actively discuss critical-thinking questions or apply problem-solving skills. Then, describe the process. This allows ELLs to ask others (English- and non-English-speaking students) about it or explore the procedure on the internet beforehand, helping to ensure that they won’t be too intimidated when the strategy is implemented.
  • Keep in mind your students’ English proficiency levels. Beginning English-speaking students should be allowed to point, gesture, ask for others to repeat or paraphrase, etc. Intermediate students can be provided with short phrases to complete (i.e., cloze procedure), and more advanced students can respond to questions that help them think about how they’re understanding the content (i.e., metacognitive strategies).
  • Pair each ELL with a peer. Sometimes it can be helpful to pair the student with someone at their level of English proficiency so that they can work to solve the problem (or answer the question) together. Sometimes it is beneficial for the student to be paired with an English speaker so that they can practice speaking with (and listening to) a native speaker.
  • Monitor the students as they engage in the strategy. Talk a lot more to students who have a beginning level of language proficiency so they continue to develop their listening skills in English. Scale back on talking to students who are advanced so they get to practice their English-speaking skills.
  • Allow ELLs to use a dictionary, thesaurus, or any other supports such as word banks or vocabulary lists to continue to develop their English reading and writing skills. 

Principals can help teachers implement these specific instructional strategies for ELLs:

Gallery walk: In this activity, teachers post artifacts related to the content around the classroom, such as posters, images, cartoons, tangible objects, quotes, and so forth. Students are instructed to visit the artifact (similar to how a person would approach an artifact at a museum or gallery) and answer a question about it on a guide provided by the teacher. Some teachers require the students to visit all of the artifacts and answer all of the questions, while others require students only to visit some of the artifacts. Students at the entry-level stages might begin by answering yes-or-no questions about the artifact or questions convergent in nature (who, what, where, when). Teachers can also provide some ELLs a cloze passage associated with the artifact, or have some of the teacher’s notes available for them.

Scoot!: In this strategy, after the students have learned about specific content (either through the teacher’s lecture, a passage they have read, or a documentary they have watched), students pair up to answer specific questions related to the content, which are posted around the room. The students are given time to answer the first question (or math problem) together. After they have done so, the teacher shouts, “Scoot!” (a variation is “Scoot it!”), and the students move in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction to answer the next question. Teachers should assemble enough questions so that each pair can answer one question at a time (for instance, 10 questions for 20 students).

Four corners: This strategy is also referred to as “carousel.” Here, the teacher posts one question in each corner of the room using large pieces of chart paper. The students are divided into four groups and sent to a question (a corner) to answer it together. After the students have answered the questions, they can do one of two things: 1) return for a large-group discussion in which all of the students talk about their respective question; or 2) they can rotate to contribute to what their peers have already written on the chart. Teachers can give ELLs the questions ahead of time and allow them to take their own notes to each question. ELLs can be encouraged to be the reporters for their group and assist in presenting discussion summaries or acting out their responses.

Graffiti: In this strategy, the teacher posts a comment, quote, or image on chart or butcher paper related to the content, and the students visit each chart and write a response. It can be a comment, an image, a doodle, etc., similar to what might be seen on a graffiti wall. To adapt the strategy for ELLs, teachers can have native English-speaking students visit the graffiti chart first so that the ELLs have an idea how to respond. ELLs can be allowed to write something in their native language or to judge the response they liked the best. 

David Campos, PhD, is a professor of education at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, TX. Rocio Delgado, PhD, is associate professor of education at Trinity University in San Antonio.