What Do Your ELL’s Know?

My class consists of 19 students, of which only 1 speaks English only in his household, and even he began his life in a bilingual environment. The other 18 speak at least one, if not two other languages in their homes. Most of my students speak Arabic, but many also speak French. I have 3 who speak French and not Arabic, 1 who speaks Spanish, and 1 who speaks a Philippine dialect. All of my students speak SOME English, but to varying degrees. My job is to teach them English, while also teaching them everything we normally teach in school (reading, writing, math, science, social studies etc.) Fortunately, I am certified to teach ESL and have some experience with English Language Learners. Due to my unique teaching position, I have had some readers ask for tips on teaching English Language Learners. So, from now on, I will now be doing a Teaching Tip Tuesday geared especially towards teaching English Language Learners. Here’s this week’s Tuesday TESOL Teaching Tip:

ELL Teaching Tip #13: Use Their Background Knowledge

One of the things I love most about teaching English Language Learners is that moment when one of my students puts their background knowledge together with all that English I throw at them every day and comes out with a gem of a sentence that throws me through a loop. 

It’s easy to forget how much your English Language Learners know, especially those with extremely limited English or those still in the “silent period”.  (See Tip #18 for more information on the silent period.)  When a student doesn’t contribute to the conversation, we as teachers are somewhat trained to assume that means they don’t have anything to contribute.  Often, with English Language Learners, this is not the case at all.  Rather, they either don’t have the language to express what they know or by the time they have comprehended what you have said and formulated a response, you have moved on to the next topic.  As teachers, we know that connecting what is going on in class with any student’s background knowledge is vitally important, but with English Language Learners, it is even more important because that connection may be the factor that helps them remember that word or phrase. image(Simple example: I work on Rue de Pappillion.  I knew that Rue meant street in French but never thought to wonder what Pappillion meant, just figured it was someone’s name.  One day, I was doing random vocabulary with my husband and sons and asked my husband how to say butterfly in French.  His answer: Pappillion – connection made.  We went over at least 20 other vocabulary words that day, but the only one I remember is papillion.)

So, if connecting to background knowledge is important for English Language Learners, but difficult for English Language Learners – how do we make it happen for our students?  Here are some tips:

1. Slow down!  Talk slowly and give students a chance to process what you are saying, increasing the chance that they will understand and make a connection.  (See Tip# 2 for more details.)

2.  Call on English Language Learners, but warn them first!  It’s easy when you are conducting a classroom discussion to simply call on the students who have enough English to answer.  However, English Language Learners need a chance to answer.image  They need to practice that spoken English (See Tip# 3 to find out why.) and they are more likely to make a connection if they are engaged.  If they know they aren’t going to be called on, they are much likely to tune out and not get anything from the discussion.  What you don’t want to do, however, is put them on the spot.  Give them some warning that you’re going to call on them “Jose, I’m coming to you next.” or use a random generating system to choose who you’re going to call on (like pulling popsicle sticks) so that they know they always have a chance to be called on.  (Even with a random system, I still will often say something like “Remember, Jose, your stick could be the next one I pull.”)  This gives them a reason to pay full attention and extra time to start putting the words together before you call on them.

3.  Activate prior knowledge at the beginning of a lesson.  Use a graphic organizer, word cloud, or other way to get that knowledge out of every student before you begin, so that you know where you can help students make connections during the lesson.


Do you enjoy the weekly TESOL Teaching Tips? Do you want to know more about teaching English Language Learners? I will be speaking on this topic on March 22nd at the Everything’s Intermediate Expo, and I’d love to have you “join” us. It is a virtual expo, which will help us connect no matter where we are! Click HERE for more information.

Check out Tips 1 – 10 here.




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About rakisradresources

teacher mother of 3 wife

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  1. Twenty Tips for Teaching ELL Students « - 04/11/2012

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